On my run along the canal the other day, I noticed a few novelties sprung up since the summer holidays. There were a group of teenagers slacklining between the trees (like tightrope walking, close to the ground). Someone had hung up four or five birdcages in another tree, each full of coloured parakeets for sale. There was some new street art: someone had cemented green tile mosaic frogs (not pixellated like Space Invaders but realist) low down near the playground, and a blue dog by the bridge. My beloved canal, the centre of my quartier, the 19th arrondissment is becoming more and more cool – no sign more obvious than the new frozen yoghurt stand near the MK2 cinemas. And the hipster with a ponytail and a ukelele case, giant teddybear in his bikebasket.
Every now and then an English magazine will run a story about the Canal St Martin as the lastest hip spot in Paris – in wide-eyed wonder, almost, they let you in on this secret area beyond the Marais, way beyond the Latin quarter and miles from the Eiffel Tower. It has bars by the water, boutiques, plenty of space for picnics and a little park. Rarely do they go up as far as MY canal, actually the same one further north, with a different name: the Canal de l’Ourcq. When I moved here three years ago I didn’t know the area at all well except as between Montmartre and Belleville, about five past two on the Parisian clockface. It had that cinema festival which seemed so far from the centre (all of 25 minutes on the metro).
I came to see the apartment, already paid for, on a cold January morning. Our street had a drab pizzeria, a miscellaneous Asian restaurant, a kebaberie and a large bakery on the corner. The apartment was large and light with two small balconies, so I approved the Italian’s choice. We celebrated with pizzas and Peronis amongst our suitcases. Over the next few weeks, we found that the surroundings streets contained Indian, African, Chinese and kosher supermarkets.
What seemed to be an unprepossessing area, inbetween, plain, turned out to be a godsend. First we discovered the 104, the old state morgue, now a centre for art and community, with a bookshop, junkshop, cafe and a sort of indoor village square where mothers share sandwiches and breakdancers practice all hours of the day. Then there are the two best parks in Paris in the 19th: the Buttes Chamont up the hill on my own street, and the enormous Villette where they have that film festival, a concert hall and the science museum. When I run past there is always something going on. Once I got to see the soundcheck for De La Soul. My run was cut short, as I watched in wonder, audience of one.
Between the Villette and the square at Stalingrad there are numerous bars. There is the newly renovated rotonda that now hosts brunches and parties. There are the bars at the two cinemas that reflect neon rainbows of colour into the water at night. There is the Bar Ourcq where you can get wine, beer, a killer homemade ginger juice and best of all, you can help yourself to balls for pétanque. Throughout the spring, summer, autumn there will be groups of people with crisps and beers lazily throwing those metal balls at their target, whooping when they knock their friends out of the way. There are table tennis tables too: bring a bat and ball for a match with a friend or a cheap date.
My favourite though is the Antipode, a bar on a boat, one of those large, long péniches. On the same stretch of water there is also a cinema péniche, one for opera and one that is a floating cave à vins. Stop by on the way home from work for a recommendation on the right bottle to match your lamb stew. Everything is better for the novelty of being on a boat. (Similar to the wider phenomenon of living in the Disneyland of a foreign culture, everything is an Adventure.) The Antipode will sell you a glass of wine at €2, a plate of tapas or a selection of cheeses that you can take up onto the deck and sit right on the water, watching the reflections. It is cosy, relaxed enough to allow you to bring in a birthday cake to accompany your pints (staff bribed with a slice of course). They have plays and concerts in the belly of the boat too.
When the boat disappeared over the summer, I was panicked that it wouldn’t return. It had moved out of the way of the Paris Plages, now including the Canal de l’Ourcq not just the Seine. But I found it on another run, 3km further along by the abandoned factory with incredible graffiti. And in September it came back to its usual spot, half way up, just past the footbridge that bounces.
There is so much I love about this area, now, now that I have traced most of it on endless runs. I love the graffiti art from Da Cruz and Marko 93 that form whole murals on condemned walls. This summer photos from JR, of the project and film ‘Women are Heroes‘, with his classic black and white, expressive faces were pasted along the bridges. As the area becomes more gentrified, buildings are being knocked down and made into high-rises. Which means, sadly, the graffiti is disappearing. I learned the word for this: embourgeoisement. Bourgeoisification? There is an organic supermarket and the aforementioned frozen yoghurt stand. The pair of bistros (one red, one blue) near the Antipode are always packed with locals, so if you get too cold in the boat you can escape inside for aubergine-parmesan crumble, a large gigot d’agneau and a slab of pear tart.
While it is still warm, I will making the most of the canal, walking back from the cinema at night, watching the grey mist over the rooftops from my breakfast coffee in the corner bar and huddling around a rickety table in the convivial atmosphere of the Antipode. Anyone up for an apéro?
La Péniche Antipode – 55 quai de Seine, 75019 – metro: Riquet, line 7