And pass the intersection of Rue Bichat and Rue Alibert–Le Petit Cambodge on the SouthEast corner, the hospital on the North–there are flowers, candles, pictures from loved ones in memoriam of the 2015 shootings.
Soap suds, draining water; circa 2015 I worked as a bar-back for an indie movie theatre in Seattle. I was scrounging, saving for a two-month trip to Paris. My phone blinks with a message. It’s my gf. She’s trapped in a bar in Montparnasse, desperate, waiting for news.
3 years later, we’re together, standing on the corner where it happened.
We continue into the night.
Two slight lefts along a wide Boulevard that scales the hospital. The bar rests on a corner, the HasBeen.
An L-Shaped bar. High-tables near the front, full, but not crowded. The bar at the heel. 2 bartenders.
We salvage a low, leather loveseat at the far side. Squeezing three. I sit on the armrest to abate my oncoming fatigue.
The drink menu consists of ‘house’ cocktails. Standard drinks with an ingredient thrown in, basil, honey, etc., to mask low-grade alcohol with a dulcifier.
I’ll take a Moscow Mule. It’s been a while hasn’t it?Crisp, sure, sugary too, but it’s not bad for the price.
Surveying the room; it’s not a dive bar in the colloquial sense. Less grunge, more catwalk.
A large group of Parisians occupy a 12-person table. Black turtle-necks. Colourful air max 95’s. Friends from a high-ranked university, meeting for their bi-weekly drink and dance where they find themselves smoking cigarettes outside of a small boite de nuit at 3am before pairing up for the night.
Small squadrons of 3 or 4 separate and hover around the bar to converse with the barmen.
My focus shifts back to the loveseat.
The girls gang up on the Londoner. He’s a talker, but he’s younger. And they’re old friends. He doesn’t stand a chance against their prying, their frank questions with hidden motives.
I motion to get another drink.
At the bar,
Je voudrais un Negroni svp. (I’d like a Negroni please.)
A balding 50-something year old with a stubbled beard camps at the pine. In a heavy French accent, he asks,
Where are you from?
American. But I live here.
Ah oui, and you’ve been here for how long?
Depuis 6 mois. (For 6 months)
Has it really been that long? What do I have to show for that time? A couple of blog entries and a certificate for A-2 French. Restaurants that I frequent. A small group of (potential) friends from ecole, whom I’ve only shared beers with. I think a lot about whether this was a good move for me. This move to Pairs. Whether I take it for granted, after all, it’s the immovable feast. To live in Paris. To understand Paris. It’s priceless.
6 months, has it really been that long!?
The barmen returns to the pine.
A rock’s glass with ruby red liquid, and on top, curved like a capsized canoe, drifts an orange peel.
Bon soiree (Have a good night).
The drink is bittersweet. When I finish, we decide to move.
Two weeks later. The Gilets Jaune have given us all a break over the holidays. Paris is calm, for the moment.
We traverse the river once again, to La Patache, the same bar that we’ve been several times already. The long, narrow dive is packed. Every seat occupied. The table runner with the cap and the moustache sees us, winks: he’s going to hook us up.
Wait at the bar.
Three beers and a nice glass of white wine.
One of our friends, a Londoner, has given up beer for white wine. Every time he orders; he says, thick as molasses accent, I’ll have a nice glass of white wine.
It’s hilarious really.
Planche Mixte in the mix. One of my favourites in the city. A Truffle Gruyere. It melts in your mouth. Nothing more delightful. House-made Paté too. Cornichons. A plate for 4–17 Euros.
Elbow to elbow tonight, service is slow.
Parisiennes, elegant women of lore brush passed me. Sometimes they step on my feet. I’m too large for my chair. Either way, I glance upwards.
I notice regulars. We’re regulars now, so we can spot other regulars. Like a sixth sense. A one-sided admiration. They’re much cooler looking than us. A Lennon shades guy with long black hair, another with a blonde buzz, a flowing black trench, and a neck tattoo. A well-groomed black dude with a designer button down and a cutting smile. Ragtag artistic bedfellows surround them.
The Parisian landscape is immersive yet alienating. Within reach, I could tap 15 people on the shoulder, but that wouldn’t be polite, would it?
La Patache, at times, feels like a dystopian dive bar where all people must meet a certain threshold to enter. If your trench isn’t long or grey enough and your nose isn’t distinguished enough, if your parole isn’t witty enough, you must vacate your table.
A cat perches above, on the high shelf, sleeping. Yawning. Opening its eyes slightly and closing them. Sleeping again.
Who cares what us humans do, or think, or see, or feel, or wear, or drink to try and separate ourselves from the jungle. To you, we’re all. well. Illiterate.
Another beer and we finish the Planche mixte. The boys are overwhelmed tonight, so we’ll cut it short. Head somewhere else.
It’s rude to scarf and leave, so I nod my gf to put in a nice word for us. They’ll remember we were there, amongst the others, in the wildlife.
Marseille is one of those cities that make you dream—the Vieux Port, the Mediterranean, the lifestyle. It has all the qualities of paradise.
A normal afternoon consists of a large terrace, a highball of chalk-yellow Pastis, a good book, salt water, sunshine, and maybe, the occasional rabble of passing tourists. C’est la base.
But trouble swam through paradise. Marseille earned a sorry reputation as maybe the only Mediterranean city with a fat red ❌. Do not visit. An Immigration crisis, drug trafficking, and entanglement with the mafia created a melange more potent and lethal than your strongest Bouillabaisse. Each hit the city hard. Marseille and shootings are almost like, well, the U.S. and shootings.
The city fell into a state, which up until a few years ago, seemed unlikely to restore.Mars, they dub it up north.
Word around Paris now is that Mars is–out of this world 🤟🏾.
Good friends made the move southward last year, so we paid them a visit to verify this rumour.
A 3-and-a-50-cent-piece ride from Paris; our train pulls in to Gare St. Charles at 22h30.
The climate strikes first. Stark cold, and barren like a desert night.
Street lamps tacked high on buildings, they’re dim-lit, filtering down in an eery resonance. Boulevard d’Athenes is thick with fast food, mini-marts and bloated trash cans. Tram tracks slice through the gaping Boulevard, which for a Friday night, is lifeless.
The city changes.
From one block to the next, a brusque development, and by the time we arrive at our friend’s apartment on the impressive Boulevard de la Republique, the city resembles, what I know as France.
11h00 – 13h00
Colourful pots filled with dangling plants embellish windows. Striking alleyways, graffiti covers the facades of vibrant orange and yellow apartments. This is Le Panier–the most charming and picturesque quarter of Marseille. Located in the 2nd Arrondissement, (yes, Marseille also has them) it’s one of the cities oldest neighbourhoods.
After a winding flight of stairs that scales the Intercontinental Hotel grounds, we arrive at Place des Moulins, a small empty courtyard that serves as the gateway to the rest of Le Panier.
Translated into English, the basket is a rather lame name for an iconic quarter. The origins come from the 17th-century Inn Les Logis du Panier, which used to house beggars and homeless.
Located between the Vieux Port and a seaside promenade that hosts Cathedral La Major and MUCEM (two interesting, yet time-consuming experiences), Le Panier is known for its cafe’s, cantines and thrift shopping–in the original sense–antiques, not 90s streetwear. This area is perfect for a Saturday lunch and stroll.
@bardes13coins, 🥙a standard sit-down lunch with locals and aioli on a sunny terrace. @takosan🍜Japanese street cantine, specialising in Kansai regional Takoyaki. @ComptoirOHuiles 🥒a small olive oil dealer who serves superb local fair.
After Le Panier we walked along the water until we reached this massive brick and stone structure.
Built in 1856, Les Dockes serve as the storage space of the city for boat and marine equipment. At this point Le Vieux Port served as leisure marina, and trading had shifted to this area. It was the golden age for Marseille. The city had developed into an important trading port in the world.
In 2001, they renovated this historically impressive structure into an aesthetically pleasing one, and probably the closest thing that this city has to ‘posh.’ It’s a hybrid of office space, a covered market, and a food court. Think Chelsea Market. Only, it was near empty.
Notre Dame de la Garde
Perched at the apex of the Marseille is the Bonne Mere, Notre Dame de la Garde. Over 800 years old, constructed in a style not-at-all French, this immaculate and striking cathedral is another reason why Marseille seems bizarre in contrast to the rest of France. It’s also a mandatory visit.
If not for the Byzantine textiles, which I’m sure we all know and love, there is an Instagrammable panorama of the city.
You can get there on the 60 bus, scaling the hill on foot (approx. 15 min), or what I recommend, taking a Lime scooter.
A hilly, picturesque neighbourhood that connects the Bonne Mere to our next point of interest, Vallon des Auffes. I found this neighbourhood particularly stunning.
Clothes dry on high-wire. Small chemins (alleys) suddenly open onto cliffside vistas. No traffic, in fact, the alleys are unoccupied except the occasional lone cat traversing the road and climbing the fence of a house.
Vallon Des Auffes
Les Vallon Des Auffes is a small picturesque viaduct, which used to be a common port for fisherman dating back to the 16th century. Now, it serves pretty much the same purpose, after a reconstruction in the ’60s to repair from its destruction during WW2.
A petit semi-circle of white fishing boats dipped in a rippled blue. The shadows of the viaduct and picturesque buildings distort over time, swallowing it in darkness. Twilight is the hour to view this stunning marina.
Like the rest of Marseille, the view is breathtaking, but lasts only a moment, before it’s taken away by loud traffic or a group of thugs kicking around.
@ChezFonfon, an upscale Bouillabaisse restaurant, known as one of the best in the city. Michelin-starred @L’Epuisette or @TABI are haute-cuisine at its finest.
Ah La Corniche, a lifestyle like none other. The Corniche is the winding road that leads along the Mediterranean coast. The goal is to get here while it’s HH, and finish a couple drinks and a planche before the sun sets.
In the summer La Corniche wild; in the winter it’s relaxing. If you’ve been trekking around, the promenade is the best place to stop and soak in the rest of the sunshine.
Ascend a long, dolled up staircase, weaving past potential crowds of smokers to reach Cours Ju. Around an asymmetric, man-made pond, terraces and bars convene to create this beloved district for partying.
Cours Ju is just the hippety-dippest place for a fete in all of France, they say! But mannnn, the weekend I went, it was dead. And being dead in Marseille means sketchville. I’ll have to give it a one-time pass.
That night, we ate at @LaCantinetta, an Italian restaurant on the short-list of several blogs and guides, however, the food doesn’t touch anything from the Big Mamma group.
The proof is at the port, Marseille is the oldest surviving city in France.
800 B.C. founded by the Phocaea Greeks, a small civilisation from modern-day western Turkey, who were the pioneers of Greek naval exploration. They were the first Greeks documented to reach the kingdom of Spain in that epoch–and they were the Settlers of Massalia or Marseille.
They did the hard work, so you wouldn’t have to. The easiest move on a Sunday morning is the port. Sunny terraces, mediocre coffee, and tourists. Take a book. If you get bored of reading, there’s a market where local items are sold (perfect for gifts).
Try a Navette, an oddly shaped sweet-biscuit from the region.
Then, drop what you’re doing and head to @LaBoiteàPanisse for another regional staple, the Panisse. This chickpea/fish fritter is remarkable. There’s a reason Alice Waters named her institution Chez Panisse. And if the rest of the United States wises up, it’s an optimal replacement for the sweet potato fry.
Frankly, Sundays in France are awkward. Everything is closed because of the church, or ‘family time’ yet you walk outside and everyone’s waddling around like they’re searching for something to do. In Paris, the neighbourhood is waiting in line at the one Boulangerie that’s open. You’ll see people curb on benches and crack a beer at 11h30 for fear of boredom.
Cliffs and blue waters that rival Greece or the Caribbean.
Marseille has the fortune of having a national park in their backyard. Designated as such in 2012, Les Calanques is a collection of limestone precipices with green vegetation sprouting directly from the stone.
Trekkers and small boats convene during the day and disperse at night.
It’s worth every second of the perilous terrain that you take to get there. We went for 2-hours, and I consider it a highlight.
There are dozens of tour offices who will get you there and back within the day, but c’mon, live a little, explore for yourself.
For late trains: Kick around Opera. It’s close enough to Gare St. Charles.
Pretty much everything will be closed, except a Beer House called @LesBerthom, where you can get a good (and surprisingly local) beer and some finger food for a real unproductive and out of it return to wherever. Other options include fast food and tourist traps…but you’ve avoided them so far, so why start now?
Doors down lies a packed bar. It’s where I wanted to go. Before we were sidetracked by L’Etincelle.
A caricatured overweight, black doorman hassles us.
He reels us in after a drawn out moment. Loud music. Loud people. Dirty, dark bar. Leftovers from all the other bars. 3 lagers. I find a place to sit on a dirty booth. Arcade lights from old 8-bit machines tinge the darkness.
In the corner, stairs lead downard.
A cave. Dotted rainbow lights undulate up and down the length of the ceiling. Electro music. Decent crowd, crowded at least, mostly jock boys and glam girls, guys who still flaunt their positions and wear fitted dress shirts, girls who sport heels, gold jewellery and cleavage. And the worst: Anglosaxons.
After a moment I notice mirrors on the far wall. The room is smaller than I thought.
A tall guy with a goofy haircut starts talking to us. He’s from the middle of France, works for Airbus in Germany. He talks like he’s explaining.
‘There are some girls from New York over there and you might be happy meeting them, as you are also from New York.’
He brings them over. They’re from Massachusetts. But they’ve been to New York. 🤦🏽♂️Classic mixup.
Genuinely, they seem nice. ‘Just in town for the weekend,’ they say. Like my friend.
She says that she doesn’t know him at all. Weird, he introduced them like old friends. Now he lurks over in the corner, not speaking, just watching, drinking. Either a creep, or he’s just rolling the dice. Hoping something happens.
My girlfriend has disappeared. Annoyed, perhaps. I excuse myself.
She’s in the middle of the dance floor. I wade over to her. In a sea of drunk faces. I kiss her. We’re ok. It’s time to leave. My friend joins us. Says he couldn’t keep the conversation up. We ascend the stairs. What a shit show.
One more stop. The Photo Booth. We snap drunken, goofy photos. Forever remembering a night at this shitty little after hours club.
Out the door, up Rue Amelot. A large sculpture of a man riding a horse rests illuminated atop Oberkampf circus. Then, to République.
Marianne is bathed in Indigo, Red, and moments later, White, like an on duty policeman. But her base is tagged. It’s defiled, littered with rubbish. This is still the beginning of the story regarding the Gilets Jaune.
On Boulevard Beaumarchais, the rain has let up. A mob of drunk French twenty-somethings storm passed us. One member kicks the steel shutters of a shop. Mocking the Gilets Jaunes. Another lets out a blasé puff of cigarette smoke.
We continue North.
The name changes: Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire. We turn on a narrow side street, Rue Amelot.
Why not? We enter. Yeah, it’s an ordinary bar-tabac. Except it kinda isn’t. There’s a cigarette stand in the front, lottery tickets in the corner. Neon lights illuminate the ceiling like a casino in Vegas. Dance party in the back of the bar.
3 demi-pints: <8€ : WTF.
An extraordinary amount of Italians are present. We discover Alberto, an Italian architect, is having a going away party. We weave through the crowd of dashing, objectively good-looking Italians. My girlfriend wishes him a happy birthday, as do I. He engages her in conversation.
I turn and ask the barman if he sells single cigarettes. He doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t, stupid question. We ask for beer instead. He hands us two pints and a single cigarette–on the house.
What a guy.
Outside, people cluster. An Italian woman with curly, raven’s black hair, blue eyes, and a post-punk style gazes my way. She’s talking to a bohemian drunkard. He notices, and rambles towards us. She leaves, and joins a different conversation.
The drunk man has a large tome in his hand. Opens to pictures of pastoral France. Clumsy, mumbling, he loves his book, he says. A photo of a stone house surrounded by long blades of grass. He’s fallen in love with an Italian woman and wants to buy this house for her. He motions to the aforementioned woman.
My girlfriend joins the conversation.
‘Alberto has quite the reputation at this bar,’ she pokes. He’s what university folks call a stud. She jests about his vibrant black hair. No holes, no receding hairline, just a hairy Italian with good genes.
A group next to us talks about building a building. They’re all architects. They’re also all wasted.
A bumbling intellectual walks up to us. He has a broad nose, tanned skin and long salt and pepper hair.
‘My umbrella, it’s my prized possession,’ he starts. ‘It gives me a look of sophistication and it protects me from rain.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ my friend tells him.
He tells us that my friend is a fine and sensible man, but could use some refinement. An archetypally French view.
We find that the strange intellectual is from Corsica.
My girlfriend jokes that when his glasses are placed atop his head, holding his hair back, he looks like a celebrity philosopher. We all laugh.
He responds that my friend is sensible, but my girlfriend is too brutal. He continues that women need sensibility as well, because men are utter victims to their ferocity.
This upsets my girlfriend, and she leaves for the bathroom. We enter the bar with this Corsican. He buys us beers. Bingo.
For fun, my friend and I fill out French lotto tickets, and slide them in the ballot. The bar gives a last call, and we move our belongings near the door.
Grand farewells. Alberto is lost in a sea of beautiful black-haired, Italian youth.
I look around. I hear, ‘Alex!’ It’s my girlfriend.
The philosopher has cornered my girlfriend, talking to her in that uncomfortably close manner, which some men have the bad habit of doing.
I skate towards them. I force him to step back, using my arm. He acts with naivety, stunned by my action and leaves. I apologise to her. I should’ve been there sooner.
Near Place Des Vosges, on the outskirts of the Marais, the backstreets are slick and empty. The three of us scamper across the wide Boulevard Beaumarchais. Rain picks up. It’s near freezing. Street lights reflect in a violent orange hue.
My feet are damp, but my mouth tastes of a perfectly charred steak from Le Petit Marche.
Around the corner lies a pizzeria. We’re not eating again.
We enter, greet ‘bonsoir’ and cut through to the back. To the cooler. My friend isn’t expecting it. We’re in the cooler now. Miscellaneous stock, barrels, boxes and cartons are stored behind a wired cage. I force him to wait an extra second.
On the far wall lies a trap door. I turn the handle.
Here we are. A crowded, backlit bar aka the Moonshiner.
Buena Sera. The bartender yells over the crowd. They’re wearing 30’s attire and listening to 70’s music.
I scour the room. A herd has formed, as sheep normally do, in the narrowest area of the bar, making it very difficult to pass. Every seat is occupied. Hype kids. Don’t step on anyone’s shoes.
Two Vodka Pomegranates and 1 Negroni. I direct us to the smoking lounge. Here, we’re able to procure a few stools, and schmooze without the imposing screeches and elbows of neighbors.
Tucked behind candle-lit tables, tightly-knit couples line the other wall.
My buddy flips through pictures of his two weeks in Morocco, vehemently explaining the scarcity of alcohol in the country, and how every bar was technically a real Speakeasy. His iPhone 8Plus captures the sublime light of the Sahara. Of the Atlas Mountains. Of the blue city, Chefchaouen.
1 Gin & Honey and Two Negronis this time. We switch to the political system in the US. ‘The Republicans play the game better.’ Brash, manipulative, insidious—in politics, these are all considered qualities. Democrats won seats in the house, but it’s not enough.
We face two problems: their subordinates and their superiors.
The US has become so bipartisan that if anyone is out of alignment, the system fails. This, to me, feels…outdated.
My eyes wander to others in the room. Darkness obscures their faces, and space obscures their voices. It’s my turn. I leave to get more drinks.
Near the bar, I recognise a man from the smoking room. A 90’s Leo lookalike in a well-cut white T-shirt. He’s short (I’m 195 cm. People are short.), and wears the smile of a young, yet already successful man, a person who knows exactly where he’s going next. His ravishing date joins him, and they exit in a cloud of sparkling dust. Merci, to the bartender in a beret and vest, and I head back to the smoking section.
Down Rue de Lancry we walk. A car passes. People hover outside of a bar. People always hover outside of this bar. We enter. Foggy. Cramped. Everyone’s dressed in black. Bunch of late to the party beatniks, Hip boys and girls, probably design majors, who now work at bars and coffee shops in newly gentrified neighbourhoods. I love it.
The bartender is a woman who doesn’t wear makeup, and she dresses in faded button down shirts like she’s in a rock band. 3 Caipis—the special—they’re terrible—but they’re strong af.
The whole neighbourhood is here. People bump every goddamn time they pass. I’m starting to feel it, feel the Caipi.
I look to my girlfriend. She smiles back.
My friend returns from the bathroom.
We chat a bit more; about what? I can’t say.
We order another Caipi and two beers. My friend wants to smoke a cigarette. Two extremely large men with hoop earrings and black beanies look like they’d have some.
“Want me to ask?”
“No thanks. My parents.”
He comments on my girlfriend’s coat, says it must weigh 20 pounds. Definitely doesn’t help the claustrophobia. It’s big, it’s green and it’s plushy.
A man drunkenly bumps her. Her drink spills onto the coat. ‘Putain!’ she yells, wanting him to notice.
The guy looks over, blasé—casualties of war.
My friend steps in—he speaks in English to the culprit.
The culprit doesn’t like that. They begin arguing in a comedic way. ‘We saved your asses in WW2. If it wasn’t for us, you’d be speaking German.’ ‘Il n’a pas de nuance.’ The insults fall flat. Neither can understand the other. Therefore, it’s a draw.
The man buys us shots of brown liquid. As a sorry. We Shoot. Low-grade Whiskey, disgusting and unnecessary.