What It’s Actually Like to Live on Canal Saint-Martin in Paris

An empty red and white cross-hatched bistro chair–if you’re lucky enough to find one on the first sunny weekend by the canal, you’d know how I felt that pristine Saturday in late February. For visitors, this can be an impossible task, however, I live upstairs. In the cave, my gf and I like to joke, a reference to how little daylight we receive.

That Saturday, the neighbourhood rejoiced, winter was over, and it seemed like the entire 10e joined us to relish in the sun. The banks were full. Hipsters and homeless and thugs and young families came together to sit and chat, drink beer and play music. A real Kumbaya moment.

Idyllic times such as these are why I love the city, and this city in particular. It makes the taxing montage of commutes, workdays, and alienating transactions worth a place in your life. And while there are many nose-pinching, ear-plugging, eye-shutting moments, I think, at the end of the day, it’s worth it.


In An Immoveable Feast, Hemmingway writes of the promise of Rive Gauche; Cardinal Lemoine, Saint Michel, the Latin Quarter, Saint Germain, and Montparnasse. But I’ll be the first to tell you, these quarters are dead. Unpopular opinion; I know. But have you been to Les Deux Magots, La Rotonde, or Shakespeare? It’s the same as going to a museum. And while I’m harsh, because I am omitting the exceptions to prove a point. The city has moved on.


My ❤️and I moved to the canal at the beginning of November. It was an exciting time, and technically our move into Paris. For the 6-months prior, we’d lived in a small town called Montrouge, a metro terminus and a 5-minute walk from the Southern border of Paris. Basically Paris, but, it wasn’t the postal 75, so for a Parisian, it isn’t Paris.

The canal was calm. A day muted by Parisian Grey. Sporadic runners threaded up and down the banks. The courageous sat on terraces in luxuriant coats lined with faux fur. Our move-in had showed promise from the neighbourhood; a reward from the investment that we’d put in, fighting a war just to submit a dossier to the agency. You need to have what it takes to be ‘accepted’ into this shitshow of a club called Paris.

Ironically it was the American style cafés and cocktail bars that charmed me. On our first night’s exploration of the neighbourhood, we settled in a little den called SAam for delicious Taiwanese Bao.

Our excitement, however, was quickly hampered by the apartment. Marred by filthy floors, a condescending attitude and exigent behaviour from the agency, we were handed two pairs of keys and a weeks worth of cleaning. I mean, there were dust bunnies the size of my fists behind the couch. We found a pair of dead moths behind the fridge, and popcorn cornels in bed (Yum). Mold in the bathroom, a large stain on the mattress…the list goes on.

This would be the beginning of our delusional one-sided legacy with this negligent agency.

With that aside, we began to get into the ebb and flow of the quarter. We found out which boulangeries were open on weekends, where to find juice and grain bowls Bob’s Juice, Sol Semilla, Le Bichat and RadioDays (turns out dozens of places), where the neighbourhood haunts were–newcomers like and old faithfuls.

The cool visitors post up at the legendary Chez Prune, La Marine; tourists pound pints at Cork and Cavan and queue at Comptoir General; the local chics gather at La Patache or Brigette; and the alternative side at Cinquante, Gorbi Palace. And then there’s Gravity, a cocktail bar in a realm of its own.

Even before this first sunny day in February, I noticed a difference in my outlook upon Paris. Small quality of life improvements. The subway lines are fruitful. The rest of Paris resembled a sibling instead of a distant cousin. Peanut butter is at the supermarket. Supermarkets are open on Sunday nights. So ostensibly, I can buy peanut butter on a whim now.

We found things that we couldn’t find before–St. Marcelin filled Naan at Marcel, Pulled Pork Tacos at El Guacamole, and chicken & waffles at Baba Zulu. Line 2 from Colonel Fabian took us to Pigalle, and the 11 from Goncourt took us up to Belleville, and down to the Marais. Is this happiness? Or is it misleading.


At some point in my life, I’ll have to question why innocuous things such as these have such a high importance in my life. Brunches, happy hours and private sales for plants, artisanal jewellery, beer, and ice cream. It’s like post-materialism; instead of materials, each experience has been reduced to a set of values. Packaged and presented by Instagram. In the end, they embody the same sets of adjectives as a clothing brand or car maker.

Grain bowls and vegan super foods #healthy #vegan / Eggs Benedict and chicken and waffles #indulgence. I give a lot of fucks, because I drink green smoothies with spiruline instead of four refills of drip coffee with brunch.


At home, our cour is small enough for awkward eye-contact with neighbours, and our walls are thin enough to hear unwanted arguments and sexual climaxes. During a rainstorm, we came home to find the stairwell flooding from a massive crack in the ceiling. We started banging on doors to find help. Immediately, The neighbours assembled to find a solution. Each person donated buckets. We set up a makeshift shoot, funnelling the water from the crack out a nearby window. No person acted ‘for themselves.’ A bond grew between us. We exchanged phone numbers, ideas, and now, more than just ‘bonjours.’ I had never experienced that in a building before.

Later that night, however, our roof partially caved in. Our kitchen flooded and consequently, we had to live without electricity for a week. Why? It took our lovely agency over a week to get back to us for an evaluation. We considered moving. Was the neighbourhood worth the living conditions? In New York, I had the chance to live in East Williamsburg for 4 months, but the Canal is the Canal.

Hopping over the water each day was a panacea.

On the canal I’d see photo shoots. I’d pass music videos being shot against the backdrop. The most stylish Brits, Spanish, Americans and Koreans flocked to our hood with cameras and dazzling fashion; beautiful, proud dogs trot down the promenades, they’re enough to make one self-conscious, to make one think twice about leaving the house in pjs for a croissant. It’s funny, but really, moving to a neighbourhood like this is intimidating.

The canal itself is very dirty. But only on second glance. On first glance, it’s glossy, pristine. My impression is that tourists pass through with this quick look, forgetting that it’s a breathing neighbourhood, not just an attraction or a postcard. In reality, Parisians adore the canal but abuse it, they hang around all day tossing beer bottles, cigarette butts and driving lime scooters into the murky waters.

Dive a little deeper into the quarter, into every unmarked road, alley and impasse and you’ll find the veins, Rue Bichat, Rue Marie et Louise and the magical Rue Sainte Marthe, the point of Eugene Varlin, Rue Juliette Dodu. Dozens of small abodes and packed terraces. Not a word of English.

I’m reminded everyday about how Parisian culture is different than that of New York. It’s not about loud signage, niche marketing, or incredulous hype. It’s also not about judgment or exclusion, which can often be the pervasive stereotype.

It’s about intimacy. In both definitions of the word.

Definition of intimacy

1: the state of being intimateFAMILIARITY

2: something of a personal or private nature

Dictionary

While this might seem like the romantic cliché of Paris, it has nothing at all to do with romance. It’s about proximity and knowledge, being close to and in the know.

On the 2nd of June, my gf and I found an ephemeral boat.

It docks across from the dog park and next to the basketball court, but only on sunny weekends. 200m up the canal from our apartment, this boat acts as a bar and music venue.

For hours, we sat under the sun, we called friends, and we listened to Cuban Jazz while drinking Europe’s Coors Light–Jupiler. It wouldn’t have happened without proximity or knowledge.

The atmosphere in Paris can be dream-like and refreshing. On the other hand, it can leave you distanced and put-off, like it did for me during my first several months. A large part of living here is learning the language, but another part is having a neighbourhood in Paris that allowed me to learn.

I plan to stay here, not because it’s Paris–whatever that packed statement means–or for the history of the quarter, which remains largely unwritten, but rather, because I like it.

The canal is a neighbourhood with a cosmopolitan glaze, but still retains its Parisian core. And just as Hemmingway found the Rive Gauche’s when he lived here, I find the canal’s image eternal.

Fin.

Alexander

Published by AlexanderGittleman

Alexander Gittleman aka Mr. Cohiba is the writer, editor, and creator of the cocktail blog African Bowtie. He has lived in Seattle, New York, and currently lives in Paris where he covers the burgeoning cocktail scene.

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