Le Nouveau ParisA new city of light
The old is all about Stendhal’s grand, flowing narratives. The new is small, creative, and risky. There is, of course, absolutely no reason why, like Édith Piaf and Max Ernst in Père-Lachaise, the two can’t coexist.
It seems fitting, when talking about Le Nouveau Paris, to mention first the postmodern writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, master of Le Nouveau Roman, or ‘new novel’. He believed that the old novel, with its stories and characters, was dead. The new form, he said, should represent imagination and incoherence. There is something in his definition of old and new writing that characterises Paris perfectly. Old Paris is, after all, pure narrative; lovers walking hand in hand along the banks of the Seine, an accordionist playing mournful fragments of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, climbing the Eiffel Tower, drinking citron pressé at Les Deux Magots, and – something I do every time I visit the city – saying bonjour to Jacques-Louis David’s Madame Récamier, reclining in bare feet at the Louvre. These are the stories we know so well, and they will always be told. A New Paris is emerging too, however, that has very little to do with La Belle Époque, or tales of eating un sandwich in Le Jardin du Luxembourg.
I like to think that Alain Robbe-Grillet would have approved of Concrete, a music venue so antithetical to the concept of coherent narrative that it’s a miracle it exists at all. If you were planning a dance venue, when would be the most crazy sounding time of day to schedule your events? Hmm, let me think…how about seven o’clock on a Sunday morning? On a boat? There’s not much apparent coherence in that decision, or in the fact that the music continues until two in the morning on Monday. Yet, against the odds, Concrete has become a tearaway success (if a moored boat can ever be described as tearaway). If you’re lucky enough to have the stamina, you could also visit Wanderlust, a bar and club on the river near the Gare d’Austerlitz that has great DJs and a huge outdoor terrace. Since the music stops at six a.m., it would just be a question of nipping along the river to Concrete, joining the queue there, and starting all over again. It’s not just alternative venues that are creeping onto the map in Paris, but whole new areas of the city. Canal St-Martin, République, and Oberkampf are more quirky, inventive, and varied than the old familiar territories.
Staying in Old Paris has always been a vexed business, with tiny rooms, massive prices, and miserable service. The firmly New Paris boutique hotel Mama Shelter, designed by Philippe Starck, in the 20th arrondissement is far from central central, but it is eccentric, endearing, and very good value. Your rooms come complete with a 27” Mac armed, slightly alarmingly, with the recording app Video Booth. If that’s not New Paris, I don’t know what is. Mama Shelter, is just around the corner from the cemetery at Père-Lachaise which means that you could lurch out of your New Parisian bed straight into an Old Parisian narrative. Édith Piaf is buried there, as is Napoleon’s court painter Jacques-Louis David, creator of my beloved Madame Récamier. In an Old Parisian yarn dark enough to rival Mary Shelley’s most fervent imaginings, after being exiled as a revolutionary, only David’s heart was allowed into the cemetery. The opera singer Maria Callas is there too – or was. Bizarrely, her ashes were stolen from the cemetery, and only the empty urn remains. I had hoped, for the sake of my own narrative, and for a piece of Old and New post-death fusion, that Alain Robbe-Grillet was buried at Pere-Lachaise too. Sadly, he isn’t. French surrealist poet Paul Éluard is, however, along with the pioneer of Dadaism, Max Ernst. So New Paris does at least keep its end up.
Old Paris has, for far too long, been blasé about its food, so it should be no surprise that other cuisines are taking hold in New Paris. The place to go for sashimi is Rue Saint-Anne, not far from either Pyramides or Opéra metro stations, which is crammed with scores of Japanese eateries and food stores. No one would ever claim that Old Paris is good for coffee, either, but New Paris has decided to do something about that with a new breed of small, independent coffee shops. There is, perhaps, none better than Le Coutume Café on the Rue du Babylone, close to that bastion of Old Parisian cuisine, La Grande Épicerie. The grandeur of the old and the modesty of the new represent in perfect microcosm the dichotomy that Alain Robbe-Grillet tried to define. The old is all about Stendhal’s grand, flowing narratives. The new is small, creative, and risky. There is, of course, absolutely no reason why, like Édith Piaf and Max Ernst in Père-Lachaise, the two can’t coexist.