My job as an academic philosopher often takes me to Paris. When I’m there, I always stay in the underrated 14th arrondissement. It lies just south and south-east of that hateful carbuncle on the Paris skyline, the Tour Montparnasse. The “quatorzième” is a fifteen minute walk (or a 5 minute Vélib ride) from the Jardins du Luxembourg, and from most of the Left Bank academic institutions with which I have to transact. But it is a world unto itself, pleasingly distant from the tourist hotspots, but full of great restaurants, cafés and cultural institutions.

I stay in a lovely little hotel on the quiet rue Boulard, just off the Montparnasse cemetery, where I can pay my respects to Serge Gainsbourg and Jean Seberg, among other deceased French luminaries. A stone’s throw away is the pedestrian strip of Rue Daguerre, a foody heaven full of great cheese shops, “traiteurs”, fishmongers, bakeries and butchers, and just beyond that, one of my favorite restaurants in the world, the tiny Au vin des rues. It looks like any of the myriad hole-in-the-wall “menus du jours” restos that dot the Parisian landscape. I must have walked right by it a hundred times at least until an in-the-know Parisian friend pointed it out to me. I now eat there every time I am in town. It’s simple, terroir cuisine, done with the best ingredients. On a recent visit I feasted on a home-made fish terrine, a wonderful andouillette, an organic red that had caught the owner’s fancy, and a Saint Marcelin cheese so fresh and runny it practically had to be tasered to remain on my plate.

On Thursday evenings, this small family-run resto is taken over by accordionists and singers who lead patrons in an evening of traditional French songs. I rarely know any of the songs, but the other guests obviously do, and they sing along lustily. I am delighted just to let the joyful sounds wash over me. Last week, I walked in close to midnight just to have a glass of wine and to take part in this lovely neighborhood institution. If it sounds stereotypical, it isn’t: it is the type upon which the stereotype is based. If you are in Paris you could do worse then spending an evening with the locals, who will look kindly upon you even if you are only there to sit, listen, eat and drink.

About a kilometer from my hotel, just off rue Pernety, sits one of my favorite places on the planet. L’Entrepôt is an all-purpose cultural emporium, a huge complex housing an excellent cinema showcasing great movies from around the world, many of which never make it to our boring cineplexes (on this trip I saw Jacques Audiard’s amazing, over-the-top, Un prophète, which won Cannes’ Grand Prix this year and which in my humble opinion should have edged out Michael Haneke’s admittedly brilliant but forbiddingly austere Weisse Band for the Palme d’Or), a gallery, a restaurant with a very pleasant courtyard café, and a concert space featuring a pleasingly eclectic list of gigs. After taking in the Audiard flick, I had a bite, and then stayed around to catch a French band I had never heard of, Aribo, which sounded like a cross between George Brassens and The Clash. They were wonderful, and I rushed over to the merchandise stand to buy their first record, Rock de Bois.

The great thing about L’Entrepôt is that it really is a neighborhood institution. Tourists don’t tend to wander into this part of town, and it is nowhere near what anyone would consider “central” Paris. It is premised upon the proposition that if you provide your clientele with consistently imaginative and varied programming, they will come. I was there on a rainy Thursday night, and the place was crowded with people taking in one or the other of the many events on offer. It also shows up the relative timidity of the cultural entrepreneurs of our fair city. Can you imagine anyone having the imagination and courage to undertake anything of this magnitude in a Montreal neighborhood like, say, NDG? Say in the old Cinema V/Empress theatre which has stood almost entirely empty now for close to 20 years?

My final night in Paris presented me with a trilemma. Over in the Parc de la Villette area, The Melvins, those estimable punk stalwarts from Washington state, were taking over Glazart, a concert space with which I was unfamiliar. To my amazement, The Sonics, who first got together well over 40 years ago and recorded seminal garage rock records that have been rediscovered by garage rock revivalists such as King Khan and Reigning Sound had regrouped and were across the road at the unremarkable but serviceable Trabendo. In the end, I opted to head to the Alhambra, just off Place de la République, for Nits, the legendary Dutch band that has been around since the mid-70s, and that has recently released its (by my count) 19th album of original material, the excellent Strawberry Wood. (You could never accuse the band of not wearing its Beatles-esque influences on its sleeve).

Nits (they insist on not being called The Nits – don’t ask me why) make pop music for grown-ups. That is, they are relentlessly melodic and listener-friendly, but the melodies are often complex, and the lyrics, by group founder and leader Henk Hofstede, explore the kinds of issues that most pop bands steer clear of – aging, politics, and the like. In their current mood (they have undergone a good many stylistic changes over the years), their songs are keyboard-based, make sparing use of electric guitar, and are kept metronomically precise by their great drummer Rob Kloet.

In concert, Nits are friendly, musically accomplished, and just a tad boring. Though they often revisit the arrangements of their earlier songs to fit whatever stylistic mood they happen to be in at the time, their live performances sound as if they could have been lifted straight from a recording. Three quarters of the way through their generous 2 hour set, I found myself longing for some of the unpredictability and roughness-around-the-edges that was undoubtedly occurring across town at Parc de la Villette.

Posted Thursday, December 10th, 2009 at 10:04 pm
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Responses to “Senses Working Overtime in Paris”

marianne ackerman

Yes … that’s it all right. A rainy Thursday night, runny cheese. Great post, Daniel. Who know a philsopher’s life could be so aesthetically rich? All Paris addresses noted. Thank you!

Alex Gordon

это точно !!…

The “quatorzième” is a fifteen minute walk (or a 5 minute Vélib ride) from the Jardins […….

Kylie Batt

Бесподобная тема, мне нравится :)

My job as an academic philosopher often takes me to Paris. When I’m there, I always stay in the underrated 14th arrondissement…..

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