Letters from Paris: Canal Saint Martin in the 10th

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Thirza Vallois has returned to one of the genuine and picturesque spots of old-time Paris, the Canal Saint Martin, for an unexpected and hilarious evening at the Hôtel du Nord.  To our relief, the Canal hasn’t been brought to the attention of your average tourist yet,which is a good enough reason to enjoy it before it’s too late. For the time being it remains truly Parisian, in the best sense of the word. Furthermore, the Hôtel du Nord stands at 102 quai des Jemmapes, its most romantic and picturesque section. For further information about the Canal Saint Martin and about the Hôtel du Nord, turn to Thirza Vallois’s recent publication, Romantic Paris, and especially to Around and About Paris, Volume II, where you will get the full story of both. It’s in the chapter on the 10th arrondissement. This past week has enabled me to find out that Americans are not quite yet a rare species on the Paris scene. I was invited by International Living to give a couple of presentations to their Travel Writers’ Workshop, and was delighted to hear American accents all over the place. So yes, some Americans are still coming over, or are coming back again, whichever way you want to look at it, in trickles that I hope will soon increase to an overflow, as it did in recent years. So much so that I once got an angry letter from a reader who complained to me that the restaurant I recommended had too many Americans! You never win. Right now, this is not the kind of complaint she would make.  The seminar was a delightful event socially speaking, and of a very high standard intellectually. The snippets of presentations I caught before my own, delivered by Rose Burke, were very impressive, as were the people I had a chance to talk to face to face. If you are into travel writing, and also want to have an excuse to come to Paris next season, you should consider this gathering. I also managed to steal one evening from my work and join the group for their night out in Paris.  I must say that all the places of entertainment chosen by Adrian Leeds, the Director of the International Living Paris Office, were excellent.  All were atmospheric and off the more oft treaden tourist track. Even if tourists get there, they don’t feel touristy. That night took me to the Hôtel du Nord, on the Canal St. Martin, where I have been many times and at all times of year and day, but not since the publication of my book, Romantic Paris. At the time, I included it in my Romantic Nights chapter, and chose to highlight its Saturday Night shows, dedicated to French songs from the 1930s. This time round I was amazed to discover something completely different that I had no clue about. See! Even when you know Paris as well as I do, you keep discovering new events, places and venues,  provided your eyes and ears are wide open and you go on sniffing around. That’s what makes Paris so exciting.  This time round, it wasn’t only something new – it was surreal.  After a basic and very decent French dinner, at a very reasonable price, in the vast and half empty restaurant (as it was Sunday night, I wasn’t really surprised), a huge crowd swooped over the premises all of a sudden and within seconds filled every vacant seat. It happened so fast that I didn’t have the time to see them coming, a really pleasant crowd on the youngish side (late twenties/thirties I would say, at an average), all of whom were English speaking but didn’t look like tourists. Who on earth were they, I wondered. And what on earth were they doing at the emblematic Hôtel du Nord, which embodies old, quintessentially working-class Paris? It was so weird to hear all this English rather than the inimitable voice of the legendary Arletty, which clings to the Hôtel du Nord as a ghost will to a Scottish castle.  “Atmosphère, atmosphère…”  It’s always in my ears, as she throws it sarcastically with her Parisian lilt to the no less legendary Louis Jouvet.  It’s for the sake of this atmosphere that James Arch, the present proprietor of the Hôtel du Nord, saved the place from demolition in 1995. Who would have dreamt that it would be invaded by “Anglo Saxons”, of all people? I got up and went to the counter where James was serving them drinks and got my answers pretty fast. First of all, these people live and work in Paris, which is why they don’t look like tourists. I can’t put my finger on it but although most of us dress alike nowadays, tourists usually look like tourists. And certainly so when they come in clusters. These people looked local, which was nice (no offence meant, but it does help preserve the authentic atmposphere of a place). There may have been the odd French person among them, but his English must have been pretty good to be able to follow up all the innuendos of the show. I then found out that on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays the Hôtel du Nord is taken over by the British Karel Beers who owns the next door gallery at 104 quai des Jemmapes. He uses the pocket-handkerchief-size stage to produce top-notch British or American stand-up comedians.  They in turn are more than happy to oblige and use this floor like a dress rehearsal and meanwhile take in a bit of Paris. I must say I haven’t been to such an entertaining evening for a long time, and it was particularly refreshing at present, when so many people feel morose because of the state of the world. And the state of the world was the topic of the evening, handled and mishandled by Greg Proops, whose commentaries flowed spontaneously into one another like a Proustian sentence, at a staggering speed.    Greg dug into everything and everyone, Nebraska, San Francisco, New York, Paris, the latest Magritte exhibition, the Eurostar, English louts…intellectuals. No one was spared, not even animal lovers, not even innocent Canadians. Once we were all put in our place according to our respective homeland and walk of life, he moved on to current politics and, I must say that although I don’t necessarily share Greg’s views about the Iraqi war, he was so good that I never got annoyed and was in stitches, like everyone…
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