It was one of the most memorable nights of my time in Paris of summer 2016. After a lunch and a stroll in Butte aux Cailles, and a quick pit stop in Chinatown which didn’t have any red gate to my disappointment, we jumped on a DLR version of Paris metro, which means the subway car did not have any driver and got out at Stalingrad, and that was quite surreal already, if you ask me.
We went up the escalator, exited through the tricky metallic doors of the underground, and I saw the soft evening light of the city of lights. I was walking just a little behind my friends, who were leading the way, and tried to take in everything I was seeing, as this was today when I stepped out of the tourist zone of Paris, and in to the real world of French people. We were heading to Bassin de la Villete.
The surroundings were somehow reminding me of Brighton Beach, in New York City, with its underground trains running above the ground, and the sun was touching the buildings, the ground and people’s faces here.
– To the supermarket! – My friend said and I walked just a little faster, trying to catch up.
We walked into the Franprix and headed straight to the cheese section. My friend went for his local Camembert from Normandy, the region he grew up in, and my new friend chose one of the creme cheese baubles that I never tried, and he said that I absolutely should have those. I was just nodding to everything, as sometimes those two spoke only French. Ninety per cent of their conversation went unnoticed by me, at first I was trying to listen and understand, then I have just decided to give up and just enjoy my cultural shock which I haven’t experienced since my first working day in a London football shop.
We were late for the pique-nique (oui) that my friend himself organised in this very area, so we bought everything in this supermarche, as well as the baguette, which was a huge faux pas of us, because real French people buy bread products in the real boulangery, and not next to the cash register number 5, opposite the chewing gum stand. After some arguing and realizing that we wouldn’t have time to go to a boulangery, we picked up a simple baguette and went to pay for our things.
Then we finally made it to Bassin de la Villete, which my friends described to me as the artificial canal in the 19eme (19th) arrondissment of Paris, or in the words of the Hunger Games (or a simple English language), 19th District. They said it’s a usual place for Parisians and alike to gather for a picnic, with some blankets (or sometimes without), with wine and cheese and other little food trinkets and maybe to play a few outdoor games like pétanque. And to smoke of course, I’m talking nicotine here. After spending a few days with my French friends I have learned that practically everyone here smoked. Sometimes it felt that all Parisians went around with tiny cups of espresso in their hands, whilst smoking Virginia Slims and Marlboro that was bought in the Canadian Duty Free shop. You then start admiring them for such outrageous bravery and beautiful insolence, that I thought was well and alive mostly in the teenage years.
When we got there the first thing I saw was people playing pétanque and as I have only seen that in films and photos, I was really amazed about the fact that this game was indeed true. As we passed them, we saw the bassin, or the lake, or the canal, anyway, it was a body of water shimmering in the rays of the setting sun. The banks of the Villete were filled with hundreds of people on blankets, enjoying wine, beer, soft drinks and eating everything you could ever imagine, store-bought or home-made. It seemed that we walked past so many groups of people that we wouldn’t be able to locate our own amidst this pre-night carnival of life.
– Salut! – My friend waved at someone in the distance and I prepared my face for lots of smooching. I slowed my pace and tried to hide behind the trees and benches of the area. It’s been two days in the French community but I still felt a bit strange about pressing my face into a complete stranger. Inside I felt so free and nervous at the same time, my French side wasn’t totally agreeing with my English one, but I was set to blend in and that was exactly what I did. I took a deep breath and waved nervously to, I believe, eight or nine people I have never seen before in my life. We were getting closer and my friend started introducing me to his friends and acquaintances, some of his friends came up to me without any introductions, but seeing that I came with him, they went in and French kissed me all the while saying their names and waiting to hear mine.
Here, in France, when you meet a friend or even someone new, who is not a business acquaintance, you press your cheeks against the other person’s cheeks whilst making a loud kiss sound so that everyone feels how welcome they are. And of course, when I say “French kiss” I only mean an informal greeting of two friends, who don’t even sometimes touch each other’s face but simply acknowledge the fact of a meeting by smooching the air next to their ears. And that’s what I call “French kiss” here.
That night I air-kissed 15 different people, not counting the two friends that were with me already. I was sitting on a woolen blanket with red and white patterns and my friend was teaching me how to open a baguette in half so that it was possible to put some cheese on it. You always break a piece from a baguette, and then open it so that it was easier to eat it, the soft part of it being on top. While I was tucking into all the cheeses I could find under the pale light of the street lanterns that were flickering along the embankment welcoming the night, I was looking at the people who I shared my meal with today. I spoke to a few but the language barrier was indeed a barrier to communication sometimes. Instead I smiled and kept nodding to my friend who brought me here, signalling that I was actually okay and didn’t need any French to English translation. I was thoroughly enjoying the evening, and when I looked at the darkening sky I saw the light coming all the way from the Eiffel Tower. The beacon of white was softly sweeping the night, protecting the city.
One by one we were standing up to chat to each other. I was holding a paper cup of non-alcoholic lemonade in my hand, I was allergic to wine in the country famous for its wines. Huge armed policemen were walking past us looking extra calm, holding onto their machine guns and looking around. Bag thieves were eyeing up our belongings whilst casually walking past us. Parisian taxis were stopping by and going every couple of minutes. The wind was getting stronger and I was getting colder, standing in a summer dress without any cardigan or jumper. Our girl friend pointed to our bags laying on the blanket so that we could pick them up before the thieves did, we obeyed. The food was running out, but more friends were appearing. I was kissing strangers, and finishing my marinated rice wrapped in wine leaves at the same time. The wind got so strong that I had to get my phone from a purse and call an Uber. The car was coming in four minutes so I knew I needed to start saying goodbye to new acquaintances now if I wanted to get into the taxi on time. Three minutes and fifteen people later I sat onto a warm backseat of a new shiny Mercedes and we drove off.
It wasn’t until thirty seconds later that we were stopped by a police car in front of us. Something was happening on the narrow road. A girl was robbed, but just a moment later, her bag was returned, she was inspecting the contents of it and hoping that everything was in place. We didn’t stay to find out if her belongings were intact, but I’d really like to believe they were. I took a deep breath and we rolled onto the central streets of Paris, driving me to my hotel in Montmartre, taking with me the memories of French kisses and le Bassin de la Villete rendez-vous.
Thank you for reading.