Reflections in Paris: New Friendships in the Old City

Travel is a great way to stretch, grow and get new reflections on your life. I’d like to share my adventures from a recent weekend in Paris. One of the sweet-bitter features of being an older man is how many decades your memories go back for. Is it interesting or old-fartish to tell you that I first came to Paris in 1963, when they had those cool buses with the balcony on the back? I’ve had lots of fine visits since then, including half-term breaks when my kids were teenagers, and romantic weekends with new partners when I was in my fifties, but looking for that young-love vibe.

I feel very fortunate, as a man beyond 50, to have a couple of friendships with younger men in their twenties and thirties. Such an age gap can be tricky, but it can be illuminating. This trip to Paris is novel, as I’m here with Oli, who’s thirty years my junior, and was a college friend of my daughter. Oli has lived in the city, and still has mates here, so our trip is partly to share each other’s Paris.

Oli used to live in the 20th arrondissement, well East of the centre, and we visit his favourite local bar, Le Carbone 14. This is cool in an elusive Gallic way, with a subtly planned chaos: imagine Big Sur meets Surrealism, but it turns out well. And the range of beers is brilliant. We’re due to go on to meet one of Oli’s Parisian friends, Ronan, who suggests 7 to 7.30pm. By 8pm, there’s no word, and I am pressing myself to enjoy the chaos, the lack of a firm time for food, instead of getting annoyed.

Eventually, about 8.30pm, we meet up with Ronan in a super-cool place called Comptoir General, at 80 Quai de Jammappe, on the Canal Saint Martin and only fifteen minutes’ walk from the Gare du Nord. This too defies description, and is hors categorie as the French would say: it’s a huge old former warehouse set back from the road, which now has bars, music, and ….a large library on the upper floor.

Some of my favourite films are French: the best ones have a quirky style, original twists on real life, and a mix of brilliant wit and emotional power. I love seeing recent releases in Paris, and Ronan gives us a tip which proves excellent: a new film called Intouchables. He also gives us a good website for critical ratings of French movies:

Saturday evening became one of those magical nights, far off from regular reality, which I remember most from my student days, but hope to have more often in these maturing years of freedom. We were at Ronan’s flat. Both Oli and Ronan are passionate musicians who have busy careers and new marriages. They don’t play music enough these days, and rarely together, so there was truly something special about this occasion.

Ronan played some of his own songs, including some searing political rap in French: even the fraction I understood was brilliant. Oli responded with heartfelt love-songs, mostly about breakups, from his student years. Then we got onto shared repertoires, and my long memory for lyrics had a great outing. We sang much of Abbey Road, part of Sgt. Pepper, then songs by Jimmy Cliff, The Doors and many more. Three passionate voices plus improvised guitar and electric piano made it all unforgettable. Tumblers of rum flavoured with fruit floated us along, and I loved losing track of time, just knowing it was getting amazingly late. In fact, by the time we started running out of steam, it was 2am. Oli and I picked up our rental bikes and cycled right across Paris, still buzzing. What a night, ooh what a night!

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