Seine Summer Nights

Working for the New York Times's former Paris bureau chief has its perks: recently, she tasked us with scouting out and reporting on nightlife along the Seine. 

The firehouse red of Batofar contrasts with the light drizzle and the grey sky. There is a giant spotlight positioned in a pointed tower that protrudes upward from the boat. The onomatopoeic wordplay between English and French gives it away--the tower is a phare, a signal light. The boat was originally Dutch, the manager, Ronan Rondelu, tells me later, built to be a mobile lighthouse, able to anchor in places that were too inhospitable to building permanent lighthouses.

Eighteen years ago, when Batofar made the journey up the Seine to Paris, it sparked the electro and techno music scene in the city. Acquired by the association La Forge, which had created an artists workshop in Belleville, the boat-turned-venue began hosting some of the biggest electro acts, like David Guetta.

The DJ tonight is the Deep Kulture Radio Show, an online radio collective promising music with “soul” and “love.”

While they set up, Maelys and I play each other in a game of foosball.  I look around, trying to gage the crowd that’s there on the boat. The deck is relatively quiet--a family at a table looking at the water. It’s not dark enough yet for the river to reflect the city’s lights. I do a double take when I see them, to reassure myself that a girl who looks like she’s twelve isn’t drinking a mojito, and then take another sip of mine. Near the stern of the boat, three guys, one in a Georgia Tech t-shirt, lean against the railing, smoking.

Either I’ve gotten pretty bad at foosball since college, or Maelys is really good, because she nearly shuts me out, 10-2. It’s only 7:30, and there’s no way Batofar will get interesting much before midnight, so we leave, and head to the Jardin Tino Rossi, and its evening dancers.

As we move down the quai, I spot a group of people sitting--piqueniquer and picoler. The latter word is slang for drinking, in French. A young man who seems to be in his late twenties or early thirties pulls out a flask from his jacket pocket, and then says something--in English--to the friend next to him. “Hey man, nice flask,” I call out as we pass. He waves me over.

“Thanks,” he says, and holds out the flask. “It’s rhum--really good rhum, you want some?”

I politely decline, but start chatting anyway.

“We actually all just met each other tonight,” Olin--the guy with the flask’s name is Olin Taft, from Spokane, Washington--says. he motions towards a young woman to his left, “She was hungry, and her boyfriend came and chivalrously traded a bottle of champagne for a plate of food.”

The boyfriend is Mexican, and tells me that he works at Costes, an upscale hotel and restaurant in Paris. His girlfriend introduces herself as Karima (Karima Taibbi - 0652545592), but he won’t give me his name, he says, because of what he is about to reveal about Costes.

At the restaurant, they purposely separate the beautiful people and the ugly people, he tells us. The attractive and the famous get seated in the front, by the windows, while the unattractive are relegated to another room in the back.

“So what if you came in a group, and some were gorgeous, and the others were pretty not great looking?” I ask. He laughs--that would be the experiment, he says. would they split the group up? Put everyone in the back? Maybe split the difference, and seat the attractive ones closest to the windows…

*

When we get the Jardin Tino Rossi, the tango circle is the first that we pass. The garden has three mini amphitheaters built into the quai, which is where the dancing lessons happen. Tango looks intense to me, not the sort of dance you could just burst into at a party.

The third amphitheater pit--salsa--is far more crowded. About 40 people are sitting on the curved stairs looking down at maybe a dozen dancers. Closest to me are is attractive woman in a blue shirt and jeans (she would definitely get seated in the front room at Costes) dancing with a tall guy in thick black glasses and a New York t-shirt. The crowd is incredibly diverse; tailored, colorful African shirts mix together with Spanish and Spanish-accented French, Caribbean skin tones, and European students getting ready to begin their Erasmus year. The woman in blue switches dance partners, now swaying with an Arab guy wearing lots of green. I can smell the river, it smells green and musty.

Salsa on the quai started happening in 1986. Toure M’bemba wasn’t there from day one, but close to it. Originally enrolled in tapdancing lessons across the street, he made his way to the quai and joined what was originally rock dancing. From there, he was the first one to bring a gas generator for electricity, and the dancing exploded in popularity. So much so that by 2003, so many people were flooding Tino Rossi that the city had to find a summer alternative. Thus was born Paris Plage. After thirty years, Toure M’bemba still comes to the quai, but now as a tango instructor.

Backtracking from Tino Rossi, we make a pit-stop at l’Asile, a pop up “a la plancha” grill a few yards away from the Cite de la mode et du design, with its swirly green exterior, and which houses its own rooftop terrace bar, Nuba. 

We order small plates of grilled pork with chimi-churi, chicken satay, and whole roasted chilis (for once something in Paris is actually really spicy). The bartender is friendly and jokes. First she makes light fun of my accent, and then when she comes by our table with someone else’s food--order 22--and I say “la-bas”, pointing a few tables away, she replies cheekily, “merci pour la participation.” Order 22 goes to a four year old kid whose father helps him with the chicken satay. Salsa has turned into Motown.

From there, we take an Uber to La Javel. On the way the driver tells us funny stories about people he’s driven. For example, earlier that evening, the CEO of Trace Urbaine, a hip-hop record label, got into his car and had a phone conversation with his wife as the Uber chauffeured him to a hotel...to pick up another woman.

“That happens all the time,” the driver says. “You would be amazed how people get in a taxi and treat it like their home, like I’m not even here. They get in and all of a sudden it’s like I must be deaf, the personal stuff they talk about.” Sometimes he failed at keeping a straight face in front of them, he admitted, sometimes he just let it out and laughed.

*

La Javel is like one big, expansive, slightly-tipsy safe space. The atmosphere feels like a 2010’s version of what Paris must have been like in the 1920’s. Don’t tell Woody Allen. There are food trucks and bar stands clustered around tables, a dance floor, a miniature club (a real life pun in French, it’s literally a boite in a boite), with haphazardly strung multicolored lights dangling overhead. The place tingles with a complete DGAF vibe. There’s even a libre-service costume closet.

When we walk in, we run into a group of Sciences Po students (including a Japanese guy, temporarily decked out in a pink polka dotted dress plucked from the costume rack in exchange for a piece of ID). I exchange my own ID for a 70’s acid shirt and a puffy afro wig.

“Je veux faire tomber amoreux les gens, les uns aux autres,” the director, Francois Pecheux, tells us, once we have found him with the help of a bartender who takes my wig off and replaces it with a squid mask.”Le but ici, c’est d’être libre, ca se passe par le déguisement,” she says. “Beacoup du monde vient du travail, et les déguisements leurs aident à se détendre.” I ask her name, but she only replies, “moi je suis personne, je suis tout le monde !” and walks away.

Francois Pecheux is from Tours, where he got the idea for a “guinguette,” which loosely means a cluster of people eating and drinking by a body of water. “Every day is an adventure,” he says, and then launches into a story about how last year a woman grabbed a microphone, made everyone stand up, dance, grab hands, and then finally told everyone to ‘s’embracer’.

“I couldn’t believe it actually happened,” he says, “I thought, no way, but everybody started kissing the people next to them, it was magnificent.”

“Ce qu’on vend ici, ce n’est pas de la bière, c’est la possibilité de tomber amoreux,” he continues, “et il faut de l’eau, il faut que tu te poses ton regard sur l’eau. Il y a le memoire de l’eau, chaque goutte d’eau qui passe sous tes yeux, elle a deja fait peut-etre des mille milliards de fois le circuit mer--nuages--pluie, elle peut te raconter qui etaient tes ancêtres il y a 50,000 ans, l’eau qui passe là a deja ça en elle. Je me demande si ça pouvait marcher s’il n’y avait pas l’eau. Je ne pense pas.”

None of us falls in love that night, but from La Javel we pedal on, velibs against the current of the wind, borne back ceaselessly to the Pont Alexandre III, and the expensive, chic nightclub Faust that inhabits the underside of the bridge, Rive Gauche.

*

The inside of Faust looks oddly bare, given the 18 euro cover charge that we paid to get in. We follow the manager, Alex Gangi, a bald Corsican whose soft-voice seems a total mismatch for his enormous weightlifter arms, past a stage blasting endlessly repetitive Euro house, yet again the modern, electro version of the song that never ends. He points around at the walls--it’s all the effect of the flooding that happened in early summer. The water was almost up to the ceiling. Everything inside was trashed, just trashed. Except Hemingway’s bar--the bar that Hemingway drank and wrote at, which he acquired for Faust at an undisclosed price--millions of euros, but how many, we won’t get to know. Silently, to myself I wonder if Hemingway would have approved. I have no idea, another question I only get to wonder about.

But what’s more surprising is his insistence on telling us about his philosophy of openness. About how he won’t have his bouncers turn away “Arabs just because they’re Arab,” about wanting to achieve ‘mixité’ inside the nightclub. Mixite at almost 20 euro cover charge? I wonder to myself, silently again, but he seems genuine. He traces it back to his travels, which opened his mind. The biggest troublemakers we have here, he is telling us, are the twenty year old daughters of this minister or that politician. And when they pull that line, I pull out a phone and say, ok, you call him. Do you want to call him?

He leads us out to the Hemingway Bar, which is in a part of the club that’s closed off, so it’s just us and the echoes of Hemingway. He claims it as the real one; so does the Ritz. I have no idea who is right, but the bar, complete with a wrought iron staircase leading to the upper upper shelf, seems heavy in more ways than one. And then we walk out into the night, back up the Pont Alexandre III, whose gold statues sit there, as dark now as the dome above Invalides.