I don’t think I remember the first time I went to the banks of the Seine at night. It must’ve been during winter. I’m almost sure that they were very empty: I’m certain me and my friends decided to drunkenly leave the workshops at the École des Beaux Arts, defy the cold and throw a summer-style party on the Pont-des-Arts. For a reason I have now come to understand, Parisians seem to have a need to be near some form of waterway, be it the Seine or one of the canals at least once a week. Even though the majority of us can’t wake up, look at the horizontal-striped shirt in our closet and think: “It’s a good day to hop on my boat and head to Le Havre”; flowing water makes us feel like we’re not landlocked even though we tragically are. Ever since anyone can remember and especially before the advent of crazy-named budget airlines (seriously, fly4u.com, is that your real name?) Paris was connected to the outside through its rivers. However! Don’t go growing a mustache of a soft, slightly creepy thiness, and heading to buy a cheap bottle of wine just yet!
First take the time to get aquainted with the nooks of the dividing line between rives and its offshoots.
The most obviously popular spot, (especially with tourists) is the stretch of left bank that goes from Pont-des-Arts, past Pont-Neuf and into the Pont-St-Michel/Notre Dame area. Come here only if you meet the following criteria: a) you actually liked watching L’Auberge Espagnol; b) you wore sandals with socks this week; c) you own a guitar and can play the most awesome Bob Marley/The Doors/John Lennon medley (actually, just the intro to “Imagine”, but it slowly turns into “Wonderwall so it’s ok right?); d) you hang out in the 6th the entire day.
This area at night is the place where backpackers, dodgy beer salesmen, and the smell of under-the-bridge pee intertwine. If you’re drunk enough to not mind, then it’s actually a nice view. The Palais Royale, Académie Française, Notre Dame and Palais de Justice are your neighbours. You can also talk about how you’ve never watched Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and subsequently plan on watching it the following Wednesday. You never will. (If this part of Paris were a person, he would have stayed at a five story party hostel in Budapest five days ago and would not stop talking about last weekend. If it were a dish it would be a five euro kebab-panini filled with fries and a few slivers of mystery 100% Halal meat.)
If you head down further East (I assume you’re walking east because no one lives past the Gare d’Austerlitz) along the Seine; you will reach the Pont-de-Sully area. In front of the Institut du Monde Arabe, there is a park. As you talk about how you missed the Zaha Hadid exhibit you will find a small entrance, don’t let it misguide you, it actually leads to a very large space filled with joyous French people asking around for tire bouchons. As you may or may not know, this is how you make friends on the banks. Even if you have one, ask for a corkscrew and strike up a conversation. You will meet some interesting characters here, mostly, for some reason, people from Bordeaux and Normandie. This is a great spot to practice your French, as the lack of Parisians leads to a friendly convivial atmosphere. (If this bank were a type of person it would be a student at the École des Arts et Métiers from Caen. If it were a dish it would be rilletes on a Monoprix traditionelle.) Quai St-Bernard is the perfect place to get started with your waterway nightlife course. I know you’re fiending for the real stuff, the place where Parisians who’ve been to London hang out. So where do these young and hip city dwellers go when their veins call out for the oxygen supplied by the air of industrial waterways? The Canals.
Let’s start off with the closest one, an unnamed yacht parking space between Quai de la Rapée and Bastille. This is the place to come for young professionals. It’s especially bumpin’ before sunset and after people get off of work. People here come for a little détente with their work buddies. Notice how they check their phone and will not sit too close to the water. That’s the type of person you’ll find here. Men in suits and women that are forced to dress like Angela Merkel because of corporation protocol. This is not the spot to socialize but it does make for a great pre-drink spot before heading off to rue de la Roquette. (I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to mention what type of person this place would be but it definitely tastes like defrosted Magret de Canard with a side of potatoes.)
If you want to live the nightlife of deep Paris, you need to head for the Canal St-Martin. This very much gentrified area is the it spot for bobos, (Sébastien Tellier and Quentin Dupieux included) who, after messing their hair in front of a mirror and putting on that lovely V-neck and blazer combination, leave their natural Marais/République habitat on that really cool bike you’ve always wanted and have a smoke next to Chez Prune. There’s a plethora of little bars up and down the Canal but if you really want to be in the loop you have to find out what days Comptoir Génerale is open and sneak some bottles of 1660 in your friend’s purse into it. This hotel turned community center/bar and restaurant is normally closed at nights so when they announce that they are open on their facebook page, the place is packed. Be prepared to wait 10-15 mins before going in and don’t dare look anyone in the eye for too long while you talk to them. You’ll seem too eager and eager is definitely so 90’s in a non ironic-way. (If this were a person it would be a 23 year old who runs a blog and is secretly a commerce student. If it were a dish it would be chicken with rice curry eaten with a disposable bamboo fork. Exotic but not scary, like those real African restaurants.)
Head to the Bassin de la Villette and the Canal de l’Ourcq but only after having graduated from the Canal St-Martin scene. To do this you will need to have done the following things: a) watched the bridges open and close to let a rickety boat through; b) learnt how to open a bottle of wine using a shoe and a tree; c) gone to Comptoir Génerale for a special themed soirée; d) seen someone play at Point-Ephèmere. Once this is done with, pack your pétanque balls and roll up your trouser legs above the ankle but below the knee.
Barourcq on rue Euryale Dehaynin is, quite frankly, where it’s at. You can get your drinks served in very neat plastic cups that you may take outside and either keep (but don’t do this), or give back. People on the sides of the Bassin are there to play on the slightly sandy banks. Since it is uncommon for non-Parisians to make it all the way up here (the area all around the canal is scary), people will generally applaud your integration efforts and let you join them in conversation, pétanque or this weird game played with wooden sticks. You will never understand how the latter works and no one will ever be able to explain it without sounding like they’re trying to coach you in the assemblage of an IKEA rocking chair. That being said, remember to always walk up from Jaurès and never west from Laumière. It makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Don’t go around making Facebook rendez-vous for this spot though. It’s still got about a year and a half before the first wave of Australians starts to show its ocean of bleached hair and decibels. (If this place were a person it would be that one cool unpretentious friend you have. You know, the one you are secretly jealous of. The one whose habits you study because you secretly have a man-crush on him. Also the one who will invite you for coffee because quite frankly it’s too expensive for you not to make it yourself which suits him because he isn’t into the café scene anyway. It this place were a dish it would be a really good toasted sandwich. The kind with roquette and a drizzle of olive oil and a teaspoon scale side of mashed potatoes.)
After a couple of days in the city you will also feel the need to replenish your amount of water-sighting. There’s a thousand ways to do it but as a rule, places with loud music and strong smells (unless they come from stagnant water, then it’s ok) are not to be frequented. Bars tend to be expensive so remember to hit up the supermarket before leaving and don’t be afraid to sit on the floor. You will soon feel very much the way anyone who wears an unbuttoned suit-vest does. Calm, in control, and discreetly amused.