Just Direct Your Feet to This Street

Inside of the Cafe Charbon
The inside of the Café Charbon is as unchanged as the outside.

Paris High Life Finds the Rue Oberkampf

Paris:- Wednesday, 9. July 1997:- Since the beginning of the year I have been sporadically searching for the location - the part of town - the obscure corner - where Paris' 'Flaming Youth' hangs out.

Along the way I have found out a couple of things. The first is, there is no single such place. Each month, my favorite pulp-magazine 'Nova' publishes on its inside back page, its 'playlists.' Hmm - 'Nova' is also a FM-radio station, so this is its program.

'Blot Job' lists his - hers - its? - 'Summer Dance' favorites, without giving an airtime; but you can catch Bintou Simporé spinning 'World' music on Wednesdays from 20:30 to 21:30. Then there's 'Hip-Hop,' 'Ragga,' 'Musiques Sans Genre,' 'Latino,' 'Wax Groove,' 'Openmind,' 'Lysergic Factory,' 'Sub Para Dub,' 'House,' 'Drum'n'Bass,' and 'Japanese Noodles.'

From this I deduce that there are just as many 'in' places in Paris and all of them are mostly unrelated to each other; except that their fans are what used to be called, 'Generation-X.' Well, there are several magazines devoted to this sort of thing and there's only one of me to follow them all - so I turned to Télérama's Summer 'Hors-Series,' a guide for fuddy-duddies.

This magazine's dances are the 'Salsa,' 'Tango,' 'Baluche' - or Bal Populaire - and 'Sevillanas,' and they are talking about the balls which seem to be getting more and more popular in Paris as TV becomes more and more boring. Since Turkish restaurant Topkapi I am not sure if this isn't a form of 'do-it-yourself' Ballroom Dancing that one sees on TV sometimes; I am not sure whether you go to watch it or go to do it.

The street may be 'in,' but it's pretty ordinary too.

Looking though this edition of Télérama I see stories that I've covered for this magazine, and some that I've yet to do. In their 'Paris Villages' section, the first article is about the Rue Oberkampf, which they say is the "rue qui monte, qui monte..."

Yesterday, the magazine goes on, Montmartre, Montparnasse or the Butte-aux-Cailles had their 'heure de gloire,' and now it is Oberkampf's turn. This doesn't mean earlier 'in' villages have become forgotten - Abbesses, les Halles or the Marais - it means that the 'pathfinders' have reached Oberkampf. Next week, they may reach... Who knows? Chinatown?

I put my feet on Oberkampf at the exit of the métro Ménilmontant, on the border between Paris' 11th and 20th arrondissements. This is the top end and it is downhill from here to métro Filles-de-Calvaire. Télérama can 'monte' if it wants, I prefer to descend.

The slope of the road was leveled off a bit in 1782. According to my usual source, the only event worth noting about this street happened on Thursday, 24. October 1776.

After dinner that day, Jean-Jacques Rousseau took a stroll along the boulevards to the Chemin-Vert, which he climbed to the heights of Ménilmontant. From there he followed a path through the vineyards to Charonne. On returning, he took one of the downhill roads and at the place called Haute-Borne, opposite the cabaret 'Au Galant Jardinier' he was knocked over by a 'danish' dog, owned by Louis Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau.

The encounter knocked him out cold for an hour, and when he came to he had difficulty remembering his name or where he lived. Afterwards, he dined out on his version of the story.

After being Ménilmontant, the road became Oberkampf in 1864: named after the manufacturer, Guillaume Oberkampf. This is all my usual source has to say about it - a live source told me the area had once been a centre of all sorts of metal-working, metal-dealers, nuts-and-bolts suppliers, and scrap handlers.

Coming down the street I see that there are many entrances into alley-like courtyards, still crammed with shops and ateliers. I go in a couple of them and see that some architects are installed, some software shops, some advertising - but even artist's ateliers and through a dim window I see sculptures in metal. The courtyards have their original paving stones. There are also 'for rent' signs.

It seems to me that the 'in' part of Oberkampf is the 200 metres before the crossing of the rue Saint-Maur. Before this and after, it is a working-class street like many in Paris, with its 'crossroads-of-earth' people and shops; half obviously French and the other half from the east all the way from China, and from as far south as the equator.

This tiny area, once called 'Haute-Borne,' starts with the bar-café Le Estaminet, and it is longer along the side in the Impasse Gaudelet so it is not as small as it looks from the front. On the same side, across this impasse, is the Cithéa, with specializes in 'Dance Floor Jazz.' It features both live music and DJ-types, and has music cocktails such as 'salsa-rock.'

La Favela Chic bar is on the other side of the street. I asked for a glass of water here and got one with ice and a lime wedge. The funny look I got with it was not because I asked for water but because they gave it to me in a glass - normally they sell it in bottles, but they'd run out. That's why the barman 'guessed' it was ten francs.

This is sort of a test. If I can get a glass of water, then the place is okay. The Favela doesn't bother to look 'Chic' and if it wasn't the bar Favela Chic for the barman's quick decision to give me a water without making a big issue out of it - "We're out of it. You want water; you go someplace else," would not have been unusual.

On the terrace of the Favela Chic is not far from being in the gutter.

I'd class the Favela as a good 'ratlands' bar; the 'Chic' part just being sort of an 'in' joke. Maybe it means Rum-a-Go-Go?

Between these places there are the little boutiques selling electronic parts and odds-and-ends and one I can't figure out next to a Turkish sandwich joint, is the Mercerie, which I later learn is sort of an annex of the Café Charbon.

I am really happy about the Café Charbon. I saw it years ago and it is still here; and how can you beat a place called Carbon Cafe? The name goes with the district as it was; not as it wants to become for its brief season of fortune.

Oh, it has changed ownership and management, but that is about all. There are more different beers than before, but the zinc bar is unchanged. The staff is young - and cheeky - but the old fellow I sit next to has been a client here for 50 years. Not many 'in' places can keep clients like this.

He tells me there is another good place around the corner in Saint-Maur, but I think I missed it. Instead I inspect the 'Blue Billiard.' 'Blue' because that's what they play on the sound system, and maybe some 'rock,' but no blue-rock-funky-rap.

'Blue' also because that is the color of the billiard table tops; seven 'French' tables, two 'American' tables and two 'pools anglaises.' They have a lunch deal of cocktail, salad, café and two hours of play for 50 francs. Otherwise, they are open from 7:30 to two in the morning.

I check the other side of Saint-Maur, then head further on down Oberkampf. Since it is all still half French it can not be called 'ethnic' but the boucherie Etoile since the other half is only French by residence, I call it interesting. Too bad it is not the 'in' part, and it is another street I put on the list of ones to come back to.

Although this butcher shop is in the 'in' part of Oberkampf, there are many more like it further on down the hill.

I've only mentioned a couple of places out of more than a dozen. If you happen to come out this way, you can check out the others yourself. If you take your time getting here, they may be 'out' but it doesn't matter. I think the Café Charbon will outlast its fleeting fame and settle back to being what it's been for the last hundred years or so - a local bar.

On top of everything else, I found an 'in' place of my own. Read about in this issue's Café Metropole column.


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