life on the edge in the hot new heart of paris

The soul may have been kicked out of the Left Bank, but the old Parisian buzz is alive and well - if you know where to look for it.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
those who knew the Left Bank in its heyday insist that, although certain elements of the story may have been embroidered by name-dropping waiters, the area really was once the nerve centre of French intellectual life. "It was quite usual to see Sartre sitting at a table in the student cafes on the Left Bank," recalls Veronica Lelaidier, who studied at the Sorbonne in the Fifties. "He didn't spend the whole time debating existentialism, though. On the contrary, I've heard that he rather enjoyed discussing women and food." But over the years, the Left Bank jazz dives and student bars have been razed to make way for rows of glamorous shopping boutiques. And, the final nail in the bohemian's coffin, Louis Vuitton has just opened a new branch there. Being and nothingness have been replaced by a new philosophy: shop till you drop.

Paris, it seems, has been swallowed up by its own hype as the capital of chic. If you're looking for night-life and creative energy these days, you have to move away from the city's beautiful but sterile centre to explore its seedy underbelly.

Perched high on a hilltop in the city's dilapidated East End are the neighbouring areas of Belleville and Menilmontant. Originally an outlying parish of farms and vineyards, they were not incorporated into Paris until the mid-19th century. With its cobbled streets and crumbling facades, Menilmontant still has something of a village feel but, as you make your way up the steep incline to Belleville, village gives way to souk.

Street vendors' cries rend the air as African grocers laden with cardboard boxes of plantains and sweet potatoes try to entice customers away from the Chinese supermarkets. Young Arab men play dice in the doorways of halal butchers, or shoot pool at the local bars while their girlfriends sip mint tea at the rickety tables outside.

It is in the heart of this vibrantly multicultural area that young, bohemian Parisians have set up home in artists' squats and makeshift studios. Forsaking the upmarket prices of previously trendy areas such as the Latin Quarter, Bastille and the Marais, painters, musicians and general slackers have found their niche on these slopes.

The 24-year-old mosaic artist Isabelle Le Poul, who has lived in the area for eight years, says the cheap accommodation in the neighbourhood began attracting students in the early Nineties but word has since spread that the quartier has more than affordable apartments to offer. "This place is totally unique in Paris," she declares excitedly, "there's a real buzz here. You get the sense that there's always something going on, a vernissage [art gallery] in one of the squats, a band playing in a local bar ... When I lived in other parts of Paris shops shut at 7pm, cafes pulled down the shutters at 10pm and life came to a grinding halt. What I love about this place is it's full on 24 hours a day. You get the sense of people letting down their hair and enjoying themselves.''

Her boyfriend, Thierry, a singer and musician, feels that the melting- pot of cultures is a crucial factor in the neighbourhood's appeal. "If you follow the rue Oberkampf as it winds up into the rue Menilmontant and up to Belleville you can sample the whole of the world's cuisine in one small area," he says, "You've got Greek restaurants, Thai restaurants, Brazilian restaurants, Chinese takeaways, Jewish delicatessens and traditional French food all bang next door to one another. It's a totally post-modern experience."

Journalist Helene Cuvellier, who moved into the neighbourhood last March, believes there is a spirit of openness and tolerance here that is rarely found elsewhere in Paris. "The French are generally so uptight," she laughs, "you don't speak to anyone unless they speak to you first. You can go into the same patisserie every day for a whole year before you get the slightest nod of recognition, whereas here everyone is shouting across the road at you to find out what you are up to. Maybe that's something we've learnt from mixing with other cultures in this area or maybe it's because the area is one of the last old-style neighbourhoods in the city.

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