Welcome to the fifth instalment of our There’s Only One Paris participatory short story series! This week takes us to the eclectic neighbourhood of Belleville via a tale of dating in the post Covid-19 world. Learn more about these participatory stories here and read the first story, revolving around the Eiffel Tower at this link, the second story taking place at Musée d’Orsay here, the third story at the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne here and the fourth story on Notre-Dame here.
The venue of Belleville and Aux Folies was suggested by Evelyne Rose. The main characters were inspired by the lovely Kimberley Ash, who’d first introduced me to this fun bar. An additional special mention goes to Jeremy Wolf … with whom I last went to this bar, an evening which inspired a snippet of the story!
Our next story is going to involve a little magic… in Montmartre! Plus it is partially based on true events shared by a reader! Head over to our Facebook Page to contribute your thoughts on our posts about Montmartre throughout the week: www.facebook.com/JeTAimeMeNeither
Aux Folies de Belleville
Or… the new age of dating…
That must be her, he concluded, peeking over the heads of the crowded terrace and in through the bar’s vast front window. Come on, Pierre. You can do this!
Despite his pep talk, Pierre took a few steps backwards, in order to escape her potential field of view. He fumbled through his pockets in search of his puffer. Once retrieved, he brought it shakily to his lips, tilted his head back and inhaled deeply. His face glowed a bright red from the large neon letters advertising the bar’s name: Aux Folies.
She’s even prettier in person, he affirmed, leaning over to the right just enough so he could catch another glimpse of Kim. She’s never going to like me…
There was really no need for Pierre’s nervousness. He felt he resembled his photos closely enough. Okay, some of them might have been a few years old and he had put on a little weight since the beginning of the year, but hadn’t everyone?
He’d ‘met’ Kim on a dating app back in early March. They’d hit it off right away through their initial chatting and had made a date to meet up. But then, the lockdown was announced, putting their first date on hold, and on hold again and again with every extension of the quarantine. Even when it was finally lifted, due to his asthma, Pierre took extra precautions by extending his own self confinement. Then summer holidays arrived. They both went away at different times and all the sudden it was September.
Although six months had passed, not a day hadn’t gone by without some form of communication between the two of them. Over 180 days, 250,000 minutes… 15 million seconds… and now the moment had come! They were only separated by a pane of glass… and Pierre’s towering wall of fear. Couldn’t he just muster up enough courage to step inside that bar?
He glanced anxiously up the Rue de Belleville, the district’s main street and apparently where Edith Piaf was born, at number 72, a myth she enjoyed propagating. Legends aside, the working class area hadn’t changed all that much since the famous songstress had got her start singing in the hilly streets of northeastern Paris.
Pierre’s gaze was temporarily locked on the sloping street, buzzing with people going home from work or going out for their evening plans. Among the throngs, a face pulled him out of his hypnotic state. Yikes! Was that Rose? The last person Pierre wanted to run into was his gossipy colleague or else the whole office would know about his date before he could even put his 50 centimes into the coffee machine on Monday morning. The mortifying thought was enough motivation for Pierre to hightail it inside Aux Folies, on the double.
“Salut, Kim?” he asked, breathlessly standing next to the table she was sitting at.
“Pierre, bon soir! Enchantée! So nice to meet you!” she said, enthusiastically hopping up to greet him. The force of her movement, and the weight of her jacket and purse, propelled her chair backwards, tumbling in a gigantic clatter across the bar’s classic tiled floor.
“Oh la la! I’m so clumsy!” She declared, turning a brighter shade of red than Pierre had just been under the fluorescent sign of Aux Folies. Pierre gentlemanly crouched down to pick up her chair and held it out for her to sit down. At the same time, Kim leant towards Pierre to give him la bise, the French cheek kiss, the whole reason for her jumping up in the first place. He immediately recoiled.
“Oh right, we’re not supposed to be bise-ing right now,” she said, realizing why Pierre was being so standoffish. What an idiot! thought Kim. First, I arrive ‘early,’ then I go and do a huge social faux pas! Deep breath.
“No worries, all of this is taking some getting used to,” he said, sitting down opposite the lovely blonde.
“Did you find the place alright?” she asked, in an attempt to diffuse her embarrassment.
“Oh yes, no problem,” he said. “But it’s true, I don’t cross the Seine much, except when it’s for a good cause.”
“I’m honored,” Kim said, her cheeks flushing once again. “I hope I can tempt you over to the Right Bank more often. I’ve been getting to know my new neighborhood and there are plenty of cool places around here that I’d love to show you… street art, hip hangouts, art studios, that sort of thing.”
“Um… great,” Pierre replied, not entirely mirroring her eagerness. He hadn’t exactly jumped for joy when he’d read Kim’s extatic message announcing that she’d finally found a new place… in Belleville. He’d grown up and still lived in the 15th arrondissement. It was where his parent’s crêperie was, one which had been in the family for three generations. Indeed, it and they were exemplary of this very family oriented, tranquil and tidy district. It was the polar opposite to Belleville and not just geographically speaking. Artsy, cosmopolitan and admittedly, on the somewhat grungy side, Belleville had been slowly gentrifying, nevertheless, it still retained its edgy vibe. Pierre was willing to travel across the city, to put his preconceived notions aside, for a good cause: Kim.
“Qu’est ce que je vous sers?” asked the waiter, newly arrived at their table.
“What would you like, Kim?” Pierre asked even though he knew her French was next to perfect.
“I’ll have a glass of rosé, since the weather is so nice.”
“Good idea. Let’s revive the summer apéro we weren’t able to have. Allez. Deux verres de rosé s’il vous plaît.” The waiter slinked off to fetch their order, leaving the tender-hearted duo alone.
“Wow, it’s hard to believe you’re really here,” said Kim. “In the flesh and blood.”
“Yes, after all this time! Where to start…”
In fact, they’d already covered so much via their messaging. She knew that as a kid he’d hated spending his summer holidays at his great aunt’s home in Brittany, but that now he went every chance he could. He knew she’d grown up near Bath, yet had never been inside the city’s famous baths. She knew that he didn’t like camembert (sacrilege!). He knew she didn’t like marmite (understandable). Sometimes they would chat for hours, other times they simply exchanged a cute emoji or goofy meme. It didn’t matter what the message was about, this daily contact had helped get them through those trying times. Now, meeting face to face after all these months, they were tongue-tied.
“Umm, so how was your day?” Kim asked, taking the plunge into their murky conversational waters.
“Fine, it’s a little strange being back at the office, but it’s nice to see my colleagues, or at least some of them.”
“Agreed, maybe even the difficult ones aren’t as bad as we previously thought!”
“Yes, perhaps,” he said, not entirely convinced seeing gossipy Rose was a good thing inside and especially outside the office.
“Et voilà!” announced the waiter as he placed two frosty glasses on their table before floating off to deliver the remaining contents of his tray to nearby tables.
“Santé!” cheered Pierre, raising his glass.
“Yes santé! To our health!” echoed Kim, clinking her glass lightly against Pierre’s. They each took a sip of their rosé. Perhaps the cool liquid would activate their vocal cords? As they set their glasses back on the table, their hands brushed ever so slightly. Pierre uncontrollable went to reach out for Kim’s long elegant fingers which he so longed to touch.
“Cacahuètes?” Pierre rapidly retracted his hand, as if he’d been caught with his fingers in his great aunt’s candy dish. He looked up to find an elderly African man. On his head was a knit kufi cap and in his hands was a squat topless cardboard box, like an old fashioned cigarette tray, loaded with home prepared plastic baggies of unshelled peanuts.
“Actually, I came straight here from work and I’m famished,” said Kim. “C’est combien?” How much?”
“Un euro,” replied the entrepreneurial retiree.
Kim rummaged through her purse and exchanged a one-euro coin for a packet of peanuts. Content with his sale, the man shuffled off to tout his home spun wares to the next table.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Kim, as she tore into the bag. “Do you like peanuts?”
“They’re… alright,” Pierre said trepidatiously.
“Here, I unshelled some for you,” she sweetly offered in her outstretched hand. Pierre stared at her irresistibly fingers… now filled with potential lethal contents. He wasn’t so sure he should eat her generous token, but he didn’t want to seem impolite.
“Don’t worry, I washed my hands as soon as I arrived,” Kim added, mistaking his concern for hygiene rather than the substance she was offering. Come on, Pierre. Don’t be, well, nuts. You’ll be fine!
Admittedly, he wasn’t officially allergic to peanuts, but he hadn’t tempted fate since he was a kid. And these last months he played things all too safely in every aspect of his life. He was surprised Kim had waited around. She might not for much longer, especially if he carried on with this behavior. He caved. He accepted her kind gesture and popped a peanut in his mouth.
“So how was your trip back home?” he asked, taking a sip of rosé to wash down the bits of nut.
“It was really nice to see my family after so long,” she said. “England isn’t that far, but with the travel ban, then the reduced number of trains, it was complicated.”
“I can imagine,” he replied nervously, munching away on the remaining peanuts.
“Did you have a nice holiday?”
“Well, it rained a lot and we were stuck inside for days, the last place we wanted to be, but it was still great to be back in Brittany,” he answered before taking a big chug of wine. Is it just me or is it getting hot in there? Pierre thought.
“Umm, Pierre, are you alright?” asked Kim, brow furrowed with concern.
“I’m not so sure…”
“Your face is all splotchy,” she commented, in the nicest way possible. “And I think you’re sweating.”
“Maybe it’s from the peanuts, I have allergies, or rather intolerances,” he confessed, picking up the menu to fan his face.
“Do you need to go to the hospital? Shall I call an ambulance?”
“No, no!” he managed to spit out despite his tightening throat. “I think… I…. just…. need…. some air.”
“Of course!” she agreed, pulling a 10-euro bill out of her wallet, much more than was needed to cover the cost of two drinks in this unpretentious bar. She placed it under her half-finished glass of rosé and jumped out of her seat, which fortunately didn’t go crashing down this time and draw attention to their hasty departure. “Come on, let’s go.”
Exiting the bar via its side door, they found themselves in a long, dimly lit alley. Pierre took some deep breaths. Then he remembered his puffer, his saviour.
How could I have screwed this up so royally! thought Kim frantically. I’ve been dying to meet Pierre and then I go and almost kill him! I’m a total disaster! Maybe it’s too soon to date again. Forget more self-isolation, I should head straight to a convent and lock myself up forever!
Just as Pierre’s breathing seemed to be returning to a normal rhythm, an enormous cloud of cigarette smoke wafted into the alleyway from the bar’s terrace.
“Come on, let’s move down the street,” suggested Kim, pulling at his sleeve. The terrace was packed, evidence that some things had finally returned to normal, or at least for these seemingly footloose and fancy-free Friday night revellers. Soon, Kim and Pierre were out of harm’s way, and all alone midway down the dark lane.
“Whew! You seem to be doing better, Pierre.”
“Yes, thank you, I really did just need some air.”
“You had me worried. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to give you mouth to mouth,” Kim added flirtatiously.
“I wouldn’t have objected to that,” he replied with a sly grin, finally letting down his guard. She still had his sleeve, which he used as leverage to move in closer to her. The motion caused Kim to fall gently back against the building they were standing next to.
“Being here, with you, is magic,” Pierre whispered. He leant in even closer and put his hand up against the wall to support himself. Uh oh… that doesn’t feel right, thought Pierre. Was the wall… wet?
“Doesn’t it smell a little funny right here?” asked Kim. “Hey wait, I’m stuck!”
Pierre stepped back, removing his hand from the wall. He held it up to the lamplight to find his palm smudged in a rainbow of pink, green, yellow and purple. Fresh paint.
“Oh my god, that’s right!” Kim exclaimed, peeling her hair from the wall. “This road is chalked full of street art. I think we may have just added our own touch to a freshly made work of art.”
Sure enough, as he looked closer, Pierre could now make out the colorful walls, thick with paint and graffiti tags. Behind Kim was the image of a couple, locked in an intense embrace underneath the caption: ‘l’Amour Peut Tout Vaincre.’ Love Conquers All. Pierre wasn’t so sure about that. Tonight’s attempts at love didn’t seem to be conquering anything but his feeble state of health and dismal level of confidence.
“I’d always thought about dying my hair, but blue wasn’t the color I’d had in mind!” chuckled Kim, taking the incident in stride. Her positive outlook was contagious and Pierre couldn’t help but laugh too, which rapidly spiralled into a fit of coughs. Kim shot him a renewed look of panic.
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” he said, regaining control of his breathing. “Laughter is the best medicine, right?”
“That’s true, but we still have to deal with this paint,” she said. “I think there’s a fountain nearby where we can get washed up.”
The quiet side streets of Belleville might otherwise have been the perfect setting for a romantic stroll hand in hand. The paint mishap had thwarted this, however, it didn’t stop them from gravitating close and closer together.
“Drat, the fountain is actually up a little further,” she said, once they’d reached the end of the lane. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, no, that’s fine,” Pierre said before realizing that the direction she was referring to… was up.
Do we really need to trek up the Belleville hill? Weren’t there other places down here where they could wash up at? Pierre grumbled in his head. Things are getting back on track. Don’t mess it up again with your respiratory problems and anxiety. Just let her do the talking as you climb this… flipping mountain… and you’ll be fine.
Lucky for Pierre, Kim’s nerves had loosened and she’d launched into a detailed description of her weekend plans so he didn’t have to say much. Besides trying to save his breath, literally speaking, he was lapping up her sparkling optimism. She was beaming, she always seemed to be beaming, looking on the bright side, forging ahead into the unknown. This energy was exactly what he needed right now, tonight and in life. But could he relinquish his fears and embrace it?
And just like that, before he knew it, they were virtually at the top of the hill, but Kim led him down a small street to the right, which was, much to Pierre’s and his lung’s pleasure, flat.
“Ah, there it is,” said Kim, pointing ahead. Sure enough, she’d located the promised water source. It was a Wallace Fountain, the lovely historic ones adorned in elegant ladies, another enchanting British transplant to Paris.
Pierre scrubbed his hands under the stream of water while Kim tried to de-punk her hair.
“Never mind, it should come out tomorrow when I wash my hair,” she said, another illustration of her idealistic outlook.
“You’re beautiful just the way you are,” Pierre dared. Although his hand was mostly clean, he was still nervous to reach out to her.
“You’re pretty cute yourself,” Kim returned bashfully. “Come over here, I have something I want to show you.” She added, tugging at his sleeve once again. Ahead of them was a little plaza, fringed by a few bar terraces on the one side and a large opening on the other.
“Close your eyes.” she ordered coyly.
“Alright.” Pierre wasn’t one for surprises, but he obeyed. He was learning to trust her, and trust his own instincts. Mind over matter. She guided him a dozen or so paces forward, then swung him 45 degrees to the right.
“Okay, open your eyes!” Ahead of him was a vast panorama of sparkling lights. The heights of the Parc de Belleville offered one of the most spectacular views of the city, a twinkling utopia as far as the eye could see with the Eiffel Tower rising high in the center as its queen, its goddess, its beckon. So close, yet so far away. But did Pierre need to look so far ahead, all he needed was right there, in that present moment.
“It’s a stunning sight,” he said, turning to Kim. “But you’re all the sparkle I need.”
He raised his tie-dyed hand to Kim’s cheek and leaned down to place a delicate kiss on her lips, the kiss he’d been yearning for for six months. Kim moved in closer, bridging the gap between them and eternity. Pierre went to run his hands through her hair, but only got so far. He was stuck. The paint. They giggled. Everything was going to be alright, one step, forward, at a time.
There’s Only One Paris Episodes
Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links:
Episode #1: A View on the Eiffel Tower
Episode #2: L’Age Mur at the Musée d’Orsay
Episode #3: In Search of Lost Time at the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne
Episode #4: Our Lady of Hope: Notre-Dame
Episode #6: The Magic of Montmartre
Episode #7: The Secrets of the Catacombs
Episode #8: Picnics & Surprises along the Seine
Interested in Exploring the Belleville area further? Discover our favorite places in the district in our romantic mini-guide to the 20th arrondissement here.