Getting heDonistic in Dudevalla

If Don had feared his salad days were over, then it was only to be his potato salad days. Meanwhile, his red pepper and meatball days were well and truly nigh.

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milf island
We were offshore from Uddevalla when the cucumbers began to take hold.

Cold, watery, and contained in cheap plastic to protect them from the elements, they were nearly the perfect allegory for our current predicament.

Us, stuck into our plastic kayaks with a tasteful skirt that was hard to get into; the cucumbers, stuck onto crisp breads by a bacon-cheese squirt that was also hard to get into.

The crisp breads themselves were hard to crack. And that’s were the analogy with our party ends, for we by comparison sat around whingeing about the shitty weather and headwind, which had seen us advance 1 kilometre in 75 minutes.

If that was a slow advance; it was in direct contrast to the one Don had made towards his 40th year. In 12 months he had left Paris, worked in San Francisco, quit San Francisco, returned to Australia, travelled through Queensland, visited South-east Asia, come back to Europe, and settled in London, while also working here and there around Belgium and making plenty of necessary visits to Paris. It was a year of so much change that Don was in need of a new coin purse just to hold it all.

We were 8 friends in 8 kayaks, who found themselves brought together after answering the same 8 thousand emails for the most he-donistic of weekends. And we had nothing to lose, except ourselves, our dignity, and Attilio, which we did with free abandon, despite 2 nautical maps and one of us working for TomTom.

For 3 days and 2 nights, of which 7 hours were actually spent in a boat, we poodled piddled paddled the inlets, channeling our energies, and breaking the waters.

At the end of each day’s hard ka-yakka, we would find a beautiful island and get camper than 8 tents.

And then the feasts would commence. If Don had feared his salad days were over, then it was only to be his potato salad days. Meanwhile, his red pepper and meatball days were well and truly nigh, as that was essentially all we found upon opening the 8 bags of dicks bags of Willy’s supermarket produce.

There was also wine, beers, wining about beers, and some Teacher’s whisky, which as its name suggests, came on strong once it was dark around the site and the responsible ones had retired to bed.

And when the alcohol ran dry, the promise of wetness came not from capsizing, but the equally impossible task of finding the local “café-bar-restaurant” in the archipelago. This was marked with a green dot on the map, which had it been to scale, would have been the size of a small sea-side industrial zone, of which there were plenty.

Alas, in the event, the only bar we found was of the Allah-Akbar variety; boat-crashing a summer camp where young ISIS recruits were having a truckload of fun, jumping from the pier to perfect their bombs. They smiled and waved; there was no doubt they were having a real Nice time.

Of course, unlike one of Richard’s anecdotes, the nice times couldn’t go on forever; and so it was on Monday, a little earlier than expected, a little closer than planned, we clambered into a troop carrier and returned to the relative comforts of flushing toilets, and female humans.

Don was reassured: he had passed his milestone without incident (passing 2 milestones would have been much to ask given the headwind).

And neither had we buried his youth: instead, it lay safely stored, behind a rock on an isolated island, and covered it with some twigs, waiting to be discovered anew.

It’s summertime (in Paris), and the swimming ain’t easy

Cambodia-s-first-abattoir-readying-the-starter-s-gun_strict_xxl
Owing to several shared linguistic roots, it’s not uncommon for some French words to sound like their English equivalents.

For example: ‘Boeuf’ for ‘beef’, ‘week end’ for ‘weekend’, etc.

The French word for swimming pool is slightly different in that it smells like the English equivalent. ‘Piscine’, for, well you get it…

Anyone in Paris who’s sought to cool off on the rare stifling day, will know the desperate feeling of looking for a public watering hole with a higher level of hygiene than a Ganges tributary.

The upper reaches of the Canal St Martin comes the closest; even so almost no people swim there, and those that do, would never submerge their head.

So within the ever-tightening belt of Paris’s peripherique, you’re pretty much left with kicking your feet in the gutter they hose twice daily as a passive form of cleaning, or failing that, a public swimming pool.

And so, this July day, the swimming pool it was. By 1pm our spies at the better known pools let us know that the more appealing of the low-cost options were refusing more people until mid-afternoon: their usual human soup level of crowding having reached the level ‘minestrone’.

There was once the Molitor – where Tarzan once was a lifeguard – but since they re-added water to it (having been a derelict site for illicit raves for years), it had become quite expensive, aka 180 euros a session.

The closest option was now the best: and by best, we meant only.

The Piscine Pailleron in the 19th, near Buttes Chaumont park, is not only a pool, but also an ice rink and solarium, (and possibly not-so-secret testing ground for microbial warfare). And it can be hard to know whether you’re sitting in a very hot ice rink, or rather cool solarium.

We parked our bikes outside and headed towards the quaint red-brick façade.

The first sign of something amiss was the crowd, or lack thereof: that would be a reassuring sign on any day but a hot one like today.

The second sign was more obvious: a man with wet hair and flip-flops, swimming bag over his shoulder who rode past with the manic craze of escaping a zombie apocalypse and yelled to us: “That pool is really shit”. He disappeared into the bitumen haze, wobbling over the road as he went.

But it was hot, and we would not be deterred.

Up until a few years ago, when they famously blitzed the pool in the London Olympics, the French were not known for swimming. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the experience of going to the local pool: which is designed to be as complicated, embarrassing and unpleasant as possible.

It starts with the dress-code. Lycra underpants – known as a ‘moule-bite’ (stick to dick) – in the vernacular. Or worse, lycra swim shorts. And no exceptions.

Perhaps this is part of France’s famous commitment to solidarity, whereby if you can’t afford trendy swimming shorts in bright colours and a private beach where to wear them, then no-one need feel left-out. In any case, the pool’s chlorine levels would quickly bleach even the most garish attire to the colour of Australia’s Barrier Reef.

Secondly, swimming caps as well? France continues to live in awe of Bay Watch – Alerte Malibu – or how else would you explain this.

And if you don’t have one? Well, as long as you’ve got 4 euros you can buy one from the vending machine; next to the vending machine selling…freshly squeezed orange juice, because, why not? That machine was out of order, and probably best left so.

Now we had the attire, it was time to navigate the change rooms. The cattle muster arrangement of the reception area now gave way to the abattoir style layout of the changing rooms.

With every step through corridors of unisex cubicles, you remain no clearer where the pool is; yet your sense of doom grows with every unlocked door you push. I’m not saying the things I walked in on were comparable to an Indonesian Halal slaughterhouse, but some things cannot be unseen.

We make it to the pool. It’s only for kids. And adults who swim like kids. We head directly outside to the ‘solarium’. This turns out to be a patch of lawn in the shade, patrolled by a man wearing plastic bags over his shoes. At least someone was thinking of hygiene (or his shoes).

Even so we still last 1.5 hours. All told, it’s more pleasant than you expect sharing lawn in your speedos with 60 other randoms from all walks of life.

But eventually  hunger gets the better of us. The food onsite was predictably unappealing,but there was a local bar by the Canal St Martin not too far away, and if we were lucky, we might find a nice fresh steak, or perhaps even a minestrone.

Facebook, Twitter, and my other tech job interview fails

Traditionally there were only two ways to make money in France: come from a bourgeois family, or marry into one.

But in recent years, a third avenue has been opening up. Become a tech entrepreneur. France doesn’t exactly have the greatest incentives to start a business, being a monolithic socialist State run by a series of philanders for whom “Business Time” exclusively referred to what they did with whichever young actress in the bedroom. But as a major European city, it’s still a hub. From the late 2000s, app developers and various tech wunderkinds have started popping up like champignons.

I’m not sure when I decided that a tech firm was the best place for me, but having spent one week in New York with a bunch of ex-Googlers, the lifestyle was certainly one I could get used to.

And, with many of the big names boosting their profiles in France, there were certainly openings, especially for Anglophones.

PAYPAL: zero returns on interest

Paypal was the first job I applied for. The job itself involved writing the micro-text for their website and mobile apps. It wasn’t calling for a Wordsworth, but for someone who at least knew the precise value of words.

My knowledge of Paypal was limited to two experiences. I’d once commissioned a rap song over the Internet to be played at my childhood friend’s wedding. The payment was immediate, even if the couple was well on the road to a disappointing divorce by the time the song actually arrived (he did include an apology sung as a rap though, which was a nice touch).

Then another afternoon, I’d sat next to dad at our dining room table overlooking the treetops in Warrandyte as Paypal’s customer support patiently talked him through a problem he was having with one of his accounts.

Dad isn’t a natural with technology. As the CEO of a company, he once asked his secretary to replace his new-fangled telecoms device with such an older generation model, he literally had a dumb phone. To see him typing, using only two fingers mind you, and interspersing each paragraph with a loud “Oh fuck, where’s that fuckin’…”, was to be reassured that technology’s dominion over mankind was still a long way off.

Ergo, anyone who could patiently talk my dad through a tech problem was probably a sympathetic employer to work for. I sent off my application in the form of a Buzzfeed-type list: 5 reasons to pick me for the job.

The position description sounded itself like it was written by machine. Or perhaps a committee of tech-dictionaries. It was a UX job, with the applicant needing to work in a iterative workplace, with understanding of a something at this point I stopped understanding, but had enough to blague my way in.

The CV bait clicked: within a week I’d been called up to their offices, which they shared with eBay, opposite the Bourse in Paris’ chic and illustrious 2nd arrondissement. There was no foosball table, but at least they had a shiny coffee machine, and a fresh lick of paint, which was more than my home office could offer.

The interviews – for there were at least 3 – seemed to go well, if not for long. There was a video link with some guy in America, senior enough to be wearing a t-shirt. The second was with my would-be boss. He had studied psychology and writing: the exception who proves the rule that Arts degrees don’t get you nowhere.

With some subtle digging, I’d managed to find out that I was the only person to have made it this far. If I could just make it through the final interview, I would have a real chance of working at a bonafide hot tech company, albeit in a role that in reality bore me – like one of Paypal’s own products – close to zero interest.

Another hip young guy now took me into a small conference room and presented me with a challenge I should solve. He outlined some problem his teams had been working on; something about how to persuade people to buy from our site, and not a merchant’s site, using a text-based solution. It was the crux of the job I’d be doing, if successful of course.

“I can see why you’ve been having trouble with this,” I agreed with him. In this case however, a ‘problem shared’ was not a ‘problem halved’. And with every minute longer I stared at the blank butcher’s paper without offering any useful suggestions, it was clear that his problem was very much a problem for me too.

After 20 minutes I suggested I think it over back home and email him some suggestions. “When are you needing someone by?” I tempted.

“Well, we’re looking for the right candidate, so, as long as it takes…” Then adding ominously, “Anyway, we’ve struggled to find someone who fits our PD, so we’ll probably re-advertise it differently.

Within a week the job was indeed readvertised, albeit with exactly the same ad text.

It had been mine for the taking; and yet I’d come second to none.

BLA BLA CAR: blag, blag, oh crap

But there were plenty more opportunities. Bla Bla Car is a French success story, having recently been valued at 1.5 billion. It’s a ride-sharing app for long distances; effectively teaming up painful journeys with tedious company.

It’s the type of service that sounds good in theory but daunting in practice. Since people were using it because other means of cross-country transport were too expensive or poorly connected, I sensed a certain amount of teeth-gritting love for it among users: if you had to travel to from Paris to Rotterdam by tomorrow evening and only had 30 euros to your name, you didn’t really have much of an option.

I’d never used it myself, but two of my friends had, with mixed results. Andy indeed managed to get from Paris to Amsterdam, but it took him 8 hours longer than expected, included an unscheduled hour-long stop at a drug dealer’s apartment in suburban Brussels, and he finally asked to be dropped at Rotterdam once he twigged that the driver was high.

Liam meanwhile used it to get from Biarritz back to Paris. We’d been three of us renting a beach house through Air BnB, and Liam, who could afford money less than time, decided it was worth saving 40 extra dollars by car-sharing.

At about 9.30 in the evening, once I’d been home already for at least 4 hours, he’d made it as far as Bordeaux, and wasn’t hopeful of making Paris by daybreak.

I digress. Bla Bla Car was in full expansion mode following their successful funding round and were looking for a variety of roles, notably as a global head of social media.

A social media expert? I can do that, I thought. After-all, I had a Facebook account after all. Weeding out trolls and devising glib messages in an over-excited tone sounded like something I could easily do. A popular Halloween costume you could buy online that year was the “Social Media Expert Guy”, which came with “an alarming lack of qualifications”.

In hindsight, perhaps they were looking for someone a bit more serious after all. I was requested to prepare a presentation, a preview of how I might report social media statistics to an executive board.

Statistics have never been my strong suit; though I was keenly aware that I was statistically less likely to be hired for roles for which numeracy was key. However, I did not let this deter me: Bla Bla Car looked like the type of company I could enjoy working for: it was an international team, rapidly expanding, and had swanky offices opposite Google’s Paris HQ (which somewhat ironically, is intentionally hard to find).

The offices were newly refurbished and shared with various other upcoming French start-ups (or up-starts, as the French traditional business viewed them); a large glass covered atrium for the reception, which since it was raining, gave the impression of walking under a giant carwash.

The first sign for caution should have been the upbeat, motivational posters on the walls. Being led from the shiny lift doors as they opened through to the blond wood cafeteria area, I was instantly transported back to high school.

‘Beaten paths are for beaten men,’ went one poster in the Year 8 common room. It’s probably since been replaced with ‘Prison is for abuser teachers’, after the coordinator got hauled off years later.

“What do you know about the Bla Bla spirit?” my guide, and first-round interviewer asked me casually.

I looked to the walls for inspiration. “The member is the boss!” went one. This seemed a remarkable shift in attitude for France’s notoriously workplaces, which might have said “Remember, I’m the boss”.

Another one: “Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter” – obviously written by someone who’d never made the journey to Australia next to an incessant talker.

“It’s a very motivational, inspirational, kind of place,” I ventured. She smiled and opened a door to a small room, where were seated four women, all under 30. These would be my interview panel.

‘Women interviewers, my forte,’ I thought.

“Well, let’s see about your presentation, then.”

I had prepared 8 slides in total, comparing Bla Bla Car’s social media performance compared with what I perceived to be the rival transport companies, such as the French rail SNCF, and Uber. This choice of competitors caused some consternation however.

Apparently Uber, with it’s bullish disregard for regulation, was a company Bla Bla was keen not to be compared to. These were the nice guys on the market, remember? The ride-sharing app where you selected co-passengers as “Bla”, “Bla Bla”, or “Bla Bla Bla”, which denoted how talkative you were.

It was however, another aspect of my presentation that I should have been more worried about. My physical presentation. For not long after starting, I become acutely conscious of a rather large piece of snot that had dislodged itself from my nose, and was quivering in a nostril hair above my lip.

I should have left it there and hoped for the best, for when I surreptitiously wiped it with my forefinger, it fell on to the table, about 30 centimetres from where my lead interrogator was sitting.

Social media is all about reputation management and responding to crises. I didn’t respond to this one well – flicking it with my finger. Towards her handbag.

As I walked out I noticed another poster, stuck to the door of the lift, and so having escaped my attention on the way through: “Fail. Learn. Succeed.”

Well, I had the Fail part done.

FACEBOOK: face up to my actions book

If I made a cock-up of my visual presentation for Bla Bla Car, I made a cock-face of it in my interview for Facebook.

In an exciting development, the social media giant was expanding into the news content sphere and had put out a call for people with essentially my exact profile. It would be based in London, sure, but plenty of travel to Italy, France and Spain. In short, a great job.

I’d quickly applied, and perhaps helped by having met an insider on the stag party, had been selected for a series of interviews.

That Friday I excitedly told my friends the news during an intimate dinner party in the Marais.

There were 5 of us; my hosts were an French-Scottish couple. She worked in journalism and he was a rising star in advertising; they were imminently leaving to New York, where both their careers were about to take off, and we were having a last supper.

The other couple, from Norway, also worked in advertising, leaving me with the unsexiest, boring job to talk about. Lucky then, I could talk about my interesting new job around the corner, with pretty much the hottest company there was.

All that stood in my way was a series of interviews. The other diners guys had all succeeded in their various fields – what could I learn from them about leaving a positive first impression?

“Succeeding in these types of interviews is about luck, but also about having something different,” said the Scotsman, James, who the previous year had won industry-wide recognition for one of his ad campaigns for Microsoft.

These clever campaigns contorted large outdoor adverts into useful objects, such as bus shelters, and luggage ramps. In short, they were pretty, damned, cool.

“For example,” he continued, “I look like any other creative in advertising.” And with his thick-rimmed square glasses, loud shirts and permanently affixed 5-panel hat, I couldn’t argue with that.

“But two things recruiters always notice about my resume, are that I’m a certified football coach, and also that I started out studying modelling.”

I could see how the football thing might have been interest in his native Scotland.

But modelling? If there even was a university course for that, he probably could have afforded to take a few extra units.

“Like with plasticine, clay, and stuff,” he continued, before I could articulate my joke.

From an antique cupboard he then pulled out a lump of terracotta-coloured modelling clay. “This sort of stuff. In fact, I still dabble.”

“What type of stuff do you make?” we asked, incredulous at this hither-to unknown fact about our host.

“Well, I just play around these days,” he said, his fingers already expertly working the clay.
Into the shape of a dick. Which he then put on my forehead. “Here’s something for you.”

It was rather realistic, perhaps with good reason: a few months earlier James has seen my penis during an aborted orgy in his bedroom. The attempt had formally concluded at 3:30am, by which time the three men were naked, the girls fully clothed, and the neighbour complaining about the noise.

When the doorbell rang, I’d opened the door, naked except for a garish yellow rain-jacket I hastily slung over my body though left unbuttoned, to find not the elderly neighbour that I’d hoped to shock into going home, but three policemen. I agreed with them the rain jacket was a little loud.

Around the dinner table, the Norwegians had now joined in, literally getting their hands dirty as they fashioned a rival clay penis and vagina. These they also placed on their heads, wiping away some sweat with a paper napkin first to make them stick better.

There were now five of us, drunk off boutique gin and boutique tonics (a la mode that year), Bordeaux and merriment.

And then, perhaps against better judgment, the camera phones came out.

It’s always good to keep in mind that the Internet has a long memory. No matter if, when or how you delete something you later regret, there’s always a small chance that traces of it will live on, waiting to be found by the one person who shouldn’t ever know.

And so it was with Facebook the next day, when on second judgment, I decided to delete the album of photos I’d posted capturing the previous night’s hijinks.

In the subsequent weeks, as I waited notification of when my interviews would be, my contact on the inside eventually told me the post had been filled by a hot-shot American candidate, ex-CNN.

And while I’m almost sure the decision was based on that candidate’s merits, I’m pretty sure the interviewers also didn’t find in his deleted items folder an album of Facebook photos titled “Dickheads for dinner”, with the candidate revealing himself to be far from a model employee.

TWITTER: a needlessly short experience

As you’d expect from their raison d’etre, the rejection process with Twitter was a lot more brief.

I’d learnt about Twitter in my first year in France, when it famously spread news about a severe earthquake in China faster than many news outlets.

Now, having tried several formulas for success, none of which had the magic desired, they were making a bid for the news territory. They were launching a service in France, the US and Brazil, which would curate the most exciting tweets on a news-worthy subject for their audiences, in an easy-to-find place.

It was certainly true that finding news on Twitter, amid the hundreds of marketing and celebrity updates could be like finding a needle in a haystack: or to translate into Twitter terms, a survivor in a major Chinese earthquake.

They’d found me on LinkedIn (still the Number One social network for recruitment) and suggested I apply.

It was only by luck that I checked my email late Friday night to find one from the HR contact. I had until 7pm the next day, Saturday, to complete a news curation test and respond to some questions.

I’d technically not done curation before – or not in any meaningful sense. But was there not truth in that headline from the Australian satirical newspaper The Shovel: ‘Curating Same As ‘Choosing’, Wankers Told

How hard could it be to find 10 tweets on any given subject and put them into chronological order? Certainly no harder than had been updating my LinkedIn profile to add “Social Media Curator Expert”.

I’d gone to bed at 2am, was up by 11am, had eaten brunch by 12:30, and now had 4 hours to complete the task. I opened her email.

As I soon found, finding information of interest on Twitter can be a time-consuming task. My concentration focused once I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me. And yet, I completed the exercise by deadline, helped along by a 30 minute-break to share a pichet of wine at a local café once my brain was full to bursting of mindless celebrities and get-rich quick apps.

The response on Monday was rather more brief: just 1 minute 30 to say my test hadn’t exactly impressed, and to inquire if it was perhaps my first curation task.

It takes a few seconds to write an update of 140 characters, but finding updates worthy of repeating to a mass audience, updates that were telling, insightful, funny and original, that was the art to which ‘curation’ referred.

I’m paraphrasing for the Twitter generation, but the gist of the conversation was:

“If I was any type of artist in this curation field, I was only a bull-shit one.”

Carry on, it’s Le Carillon as usual

Le Carillon was the favourite dive bar of every hipster in the 10th, for the very reason that you’d never heard of it. And until the November 13 terror attacks it was making zero effort to change that.

Keep calm carillonIf the November 13 terror attacks hadn’t put the Carillon on the map, I’m pretty sure nothing would.

It was the favourite dive bar of every hipster in the 10th, for the very reason that you’d never heard of it. And it was making zero effort to change that.

The décor was comforting, not comfortable: chairs for primary school students, plastic lawn chairs with bendy backs that encourage slouching, and sofas that would have given even junkies pause for thought.

The beer was shit, the wine bad, and the mojitos made with the type of love that would probably land you jail time in Sweden…or at least an extended stay in an Ecuadorean embassy.

Situated on a four-way crossroad and opposite a hospital that looks like it played host to a series of grim abuse cases, the location was not the selling point. One block back from the canal, there wasn’t even water frontage – though now they’ve drained the canal, no bar does.

If you made it to the Carillon it was only because you were there with someone who knew about it; probably someone who was local, worked in media, was a jaded expat, and possibly all of the above.

As we now know, all that was to change on November 13. The bar and the Petit Cambodge opposite were the first nightspots hit after the Stade de France bombers; 14 people dead in the space of seconds. Patrons dived for cover, the owner’s nephew locking himself in the toilet (I’ve done this before in less sober circumstances, and requiring rescue).

The bar closed. A sign on the window thanked patrons for their support but gave no indication it would reopen any time soon, if at all. In addition to the candle and flower tributes, local residents rigged a canopy of coloured rag flags above the streets.

Pedestrians now walked past in slow-motion: the premises had assumed that morbid serenity you find in hospitals, funeral homes and the job-seekers queue.

They were participating in collective mourning; for the victims of course, but also the culture of the 10th. And inevitably for Instagram feeds too: “I went to the Carillon and (unlike ISIS) all I shot was this lousy photo”.

In early January the decorators arrived. The first signs of life since those 14 ended. “Opening around mid-January,” one of the bar staff I recognised told me.

It was good news: Paris had returned mostly to normal within a month of the attacks, but as a local, navigating around the floral tributes and seeing favourite bars shuttered was impeding the process of “getting back to the new normal”.

I missed the opening night, but made it there a few nights later, curious to see what might have changed. Did the renovations end with a new lick of paint, or would there be more structural, fundamental changes?

Would there be bouncers in bullet proof vests and ID checks? Would the windows now be made of bullet-proof glass?

I was heartened to notice nothing of the sort on arrival. Sitting down to a pint, more good news: the beer was just as shit as ever. Before too long I felt that memorable chemical taste you get with mass-produced European beers, the ones that give you hangovers like someone’s hoovered out your soul overnight.

I had a hunch the furniture might not have changed: and my hunch was not only correct, but indeed caused by the self-same chairs and their poorly designed back supports.

The neighbourhood cat was also still there; jumping from bar to table to heater and back, causing everyone to lurch for their drinks with un-cat-like reflexes.

So what had changed aside the paint and the necessary changing of bullet-riddled windows?

Perhaps I was wrong, but three things now stood out.

One was the prominent fire extinguisher mounted on the wall. The second, a laminated chart giving instructions what to do in a terror attack

And the third? Hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the room was now a rather prominent perspex sign…and on it, clear directions to the toilet.

The rabid hipster coffee mouth froth comp

What do latte-loving hipsters and rabid dogs have in common?

They both love a good froth at the mouth…which is what was celebrated Monday night at the annual Paris Frog Fight.

Today’s Paris baristas have so developed their skills, they can not only pour coffee, but draw a crowd doing so.

And those assembled here were – literally – the crème de la crème…

The premise was simple: two barristas face off per round, each having to free pour milk into a pretty design on the top of the coffee.

At one point, a barrista so energetically slammed the grinder that the tournament trophy fell onto the bench, shattering into several morsels. And it wasn’t the only thing going to pieces: the intensity of the competition quickly proving that while you can’t cry over spilt milk, crying over poured milk is entirely different.

Each round one out of two hipster barristas was eliminated. And while there could only be one winner there were plenty of draws – mainly of tulips, smiley faces and hearts/testicles (depending on which way you looked at the cup).

The losers meanwhile were confined to the crowd: Paris’ new renta-hipsters who frequent every new café/hotel/skateboard film-related event, and offer their support, mainly because support is always free to offer.

Parisian hipsters, having missed hipsterism’s first-wave of ironically fun clothing, content themselves to variations of the art school drop-out look, with black drop-crotch pants, and sack-like t-shirts, paired with winter’s ubiquitous saggy beanie.

Yet despite the public rarely being well turned out, the events themselves often turn out well, this one especially for the venue at newly opened Steel Cycle Wear and Coffee Shop.

Steel is but the latest cool cafe in the 11th, an arrondissement which, thanks to its unique blend of being up a hill, poorly served by public transport, and frequented by just enough dodgy people, remains just enough off track to be the place to be.

And while this event was frothy by Paris hipster standard, the competition was not all hot air. To decide the finalists, each had to sit on a bike and pedal while pouring the coffee into a pretty shape.

Fashion may come in cycles, but coffee in Paris is definitely the new short black.

Crazy neighbour crashes neighbourhood wine-tasting

Wine-tasting at the Cave in the 11th, a tiny locale sandwhiched between the Chateaubriand and the Dauphine, known for selling obscure international wines.

With wines from Sardinia, to Bulgaria, South Australia and everywhere in between, the Cave is the place to discover whether Josef Fritzl really does have Austria’s best-known cellar.

We were 8 in total, most of us locals to the area, who’d signed up for a casual wine-tasting with food pairing from the restaurant next door.

It was 8.30 in mid-October. It had been getting cold outside, and not many of the Parisian participants were warming to the challenge of small talk.

My friend William from Montreuil running late, I saw an opportunity to get conversations started.

Parisians tend to ridicule anything beyond the city limits, Montreuil obviously included. So I launched with an apologetic: “I only gave him two days’ notice, but you know Montreuil – he’s probably just getting bashed en route.”

This was said with added dryness given that poor William had indeed recently been bashed in Montreuil on the metro.

When he did arrive, 25 minutes later, it was to a small round of applause. He rubbed his nose where the scar is almost gone, and smiled. Ice broken.

A tasty Prosecco from the hills of Northern Italy got the night going after that, followed by a Bulgarian number for acquired tastes, while a tasty squid salad proved the just accompaniment for the Sardinian white.

Then was a Domaine Lucci label called Blush, from Adelaide, South Australia. A tasty mix of red and white wines; after Snowtown it’s hardly the worst thing the city has kept in barrels.

Speaking of barrels, it was around two of them that we found ourselves hunched, the wine store too small for anything resembling a normal table. However, by now we were clicking as group, helped no doubt by the rapidly growing number of empty bottles around us.

It was about now that I looked outside and by pure coincidence saw my slightly odd neighbour walking past. In his late 20s and perhaps a sandwich short of a packed lunch, he’s nothing if not friendly, even if in kind of a “just keep smiling and don’t break eye contact” type of way.

He saw me too, and drew up short by the door, which without a second thought he opened and came in.

“Hello!” he said.
“Hi!” I replied.
“Did you get my message?” I wasn’t sure which one he was referring to, as I often receive several a day, each a screed in its own right. Nor was I certain he’d seen the other 7 people doing the wine-tasting. I thought “Yes” was the safest option.

He was looking at me, but perhaps talking to everyone – it was hard to tell.

He lingered, and it was becoming clear he wasn’t just here to say “Hi”, so I introduced him to my new friends around the barrels. “Everybody, this is my neighbour,” I said.
“Hi everyone,” he said politely.

Gauging the surrounds, aka a wine store, he then said: “I have three bottles of white from the Jura at home. My grandfather gave them to me. Are you interested in buying them?”

Everyone was certainly a bit confused, not least the wine store owner giving the class, who was more used to selling wine to customers, than buying it from them.

I stammered a “Not sure, let me think about it, I’ll call you.” It was probably not the response he was looking for; he thought his wine to be a bargain, and was not understanding why a group of such connoisseurs that we now were, would not be interested.

He made his excuses and left, leaving us to ponder that even for a wine store specialising in the exotics, there are just some bottles with origins just a little too obscure.

The seafood dining language fail (sexual favours were not on the menu)

Place de Clichy – population: every seedy male in France, and your teenage daughter.

We were a group of 7 at Le Wepler brasserie, a Parisian institution in the heart of the red light district.

Australia had just buried England in the rugby – always cause for celebration – and Wepler was the only place in the area that didn’t charge customers in 30-minute increments.

It’s a restaurant typical of a certain type of French hospitality experience: an expansive dining area with polished brass rails, old-school waiting staff in starched whites with black aprons, an out-of-order toilet and a resident mouse.

Here’s a review from TripAdvisor: “Typical Parisian brasserie with efficient waiters who are professional, fast and attentive. The dishes are good, well-served, at an acceptable price. 4-stars.” Despite TripAdvisor’s credibility issues, it was actually close to the mark.

Seafood is the specialty, the platters stacked with 3 types of oysters, crabs cleaved in half, and sea snails, which you entice out of the shells with a long narrow fork and then hide in mayonnaise to disguise the taste.

We’d polished off two platters between us, a bottle of champagne and a pouilly-fume, which was not bad considering it was midnight and all we’d been looking for was a light snack.

The professional, fast and attentive waiter, seeing us flagging in our efforts to shell and eat the last-remaining food – tiny shrimps not worth the pay-off – siddled up. Clearing the plates, scraps, broken shells and crumbs, he asked, rather optimistically, “Would we like dessert? Café?”

Feeling in a jocular mood, and wishing to maintain the spirit of sharing that had seen us polish off 300 euros worth of food and drink in 20 minutes, I decided to make a joke with the waiter.

There’s a scene in the cult 1990s French film ‘Le peril jeune’ (perils of youth) where five mischievous students in a café are asked by the waiter if they would like to order anything else (ie. If not, leave!).

“Un café avec cinq pailles,” one of them jokes, “one coffee with five straws”.


I thought the waiter would appreciate my knowledge of French cult film, so I boldly said:

“Yes, one café with 7 straws.”

While the idea was sound, the execution was less so. In effect, in my haste to get the joke out, I confused the word for straws – “pailles” – with blow jobs – “pipes”.

Now everyone was confused, not least the waiter, who nonetheless brought the café but mercifully not the sexual favour, which, as with the coffee, would have likely been better down the road.