We alight from the taxi on avenue Matignon, our destination a trendy fusion restaurant called Market. It’s not somewhere it would ever have occurred to me to go, being more of an East end, quartiers populaires kind of girl, but I’ve been invited to join a group of people, two of whom are former colleagues of mine, and I’m tagging along purely for the pleasure of their company tonight.
The girls wear gauzy dresses and high heels, the men wear designer jeans and expensive-looking shirts. I have thrown on my patterned wrap dress (TopShop) and favourite brown boots and pray I don’t look too out of place.
I had been scheming to use this outing as an excuse to buy something new, with a half-formed plan to venture over to the Comptoir des Cotonniers, but in the end I spent the day with Tadpole, and it didn’t seem fair to drag her out foraging for clothes. I’m sure the day will come when shopping will be her favourite pastime, but right now she would rather we played with her new dominos and ate chicken fried rice in our regular haunt where the waiting staff don’t seem to mind if she draws on the paper tablecloths with felt tipped pens.
Market is beautiful: the lighting is soft and flattering, the table booked for our party of eight is set in a discreet oval alcove overlooking a courtyard. It manages to feel private and intimate, yet achieves this without cutting us off from our fellow diners. In the impeccable toilets, individual cloth serviettes are piled up in neat towers by the sink. I study a menu nervously, forcing myself not to look too closely at the prices, telling myself through gritted teeth that this is a treat; I deserve it. But solvent or insolvent, there is a part of me that will always shy away from spending € 120 on a single meal. It’s the way I’m wired, and I’m far from sure that it’s something I want to change.
I sip a kumquat mojito, then sample warm foie gras and wild mushrooms, velvety soft deer with quince purée and some sort of vegetable and cheese “emulsion”. I have no idea what the wine is that I am drinking, chosen by a connoisseur at the other end of the table, but it is heavenly. I finish with a fig tart served with peanut ice cream (although I confess I wish I’d plumped for the chestnut soufflé with caramel ice cream instead, a masterpiece).
We stagger out of the restaurant at around 1am, fed, watered and tipsy and begin to cast around for a reasonable bar in which to have a final drink, or two, before we go home. But this part of town is a wasteland of wide sterile avenues and closed luxury goods emporiums. The only watering holes whose names I recognise are the sort of places with door policies, merchant bankers and queues. They are places one goes to be seen. Nothing could be further from my definition of a fun place to kick back and have a drink.
After a spot of futile wandering and a watery, overpriced cocktail in a bar tragically mis-named “Success”, I wend my way home in a taxi, dropping a fellow diner off at the Ile St Louis on the way. I can’t help feeling that I have spent an evening on a different planet, instead of a mere fifteen minute taxi ride from chez moi. Dogged by a gnawing feeling of disquiet, unsettled somehow. I don’t belong: not in that place, not in that arrondissement.
At the familiar sight of Bastille, my body starts to relax. The taxi speeds along the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, above the concealed Canal St Martin, and my lips begin to curve upwards in a smile. Weaving through narrow, dimly lit backstreets we emerge onto the boulevard de la Villette and I feel gnarly knots of tension unravelling in my shoulders.
Belleville: shabby, dirty, teeming with life, ablaze with garish neon signs. As the taxi labours up the hill I make a silent vow. No more trying to be someone I’m not, no more frequenting exquisite, over-priced places that make me feel like I don’t and never will fit in. This is my neighbourhood, my world. As I hand the fare to the driver, the smell of my local kebab shop teases my nostrils and I breathe deeply.