In late February, Edmund Ingham, The Money Cloud’s PR and Content Manager, spent a week in Paris exploring the city from the Digital Nomad’s perspective
Ooh la la! Let’s start with a cliché, because the cliché I had hoped to explore, that Paris is at its most remarkable in springtime, will have to be postponed until after the twin furies of the Beast from the East and Storm Emma have stopped battering the towns and cities of Europe.
Yes, Paris last week was just as cold as London, if not quite as dramatic in terms of snowfall or stranded commuters. Paris, it turns out, holds up remarkably well whatever the weather.
One of the first things I learned upon arrival at Gare Du Nord (I flew from London Luton; usually an ordeal, and no different on this occasion; to Charles De Gaulle, not difficult at all, but the train into Central Paris rarely travels at more than a crawl), was that some stereotypes about places you rarely visit are delightfully true, and others, equally delightfully, false.
On my first Metro ride, from Gare Du Nord to Pigalle, I crowded into the carriage alongside a tall Parisian in a magnificent navy-blue beret, and a young girl with a baguette poking out of her satchel. Throughout the journey, we were entertained by a man with a guitar, playing an African folk ditty, which seemed to have no beginning and no end, but was pleasantly evocative nonetheless. I was glad I was only riding the 3 stops, but it was a promising way arrive in this beautiful old city!
Pigalle, where I was staying, in an Airbnb described as a “cocoon” by its owner; about as positive a spin as you could put on it, despite its glorious view over Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur; is minutes from the Moulin Rouge, and bang in the middle of the red light district, something I promise I did not know when I booked. American GI’s used to refer to Pigalle, which is actually named after a renowned 18th century sculptor, as “Pig Alley”, such was its salacious charms.
In fact, despite the Sexodrome; a three floor celebration of all things pink and plastic; and countless other similar stores and bars, there was nothing overtly seedy about the district, it was all out in the open, and although I did not visit any stores or Turkish baths myself, everybody, whatever their reason for being in Pigalle, seemed to have a smile on their face; only a few looked like they hoped nobody saw them.
This was Paris on a budget, but it worked out just fine for me; the building my attic room was in was set back from the main road behind huge doors and even contained a small garden with bench, trees, and birds, as well as a lift so thin you had to shuffle in sideways – surreal enough to be worthy of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It was a grand old building that soared above neighbouring roofs and chimneys and provided as authentic an experience of the esprit de Paris as you could hope to get – for under £30 per night, too.
Now, let’s scotch a negative stereotype; that Parisians are unfriendly, and Paris can be a lonely city. In my experience, categorically untrue! I certainly gave people occasion to lose patience with me, looking lost, trailing bags behind me, struggling to work the non-contactless payments systems, the McDonalds DIY menu touchscreens, and stopping to check my phone for directions on crowded streets every two minutes.
But nobody complained, and plenty of people helped; in the driving snow, one man even walked 3 blocks with me to help me find a coworking space somewhere near the hipster Belleville area. More of that later.
The Parisians I encountered were relaxed, amusing, tolerant, thoughtful, unhurried, and unexpectedly blasé about annoying foreigners getting in their way. Even an English one! I found Parisians chatty also. If I hadn’t have had deadlines to meet and a budget to adhere to, I could have killed an awful lot of time in Paris’ super-inviting – even in sub-zero temperatures – bars and cafes. They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and I don’t want to criticise my hometown, but compared to London, I felt deliciously alive and optimistic about life in Paris.
But, I also had deadlines to meet, and to meet them, I needed to find somewhere to work. This is where Paris truly came into its own. Luckily enough, a Google search revealed this gem of a guide; a blog dedicated to the best places to work in Paris; from cafe’s, to dedicated co-working spaces.
First piece of advice? If you plan to work, avoid the cafes! With a few exceptions, the Hoxton Hotel in London (there is one in Paris too, I discovered too late for this trip), for example, cafes and restaurants don’t like bloggers. Fair enough; they are there for ages, doing something; working; that is inherently anti-social; and they don’t spend much. So, don’t go to cafes expecting to unpack all your mobile office and stay for hours sipping a 2-euro coffee and happily tapping away. It’s not a good look and nor should it be. Luckily, however, Paris has come up with a brilliant solution. Coworking cafes.
The principle is simple. These cafes are entirely given over to mobile workers, and they charge either by the hour, or a daily rate; for the right to sit and work. They serve free coffee, and they all lay out pretty much the same spread of snacks – crisps, biscuits, sweets and fruit – the perfect sustenance for the dedicated digital nomad.
Coworking cafes are on the expensive side if you are on a budget. The most I paid was 30 euros for the day, the least was 25. But when everything else is free, and you are surrounded by like-minded workers, the atmosphere is friendly and inspiring, and you can get a lot done, without feeling guilty that you are losing the place money or customers.
Over 8 days, I ended up visiting 4. Hubsy was central and space was quite tight over 2 floors, but after a few minutes you cease to feel like a sardine and the focus of others pushes you to do more than you would have thought possible. I spent most of the day there, almost until closing time at 8pm.
What it did mean was that as I wandered back from the third to the ninth arrondissement, passing thousands upon thousands of rosy cheeked, happy looking Parisians crowding themselves into bars and setting up for the evening (it was a Friday), I had to eschew a glass of wine, budget exhausted, and remind myself of all the free coffee I had drunk that day. And the sweets. I got over it. I will say, however, that Parisian nightlife looks dangerously good.
Monday, I spent at Cafe Nuage, a few streets away from the Sorbonne. Another cavernous nook-and-cranny-fest of a building, set away from the road with its own miniature courtyard, I set myself up again at a desk; well more like a table and chairs in somebody’s plush living room; and knocked out a good amount of reasonably inspired work, fuelled, once again, by coffee, pretzels, and purple crisps, which seem to be a la mode in Paris.
These places are so convenient, and pleasant to be in, one can lose track of time. When I was finally done, to make myself feel better about not seeing enough of Paris, I dashed, in the freezing cold, around a square up the hill and took some photos, which came out rather well. If you happen to know the significance of these buildings; because I don’t; answers on a postcard please.
Before I discuss the final two coworking cafes I visited, lets answer the question “what about visiting a public library?”
Answer? Yes, quite possibly, and I have tried this before in different places with varying degrees of success.
In Palma, Mallorca, the library in the Plaza Mayor is a godsend. It’s free, it’s quiet, it’s cool when temperatures outside are soaring, and it’s staffed, and occupied, by good natured, good looking people.
In Singapore, on the other hand, the Library was way beyond adequate, but full. In London, try going to the British Library and finding a spare seat that doesn’t make you squirm with guilt after an hour as the same exasperated bookworms aggressively circulate the floor waiting for their chance to work. You are better off in the St Pancras Hotel lobby, a five-minute walk away.
So yes, there are public places and spaces that the conscientious will use successfully, and that is worth investigating, but if, say, you are in Paris for a conference, you fly home later that day, you have been to the Boulevard Haussmann and bought gifts for the family from Galeries Lafayette as well as a Parisian Turtleneck for yourself, you’ve strolled in the Rivoli Parc, you’ve done the Louvre and the Pompidou before and you have work to do.
A coworking cafe is by far your best option, because unless it’s full, its guaranteed to have everything you need.
Or let’s say you are building a business and you want to be surrounded by cerebral startup people. People who you will end up speaking to, socialising with and learning from. Maybe even working with. Again, I give you co-working.
If you like things intimate, then I would recommend my third stop, Le Laptop. Not easy to find, especially in a blizzard, but find it I did, despite my Samsung smartphone deciding to give up the Wi-Fi ghost. I had to use something I remembered I had brought with me just in case; my brain.
Le Laptop is set in yet another courtyard, and is a bit of a sprawling space, involving two buildings, with numerous areas set up for meetings and breakouts – none of which, it turns out, you can use, despite this being the most expensive space I visited, at 30 Euros for the day.
What you do get is part of a desk facing the wall (the central space is reserved for teams apparently; who must have been away skiing that week because there was nobody sitting there; to be fair, it was school holidays time.
The hosts are charming, and everyone has lunch together, which is cool, and bizarrely, two out of the five people there that day had lived in Shoreditch for at least five years. Small world, the world of tech startups!
Le Laptop is yet another great co-working option – this is more of a space that you might commit to for a period of weeks, if not months, and has been designed with this in mind. Although I mostly encountered freelancers, you got the sense that Le Laptop had great potential for teams; it just needed the right group of hipsters to discover it. They will. Paris is a crowded place, and this part of town is an oasis of calm. Not that Paris ever feels rushed.
Final stop? It was supposed to be NUMA, a very trendy co-working space just down the road from Hubsy, in the heart of the 2nd Arrondissement, not far from the banks of the Seine. But NUMA’s co-working bit was closed for refurbishment. As far as I could see, the decorators had downed tools to don VR headsets and play computer games. Hard to complain about that.
So, it was back to the cafe where I had had to ask directions to NUMA. A small slice of humble pie later, I was sat upstairs, at what I am going to give the prize for the best co-working cafe of the lot. Le10h10.
There are two of these cafes in Paris, I now know. Having rescued me from another fraught jaunt around central Paris in the freezing cold with only my malfunctioning smartphone for company, Le10h10 was a great place to work.
Yes, for much of the afternoon two staff noisily unpacked a new sofa about a foot from by my left elbow, but this is what startup / digital nomad life is all about, right? Raw, and real. Like a good chateaubriand. Add to that the low murmur of what seemed like life or death discussions about UX, UI, and which colour button to use on the new website, on all sides of me, and this was co-working at its finest.
I have to admit to one guilty indulgence. On Thursday, I had earmarked a visit to Station F, the spanking new startup space built by telecoms magnate Xavier Niel; France’s Richard Branson; which occupies all of an abandoned railway station to the South of the river, and is the biggest startup space in Europe. It is even larger than Hackney Wick’s flagship Here East; the sprawling ex-Press & Broadcast Centre built for the Olympics and subsequently gifted to startupland, like a puppy after Christmas, a cynic might say.
As with Here East, it’s early days for Station F, which has an awful lot of space; 34,000 square feet to be precise; to fill. But the early signs are that the idea is working. A self-sustaining entrepreneurial eco-system where entire global businesses can be built under one roof. It has a fancy cocktail bar, too.
But sadly, my visit to Station F will have to wait until my next trip to Paris – as will my verdict on whether Paris truly is best in the springtime. Why? Because I spent the morning back at Galleries Lafayette, trying on a black turtleneck. Well this is Paris, after all, and my philosophy is; where better to buy a Sartre style roll neck than in Europe’s most startup friendly city?