Evenings at Le Nouvel Institut

A story about my favorite city and its people

Some of my favorite memories in Paris took place at this cozy bar in the 5th arrondissement. Le Novel Institut was close to the river and stood proudly in its very own corner of the district. You could always see it from a mile away because it was the most crowded spot on that street. When you walk through the front door, you are immediately greeted by a wave of loud laughter and chatter. To the right, you would find these marvelous booths with red leather seats, small tables with groups of friends huddled around telling stories about their days. At the very end of the bar is where you would find my friends.

The owner of the bar was named Didier, a kind man who would always let me leave my heavy bags and coats in the kitchen. He served me fries and pizza in exchange for whatever change was left in my pocket. Everyone loved him because he loved his customers just as much as he loved his bar (and also the occasional free shots he would hand out to the poor, struggling, alcoholic college students).

Despite how big the city was, you could always run into someone you know. I liked the comfort of that — to be able to run into people at new places makes it feel more like home. So that bar was where I chose to spend most my Wednesday nights.

The night I met Camille and Sacha was just like any other. I had trudged to the bar immediately after my 6 hours of back to back classes. I dropped off my bags in the kitchen and turned to Didier for some fries and beer. I asked my friend Max to hold my fries for me so that I could pay my tab. I turned back around and time froze.

Within 30 seconds, half of my fries were completely gone; Max had shared it with everyone in the bar. I had caught a guy in a red leather jacket red handed, right in the middle of reaching for another golden fry.

Everyone froze. Betrayal. Rage. Hanger.

I turned to Max and he had a sheepish smile on his face, the one you make when your parents come home and find that you have covered the entire kitchen wall in your very own rendition of crayon street-art.

The leather jacket smiled too.

Little did I know then, but he was about to become one of the most important people I would meet in Paris.

Despite the grand theft of fries he had committed, we became fast friends. His friends had left the bar that night to go to another but he decided to stay with us along with Sacha. It was refreshing to hang out with them because at that point in my Study Abroad journey all I wanted was French friends. And it was nice that they didn’t study politics. They were film majors. Creative and passionate ones. They have dreams, they are not logical realists. It was a nice change of pace.

The fry culprit was Camille. As I would soon come to learn, Camille is a very complex person. Despite how cool, calm, and breezy he looks on the outside, on the inside he cares very deeply about a lot of things. He’s the type of person where you can tell that he’s been hurt in the past before but still manages to trust and love just the same. He doesn’t like to show his emotions. He doesn’t like to talk about things that bother him. He shows his love for people in very small and distinct ways. He’s kind and curious and he likes to ask me questions. Sometimes I feel unqualified to answer them but I always do my best. Sometimes he can be ridiculously stubborn, other times he is incredible sweet. He is one of the most beautiful people I have ever known.

If Camille was a moody teenage vampire, Sacha would be his beaming ray-of-sunshine-sidekick. In fact, it wasn’t until last week that I’ve realized that everything he has ever said to me was either a line from a rap song or a joke so incredibly weird, I couldn’t understand it. Sacha humor, they call it. But when you ask him anything about film or photography, his eyes light up and he becomes serious, contemplative and thoughtful. I spent a whole day with him on Thursday before I left and learned so many things about him that make me smile. He’s been a vegetarian for years because when he was 10 he decided he didn’t want to eat animals anymore. He’s not the best at showing affection and emotion but you can feel his sentimentality in the photographs he takes. He is so good at capturing moments because I think he is always living in the present. Most of the beautiful photos here were taken by him. Sacha is so much more than just his second degree humor.

Soon after this first encounter, we met some of their other friends. First, it was Yoel, a crazy talented photographer who is also an admirer of jazz music. He is the sweetest person and always has the best intentions. Then we met Arthur, who was shy at first but later became one of our closest friends. I talked about him a bit in my last post. The mysterious Jean, who I only got to hang out with two or three times. And we met Zoe, this bad ass chick who is so true to herself absolutely beautiful. She is so damn cool that sometimes Sheridan and I wonder why she hangs out with these silly boys. I asked Zoe and she says she wonders the same thing too.

Just like that, Camille’s friends became our friends. We went to a famous jazz club together once and it was one of the best nights I remember. We also tried “the best ramen in Paris” together; as you can imagine, it was shit. We saw countless movies together at the Bibliotheque in the 13th. We went out for food trucks. We drank champagne at the park and ran around Paris drunk and completely out of hand. We searched for bathrooms together. A lot. We drank by the Seine and watched the sun set together. We went to an amusement park and called it “Coachella for poor people.” I introduced them to boba, something they swore didn’t exist in Paris. Sheridan and I dragged them around Paris, forcing them to take pictures at touristic sites and entertained ourselves with how annoyed and embarrassed they looked. We would point to famous buildings and monuments and ask them what they were. (We are very immature so It was obviously hilarious for us). We sat at the same bars and talked about movies, music, dreams, cities we want to live in, social issues, french culture, american culture… I could go on and on.

Le Nouvel Institut shut down and changed management just weeks before we left — it was almost painfully symbolic. What I will miss about Paris is not the beautiful architecture and streets that I walked every day, but the sentiment and the people now attached to this image. What I will miss is not my daily commute on the bus from Pascal to Sevres Babylon, but Sheridan’s voice, filling the long bus ride with that day’s stories and Sciences Po rants. What I will miss is not my afternoons spent at Cuiller with warm lattes and cakes, but Claire, who would sit directly in front of me, ready to validate anything I was about to tell her. What I will miss is not our shitty little apartment, but the nights I come home to Lydia cooking something in the kitchen while singing at the top of her lungs, Sheridan on the couch watching episodes of Modern Family in between every essay paragraph she types. It’s not the strolls on Rue Mouffetard, but Max’s jokes that always take me an extra second to understand. It’s not the trips to the movies, but the way Arthur covers his ears during previews and the way I scream fake plot lines next to him to mess with him. It’s not Le Novel Institut, it’s the people. It’s not Paris, it’s the feeling I get when I think about Paris.

It’s love.

I cried a lot last night. I would continue to tear up on my flight every time my phone played a song that reminded me of Paris. I disagree with people who say things like, “stay strong, don’t cry.” I’d like to think of crying as a sign of emotional intelligence and maturity. It is not a moment of weakness, but a gesture of genuine humanity. Crying is how I pay homage to a period of time, a person, a thing that was important to me. Crying is how I show my love, my strength, my humility. And I do so with absolutely no shame.

When I said my final goodbyes yesterday, Camille drunkenly whispered to me, “Paris will not be the same without you.”

All I could do was smile, because to me, Paris is Camille and our small group of friends. And it made me happy to know that at least for a small period of time in his life, Paris was me, too.

My heart has never been more full and my soul never more at peace.