Spending New Year’s (Alone) in Paris

If all else fails and you have nothing to do in New Year’s Eve, you can always just wander along the Seine and be broody all by yourself. Paris is pretty great for that.

I kicked off the New Year alone in Paris with nothing to do.

It was my first ever New Year’s Eve spent out of the country, not to mention alone, and I had only a few short days to make a game plan. Right off the bat, I decided that, given the choice between an all-out nightclub with strobe lights and disco balls vs. staying home by myself with a bottle of red wine, I’d opt for the latter. But ideally I wanted to find some middle ground between the two — maybe a quaint bistro party with sparkling conversation en français, or possibly a sophisticated and slightly fancy family fête, complete with warm pork roasts, multiple rooms to roam, and a guest list of 40 people.

As soon as I started asking around, I quickly learned that local bistros either morph into club scenes or are shut down completely on New Year’s Eve. It would be hard, as a temporary city resident, to stumble upon the ideal setting and scenario on my own. I also discovered that most Parisians stay in for the ceremonious ball drop, surrounded by close friends and family, either gathering locally in the city or stead departing for their country homes. That left me with one option — somehow get invited to a Parisian house party.

There were two fairly significant problems with this plan:

  1. I didn’t have any friends currently in Paris.
  2. I only had three days to lay the groundwork with potential new friends to make this happen.

Then of course there was the question of trust. You can’t just ask anybody off the street to join them for New Year’s Eve — there has to be some vetting factor to give yourself a little bit of security and peace of mind. So, over the next three days, I decided I needed to spend as much time as possible in local restaurants, cafés, and other local hangs in search of new friends to ring in the New Year.

As you know, I like traveling alone and do this with some regularity. It’s particularly fun for me to look for opportunities in social settings around me to interject myself and learn something new, and I have a few general rules that I follow when looking for the perfect hang:

  • Not too crowded (It’s more fun going to a café, bar, or restaurant where the wait staff also enjoys a conversation, as opposed to one where they are rushing around too much to pause and chat for a few minutes.)
  • Groups of patrons of all different sizes (If it’s clearly a restaurant designed for two-person romantic date nights, then my odds of finding people interested in deviating from their normal routine goes down a lot. I look for signs of a place where people walk in alone, with one other person, or in small groups.)
  • Space designed for socialization (This is super easy in the U.S. where you have bars. But not every French restaurant and café has a bar setup like that. In this case, I was also looking for clusters or little café tables really close to each other where you just might be able to interject into a conversation of a surrounding person.)
  • Not too loud (If there’s loud music playing or too much hustle and bustle inside, it’s much harder to hear beyond the white noise and people will typically be much more likely to be inclined to remain in their own conversations.)
  • Some other passive activity going on (Again, this is why bars, particularly sports bars, are easy places to meet people. Even as people may be socializing, everybody is also watching some game on TV, which makes it easier for conversations to be more intermittent and natural. In France, of course, you don’t need TVs when you have people-watching.)

Embarking on my NYE mission quest

With all this in mind, I set out to maximize the number of opportunities spent in these types of places over the next three days. Not going to lie — this is not always the most comfortable social experience. Here’s why. Even after I find a location — say, a café — that meets these criteria, the next thing to do is position myself in a location that invites conversation. If I’m at a bar or bistro bar, I will sit only one seat away from the next closest person at the bar, or sometimes even squeeze myself in as the open seat in between two smaller parties. This surprising social move, while slightly awkward for a moment, has been a pretty effective technique for me to at least trigger a small-talk conversation.

If there is nobody sitting in that area yet, the next best thing I can do is position myself in a highly trafficked location, make eye contact with everybody that walks by, and smile. In that one gesture I look for people who also happen to be showing up with a similar mission as myself: Making new fast friends. Sometimes, someone may walk in who’s meeting a friend running late, sometimes that smile may encourage somebody to sit down next to you, or sometimes I’ll get roped into a small group conversation nearby. Yes, I’ll be honest: This likely involves unbreaking eye contact with strangers for a few seconds longer than normal. The good news is that you can practice it and that there’s really no downside, as the chances of seeing anybody again are relatively remote.

If all else fails, I just use the resources around me and make small talk with the wait staff in French. In my case, this would inevitably throw off triggers and red flags to everyone around me that I’m not a native French speaker. Sometimes this would work to my advantage and another patron else would jump in and ask where I’m from. (People typically assume from my accent that I’m from the UK. On my proudest day ever in France, I was asked if I was from Belgium.)

But even if none of this happens and nobody strikes up a conversation with me, even if nobody sits close enough to me in order to start chatting, I have one strict rule for myself: Stay off my phone. Pulling out a smartphone at a restaurant or café is the kiss of death to meeting new people. It sends an instant sign to everyone around you that you’re more absorbed with whatever it is you’re doing, reading, or responding to than the environment around you. I’ve found that no matter how distractedly I fiddle with my phone, it’s still a real blocker toward meeting new friends in the real world. I try to keep it off the table and in my purse.

Instead, I carry a book. Oddly, reading a real, print book in public does not seem to have the same effect on people with regard to them keeping their distance. People seem to feel less threatened by it, and I get interrupted while reading all…the….time. The other benefit of having a book with you is that, even if you don’t achieve the holy grail of sparkling new conversation with strangers, at the very least you can fall back on a (hopefully) good read.

So, with this in mind and book in hand, I set out to make friends and conquer Paris. Some places where I made friends included:

  • Piano bar (befriended a pair of friends enjoying happy hour and chatted about music, the holidays, work, and traveling)
  • Art fair (wandered slowly through exhibits and got a few recommendations from another attendee, then befriended an artist)
  • Café (enjoyed an espresso at a stand-up coffee bar and got to know the local scene and the whole staff of the venue)
  • Sports bar (taught two French friends the rules of American football and learned about their love lives and New Year’s resolutions)
  • Small boutique shop (hung around a bit longer than usual and spoke with the shopkeeper about her favorite places in the neighborhood and her holiday plans)
  • Sit-down charcuterie counter at a local market (got a list of pro tips from a local as well as another couple who was also enjoying afternoon tapas)

But as of midday on December 31, while I had managed to meet about a dozen new people with these tactics, my New Year’s options consisted of the following:

  • Two separate invitations from older French men
  • One half-hearted offer to meet up with a guy my age and his girlfriend
  • A French family who genuinely would have had me over, had they not already decided to pack up and leave for their country home that evening
  • Several names of local clubs and bistros that I should try to swing by on my own

Needless to say, this was not exactly what I was looking for.

The backup plan

When traveling alone, it’s always important to have a backup plan in any situation. In this case, my Plan B for New Year’s Eve was as follows: Wander around the neighborhood and try to find a happening (yet sophisticated) bistro party. (Note: This plan also also included stockpiling a bottle of champagne and some food at home, just in case I was unable to find anything interesting to do and needed to toast the New Year’s alone.)

I decided to take on a stretch of bistros in the 6th arrondissement along Boulevard Raspail, within walking distance of where I was staying. My loose game plan was this: Wander slowly past bistros, peer inside to scope out the scene and the people, and see if there is a venue or group that looks inviting enough for me to join. A few blocks away, I noticed a corner with 2–3 restaurants back-to-back. I decided to check it out. One of them was just a sit-down dinner spot, with families in mid-meal. The second was a bit more lightly populated without any buzz or energy whatsoever. The third, while also mostly comprised of families dining out, had one thing the other two didn’t — a large gathering area by the bar, which happened to be decked out with champagne flutes. Bingo.

A peek inside La Coupole, the restaurant where I spent New Year’s Eve.

Bypassing the crowds who were waiting for tables, I walked in, ordered myself a champagne, and waited. It was 9:30 p.m. Presently, there were two older couples at the bar and another family milling about. I guessed that more people would fill into this area as we approached midnight. I drank my champagne very….slowly…. But nothing happened. I passed the time by vigilantly watching the jazz combo that was floating through the restaurant and performing for different tables.

Unfortunately, by 10:15 p.m. not much had changed. Multiple other folks and families had wandered in and out of the bar, but merely as a holding area prior to their seated dinner. None of them seemed interested in talking to me. I was the only person there alone. Not great.

From the bartenders, I found out that there would be dancing downstairs leading up to midnight. “You’re in the right place,” he assured me. We’ll see about that, I thought. I looked outside. There were now easily 75 people waiting in a line to enter the building. So I decided to give it one more drink before trying my luck elsewhere. This time, I asked for a recommendation and was recommended a “mix-your-own” champagne cocktail with infused gin, raspberry syrup, and fresh berries.

My mixed berry and champagne conction

About five minutes later, another couple approached the bar, decidedly younger than most of the other patrons I had met up that evening. They spoke in French with each other quietly as they poked through the cocktail menu, but then I heard the unmistakable query directed my way: “Excuse me, but what is it that you’re drinking?” I turned to see the woman pointing at my mix-your-own-drink creation and explained to her in French which beverage I had tried. She thanked me and turned back to her friend. She ordered the same drink. And, had I detected a faint accent in her French?

Going on a limb, I decided to try my luck, and I asked her in English: “Are you traveling in Paris as well for the New Year’s?” She looked at my silently for a full 10 seconds, and I panicked thinking how rude it was for me to assume her nationality. But then she replied. “Actually, yes. I’m working here teaching English to French children but I’m from Chicago. I’m Alina*. This is my friend, Georges*, a true Parisian, born and raised.”

This tiny intro was enough to catalyze a full-on conversation between the three of us, mostly in English, a little in French. I learned they were here because one of their good friends was the guitar player in the traveling jazz combo who had been performing around the restaurant.

“Oh bummer, you just missed them,” I remarked. “They were playing all over the restaurant but stopped about 20 minutes ago.”

“Actually, they are playing downstairs now,” Alina said. “We came to see them, and were supposed to be able to get in to see our friend but they told us that it’s for paying dinner guests only. We’re just waiting for them to come by the bar and let us down there.”

“Ah, so the dance party downstairs has already begun?” I asked. “Good to know. I’d love to check it out before I leave so let me know what you learn.”

We spent the next 10–15 minutes chit-chatting about my trip and their lives in Paris. He works in IT; she’s a new teacher who just moved to Paris a few months ago. They were both around my age. Georges grew up with Martin, the guitar player downstairs, and their friendship has continued to grow strong over the past decade or two. To show support for their friend, Alina and Georges left the house party to come and see their him perform. They really wanted to see the show.

At one point, Alina decides we should all make a break for it. Realizing that the entrance to the fete requires only acquiring a gold wristband at the door, we carried our cocktails and headed downstairs. Moments later, we found ourselves squarely secured inside of the jazz combo dance party, a spacious room lined on the perimeter with cocktail tables where families and couples sprinkled about. The room was bathed in a fuschia light, with the combo playing upfront. It’s decidedly classy. The lead singer fed the room’s vibe by offering us an American jazz classic; her nonchalance and easy vocalizations bounced off all of the walls.

The bar downstairs was lined with champagne flutes ready to be poured, and I headed over to investigate. But as soon as I did so, a man in a suit approached my new friends, sternly telling them in French something that appeared to make them both instantly dejected. At that, they started to head toward the door.

“Hey guys, wait — what’s up?” I called at them.

“We have to leave,” said Alina. “Apparently this party is for dinner guests only.”

“But don’t they know that you have a friend in the band?” I asked.

“Yes, we told them, but they are being super strict about it.”

“Hang on, that’s not fair. I didn’t have dinner here either.”

“Well you should stay for sure!” piped in Georges. “In fact, we need you to stay. Please go tell Martin how sorry we are that we weren’t able to see him.”

“What? So that’s it? You’re leaving?” I’m annoyed on their behalf. These folks came all the way from the 11th arrondissement to see their friend play on New Year’s Eve.

“Tell him we’ll be upstairs waiting. We’ll see you up there afterward I guess too,” said Alina, eying the door. “We have to go.”

And then they left, leaving me alone again. Glass of champagne in hand, I turned to face the music. But it wasn’t the same.

Trying my luck

One of the best parts about traveling alone is that it’s pretty easy to slip through the cracks. If you walk into a packed restaurant with a line out the door, you can often cut it all on the spot by agreeing to sit in that one awkward seat at the bar. If you run into a café right as they are about to close, as just one person, they might make a late dish just for you. If you’re shopping at a boutique and trying to haggle for a certain promotional offer on your purchases, it’s more likely the shopkeeper will let an exception slide by for one person, as opposed to a small group. And if you’re hanging around a bar at a fancy bistro on New Year’s Eve for long enough, the bistro owners will decide it’s not a problem for you to bypass the “dinner guests only” rule and hang around until the clock strikes twelve.

But this time, it didn’t seem right for me to enjoy this party and the jazz combo while the friends who traveled across the whole city to see him couldn’t enjoy it too.

I considered my options:

  1. Stay downstairs, enjoy the music, and stick to my mission of apologizing to their friend at the end of the set.
  2. Ditch the whole scene, head back upstairs and decide that friendship is more important than a party alone.
  3. Try to use whatever minuscule amount of leverage I had to get them back down there with me.

Of the three of these, which do you think I chose?

A few more minutes passed as I assessed the scene around me. Waitstaff and bartenders were frantically darting in and out of the bar, preparing for the shift of the masses from upstairs to downstairs. But I needed a manager or head waiter of some sort. Finally, I saw a man in a custom-fit blazer race by me, monitoring the setting downstairs on his way.

Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur, mais j’ai une petite question,” I announced. Translation: Sorry to bug you but I have a small question.

“Oui?” he turned his full attention to me. I began, to the best of my ability, a French persuasive argument.

“Well sir, as it turns out, I have two friends upstairs who at the bar who I would like to be able to join me downstairs. They are actually here because their friend is performing in the band, and they would really like to see him, but they were told that they can’t come downstairs as they did not eat dinner here. I understand this rule, but is there any way that they could come back downstairs with me to see him perform?”

He assessed me a bit more closely. I tried not to cringe at any grammar mistakes I had made in that plea. I thought about adding in one last caveat: “And since nobody here is dancing yet, I’m sure they would be up for it and liven up the room,” but decided against it, not knowing their tendencies in that area. At last, he nodded, took my champagne glass, and stowed it on the bar to be safe upon my return.

“Come with me,” he said. “Point out your friends to me.”

He hustled up the stairs, with me two quick steps behind. At the top, I stood next to him and pointed out the couple, and he rushed over to them, acknowledged what we had discussed, and began to lead them back in my direction. He had the hostess take care of their coats, and walked all three of us back downstairs together, calling out what he had done to the doorman on the way in.

And with that, we were reunited downstairs. Alina and Georges were elated, albeit a little confused. To be fair, so was I. But we didn’t overthink it. And within a matter of minutes, Alina (who apparently had taken years of swing dance classes back in the U.S.) was stepping her way around the dance floor. Georges, meanwhile, whose style seems more akin to that of Danny Kaye, literally stole the show on the last number with an improv piece of pantomime and hilarity as he cheered on his friend in the front of the room. It may have been one of the funniest things I have ever seen — it takes a truly brave soul to have no fear and to just dance with abandon like that. At the end of the set, the band got a hearty round of applause, and my new friends had their fair share of patrons run up to them and compliment their impressive dancing skills.

Dancing and live jazz in the basement level of La Coupole.

After the conclusion of the performance, I met the rest of the band, including Martin, the guitar player, and we spent the next 20–30 minutes chatting and dancing. But at 11:30 p.m., Alina and Georges realized that it was getting late, and they needed to head back to their other party. The three of them turned to me as they prepared to bundle up and leave: “Would you like to join us? We’re heading up to the 18th arrondissement with friends.”

I paused to consider my options. That was all the way across town, so if I were to attend, I would no longer be within walking distance of my return at the end of the evening. I looked back around the room again. While certainly a classy and fun party, being at this bistro alone was the epitome of finding loneliness in a crowd. Aside from Alina and Georges, nobody else had given me the time of day to chat. I decided I’d rather ring in midnight in the company of my new friends than around a group of anonymous strangers. It would be worth the trip. So the four of us hopped on the Metro.

As we approached the Concorde stop on the M8 line, my phone revealed that we’d crossed the threshold. “It’s midnight everyone!” I shouted to no one in particular. Our Metro car cheered. Outside we heard the roar of a collective crowd shouting and screaming somewhere above ground at Place de la Concorde. The doors closed and silenced the ceremony. Our driver gave the horn a few long “toots.” Alina started to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” By 12:01 we were already at the Madeleine Metro stop, and the moment had passed. It would be close to 12:30 a.m. before we would walk into the house party with more of their friends to be greeted by a warm group of Parisians in an apartment that smelled like a mix of champagne and cigarettes. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

*Not their real names.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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