When she was a little girl, Alba used to get up at 3 am to work in the fields, picking figs around Merced, in the central valley of California. Two decades later, that’s the time when she goes to bed, after closing the tiny bar she owns with her husband, David, on Oberkampf Street, in Paris. My Woodie sits on one side of this long one-way lane with a plethora of bars, which she calls “the thirst street”. The place offers the best jukebox of the neighborhood, maybe the whole town.
How in the world did she end up in this crazy street of the French capital ? Well, that’s a long story (which we’re going to try to make short).
Alba Rooney was born in 1982 in Guadalajara, Mexico. Ten years later, her family received documents to emigrate to the US, to join some relatives. That was 1992, a different political and economic context.
“My parents decided to try the ‘American dream’ ; they chose Merced because we had our family there and it was cheaper than, let’s say, Los Angeles”.
While her parents had their own business in Mexico, they worked in the agricultural fields “every day during eight years”, once in California. Peppers, peaches, strawberries… they’ve picked it all. Alba worked with them when she was not in school.
“We had to start very early, before it would get too hot. We would stop at around noon”.
Having legal papers protected them from being too badly exploited, like other immigrants in this huge economic sector of the Golden State, she says. Overall, life was not hell, but they had to find their ways to make it work : living in “little farmers houses provided by the government”, or “five people in a room at my aunt’s”.
She finished high school in Merced, left the family home and moved to Riverside to start university. She studied foreign languages and cinema, before going one year in Chile as a student. Of course, her Spanish is fluent. But her French, which she learned in her programme… not so good, by then, she remembers.
“I had a thick Mexican accent. My French teacher suggested that I go to France as an assistant teacher”.
She followed the piece of advice, and landed in a high school in the Parisian suburb of Athis-Mons.
“My first year in France, I hated it.”
Indeed, she made all the mistakes a stranger or a tourist can make, such as going on the Elysian Fields on New Year’s Eve, an experience also called by the locals : “Hell on Earth”.
But after a while, she discovered a place righfully called Peace & Love, a hostel near the Canal St-Martin where she made some new friends. One night, in May of 2006, when they were all gone to Germany for the World’s Soccer Cup, she was alone there… until a guy showed up. It was David, a British man with a punk hairstyle – she also displays a quite punk hair dye. The same David who’s playing the guitar while we’re talking at the counter at My Woodie. They got married a year after they met, that night, at Peace & Love.
“I was supposed to go back to California, start a cinema project, I had a boyfriend there, but I gave it all up and stayed”.
While David was working as a consultant in telecommunications, she took a job as an English tutor and then as a communication employee at the International Chamber of Commerce. Years passed by. Seven of them, the typical “life cycle”, one may say. They were going out less and less.
“We noticed that in Paris, bars where people connect and talk to each other are pretty rare, and customer service is not always great”.
Why not trying to fix the problem ? In 2015, they discovered that the little Oberkampf bar, a spot cultivating the surf culture, both rock’n’roll and laid-back, was for sale. The chance was perfect for Alba-the-Chicana, who also spent several summers in Santa Barbara, which sort of encapsulates that culture, while living in Paris.
“We fell in love with the jukebox”, she explains.
Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Who, Louis Amstrong, Nirvana… their selection of “blues and rock” varies. What doesn’t change is the fact that the vinyl records player is free and has about “100 songs” available at any given time. With a tasty and generously-served cocktail, you can expect to make new friends or get an improvised little concert…
“That’s what we wanted to create, somewhere where you can talk to strangers, have a good time, in a kind of familial atmosphere, Alba says, noticing that it fits with Oberkampf Street, “a little village itself”.
David and Alba live in the suburb, though. They still have to pay for the $200,000 loan they got for the place. But so far, so good. What tomorrow brings is uncertain, but there is a future for the punk couple. As for today, she misses California sometimes. “Mostly for the beach”. But Californian beaches can be boring, you can’t enjoy a killer cocktail with Chartreuse liqueur there.