Paris: Not For Tourists

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Below is a collection of random, unrelated observations from my four days of aimless wandering around the scruffier, less-touristy and cliché, but still elegant and beautiful, 10e, 11e, and 20e arrondissements of Paris. Broadly speaking, this area is best understood in the Brooklyn vis-à-vis Manhattan paradigm. Rougher, multicultural, not nearly as romantic and posh, and still suffering from an image problem, yet, a major hotspot for the city's young, college-educated, and creative, something reflected in the area's burgeoning dining and art scenes. A world away from the image-conscious, staid, stuffy, and outright bourgeoisie districts of the Left Bank, it is unmistakably not the Paris of cinéma and fictional lore, but nevertheless an exciting, pulsating, and culturally diverse area, with its own, unique set of charms, delights, and rewards. In other words, a place for somebody like me.

Probably my most enduring impression of the city was how un-French it was. The immigrant-heavy nature of the city, in my opinion, took away from its Parisian uniqueness. Its many Mahgrebian, West African, and Indochinese neighborhoods, and their kebabs, noodle houses, and Camaraonäis restós, were more like the Bronx, or South London, than anything particularly “French”. I knew Paris had large communities of immigrants from former colonies, but I had no idea that they would dominate the city, making (white) French people seem like a mere afterthought, largely confined to bougie Left Bank quarters. While French publications and popular media, both historic and contemporary, portray the city as distinctly  provincially, even  French, and untouched by time, the reality is that Paris is a diverse, cosmopolitan metropolis.

Cosmopolitan or not, the city’s official “smell” had to be its distinctive urine-soaked streets and subway stations, and smoke-filled bars and patios. The Right Bank, as it is referred to, does have its bright spots, though, and you occasionally do come across seemingly star-crossed and glitter-filled situations reminiscent of the Paris of lore. The boulangeries, however, were incredible. Paris has incredibly delicious bread on just about every street corner. My god, they put any piece of "bread" in the US to shame! But for such a storied and food-loving city, I found the coffee scene, and quality of the coffee, to be forgettable. Totally out of the left field, and probably not what most people have in mind when visiting Paris, was a post-Ramadan Iftar feast in Ménilmontant. Also surprisingly tasty was dinner at a hush, rather tucked away Senegalese restó off of the Charonne stop on Line 9; Senegal has one of the more refined and sophisticated African cuisines, together with Ethiopia.

Paris’ Haussmannian architecture, while fantastic, gets repetitive. Yes, I like mansard roofs, Juliet balconies, and exquisite doorways as much as the next guy, but it gets old. Ideally, I prefer cities with rich architectural variation; for example, Los Angeles, New York City, London, Berlin, and Buenos Aires. The repetitiveness is so strong, that you can take the Métro from one end of town to another, and the architecture will be nearly identical, save for neighborhood-specific businesses catering to local demographics. The sole deviation is the Modernist buildings that appear with greater frequency as the elegant Haussmannian boulevards fray out towards the impoverished, crime-ridden, and often immigrant-majority suburbs fabulously portrayed in the 1995 classic film “Le Haine”. I do, however, have a soft spot for the city’s doors. They are easily among the finest and most exquisite I have seen, and offer an immense variation of designs, colors, and details. I have done two small compilations on the Doors of Paris: previously shown here and here.

I took a particular liking to whole 10th/11th/20th arrondissement nexus, appreciating Rue de Oberkampf, the gritty and borderline frightening Gare du Nord/Barbès, and Belleville and Ménilmontant’s namesake boulevards, all for different reasons. Firstly, I liked Oberkampf for its nice ambience; somewhat strange, though: favela-chic, hostel-type hangouts, next to Lebanese carryout restós, next to kitschy, themed bars with smoke-filled terraces. Pigalle, at the foot of hilly Montmarte, offers Parisian cool boutiques and shops interspersed among sex shops, was another favorite. Underrated Ménilmontant, on the other hand, is a hilly, predominately north and West African neighborhood with intelligentsia hangouts and hidden, nameless bars and art co-ops tucked between weave shops, Algerian sitdown restos, call centers, and incense vendors. Don't try entering any of the said Algerian sitdown restaurants with "inappropriate" or otherwise "immodest" attire, though, lest you fancy receiving shunning and staring from the restó patrons, or outright rejection. Somewhat ironically, stepping outside of such restaurants and into the real world, Paris' North African neighborhoods are very well-known for catcalls and other, inappropriate gestures and sexual innuendos towards women.

Multicultural Belleville is best-known for its unusual dual identity as a Bushwick-like artist enclave, and a Vietnamese and Cambodian Chinatown (that is, Chinese-descended Vietnamese and Cambodian populations, among others), with its  large assortment of phở joints, boba tea shops, and Chinese-only "travel agencies". The more artsy parts host a fairly large street art scene, with pieces by famous artists decorating its busy streets. My favorite part of the area, though, was its namesake park, with its spectacular, uninterrupted views of the Eiffel Tower, something I find that is best enjoyed from afar. Barbès, with its gritty, hard-knock streets, and throngs of “beur” immigrants (North Africans), was more shocking for its sketchiness and ghetto-flavored Times Square-like vibrancy. I stayed in Saint-Fargeau, a quiet, self-sufficient and ethnically-mixed area on the edge of the 20e, just inside of the Boulevard Périphérique.

As for the people, I found the stereotypes of snobbery and condescension, especially towards Anglophones, to be overrated. While it is true that for a wealthy, developed nation -- regardless of pride in its native language – there is an embarrassingly low level of English comprehension, I still did not come across any of the horror stories often mentioned on Western travel blogs. Although one should expect miscommunications and misunderstandings with locals, feeling afraid or scared to approach locals is unnecessary. Really well-dressed and beautifully-tanned locals, too. With the simple and clean, yet sophisticated fashion sense that I have come to expect from the French. And there is a lot to be said for the French work-to-live ethos, vs. that of the live-to-work popular in the US and its Anglo peers.

Station Goncourt (Line 11).

Parisians relaxing along the Saint-Denis Canal.
Africans at Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, a primarily-African thoroughfare and part of town. Never before have I been asked if I wanted my dreads to have my done so many times, in such a short period of time.
Hangin'. Montmarte.
Looking west down Rue du Oberkampf.
Bistro fare. 

The Mahgrebian-flavored urban jungle that is Barbès.


The Dictator's bride. Sèvres–Babylone.
A quiet afternoon in Saint-Fargeau, around the corner from my apartment. It pretty much always looked like this.
Espresso. Coutume Café.
Barista. Coutume Café.

Two photos showcasing examples of the curved streetscapes found in the city. 


A dashiki-clad man in Ménilmontant. Dashikis and Islamic prayer garb were definitely this season's hottest (literally!) accessory and fashion piece in Paris.
Hands on her hips. République

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