We are told that the Queen of England likes to visit Paris. I’m not surprised; I can imagine Her Royal Highness lodging in some fabulous apartments somewhere elegantly discrete and divinely exclusive. I can even imagine an incognito Queen going to the Opera or having special and undisturbed access to the finest moments of refined culture that Paris has to offer.
But the Paris that the Queen encounters is one reserved for the relatively few – the comfortable and privileged – the people who are spared the inconveniences, discomforts and contrasting realities of the city as a whole. Paris may be the ‘city of light’ that is conjured up by the marketing people – but it’s also a rag-tag city – a schizo city – a city that can barely conceal the striking and dreadful contrasts between the rich and poor – and, a city marked by ethnic and ‘class’ tensions.
You can get a good sense of these contrasts – this ‘other’ Paris – on the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis in Paris 10eme. So let’s go there: let’s have a look at some episodes that unfold along that road on a typical day.
Well, here I am sitting at a tiny pavement table outside a very small restaurant which offers a simple and cheap menu. At the same table sits Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc works for Dior (but there’s no Dior on the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis – unless you count the fakes.) Jean-Luc lives nearby in a studio flat. I ask him about the street:
‘Well, it’s rather schizoid,’ he replies: “Most of it is down-market but there are some shops and restaurants that are for the well-heeled – the gourmet, the connoisseur. In a sense, the street is like Paris: it’s stretched out – rich and poor. In Paris there’s not much of a middle class anymore. You do get a few Bo-ho middle class young here – here on this street – but they’ll either get rich or poor or disappear – disappear to somewhere out in the sticks – to anonymity.’
As Jean-Luc is speaking we hear a terrible noise. Everyone stops; everyone looks towards the source of the sound. Has some scaffolding collapsed? No: there’s been a car crash. A host of people surges towards the site of the crash. Jean-Luc and I stay put. I wonder how and why a crash could happen. Jean-Luc reckons that the road signs are confusing and that there are still too many lunatic people who drive like maniacs …
So we continue our conversation – only to be interrupted by some insistent beggars, The beggars are girls – beggar girls. They’re dressed in long floral patterned skirts that brush the ground. They have deeply bronzed faces and eyes as dark as the blackest of nights. They wear head scarves – and, in another context they might even seem romantic. But they are a pain in the neck: ‘The street turns you into a hard and cynical person’ says Jean-Luc.
The beggar girls are part of a stream of different ethnicities: there are Turks and Kurds, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians from Pondicherry, West Africans wearing huge gold necklaces, North Africans (who may or may not hate France), Albanians, Russians, Italians, Syrians, Iranians Argentinians and East Europeans …
Strangely enough, a few minutes later a demonstration unfolds itself: we hear it approaching. I hear chants – but I can’t make out what is being said. French gets mixed with some other tongue. Then I see the banners. Someone’s face is on some of the banners. The demonstration passes and then it pauses. A woman delivers an impassioned speech through a megaphone. She’s a master of rhetoric. The demonstration is about the oppression of the Kurds. The woman orator is amazing. She sustains an intense energy for several minutes. She’s a believer. She reminds me of one of the best things about a liberal democracy.
I stop thinking about the demonstration and I ask the waitress of the little restaurant to bring me a delicious fresh orange juice. She does so and I begin sipping the orange through a straw. Just then I notice a small boy edging closer and closer. He moves towards a crate of oranges that is propped up against the walls of the restaurant. (The owner of the restaurant likes to emphasise the good things of the earth: he’s read Gide’s ‘Les nourritures terrestres’.) The small boy quickly reaches into the crate of oranges. He takes two – one in each hand. He’s a thief. I get up from my table and shout ‘Oi’ – but it’s already too late. The boy looks at me; he’s startled – but his moment of fear passes and he makes off up the street. Then, to my astonishment, he stops and begins to juggle with the two stolen oranges. His insolence is breath-taking. He walks slowly up the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis still juggling his two oranges. The small boy is already defiantly en route to a life of crime.
So: one car crash; one demonstration; two beggars; a dozen crazy people, passers-by from all over the world and one orange thief: the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis partly reflects Paris: it’s rather strange now: there are islands of chic and grace amidst a throng of shabbily dressed people hoping for a better tomorrow.
By now Jean-Luc has left. I turn towards a Parisienne woman – someone born in the city – who is sitting at the table next to me. I ask her how, in two or three words, she’d sum up the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis. She reflects for a moment and then says:
‘Detritus. Detritus in every respect. The English have a word for it. Grot. Most of it is just plain grot.’
Paris: August 2014