I made a quick trip to Paris over the Easter break with my partner. An unexpected bonus of the trip was my experience of where we stayed – Château Rouge, right next to the Sacré-Cœur in Montmarte. I’m slightly conflicted to describe this experience as a “bonus” for reasons that should become apparent. It gave me a vivid experience of cultural difference and my strongest sense yet of what immigration feels like in Europe. It was too fleeting to claim any great insights, but I’m writing this because I want to note it at least. I’m trying to foreground the uncomfortable feelings, the oddness, because it’d be too easy to let this stuff remain unsaid. There’s a complexity around issues of race and immigration that’d be easy to avoid.
My first impressions of something different arose on exiting the station. Someone was holding the “exit” turnstiles open so others could sneak back in without paying. Outside the station was a huge, sudden crush of people – people waiting, people shouting at each other, guys pushing flyers onto the crowd (aiming mostly at the attractive women, I noticed). Bizarrely, there were guys with these huge mounds of unshelled peanuts, stacked up in big pans. They were presumably for sale but I didn’t see anyone buying them which made it seem even weirder, as if they were strange pieces of street art. I was puzzled as to how selling these could grant anyone a living but maybe that’s a product of my privilege – I don’t inhabit a space where a few Euros one way or another makes a difference. The other big difference was the shift in colour of those around me, from the usual urban mix of races to mostly black. I’m used to inhabiting mixed race spaces in London but very rarely one where a background other than white predominates – this pitched me back into my own whiteness and makes me conscious of it. Privileged, like I said.
Walking around the neighbourhood later, I was struck by the way the street was inhabited – it was full of street vendors – the aforementioned nuts were in evidence, as were a myriad of other products. One street corner was full of people selling weird little purple vegetables (miniature aubergines?). There were people selling belts, sunglasses and leatherwear. I was offered an iPhone. It was an overall sense of a dizzy, busy, crush of interacting humanity – trading, conversing and just hanging out. One women had bought a fold up deck chair with her, she didn’t appear to be selling anything so presumably this was just so she could converse in comfort. What struck me was how the social was extended onto the street. The street became a space for interaction, not just a transition point between A and B (home > office > shop > designated leisure attraction) as it is for most of us. I don’t want to present this as “oh, the streets were so alive, it was amazing” because clearly that’s not the case. Hanging on a street corner might be a consequence of your accommodation being horrible, too small or cramped to spend time in, but there was clearly a street life and culture present that’s absent from my normal life. I felt as if I’d stumbled into a photo by Eugène Atget.
Atget’s photos were taken just before Georges-Eugène Haussmann began his project of building the great boulevards through Paris in the 19th Century The city hadn’t been reshaped since the middle ages and the boulevards cleared away huge swathes of the disorganised, overpopulated Parisian slums, and conveniently allowed the military access to areas of potential unrest. This work continued until 1927. Atget’s photos from the turn of the century capture some fragments of the old Paris.
Another Parisian practice is that of the Derive, wandering randomly in urban spaces, opening onself up to chance encounters. The French situationists saw this as way of disrupting our static lines of thinking and activity in urban spaces. It seemed appropriate to experience an impromptu derive here.Maybe in this instance, it’s just a “cheap holiday in someone else’s misery” ? I don’t know. It was just a reminder that there’s more possibilities to urban life than shopping and CCTV. The trading I saw put me in mind of the informal market. The informal market consists of the economic interactions that take place outside of the “safety zone” of payrolls, taxation etc. and all their accompanying safeguards. Around 5% of economic activity in the West takes place here, but it can rise up to 90% in developing nations. The shopfronts were variously butchers and shops full of African foodstuffs and textiles, and the ubiquitous bars and cafes, giving that “hanging out” time an extended space that was still connected to the street. I didn’t go around taking photos because that’d be ultra-obnoxious (the images herein were sourced from Google images) but I did find a few blog links that contain reflections similar to my own (I’m glad the writers share my bafflement as to the mystery vegetables).
As I said above, this put me in mind of immigration – the sense of a community that’s clearly not the same as the surrounding culture will do this. There’s a sense also of Paris (and France) being a much more racially divided society than the UK. I’m sure there are huge social currents shaping this area that I’m not aware of. I just wanted to note an interesting experience. In those streets, the Paris of the Louvre and Notre Dame seemed very far away.