|Château Rouge. I took this last winter but you get the idea.|
I've been in Paris for two weeks, and lately when I come to Paris I always stay in the same place, and this place just happens to be in a neighborhood called Château Rouge.
It's an area with a lot of people who come from, or have roots in, Francophone Africa, and there are lots of shops with West African food, music, clothing, cosmetics, and so on.
It's also an area with an intense street life scene. During the day there are crowds of people in the street. Some of them seem to be just hanging around with their pals. Some of them are selling things: cellphones, handbags, cigarettes, belts, roasted peanuts, a mysterious vegetable that looks like a mini-eggplant, other things.
There are like four butcher shops in a one-block radius, and they do things the old fashioned way -- so if you come out in the morning, you might find a truck with four giant carcasses hanging, waiting to be brought in and cut up, while people are hanging around, talking to the workers and to each other.
In some ways, I am very far from being a part of this community. For one thing, I often don't even know what is going on. Those people selling mini-eggplants: what's going on there? There are plenty of food stores -- are these people really just selling a vegetable? How can they make any money that way, especially given that so many people do it? Is it cover for some other kind of exchange?
Often at the corner there are women hanging around. I'd assumed there was something sex-work related going on, but then the other day I saw a couple deep in conversation with one of them over the contents of a strange looking box -- like a child's jewelry box, or a super-fancy cigar box. WTF?
I tell you one thing: I'm not going to go around asking a lot of questions. I speak some French, but I am not really fluent, and in my experience, you have to have some pretty sophisticated language subtlety not to seem like an asshole if you wander into some world from outside and start questioning everyone.
In fact, all the questions I can even think of seem obviously rude. What am I going to do, say "Are you really selling mini-eggplants and how is that a money-making venture or is there really something else going on?' I don't think so.
So: there's definitely a sense in which I walk down the street and people are doing there thing and I'm doing my thing and other than basics like holding doors, there's not too much interaction.
But the weird thing about it is this: not only do I really like this neighborhood, I actually feel kind of at home here. Like when I've been out and about in Paris all day, and I get out of the Château Rouge Metro station into the crowds of people spilling off the sidewalks and filling the streets, talking and shouting, trying to sell me a cell phone or some weird perfume, I kind of relax a little, and think to myself, "OK, back home."
For a while this feeling puzzled me a bit, and I didn't trust it. I wondered if maybe I just felt judged by white Parisians, and projected certain attitudes onto them, and in Château Rouge felt the absence of that.
But over time, I came to realize that the Château Rouge Experience is actually very like an experience that was a big and important part of my childhood. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy who settled near Boston, and when I was little, often on the weekends I'd accompany my father as he brought my grandmother to shop at the Little Italy markets in Boston's famous "North End."
The scene was always chaos. People were selling all kinds of food and other things. I remember lots of aimless shouting and joking around, and every purchase came with lots of haggling -- or some kind of discussion I was too young to follow. Usually I would get a crushed ice treat or something, which made my day.
Even as a kid I remember the chaos of it drove my father nuts -- the way you couldn't just walk from point A to point B because there were a million people in your way, the sense of people just hanging around, not really there to do something specific, the way every transaction took forever. My father was a man who loved order -- a man who regularly obsessed about the importance of trains running on time, even though he drove a car to work -- and the North End was designed to get under his skin.
Of course, I didn't like to see my father unhappy. But otherwise I remember our trips with great fondness. I liked to see all the different things and different foods and different people, and it always felt so full of life there.
My mother reminded me recently of something from my childhood I hadn't thought about in ages: that sometimes in the North End, people who had to do business in a shop but couldn't find parking would just stop and leave their cars -- in the middle of a narrow street, so all the traffic behind them would just have to wait. My father would get so mad, he'd start pounding his fist on the car armrest in frustration.
Then just the other day I was walking back in Château Rouge, and there was a van in the middle of the road, and it was empty, the driver obviously having gotten out to do business in some shop and having left the van in the road. Behind the van where four cars, and their drivers were freaking out, four people pounding on four car horns in four different keys.
Château Rouge: just like home!
About a week ago, some people put up a mural in the neighborhood. It's in the photo below. I get that there's a Red Castle in it -- literally, a "Château Rouge." But a Rubik's cube? But what the hell else is going on in this image?
Well anyway -- I like it.