Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Other Paris, Beyond the Boulevards

The Other Paris, Beyond the Boulevards
 By MIRA KAMDAR

I live just outside Paris, beyond the Périphérique, the eternally clogged ring road that separates the City of Light from its suburban areas of darkness. My neighborhood is in Pantin, where the infamous northeastern suburbs — the banlieues — begin. When I told one Parisian where I lived during casual chatter at a dinner party in the chic Marais quarter, he actually stepped away from me and blurted: “Quelle horreur!” But it isn’t a horrible place. And it’s where, for better or worse, a new France is being forged.
On the noisy sidewalks of the boulevard near my apartment, there are no Hemingway-besotted expats in search of their own “Midnight in Paris.” My local farmers’ market does not sell kale, the latest trendy American import, and the bakery on the corner features round flat loaves of sesame-studded bread for a largely North African clientele.
My neighbors come from around the world; legal or illegal immigrants from Africa, South Asia, China and Vietnam. Most of the white faces I see are Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Serbs. While I can’t buy a good baguette, expertly cut meat from “known parentage” or high-quality aged French cheeses right outside my door, I can get preserved lemons, bulk-priced spices, basmati rice and the most amazing lemongrass-infused Thai sausages I have ever tasted.
I travel mostly by metro, shuttling back and forth between my home and Paname, as Paris is known here in the suburbs — an old nickname taken from the Panama hats worn by 19th-century fashionistas. I ride the No. 5, which runs north-south and stops at the Gare du Nord, at once the transit point for the Eurostar to London and the gateway to the graffiti-scrawled suburban trains that ferry black and brown residents of the far-flung suburbs in and out of Paris. When I ride home in the evening, many of the whites get off at République, the heart of Paris’s newly hip eastern quarters. I find myself then in a car where many languages are spoken, rarely French, and where one never hears the twangy tones of excited American tourists.
I’ve learned a lot during my long commutes on the metro. One thing is not to underestimate the cosmopolitanism of my fellow travelers. I found myself sitting once next to a young French-African woman. I was stunned when her phone rang and she answered in serviceable Hindi. When she finished, I couldn’t help asking her how it was that she spoke the language. Oh, she explained, she belonged to an evangelical church and had learned Hindi, in Paris, to spread the good word among Indian immigrants. I knew evangelical Protestantism was flourishing in immigrant communities in France, but this cross-cultural example floored me.
When I emerge from the storied metro stations of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Louvre or Saint-Paul, I am always blown away by the beauty of old Paris, with its limestone buildings, its grand boulevards and its elegant cafes where a garçon with a starched white tea towel over his arm will call you Madame. I try not to see the Starbucks and the McDonald’s that have invaded this capital of fine dining, and I often buy a loaf of good bread and some very expensive cheese to carry home.
Some day soon, I may not have to travel into Paris to buy these things. My neighborhood is changing. The canal that snakes up from the Seine in eastern Paris has long been gentrified up to the Parc de la Villette, a modern swath of green on Paris’s northern border. Work is in full swing to rehabilitate the seedy banks of the canal beyond. The old mills in Pantin have been transformed into offices for the banking giant BNP. Further north, Chanel has installed its headquarters. Hermès has bought up whole blocks for its ateliers. New apartment buildings are going up with spaces reserved for affordable housing but also for canalside cafes. Just down the road from the Tang Frères Chinese supermarket, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac has opened a new space in an old warehouse where members of the international art scene view works by Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys.
From every side of my apartment, I see cranes. Construction is booming. The new tramway that will one day circle all around Paris stops downstairs. In a nod to gender balance, many of the new tram stops are named after women. My stop is Delphine Seyrig. The next stop is Ella Fitzgerald.
Pantin is proud of its working-class heritage. It is home to a green school, which produces more energy than it consumes. It hosts a collective that delivers local produce by barge several times a week along the canal. It sponsors a jazz festival and a film festival. It is building a new market square, repaving streets and cleaning up its parks. The neighborhood is not immune to signs of the widening gap between the ideals of the secular French social-welfare state and an increasingly diverse population. Small Muslim girls wearing head scarves trail behind their fully covered mothers. Young black men with nothing better to do smoke in front of the public housing entrance. An illegal immigrant from Pakistan sells fruit from a crate on the sidewalk. But there are also boisterous girls in skinny jeans, tousled hair tangling in the wind, a girl from Algeria arm-in-arm with one from Senegal.
I don’t feel despair or fear here, but something more alive than the static elegance of eternal Paris. The future of this great city is on its periphery. 
-Mira Kamdar

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