Same, but Different—Finding Home in Paris

Whenever I crave a taste of home or something close to home in Paris, I seek out a Southeast Asian or East Asian restaurant. I am Malaysian Chinese, a confused, hybridized daughter of British Malaya. Chinese food as I know it is very different from what I can find here. Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers.

Same, but different.

One restaurant that I keep going back to is located ten minutes away from New York University Paris, where I take classes. I am a regular customer at lunchtime.

“Ni hao, bonjour!”

I pushed open the glass door and Mr. Wei greeted me from his usual spot behind the glass counter, which divides the small space in half. A man in his forties, he manages the restaurant alongside his family and two or three staff members.

He moved to Paris from Zhejiang, China, over thirty years ago. Seventeen then, he was very much in love with his childhood sweetheart, the now Mrs. Wei. They have known each other since they were six. Mrs. Wei only comes to the restaurant on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. She manages a luxury handbag shop two hours away from Paris. The couple looks like what people back home would call, in Malay, “a betel palm fruit split in neat halves”, bagai pinang dibelah dua. In other words, they match perfectly. They share the same warm demeanor that will make you drop your guard willingly.

The space is dimly lit by two glass chandeliers. An earnest effort had been made to decorate the restaurant. The result is an awkwardly charming juxtaposition of European and Chinese aesthetics: still life paintings hang from tiled walls and fake leaves cascade from the red pillars, while Chinese porcelain and Buddhist statues sit humbly on the wall racks.

“Many Paris Sorbonne students had their first dates here. Sometimes they come back years after to reminisce. Paris is a romantic city, after all.”

Five months in and I have felt little of the romance. My dating experiences? The first one was an Italian café owner who compared me to a “Chinese factory worker who makes iPhones in a sweatshop.” The second one was a French IT student who joked that I reared cats to eat them. The third one was a Moroccan Jewish real estate manager who said that he was allowed to make racist jokes about me because he was part of, I quote verbatim, “the most persecuted peoples on earth.”

Acts of microaggression like these chipped away at my mental health, like a constant stream of water dripping onto a rock, slowly but steadily. Homesickness began to infect my mind. It was a symptom of feeling constantly misunderstood. There were other problems besides those men as well, like my inadequate French which rendered everyday tasks, from doctor visits to grocery shopping, a constant struggle.

A month into my stay in Paris, I started looking for comfort in anything remotely East and Southeast Asian. I explored Franco-Chinese bookstores to look at comic book characters drawn with facial features like mine. I took long walks in Porte de Choisy to eavesdrop on fragments of conversations in Mandarin, Thai, Cantonese and Vietnamese. And then, of course, there were the Asian restaurants.

I confided in Mrs. Wei once, “I started coming here because I was homesick.”

“Come here whenever, you’re always welcome.”

I looked up from my food. Her expression was not one of sympathy, but genuine understanding. Homesickness—it was something matter-of-fact. She knew the yearning.

She empathized because of our shared ethnicity, and as a result, shared experiences. But I felt undeserving—I thought of all the times I emphasized the Malaysian in Malaysian Chinese, all the ways I tried asserting my Southeast Asianness by denying my East Asianness.

Same, but different.

I tried explaining it to a friend once:“It’s like we still keep a lot of the Chinese culture, but we have no ties or loyalty to mainland China anymore.” I don’t think she understood. I am a third-generation immigrant. During the British occupation, many ambitious young people from the provinces of Fujian and Kwangtong were seduced by the promise of job opportunities in Nanyang, or The Great Golden Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands sailed in by steamships, each nursing a little flame of hope. My maternal grandfather was one of them.

“I had nothing on me but an extra set of clothes,” he had told us on Chingming festival ten years ago. An annual event, Chingming is a day of remembrance–  of people who had passed, and of things the family had seen. I remember his back bent with the weight of history, sitting on the side of the large tomb of my great-grandmother. We scattered colored papers on her grave and burnt fake cash as offerings. My grandfather held my hands as I held incense sticks, and we prayed for me to be “good and obedient.”

When he passed away, our last ties to China died too. He was the only person who still knew anyone back there. He left my uncles an old but functioning coffee factory, an expired Nanyang dream, like the blurred, yellow photographs of the unknown relatives he left behind. We know nothing of them.

The same empathy I found in Mrs. Wei that day, I had experienced a few weeks back. It was lunchtime and I stumbled upon a store half the size of Mr. Wei’s at the corner of the famous Place Maubert farmer’s market. The owner was a sixty-odd-year-old man from Kwangtong. We could not decide on a language to communicate with. He didn’t know Mandarin and I knew little Cantonese. My French was inadequate, his English was fragmented, leaving our interaction riddled with hand signs and hesitations.

As he turned to heat up my takeaway box in the microwave, I caught a glimpse of my paternal grandmother, who used to cook lunch on the sticky stove when I came home from school, mumbling to herself in Hokkien, the family dialect. It is a language that I never had the chance to master, as my parents only spoke Mandarin to my sister and I. They wanted to make sure that we would not be left behind in the globalizing job market. My grandmother is senile now, and she does not speak Mandarin anymore. Our phone conversations have become increasingly basic since she started losing her memory.

The restaurateur from Kwangtong caught me mid-thought when he asked, “Baguettes?”

“Pardon?” (Sorry?)

“Baguettes ou couverts?” (Baguettes or cutlery?)

He was holding bamboo chopsticks in one hand and a pack of plastic cutlery in the other. It was a test of my loyalty. European or Asian? Colonized or Resisting Colonization?

Labels. I needed to claim mine.

But they call chopsticks baguettes? The classic stick of French bread? I could see the resemblance, je pense. But the scales do not match. The bread is many times larger than the chopsticks, of course. But also, a stick of bread? To describe the familial bliss at Lunar New Year’s Eve at grandma’s, tossing Yee Sang with chopsticks while exchanging blessings for the new year? A stick of bread, to describe a shared heritage between East and Southeast Asian peoples, and the conflicts and relationships between them? A stick of bread, to describe all the times white women violently jumbled up “oriental” aesthetics, stuck chopsticks into their neat little hair buns as finishing touches, and in their delicate, blameless glory paraded around at themed parties? A stick of bread, to describe entire traditions and taboos of several eating cultures across oceans and diasporas?

The baguette was a plain stick of bread that hurt my jaw, whereas the chopsticks were my political statement that afternoon, in that tiny shop.

Same, but different.

But I was talking about empathy.

The restaurateur from Kwangtong asked me how much French I knew. “Uhh… un petit peu. Je suis en train de l’apprendre… lentement” (Uhh… a little bit. I am learning it… slowly.)

“Ah,” he nodded. Just like that. No irritation like the receptionist at my gynecologist’s when I stumbled over words to make an appointment. No condescension like the French boys who thought my struggle cute, and would not stop correcting my pronunciation. No anxiety like whenever I was in line at the boulangerie, planning the words to say that I knew would come out wrong.

A matter-of-fact “ah”. It meant the world to me.

I did not meet Mrs. Wei until my fourth month in Paris. It was a Sunday, I remember, because Sundays at the Wei’s are family days, when. They gather for family lunch at the restaurant. I bumped into Mr. Wei while walking up the slope leading to the restaurant. He greeted me first, holding a takeout package he was delivering.

“You’re headed to the restaurant? The women are here today. I’ll be back in a bit.”

I pushed open the glass door and a middle-aged woman greeted me. The small space was unusually crowded, and I heard an unfamiliar language. I later learnt that it is Wenzhounese, a dialect in Zhejiang.

All the Wei children were there: a young boy played video games on a tablet, mirrored by his older brother who had earphones plugged in, eyes on a phone screen; a young woman of my age was checking the cash register. I noticed she was wearing a modern version of the Qipao, a traditional Chinese dress. She is the daughter Mr. Wei talks about often. She liked the Mandarin language more than her brothers, who preferred to speak French with their parents.

“My daughter won a scholarship to study at Sorbonne. But her friend needed the money more. She could not afford college otherwise. We let her have the money instead.” Nonchalance. A generous act talked of like it was a daily routine.

The Weis’ daughter is a future doctor. To have your child become a doctor is the ultimate Chinese immigrant’s dream. My parents would have loved a future doctor, although they gave me my autonomy to choose. So, they now have a History major with a love for poetry and an uncertain future. My sister though, is studying traditional Chinese medicine in Shanghai. She is rising to become a relative-favorite.

Mrs. Wei took my order and we chatted about her luxury handbag business. I told her that my parents might be visiting this summer. She shared my excitement.

“I can send you my catalogues, and your mom can have the family discount! Half price for some of the bags!”

I was very amused by the thought of my practical mother who has little interest in fashion browsing through a luxury handbag catalog. I switched topics.

“We’ll come here for Chinese food. They’ll get bored of pasta and sandwiches eventually.”

“You can call and let us know if they have any special requests. We can cook up something specifically for them.”

Kindness and empathy. And excellent, excellent customer service. I thought of all the times I have seen Mr. Wei open the doors for exiting customers, most of whom are regulars.

“I am an attentive person, that is why I manage this restaurant quite well,” he told me once. The word “attentive” is an insufficient translation of the phrase he used, “yòng xīn”, which literally translates into “use heart.” To pour all your heart and soul into doing something. To really, really give your best. It was the first lesson I learnt in elementary school. The first time I was hit in class was because my handwriting was messy. It was a light tap on the hand with a ruler. Do better. I remember crying from shame after. But I have been excelling academically ever since.

“As a businessman, I need to be far-sighted. Profit does not come first, treating my customers well does. This value, ‘仁’ (rén), is very important. The first part on the left, ‘亻’ refers to being human. The second part on the right, ‘二’ is the number, two.” The word itself means to treat other people with kindness and empathy. But the composition of the character has a deeper implication.

“‘Rén’ is a two-way street. Both parties are on equal, respectful rounds. The patron and the service provider share a reciprocal relationship. Treat them well, and they will keep your business secure.”

Mr. Wei’s business is very secure. He has a steady flow of regular customers,. some of whom he even has affectionate nicknames for. One of them is an ancient, grey-haired French lady with a walking stick, who sometimes pulls a small shopping trolley bag behind her. Mr. Wei calls her “Mami”. The first time I encountered Mami, it was rush hour. She stood outside waiting expectantly, and upon realizing that Mr. Wei was very busy, walked in. Immediately, she was served. After, she was escorted outside with her takeout box.

I have always been slightly uncomfortable with this “respect” Mr. Wei showed his customers. It reminded me of how my usually vocal mother became quiet at a feminist meeting in English I brought her to, even though she was fluent in English. Or of how I came to adopt the American accent, twisting and contorting my tongue to adapt. I need to conform to be heard. Or of how taxi drivers in Malaysia would be excessively helpful towards white tourists, but dismissive towards the others. Or of how white foreigners were often praised for donning our cultural garbs. The same clothes they shed off and forgot after.

But I could not articulate how these observations strung together.

Same, but different.

I saw Mr. Wei push back. Once.

I was due to return to Malaysia that weekend. I decided to pop by the restaurant, my little safe space, to say goodbye.

They were two French men. The tall, well-built, and imposing type. They wanted some dumplings as starters. “Ravioli poulet?” (Chicken dumplings?) “Oui.”

Later, when the food was served, one of them pointed at the pork dumplings in the glass counter and said that he had ordered those “chicken gyozas” instead. Mr. Wei looked confused. Perhaps purposefully. The man, who was sitting less than two meters away from the glass counter kept trying to point out which dish he was referring to, but Mr. Wei was slow to relent.

“C’est ça?” (“It’s this?”) “Non.” (“No.”) “Ça?” “Non.” “Ça?” “Non.”

The game was delightful but painful to watch. I stepped in. In Mandarin, I declared that the pork dumplings are indeed what the French man wanted. Mr. Wei gave in, but he clarified that they were made of pork, not chicken. Yes, you may have that instead. No, chicken dumplings do not look like that.

The French man was stubborn. “We had chicken dumplings like that at another Asian restaurant yesterday.”

“Those were not chicken dumplings.”

“Are you sure?”

I held my breath.

“Yes. But maybe you went to un restaurant IndoChine. It’s different.” He sounded so patient, but he was looking down, replacing the real chicken dumplings with the faux ones. I could not see his face.

Pride in his food. I respect that.

About two months ago MasterChef UK came under fire when the judges chastised Malaysian contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin for serving Chicken Rendang that was not crispy. Netizens from Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and of course, Malaysia went berserk. Rendang is a dish in which the meat is cooked soft in gravy. The claim that it should have a texture anywhere near crispy is absurd.

But of course, for a Malaysian dish to be anything, a Malaysian chef to go anywhere, we needed the recognition of a former colonial power.

Food has always been emotional to the subaltern. Food has always been emotional to the diasporic community. Our rage was justified.

Growing up, I was taught to be non-confrontational. It was cultural. As such, my acts of resistance and solidarity often consist of words in written form, or humble actions, like using chopsticks in posh Paris. With the added challenge of speaking in a second language, I have always found it hard to participate in debates. I recognized the same quiet resilience in Mr. Wei.

One very late night early in the semester, a few of us were sitting in the communal kitchen at my dorm. Someone said something about race. And my white European friend responded defensively, “I wish I was not male and white. I feel like I cannot say anything because of my identity.”

Where do I begin? I had no words, although I felt like swinging a wok onto his face.

My Sudanese friend, the only other person of color in the group, stepped up to the debate. Patiently, she explained white privilege to him, as well as the concept of listening to minorities instead of talking over them.

After an hour of fruitless conversation, it happened. “We should ask Jiun what she thinks, she has been very silent.”

All eyes on me. I could not breathe. All the times I have written against racism threatened to go null in that moment. They will think that I am a faux activist. They will think that I have nothing to substantiate my anger.

They don’t understand how hard it is for me to articulate myself.

I haphazardly put together some words on how I wished racism was not even a debatable topic. But I thought I concluded well. “What is for you an exercise in free speech, is for me a painfully real experience.”

And still he did not understand.

My Sudanese friend and I hugged for a long time after the conversation. “Was I coming on too strong?” she asked. And still she doubted herself. And still she prioritized his feelings.

“No. But at least you knew what to say.”

Same, but different.

There was always a language barrier when Mr. Wei and I conversed. We spoke Mandarin with one another, but our accents and vocabulary differed. I lost about a fifth of what he told me, and vice versa.

“You speak really good Mandarin,” he had said to me on my first visit. Every mainland Chinese I have spoken to had told me the same thing. But I am Chinese too. Yes. Not really. Chinese, but Malaysian Chinese. I grew up speaking a hybrid type of Mandarin—it was the same Chinese words, but pronounced in an accent formed to accommodate the other languages in the mix. Malay, English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, Mandarin et al. I switch between them in every sentence.

Hence, it took effort to speak in Mr. Wei’s Mandarin, but it was a small price to pay.

I once got lost at Porte de Choisy looking for groceries. The Chinese PhD student who lived on the same floor in my dorm had told me about the supermarket called Tang Frères (Tang brothers). Mr. Wei had mentioned it before. It was where he got all his ingredients.

“The Tangs are your family.” He chuckled. True, I shared their family name.

When Chinese immigrants poured into the Malay Peninsula, then known as Malaya, now known as West Malaysia, the immigration officers had to transcribe their names in the English alphabet. Most of them spoke their respective dialects instead of Mandarin. They did not even identify as “Chinese” back then. Ask them where they were from and they would tell you the titles of specific provinces. The same surnames sounded different in different dialects, and so they were transcribed differently. The same change happened to other Chinese immigrant populations around the world. To complicate things further, different surnames in Chinese would have the same phonetic transcription as well. Hence, there are now different versions of my surname, as well as former family members I cannot recognize.

Tan. Tang. Chen. Chan. Chin.

Same, but different.

I asked for directions from two old women who looked Southeast Asian, in French. They told me to follow them.

And then I heard them spoke my grandmother’s language. They were speaking Hokkien. I had not heard its music for too long.

In my broken dialect, I explained where I came from, and they started to speak to me in Mandarin. But it was not Mr. Wei’s Mandarin. It was my mother’s Mandarin, an accent I had not inhabited in a while. No need to twist my tongue or stiffen my jaw. My shoulders were relaxed. No instinct to assimilate. No fear of being exposed. Mother tongue.

The ease with which I built a rapport with the old ladies in that short walk felt surreal.They were Cambodian Chinese. Hybrids, like I am. Southeast Asians, like I am. We chatted about the absurd price of durian here. They advised me on which brand of rice to buy. I told them I was struggling to cook Malaysian Chinese food here because ingredients were difficult to find. They commented that my mother must be worried about me, living alone in a foreign city. I assured them that I call her often.

“But she’ll know you have eaten well when you go home. You don’t look skinny at all.”

Their bluntness reminded me of home. Of the aunts and uncles who mean well but insult you instead. A comment that would have offended me back home made me feel fuzzy instead, just at that moment.

Same, but different.

My favorite dish at Mr. Wei’s is the poulet au champignon noir (chicken with black mushrooms). The mushrooms are very different from the ones used in European or American cuisines. They are thin and irregularly wavy. Their texture is a mix between rubbery and crunchy when cooked. In Mandarin, it is called Hei Mu Er, which directly translates to “black wood’s ear”, as the fungi tend to grow on trees.

Champignon noir”. Black mushrooms. A translation so violent, it chopped off the wood’s ears. The result is deafness, like my white European friend, like the racist French men I went out with, like the French customers who wanted “chicken gyozas”.

But listen. Mr. Wei had many a fascinating thing to say. Mr. Wei the restaurateur transforms into Mr. Wei the scholar when he is in a chatty mood. He is very well-read, but I don’t think his customers usually quiz him on what he knows about the Chinese dynasties or Babylonian architecture. He found a willing audience in me, and had been an ever-flowing fountain ever since.

On Taoism—

“Cause and effect, and then there is balance. Like the Yin and Yang symbol in Taoism. In Yin, there is always Yang. In Yang, there is always Yin. The Koreans got it wrong, look at their flag. There is no balance.”

On parenthood—

“Parents are everything to their children. The father is like the sky. Whatever comes, he shoulders. He must make his kids feel safe. The mother should be the provider of love and care. Whatever comes, she is there for you. But when you should always teach your children to be independent.”

On Chinese horoscopes—

“I am the Cow. Hardworking and honest. She’s (points to his staff, Ms. Phan) the Dog. Loyal. You’re the Rat. Sharp and smart.”

On history and Buddhism—

“Studying history is a good exercise in learning Buddhism. You learn the cause and effect of things. It’s a mirror of the human condition.”

On theft—

“The West stole many things from us. Like football. We invented football.” He then proceeded to name a list of inventions claimed by the West that I cannot recall.

On the Malay Peninsula—

“You had the Malacca empire. It was a prosperous trade port. It connected the world. Your ancestors were businessmen.”

And then a customer would come in, and our conversation would come to a halt. I did not have time to clarify that my ancestors lived close to his, and that they were farmers instead of traders. But to be honest, I could not be sure. My grandfathers took our family histories to their graves. All of us were trying so hard to assimilate, to succeed in a land where we are still not granted equal rights, that we have forsaken our past. Amnesia. Like my grandmother fading away from my life. My dialect. My East Asianness. Erased slowly. The old photographs. Are they all gone?

My mother once said to me, “When you go overseas, never say that you are Chinese. Say that you are Malaysian Chinese.

Same, but different.

Yet I seek refuge at Mr. Wei’s. When it rains hard in a European city, familiar food is familiar food. I refuse to discriminate.

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.

Artwork by Wang Yuping “She eats tomatoes in the dream,” 2006

Parisian Girl

What a creature
Wavy-haired and slim-hipped
Tapping cards at metro stations and cafes
Flitting from one end of the city to another
Muscular strides and an air of uncertainty under her skirt
Always transitory

Digging
Like those pet Labradors on red leashes
At thrift shops for gems
She likes to twirl to the tune of Piaf in front of
Applauding screen audiences
And flirt with silent strangers on grimy streets

What a creature
Her poetry scribbled on the back of grocery receipts
Her love scribbled on the cheeks of men she kissed
The mark left somewhere between her breasts
The hurt quickly swept under expensive carpets
Always transitory

Only to surface
At some Jardin Luxembourg or Butte du Charmont
Where cigarette smoke hovers above lying bodies and
Children in little jackets run to catch the ball and
The grass leaves a rash behind her thigh

What a creature
Intoxicated on Thursday nights stumbling beside the Seine
Perhaps contemplating suicide or yet another shot of cheap vodka
Aged men she got to taste before her time
She kissed goodbyes so casual
Like an afternoon masturbation
Always transitory

Point Ephémère and the Slum: How Paris Handles Her Refugees

Stretching along the Bassin Louis Blanc in Paris there are clusters of multi-colored tents, sitting idly, practically steaming in the May heat. The canal water lurks by quietly, and next door, Parisians sip beer or coffee at a trendy bar turned breakfast spot during the day. The bar is called Point Ephémère, French for ‘ephemeral’: fleeting, transient, temporary.

“I was going to have my throat cut in Afghanistan.”

It’s one of the first things he tells me. His assertion that he deserves refugee status, that he was in real danger — he will say it to some student who is not even French. I imagine he’s said it over and over again.

“I am a translator by profession. I speak five languages.”

His resume, his proof that he’s not a migrant worker. France is friendly to refugees, or so she claims, but wants to stop the flow of migrant workers, especially into Paris.

“In Afghanistan, I had a big villa, a nice car…”

He is not moving to Paris because he was poor at home and wants to make money. He is an intellectual, a skilled worker. He is useful. He is not a leech. He is more than his situation.

“This is not my life”.

While living in a temporary shelter beside the Bassin should have been a situation “ephémère,” Ahmed has lived on the street for over a year. After fleeing his situation in Afghanistan, he finally arrived in Europe and made it to Paris: the city of love, the city of lights. Stickers on the door outside Point Ephémère advocate for refugees, “J’existe”; around the city there are stenciled graffiti cutouts that have cropped up all over Europe — “refugees welcome”. He tells me that he wants to stay in Paris. He is good at French, he has family who have settled here, he wants to stop moving.

Immigrants in France who do not have documentation are called sans-papiers, the majority of them refugees, and while they wait for the government to determine their status they are not allowed to work. This means they are at the mercy of charities and a government allowance to stay alive. For the entire settlement of refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, there are a few portable toilets and there are the tents. While French President Macron had promised to see refugees housed by the end of 2017, thousands are still sleeping rough in the streets waiting for their fates to be decided. The ultimate requisite is, did you suffer enough at home to be allowed to stay here? Are you worthy of Paris?

This year Paris saw an unusually cold winter. The snow made the city picture perfect, but while many Parisians marveled at city dressed up in white, French police were spraying asylum-seekers’ blankets with water. The water would freeze, making it impossible for them to stay on the street and be warm, with the idea that they would go to immigration centers. The question the police never asked was why people would be sleeping on the street if there was space for them to be anywhere else. There were accounts of police telling immigrants to disperse, and when they asked where they should go, the police officers said, we don’t care, just somewhere else. I wouldn’t meet Ahmed and the other Afghan refugees until the snow had already melted, but they told me that it was Parisians, and particularly people who are of immigrant descent who helped them to make it through the cold. It was Parisians who brought blankets, food, water and winter jackets. Meanwhile the shelters were at full capacity. Temporary settlements cropped up and were treated like weeds by the police. Sprayed, cleared, and the people shuffled along. Sometimes they had to sleep standing up to avoid being noticed by the police.

I first encountered Point Ephémère accidentally, on a night out with two friends in March. I was on my way to a jazz club near the Stalingrad metro station; night had already fallen, and the Stalingrad area is already a little sketchy to begin with. When you exit the metro, you pass a neon “Paris Fried Chicken” shop, and are dwarfed by a grey bridge with peeling posters and graffiti.

It’s easy to get confused on the Parisian streets, especially when it’s nighttime and your mobile map app thinks you’re floating in the Seine for some reason. It took us a long time to find the jazz club, so we were disappointed when we looked through the window and saw a lone musician and an empty restaurant.  The music that floated through the glass was sub-par, and my jazz-expert friend deemed it “not worth it”. We decided to go to a different place, Point Ephémère, which popped up as a suggestion on the internet.

We stood on the bridge, looking down at the club and I pointed out four rats to my friends as we paused at the bewildering scene below. On one side of the rat meet-up there was a line to get into the bar. On the other side of them there were tents, sleeping bags and a canal with the most overpowering smell I’d encountered in Paris thus far.

My friends and I looked at each other, and then looked back at the scene. This place was beside the water, a prime location to party, but didn’t these club-goers notice the slum beside them? Didn’t they care? Across the canal there were about a dozen police vehicles. Unsettled, we followed our map up the wrong street, and then down that same street, and then up it again. We were sure that place below couldn’t be where we were trying to go. A smiling stranger walking his fluffy white dog stopped us, “You seem lost!”

We explained what we were looking for. He frowned, “That’s it, it’s right by the canal.”  He pointed to some stairs we could take down to the water. When we peered down onto the alley below we saw three men peeing against the wall.

Some people come to Paris because it’s the city of love, the city of lights. It’s easy to see Paris through these rose-coloured glasses. You smell something funny and breathe through your mouth, you hear something scuttle in the corner of the metro and you choose not to look.  Why ruin an otherwise perfect place by paying attention to those little flaws? Other people, the artsy types, come to Paris because of that layer of grime. It seemed we had found one of those places; the kind of place where the music is loud, the hipsters are chatty and artists float in and out with ideas spewing from their multi-coloured lipstick mouths. Point Ephémère calls itself “a center of artistic dynamics”, with visual artists and musicians in residence, rehearsal studios, a concert hall and a bar. As with so many places in this city, you never know who you might meet there.

We descended the stairs, careful to avoid puddles of anything at that point, and entered into a crowd by the canal. People were drinking and smoking, talking and laughing. We weaved our way through and approached the bouncer, but paused when we saw the tents.

“Why would they camp next to a river?”

“Well they need somewhere to go to the bathroom.”

“I wonder if they’re immigrants.”

“I wonder if they’re gypsies.”

Someone was barbequing next to a tent. We debated whether the people in tents were actually a bunch of hippies who were choosing to sleep outside of the club.  

“Is that allowed?”

The smell told us otherwise. These people were living here at least semi-permanently. We looked at the bright lights of the club and the fog of people pressed against each other. I kept thinking I could see a rat in the corner of my eye. We decided to leave, with our heads full of questions about Point Ephémère. I knew that we would be back.

Homelessness and poverty in Paris are two things that you can choose to confront or ignore. I’ve noticed that many people tend to pretend not to see it, or they romanticise it. In the Châtelet metro station there is a woman who lies with her forehead to the ground and her hands stretched out in front of her, a coffee cup balanced in her fingers. People mill right past her. Entire families sit on the stairs in the metro, children asleep on their parents’ laps, signs stating that they’re Syrian refugees, or that they just need a meal balanced on their knees. Sometimes people come onto the train with cups, declaring their need for food, or quietly asking each person for a euro. There is a particular question, when the beggar or homeless person is a person of colour, about whether he or she is a refugee or not. I didn’t realise how important that question was until we returned to Point Ephémère for a second time.

When I returned, I brought the same two friends with me. The Stalingrad area looked totally different in the day. It felt like it had its arms open; there were people with babies in strollers and groups standing outside smoking and chatting. Even the “Paris Fried Chicken” shop that had seemed so comically seedy at night looked like a nice place for a fried chicken sandwich during the day.

We approached the tents and the bar and noticed that there were people sitting outside, having lunch and chatting. Once again, I was shocked by how little they seemed to care about the people in tents beside them. The club-goers or hipsters and the people living in the tents came from two different worlds: one of abstract care for immigrants among little-known musical beats and one of homelessness.  Two worlds that don’t mix.

We approached a man having breakfast, and asked him if he knew a little bit about the club and the people living near it. We were surprised to learn that all the people in tents were “Syrian refugees”. He told us that they were being supported by NGO’s and they had to live there until they got official refugee status. They sometimes came to the club for Wi-Fi. We asked him what he thought the solution to the problem could be and he said that the only solution was to end the war in Syria. Then we clarified that we’d meant what was the solution to people living outside in tents, and he shrugged, “the situation is so complicated, very complicated. The NGO’s do good work for them.”

We walked past a man sitting cross-legged on the slope leading up to the bridge. He was wearing round John Lennon-style glasses, had long flowing blond hair and was eating his lunch with the view of the slum below. Another hipster who wanted a taste of the grimy layer of Paris, yet he was still elevated above the slum-dwellers of course. I felt uncomfortable looking at him.

We stood on the bridge contemplating how to approach these “Syrian refugees” when my friend, Chiran, caught their attention. They waved to him and he waved back. Then we stood, awkwardly staring at each other. My friends and the people near the tents below were all laughing and glancing at each other, unsure of how to handle the situation socially. Chiran broke the impasse by waving for them to come up onto the bridge. They did, and what we learned was surprising.

Around ten of them came up to talk to us, and at first it was difficult to navigate through a sea of French and English. We found ourselves miming to them. Finally, after the men clarified that they’re from Afghanistan, my friends realised that they had a language in common: Hindi/Urdu. My friends spoke to everyone this way, but especially a man named Malang. That was when I met Ahmed.

He tried to speak to me in French first, since it was obvious that I didn’t understand Hindi. Then he switched to English. For some reason he thought, or maybe hoped, that telling me his story would bring about some change. He had spoken to journalists and government officials, people who were full of promises.

“They take our fingerprints and our pictures and they tell us soon, soon, soon. I’ve been living here for a year.”

Meanwhile, one of the men said to my Indian friend, “India and Afghanistan are brothers. You have to help us.” She was lost for what to say, and only gently reminded him that we’re students but we would do what we could.

Some of the men watched my conversation with Ahmed intently, adding pieces and weaving strands into his story. They took us seriously. I asked what happens once they get refugee status; do they get any more help?

“Sometimes people move in with family once they get the papers but some of us already have them,” one of the men passed his to me gingerly, “and we still live here, we have nowhere else to go.”

For the group of people that I met as well as asylum-seekers all across Paris, health and sanitation are rapidly deteriorating. Public bathroom facilities are available but you often have to pay for those. Without being able to wash themselves properly they risk skin infections and scabies. They also live in fear of the police, who slash their tents and force them to move on. Immigrant centers turn them away because they’ve been maxed out. Police will show up without warning at temporary shelters like the one along the Bassin Louis Blanc and force immigrants onto buses to temporary shelters. People who don’t happen to be at the camp when it’s rounded up can be separated from friends and family, and risk losing the few possessions they do have when the entirety of the camp is thrown into dumpsters. Police have been known to tear-gas the groups as well. Sometimes they don’t send them anywhere in particular, they just tell them to disperse. Immigrants are treated like criminals in Paris, for all of the artists’ insistence that “immigrants are welcome” and Macron’s claim that France is “honored to welcome refugees.”

Roundups have created a vicious cycle for refugees of flitting from under one bridge to another. They go to immigration centers only to end up on the streets again. They are photoshopped out of the pristine Paris and are weaved with flower crowns in the hippie wonderland. Ahmed told me his greatest annoyance was that people from the bar would come to take pictures of the camp.

“When we ask them why, they say they will make a Facebook post so people know about us. But people already know, and it is not dignified.”

The life of the refugee is transformed again, into a sad story that is shareable. A thread in a night at an artsy bar that you visited. A grimy layer in a tapestry. But the people living in those tents are not just a backdrop. They are not ephemeral men.

The problem with awareness campaigns and Facebook statuses is that these people are already very visible. They are so visible in Paris that it becomes possible to have a cigarette next to their living space. To have a cocktail and talk about contemporary art. To piss a few meters away from where they have to sleep at night, seeing them but not understanding what their presence really means. They become reduced to the way they look, flattened into ‘Syrian’ refugees who “we”, the true Paris, can do nothing for. In Paris, people view immigrants, especially immigrants of colour in two ways. They are refugees, who only matter because of their sad situation, and there are economic migrants. I met one man in the Paris flea market who, when I said I was from Abu Dhabi, told me he wanted to go to Dubai.

“Paris is racist. They don’t like me because I am Arab, because I am Muslim, because I have a beard.”

The man we met was not a refugee, so he is seen as a leech. Taking “true” Parisians’ jobs. Not French. Not worthy. His journey has been deemed not sad enough, not enough of a struggle. His story is a thread that so many would like to tear out of the tapestry. He is a beard, a religion, an “other”. Ahmed’s thread, by comparison, is a little blue one, a thread that we’re used to seeing and can’t distinguish from all the other refugee threads. I’m surprised when he tells me that he goes into the bar sometimes, that he parties, that he hates his boredom the most out of everything he has to deal with in Paris.

I left my conversation with Ahmed with a head full of questions. I had wanted a neat narrative, the kind of story that would help me to understand him and use him as a lens to see all refugees through. I wanted to write a story that would also act like a manual for how we could help “them”. Instead I was confused. The story was messy, and facts conflicted from one person to the other as I spoke to them. My friends got the phone number of the refugee they’d spoken to the most, named Malang. He said to call him any time. We promised that we would. I was determined to retrieve a “classic” refugee story, to dig out that blue thread and twist it around my finger.

A couple of weeks passed. When we called Malang he said of course he remembered us. We asked to meet at a McDonalds in Stalingrad, but he said to come to the camp and pick him up from there. I had a list of questions ready for him. I wanted to know who his family was, how he’d come to Paris, what he was running from, the smallest details of his life in the camp. I wanted a beginning, a turning point and a journey. I wanted trauma. I wanted a checklist for how to help.

When we arrived in Stalingrad we called him, as he’d told us to. A different voice answered the phone.

“Can we speak to Malang?”

“Who?”

“Malang. The owner of this phone.”

“This is my phone. I don’t know a Malang.”

We had just called less than an hour ago to arrange the meeting. We wondered if Malang’s phone had been stolen, who was that other voice? We decided to call back a little while later. This time a different voice answered.

“What do you want with Malang?” … “I don’t know who Malang is.” … “My name is Walih Khan” … “Who are you?” … “wrong number I think.”

Everything we asked was met with increasing suspicion. We told the voice we were students, that we’d arranged to meet him a little while ago.

“Malang got his papers and has a house now, he can’t meet with you because he has his papers.”

The voice hung up and I stood in a McDonalds in Stalingrad with a list of questions and no answers. I had wanted to learn the story of a refugee but realized how short-sighted I’d been. Of course, strangers asking for him by name would be suspicious. Refugees in Paris get treated like criminals. Men who don’t have homes and papers disappear, not worthy of the city or too afraid of the system to continue to trudge through it. They become ghost people, ephemeral and flittering, bounced from place to place without dignity. There is no one story of being a refugee, and there are no true answers to the who, what, when, where. There is especially no answer to the question why.

Just like the people at Point Ephémère, who had infuriated me, I was flattening the refugee story. I tried to whittle it down to one man, and I colored the entire experience blue rather than accepting complexity. When Ahmed told me that he hated that people came to the slum and took pictures I was confused about why it would bother him so much. I thought he was worried people might see him living in such conditions, but it was so much more than that. The attempt to take a snapshot of the refugee experience is futile, not only do we see it all the time, we also fail to see it because we’ve decided, like the French man who told us that they were Syrian, that we know the truth already.

I’m not the only writer who has tried to tell The Refugee Story. In our compassion, we often try to dig up the people who are suffering, already having decided what the narrative is going to be. We think that in telling their stories we’ll make some change. What we create is an easily-consumed mistruth.

Popular newspapers and magazines have focused on the widespread refugee situation, collecting heart-wrenching quotes from asylum-seekers about feeling like animals, being mistreated, being exhausted. The Independent writes about the “trail of misery”, City Lab writes about the asylum-seekers hope “unraveled” in Paris. They take a snapshot of the lives of each refugee and we read the newspaper and sigh. Then it becomes part of the picture of Paris, a part that you step over just like you step over the woman bowed with a cup in her hands in the Chatelet metro station. An easily-consumed story is also an easily forgotten one.

When Malang-not-Malang instructed me to meet him in Stalingrad and then another-Malang-not-Malang said he didn’t know who Malang was, it frustrated me. I imagine that I got a small taste of the frustration Malang and Ahmed and other asylum-seekers feel in Paris. They’ve lived on the street for over a year and there are no answers. They do exactly what they’re instructed to do but there is no neat ending in sight. While they’re very visible as a group, the individual man is a ghost. His story is too complex, too difficult to write, especially when we expect him to speak for the entire group. It’s easier to take a picture and let it speak for him, it’s easier to collect quotes that only depict suffering, as if everything about him is his pain. Statistics and snapshots are important. It would be much worse for the refugee to be invisible because nobody wants to try to depict the complexity of his story. Brushing it into a different alley, or under a different bridge, is exactly what we don’t want to do. Awareness is important, but it has to be accompanied by the individual story.

The first thing Ahmed told me about himself is that he is a translator. He can speak five languages. I learned from him that our compassion can also rest heavy on the shoulders of people who are suffering. In an effort to understand, or even help, we flatten. Malang and not-Malang taught me how difficult Paris has made it to know refugees because they’ve been dehumanized to the point of self-silencing. Discovering the individual refugee has been made into a near-impossible task because we’ve expected them to speak for the entire group, and because the city has been so hostile to them that they have to hide in case the truth has them deemed unworthy.

This piece is part of the Invisible Cities series.

Paris, the City of Lights, Love, and… Rats

What It Means to Fall in Love with Paris

Nose twitching, limbs pattering, the occasional screechy squeak. It’s always unsettling to see a rat on the Paris metro, or scuttling down some street somewhere on the cobblestones. Rats constantly get caught in the corner of your eye in this city; you see something, turn your head sharply and feel your heart freeze a little when you realise what it is. Then you marvel at how this little creature could be walking around so brazenly, as if it has no idea that it’s not allowed. A night in Paris would be incomplete without that grimy layer, a questionable smelly film that covers the bottom of an otherwise pristine window.That murky music that whispers from one of the city’s many rabbit holes; there are some that you may not want to fall down into, and some that you definitely do.

Despite the grime, Paris is still the most romanticised city in the world. Some of the people who come here carefully dodge every rabbit hole and experience only the pristine surface. These types come for the museums and galleries. They stand with their backs straight, staring at each piece of work with a carefully composed pensive look. Some come for the fashion, or to finally wear those outfits they’re not brave enough to wear at home, toting the French silk scarf and posing for an increasingly reluctant boyfriend. They cultivate the perfect Instagram feed. Some come for the food, the wine, the cheese. Some come for love. These are the romantics. They stare slack-jawed at the ceiling in Galleries Lafayette. They definitely don’t turn their head to notice the metro rat. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who come to Paris specifically to seek out those rabbit holes. In Paris they have a name for these types, the bobos, short for bourgeois-bohemians. Middle class hipsters with edgy tastes. These are the artsy types, the boho-chic, the people who dig into the grime to find a hippie wonderland. The people who make mud cakes out of the filth. They breathe in deeply the smells that would shock the romantics, and they are fascinated by the long fall between standing atop the Eiffel Tower and the crawling common metro rat. The rat, meanwhile, goes about his business.

It was a Sunday afternoon when I first met a Parisian rat. I was at the flea market to search through vintage racks and mull over all the things I couldn’t afford. I was somewhere between the visitor who thinks Paris is perfect, and the hipster who can’t get enough of the grime, but both versions of this illusion of Paris were about to begin to crack . The rat was on his way to his nest. He crawled out from a marsupial network by the metro tracks, shuffled along the wall, passed the homeless person in a sleeping bag, and disappeared into another hole that would take him up to the street. I saw him for the first time after a man who was selling perfumes asked where my friend and I were from, and we explained that we live in Abu Dhabi. He told us that he wanted to move to Dubai. “Paris is racist”. I saw the rat while the perfume-seller explained that because of his beard, his skin, his country, he could never belong to this city, it would never accept him. A few moments later, another rat followed my friend and I through the stalls, cat-calling and jeering at the women who dared to walk around such an area alone. One man got right behind us and growled, cackling when we jumped away. One stopped straight in front of me, sugar drooling grotesquely from his lips when he said “oh mignonne!” (oh cute!) and I had to duck around him.

When you first fall in love with Paris, you will experience puppy love. A false and doting, hopeful love. You wonder how you got so lucky to bask in the glory of such a city. Whether you are the pristine type or the bobo, the narrative you’ve constructed about this city is wrong, I promise. Viewing the city through its prettiest facades requires a willful blindness, and pretending that the gross, dark, disturbing parts of the city are different here than they would be anywhere else is simply false. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll try to do both. Then you’ll meet our rat. He can appear for the first time in a variety of settings. You might see him when you walk past the woman in Chatelet metro station, with her forehead pressed to the floor, her arms outstretched, a coffee cup balanced on her fingertips and no coins inside. After you watch three men pee less than ten meters away from a place where asylum-seekers are sleeping in the cold, you’ll notice him washing his whiskers. You’ll see him behind the homeless person who is being dragged away without his possessions by the metro police. You’ll feel him like a hangnail that rips too far up your finger when your friends tell you that they feel like outsiders in this city because of their race. You’ll hear him in the voice of the Frenchman who tries to grind on you in a club and yells back at you when you angrily tell him off.

You’ll start to see the grime everywhere, and Paris will stop being romantic. You’ll feel like you’re falling backwards and the city will transform. So will you. This transformation is painful, but necessary. The second stage of being a visitor in Paris, if you stay long enough to meet the rat and become well acquainted with him, is hatred. This happened for me in the thick of winter, when the snow came unexpectedly, when French felt like that gummy crap the orthodontist shoves in your mouth to make molds of your teeth, and I got fined twice in one night on the metro. It’s difficult to remember feeling like that now, in retrospect, but I fell out of puppy love. I didn’t know yet that recognising the flaws of the place, just like recognising your partner’s flaws in a relationship, is a necessary first step to understanding. You can’t really love someone until you know them, and the same is true for Paris.

In the flea market, the first day I met the rat, I also discovered the rabbit hole. My friend and I escaped the jeering of the rats as we wound through alleys created by stalls and stores. Then we stumbled onto a door. It was metal and ajar.

“I think we should go through.”

We glanced at each other, and then pushed it open. Inside opened into a high ceiling and galleries decorated with graffiti. The noise from outside melted away as we wandered further into this warehouse-like building. Vintage stores, nostalgia shops and artists’ nooks came out of the woodwork. Stairs led us up to a vintage store selling designer handbags. We found a 20’s costume shop, empty except for the mannequins staring in their glitzy flapper dresses. The rabbit hole took us all the way to Nadine Mbaka, an artist who was celebrating the opening of her stand with a group of friends. Her work is a mesmerising fountain of black and white lines, which jump off various surfaces the longer you look at them, to wrap themselves around your fingers and drag you into a created world. She is a self-described “artist and feminist, moon girl”. Her work explores the female body, sexuality and space. Her lines create a language, a signature that can cover any surface. Aside from how much I loved her work, Nadine was incredibly welcoming and humble. She thanked us for looking at her work, gave us her contact information, and told us to come back any time. Despite the discomfort I experienced in the flea market, I left the rabbit hole promising I would find it again. Of course, I never went back, but I do follow Nadine on Instagram [@greunadine] and I lust after all of her new work. On that day, I experienced some of the issues I would struggle with understanding about Paris; the treatment of immigrants, what it means to be a woman and to be alone in this city, and feeling overwhelmed by how many layers can coexist in one space. I also met a young artist whose grace made me feel at ease and who was sunny to me despite my lack of French language, and lack of belonging.

The truth is that this city is complex, and after hatred, if you don’t give up on it, Paris will yield you her best rabbit holes. The layers will cease to cancel each other out. The Eiffel Tower is still magnificent even when you finally admit to yourself that you find it kind of ugly. It is magnificent even when, on your last night in Paris, a man selling wine underneath offers you “cocaine, weed, hash?”. He and the cheap tourist toys that light up in the dark, as well as the immigrant men who sell them, belong just us much as the baguette and cheese and the tower itself. The parts that don’t fit into the pristine Paris create a much more interesting, complex story than the one that the city tries to sell you at first. Underneath the Sacre Coeur, the men who try to sell string bracelets by putting them on your wrist and tying them before you can say no are just as much a part of the tapestry as the monument is. Along the Bassin Louis Blanc, the suffering of the asylum-seekers from Afghanistan are just as much a part of the city’s story as Point Ephemere –  a hippie wonderland right next door. When you understand and accept that Paris is both beautiful and ugly and when you’ve collected enough stories from different Parisians, when you can accept the complexity of this city, that’s when you will truly love it.

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.

Artwork by Nadine Mbaka

Cité Universitaire

Feathered, vibrating, gargling
A song stuck in their throats
Mimicking, skipping gasps of assured flight.
A hop and airborne.
A sound like a stick dragged along
An iron fence—but quicker, lighter
Shaking out, crying out.

She follows two steps behind
As he weaves her through wildflowers
Human food fought over and insects kissed
Snapped up, shaken
A spider lands on a bare knee
Creeping up to her hemline as her eyes widen.

A honeybee lands on a flower
Gracelessly drawn on a bottle of iced tea
It snorts its disappointment
Meanwhile trees whisper, quiet—quiet
I imagine they were nest-born
Golden-born
Those two flapping and scolding in the grass

His deep voice reaches out to cradle her
And her hunger keeps them tethered

Feathered, vibrating, gargling
That two-part melody
Honey sweet and sticky

 

 

Artwork by Ilona Szalay “Smoke and Mirrors”

Taking the RER B

Bir-Hakeim

My best friend missed her flight because she needed to see the Eiffel Tower. She simply would not have been to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. On the day, the train takes just a bit too long but when we emerge from the Bir-Hakeim metro station, finally, the tower emerges like Goliath pouncing upon our fantasies. The sky is grey; the Eiffel Tower is grey too. My friend peers up at it and I quickly snap a photo. It comes out fuzzy, bleak. This picture will exist as a record on her Instagram, that she has been here, that she visited this continent, that she came to this city and stamped it.

She was here. She was there.

Later, when my friend disappears down the stairwell, into Bir-Hakeim station and out of her Paris, I walk closer to the base of the tower. There are little knots of West African men, selling mini Eiffel Towers on keyrings. Five for a euro! Five for a euro – small, medium, big! I can tell they are West African because their accents have that curious spooling of two histories – French and Wolof maybe, or another native language. Colonial and natural. It is one of my favourite accents, as if speaking whilst a truffle rolls around in your mouth, a sticky mixed chocolate truffle where the white and dark are swirled together like marble. I am reminded of my friend Arame, an economics major from Senegal who studied with me in Abu Dhabi, how her lips turned even such words like “finance” and “merger” into a unique kind of music.

The West African men are smiling at us but their grins all have droplets of anxiety lodged within them, like weak rain struggling to slide down the tower’s crisscrossing beams. It is raining now. They huddle into themselves, into their almost threadbare hoodies, and spread their hands across the mini Eiffel keyrings, as if gesturing to an array of potions that when drunk, will transfer you somewhere else, up the tower and beyond, all the way to your far-off dreams.

 

Aéroport Charles De Gaulle

Name: Vamika Sinha
Date of birth: 03/04/1998
Sex: F
Occupation: Student
Nationality: Indian
Place of Issue: Gaborone

The stamp on my passport page exists like a tattoo on skin: a visible mark carrying a history, an imprint both borne out of and onto memory. Permanent. What is the story behind this fading French thing? How has it become a double mark of identification, both technically, my admittance through the Paris airport, as well as metaphorically, an engraving on my evolving identity?

The story of my stamp begins, as it usually does, on a page.

When I was 15, I checked out a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast from the school library. This is a memoir written about Hemingway’s time spent as a struggling expatriate journalist in Paris during the 1920s, surrounded by his friends and fellow artists, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and others – known as the “Lost Generation” in the artery of history, a clump of artistic creatives, meandering misers and penniless geniuses. A Moveable Feast is a mosaic of a time and a place and a set of people now lost to us in the present; personal accounts, written observations, streams of consciousness and old rendezvous’ melt into each other on the page, with the fluidity and irregularity of the River Seine. Throughout, Hemingway mentions several addresses of cafés, apartments, bars and residences that can still be found in Paris today. What results is a fragmented piece of textual cartography, mapping a narrative of Paris through the lens of a writer and artist amid the city’s jazz age.

I was a believer. I believed in Hemingway’s moveable feast; I believed in his city, his Paris in text. I believed it and committed to it as something holy, a distant reality and sacred fairytale. Maybe I still do, in a corner of my gut. At 15-16, I was lost, inside the unwieldy spines of literature that were so much larger and smarter than me, inside the mouth of an impending future as a literature student-maybe, an expatriate journalist-maybe. Through Hemingway’s text about his Lost Generation in Paris, I could remain lost but also find a sense of belonging in that lost-ness, of smoky cafes and smoky opportunities. Paris had come to save me. It was reaching out a hand to help, fingers outstretched, one of them looped on a cigarette and the rest promising to propel me into a city that, in its own beautiful, fragmented authenticity, could allow me too to be that beautiful, fragmented thing: a creative human, comfortable within itself, comfortable as exactly itself and what it was trying to be.

At 19, I got the opportunity to find my own Paris, not just Hemingway’s, but like a warm baguette hugged to my chest, just mine for the savouring. What I write today is my own textual cartography, perhaps just as fragmented and even more questioning of what it means to put down a city on a page, to formulate its borders in words, to stamp it.

 

Louvre-Rivoli

Next to Paris’ oldest bookstore is an overpriced café. You can sit inside a little plastic enclosing with a heater above your head, to protect you from the cold rain. I sit in a corner with my two friends. We order tiny coffees, black and bitter inside shiny, white cups. The rain drums gently on the plastic roof, like the sound of someone’s footsteps running away. For the next hour, my friend reads aloud from a French poetry book, maybe it was Rimbaud. Sip, sip, sip. The rain falls steadily. Run, run, run. We stare off into the distance and speak stiltingly in our nascent French. Oui, oui, oui. We think, we are sure, we are intelligent. My friend lights a cigarette and the meeting between paper and flame makes a soft fizz. All of history, conversations past between Sartre and Picasso and Dali and Beauvoir inside warmly lit cafes, are smoke phantoms hovering above our heads. I wonder if this is what it is to truly be in Paris. I think, I am sure, I want this to be true. The cigarette dies out and we are left with a stub, an unfinished book, a hefty bill and some rain.  We think, we are sure, we are very, very young in a very, very old place. Somewhere in a little Haussmanian apartment in the 5th arrondissement, a little child kneels at the feet of his ailing grandfather, exchanging stories bright like peeling pink paint.

 

Cité Universitaire

“May I have a Nutella crêpe please?”
“Bien sûr, mon ami. Here, have some tea.”
“Really? For free? C’est vraiment gratuit?”
“For free, mon ami – welcome to Paris.”

Outside my dorm, deep in the unglamorous 14th arrondissement, there is a crêpe stand. Pass by and you will be followed by Holiday or Sinatra, wispy in your ears like smoke; pause to stop and you will get free Middle Eastern tea in a small plastic cup. Opposite the stand, there is the way to the airport, direct on the RER B. The central artery of the Paris metro, this train connects all us students to the rest of the city and also, in a way, to the rest of the world.

I sip my tea in thought. Hmm…there is some mint in this, a generous amount of sugar…it reminds me of the two-dirham tea I like to buy in downtown Abu Dhabi. A sentimental taste. My mouth warms up from the cold, metallic newness of the French language.

“I am from Palestine,” he says, after I praise the tea, fishing for a recipe to WhatsApp my mother. “The thing is, you will not be able to make this on your own. You will have to come here only. Why? Because first, I make it with love. And then, the ingredients are plants I bring from home, from Nablus. So I think I will keep this recipe secret,” he says, grinning, one hand on the Algerian sauce, the other wielding crepe batter.

One day, my Mexican friend Diego, who studies at NYU London, visits me for the weekend. Every time I host a visitor, the first thing I do is have crepes with them. It was how I was welcomed to Paris and how I want my friends to be too. Something warm and fulfilling, something I come to consider more Parisian than even a baguette or spotting beret-clad heads in the winter. Diego orders a “crêpe special”, hot with eggs, meat, veggies, sauce and cheese. It is 10pm and the stand is busy. Conversations fizz around us, mingling with the steam of the crepes and the ever-present radio jazz. A man beside us orders in Spanish and Diego interrupts, gleefully pouncing on the chance to speak his mother tongue. We find out the customer is actually Italian and studies business in France. I interject in English that I am planning to go to Italy soon and he rattles off a few recommendations for things to do in Rome and Florence. He asks us where we are from and we sigh with faux-exasperation at having to explain the curious complication of being a NYU Abu Dhabi student. The act is tiring but secretly pleasurable. Diego explains that he is Mexican but studied in Costa Rica before moving to the Middle East for school and is now doing a semester in London. I explain my Indian origin, growing up in Botswana and then meeting Diego in Abu Dhabi before coming to Paris for this semester. Our new Italian friend is fascinated and then surprises us by saying he too applied to NYU Abu Dhabi. I feel heady. A guy from Iran joins in our conversation. Behind me, the American girl who lives next door to my dorm orders a sandwich in French. Two passers-by greet the crepe man in cheerful Arabic, their words bouncing off each other like happy marbles. I am struck at this moment by the thought that I am content.

“Do you like it here in Paris?” Diego asks the crepe man.

“Oh, yes. I love my crepe stand. People come here and I can give them tea and food and for a little while, I can make them feel at home. I have met so many students like you. I know so many of their secrets!” he laughs. “I like helping them. Sometimes I will know my customer’s birthday and I will offer them a crepe for free and they will start to cry. I just want to make people feel at home. This is a big city. I like it. I have experienced a lot here. I have suffered here, I have almost died here. It is important for me.”

I return to his stand almost every day – after classes, after dates, after naps, after long work days, after crying, after grocery shopping, after bittersweet Skype calls, after clubbing. The food is cheap and I know, however much I ache with aloneness, I will always get a smile here, always a friendly “ca va?” that isn’t just for obligation, and always a cup of tea that, although irreproducible, will never fail to reproduce a tender memory of somewhere I once lived. Perhaps I will also hear another language, a Moroccan grabbing a quick dinner or a pair of German backpackers clutching cups of tea. I bask in this flagrant display of diversity and difference. The crepe stand becomes a kind of utopia, a microcosm of the globe, tongues full of various languages, cultures and histories, all meeting over a few Nutella crepes in peace.

“What is your name?”

Diego asks the question and it occurs to me that I do not know the name of the man who serves me crepes almost every day. He laughs, the sound of skittering marbles.

“Uh. You can just call me the Crêpe Man. That’s it, that’s who I am.”

I understand: this jovial, dreadlocked man will never reveal his identity to me. He is telling me I will never really know him and that is true. We will eat his crepes and talk for a little while and then we will all go on our ways. We are transient. My first day in Paris, I boarded the RER B to the Cité Universitaire station, realizing that at one point, I will memorize almost all the stops but never really understand what any one of them means. I will write about them. That’s for sure, again and again, until I am an old lady, quietly making tea for herself in an apartment, on the corner of experience and optimism.

 

Châtelet-Les Halles

On a bright Friday afternoon, I find myself outside the Châtelet-Les Halles station, waiting for a good mood, waiting for a friend. I have ordered a chocolat viennois, my favourite thing to drink in this city, the uneven pyramid of white cream on dark, dark sweetness. The sun slides itself into vision, lazy and slow, leaving the air, my hair and the glass on the table draped in light like honey. There is the urge for a cigarette. All around me, young Europeans bloom like individual petals off their round café tabletops. I am alone. Their clothes are simple and beautiful, their espresso cups glossy, their mouths effortlessly curled around Marlboros and common French expressions – ben non, en fait, ouaiiiiis. My clothes too are stylish if cheap, my highlighter new and shiny –  3 euros’ worth from my closest Franprix – and I am silently watching everything through my amateurly lined eyes. Down to its spring light, Paris has effortlessly smooth skin, without trying. Without trying at all.

It seems I have arrived in the great belly of the feast. Sipping on my drink, I pull out a book to read by a prolific writer; the café waitress wafts over with a tissue-like receipt; I respond automatically with “merci”; I wait. It is a performance, a kind of ballet routine, a series of movements I once learned in a dream. But I know my almond skin peeks out of the corps de ballet, like a shy sun from within the clouds. I know I cannot really speak like them, even after months of language classes, their matte mouths talking away at Sartre or Islam or fascism, so many things that always somehow only concerns them, while thousands of tiny cigarettes die at their pale hands. So many creamy white Venus sculptures coming to life in a café outside Châtelet. So many of them mattering, without trying. Without trying at all. They do not know the smallness of being from nowhere, of being a mere capillary in the body of relevance.

They do not know me and I do not know them.

 

Gare de Lyon

This morning, I talked to the Crêpe Man again before work. I found out he has a Master’s degree.

“My major was political science and international relations. I used to work for the presidential cabinet here, receiving the, how do you say, the internationals? I was in the administration.”

He flips over a crepe, his lips mouthing the words to something by Louis Armstrong playing on the radio. I am surprised and then ashamed at being surprised.

“So why are you not doing that anymore?”

The Crepe Man explains to me how he didn’t have good relations with his colleagues in the administration. “They didn’t like me. Probably, it was jealousy. I could speak French, although not as well as them, but I also spoke English and Arabic, and better than them. So they were, kind of like, hostile to me.”

“Did they say something? Were they ever rude to you, directly?”

“No, no, it was…I felt it. I could just feel it. Sometimes they don’t have to say anything but you know. You feel it. You feel you are not wanted there.”

I nod and do not say anything.

A group of tourists come up to order paninis and cokes and the crepe man strikes up an animated conversation, signalling me to wait. I take this chance to really look at him. The Crepe Man’s face is a clear expressionist homage to the emotions he has worn in his life. His shadowy jaw, his swinging dreadlocks, a mouth stretched with both sorrow and beaming, a pair of temperamental dark eyes with crow’s feet.

He turns to me when the tourists leave.

“I can speak about six languages. Arabic, of course. English, because now everyone in Palestine, they are knowing English. I wanted to be different so I came to France and now I speak French too. Also, a little Spanish because I think it is a beautiful language. I like travelling there and I wanted to learn it to speak it there. And you know, it would also be helpful for my diplomat job. And then there is Portuguese. One time I had a Portuguese family, they were my customers and they were visiting so while they were here, I picked it up,” he pauses to flip a crepe over. “I also speak Hebrew.”

He doesn’t say anything more so I ask him how he learned it. He laughs, slightly nervously. I wait to see if he will answer.

“Okay. Okay, I, uh…you know, Fidel Castro once, he said that to understand your enemy, you must know their language. So…that is why I am able to speak it.”

I nod and do not say anything.

Jazz from the radio fills the gap in our conversation, the sound of it a pat on the shoulder, a comfort for both of us.

“Who doesn’t like jazz?” the Crepe Man laughs, “But to me, this is the music of resistance,” and I am astounded by the reality of someone still listening to jazz as exactly what it once stood for: a subtle revolution. “I listen to it because for people like me, this is the sound of resistance. Of not wanting to surrender.”  He goes on to tell me how he is planning to form a jazz band in Paris. In Palestine, he used to work as a music teacher’s assistant, just like I once did in Botswana. In Paris, he laments how the music for people like him has become a bizarrely bourgeois commodity.

“For good jazz, you have to pay all these euros just to be in the presence of it. That’s not what it’s supposed to be!”

After I leave with my panini, I put on some Coltrane and take the long commute to work. The RER B reminds me of the A train in New York, how it travels up to Harlem, the once-hotbed of jazz and resistance.

My phone pings with an email from my boss. For a few weeks now, I have been working as a writing and communications intern at a tourism start-up, doing translations and fluffy blog pieces to attract Anglophone customers to the company. The window by my desk looks over the city like an observant parent. In the distance, the Sacre-Coeur rises from the skin of Paris, a pretty little blemish that is the former village of Montmartre.

When I arrive at the office tower outside Gare de Lyon, the glass doors slide open quietly, submissive to their guest. I walk through, moving faster to catch the elevator going upwards. A different receptionist is in the lobby today, an old East Asian woman with unflattering eye makeup, spectacles and a pixie cut. She stops me at the entryway.

Because I am a new intern, I haven’t received an access card yet to enter the offices. The receptionists usually let me through with a smile when I tell them I work for Intripid on the 11th floor and that I will receive my card in a few days. Today, however, I am stopped.

When I approach the desk, the receptionist starts rattling rapid-fire French to me, gesturing me to fill in some forms and show a bunch of IDs. I think I have to sign something. I have to explain who I am. I try to cling on to the hooks of familiar words and phrases, to notice when they curve up into questions in the end so I know I have to formulate a response. She asks me many things. I rummage for the words, my French coming out toothy and gapped.

I can see the receptionist getting angry. The receptionist is pissed. She slows her words into mockery, speaking in a painful, loud, laboured French, modelled to fit my apparent incompetence. She sighs and rolls her eyes and purses her thin lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I see two of my colleagues emerge obliviously from the elevator, heading out for a smoke. I have been standing here for twenty minutes.

“Okay, you listen. I. Am. Very. Busy. I have a lot of work. Can you speak French? No…English? Do you speak that?”

I stare at her.

“I have. A lot. Of work,” she repeats.

“Yes, yes, I speak English,” the words spill in a gush, my mouth re-adapting to something it is confident with, to a renewed sense of control.

The receptionist chews up the seed of my French and spits it into the air. Something in me is shrivelling. This is not even her language. It is not mine either. English, French, none of us own them. We are instead owned by them. I stare at her, the way her soot black eyeliner misses the rim of her eyes. I can’t look away. I can’t run away.

The receptionist begins explaining the forms to me in English. Her English is very bad, like a piece of broken glass on the floor. Something in me wants to clamp down my boot and crush it. To say words like “discombobulate”, words I know better, that are so big they could dwarf her mouth the way she has dwarfed me. It feels sick, this power, this desire for control, this primal display of humanness, this sharp rebellion against being made into an alien in a matter of minutes. I want her to feel it. I want it to squeeze around her neck as well, like a too-tight turtleneck.

I want to make her feel like she is the one without the bloody access card.

Instead, I quietly sign my name and walk through to the elevator. I have a lot of work today.

 

Porte de Choisy

“Bienvenue de chez moi!”

The tram doors open to a blustery Wednesday evening. My Malaysian friend Tzy Jiun has brought me to an Asian supermarket because she wants to taste her way across the distance to home and because I have very little money to eat. We are going to buy ramen and on the tram there, I stick my head in a novel while trying to calculate the maximum number of Indomie packets that will be affordable for two weeks. My friends crack jokes in the corner or scroll through Instagram, swaying from the poles in order not to fall.

Last night, I woke up at 4;34 with a scrabbling in my stomach. I gulped water and rolled over to sleep. The good thing about sleep is that you can will yourself into oblivion about anything real. I will not get eight hours again, ok. There is one frozen lasagne in my fridge and half a baguette in my bag today, ok. I have three pages of writing to finish tonight, ok. There are four tram stops to Chinatown now, ok. I study literature but life is also maths, ok. Maybe not Pythagorean theorems but the cashier counts out your change in French, ok. This ATM doesn’t tell you your balance in English, ok. Two flicks of mascara on your eyes so you cannot cry today, ok. 17 more days till home and your mother cooking for you again, ok.

Okay. Okay. Okay.

How many okays does it take to really feel ok?

I go quiet as we thread our way through apartment blocks and food vendors. I think my friends have become used to this but today, it’s not because I am feeling anxious or depressed, as I have nervously explained to them in past cases. I am watching Tzy Jiun practically bound across the concrete and zebra crossings and it makes me glad to see her find a sense of warmth, a semblance of her home in “the land of white people” as she calls it. For months, I have been reading her poems, unashamedly angry and desperately tender, as she writes about conversing with two old ladies near Porte de Choisy in her language, or eating with chopsticks, her everyday rebellion. I have seen her quietly write herself into a middle finger, aimed at the white boxes she’s had to tick all her life, again and again.

I have been ticking boxes too. Sometimes I become the box itself. A white box – grease-soaked cardboard flimsy –  of chilli chicken curry, made cheap with too much oil and too much haste, in a far-flung foreign country. For take-away, please. I walk ahead, looking up. The apartment blocks in Chinatown are off-white and look like stacked boxes. If I squint my eyes a little bit, they transform into a beige neighbourhood in an unimportant part of New Delhi. My stomach is scrabbling and I squint harder. So many boxes in the world, all I am doing is trying to make a home out of them.

On the tram, between calculating ramen purchases, my eye snagged on a few phrases from my novel, that come back to smart in my vision.

“That’s nothing! You’re just making yourself sad.”

“You’re just making yourself sad.”

That’s nothing!

That’s nothing!

That’s nothing!

Nowadays, if you feel something, it is nothing. It is fleeting, it will pass, it is temporary, it will not stay – therefore, it is nothing.

I too am fleeting in Paris. I will not stay. I have been fleeting in every country I have ever been in: the one I grew up in, the one I fell in love with, the one on my passport, the one where I was born. What am I, then?

That’s nothing!

If you theorize an emotion and put it in a box, it becomes something. If you put people of color’s feelings into an A4 academic document, they become something. If you tear down our historical temples and buildings, then come to marvel at our ‘exotic’ ruins discarded like wrappers, we become something – the Paris of the East, the Switzerland of India, the Venice of Asia or whatever else. After Van Gogh died, someone put his paintings in four-corner frames and only then they became something.

But weren’t they always beautiful on their own? Weren’t they?

That’s nothing!

Inside the Asian supermarket, called Tang Frère (I note the amalgamation of a Chinese and French word each, a space left purposefully in between, the latter word meaning ‘brother’), it is a labyrinth. Foreign symbols and labels surround me in flocks, stacks, boxes. I am overwhelmed. Tzy Jiun is skipping across the aisles, picking things out for herself. I shuffle through the foreign sea, trying to find the ramen. I wonder if there is a place like this for Indians, or South Asians at the very least, somewhere in Paris. I berate myself for not having made the effort to find it all this time. In my head, the symbols around me transform into familiarity – Haldiram’s snack packets, Kurkure, Dabur remedies, okra, rows and rows of Maggi noodles (the mildest flavor, hot), Amul dairy, Britannia biscuits, chai, Everest masalas, even paan and somewhere wedged in between, incense sticks. My eyes close. For a moment, I think I might slide to the floor, so quick that nobody would see, a smooth, boneless crumple.

That’s nothing!

My eyes shutter open.

I must be too hungry; this is no way to think.

That’s nothing!

Our plastic bags are full and the walk back is desperate. Bead by bead, restaurant after restaurant, follow on a string. What a beautiful necklace! Tzy Jiun seems happy.

That’s nothing!

Homesickness is something experienced by many but always felt so firmly as an individual, so very on your own: alone. It’s like birth or death. There is no one else in the world who can understand what my mother’s biryani symbolizes, walking through a street near Porte de Choisy. But I know, everyone has their own assortment of eggs in their basket, their own collection of pains they can turn over and polish, hopefully neglect, shamelessly consume.  

“Every step, there is a new kind of smell hitting you,” Tzy Jiun exclaims as we walk. She is right. Everything smells foreign, fresh, delicious, and my stomach is scrabbling, my innards like scorpions on sand. Through the windows, men and women lift heaving chopsticks to their lips; through the windows, people carry on and carry on and carry on, inside the apartment blocks, inside a box. I look around me before we near the tram, squinting. The thing is, even here, where another people try so beautifully, so naturally, to assert themselves in this city, all I can see is another place where I don’t belong. Again.
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!
That’s nothing!

The tram approaches and we step inside. Here is another box, where we don’t look at each other, until, of course, we are home.

 

Barbès-Rochechouart

This area is full of immigrants. You can notice these things on the train itself, the porous carriages filtering in a more eclectic mix of people as you approach Barbès. Tall, thin black men in ripped jeans and denim jackets, women in muumuus and babies strapped to their backs, young boys in rip-off designer kicks and snapbacks, huddled over a cheap iPod, a desi man with gel in his hair, talking just a bit too loud on his Nokia cell. My friend Zoe and I chew our bottom lips. This metro station is not pretending for anyone. Here the doors open to the smells of urine and urbanity; a vendor sells strawberries by the narrow staircase.

I am ashamed to say I immediately feel unsafe. My eyes scan the crowd for women. Especially, I am afraid to say, white women. The type who don’t look like they belong here. I put my head down, saying nothing, snaking my way through hordes of men, fingers extra tight on my purse, my wallet, my phone case.

As we walk out in search of a café, we pass a store called the Rose d’ Orient. It means what it sounds like: the rose of the orient. Zoe and I are drawn to the beautiful window display – bejewelled gowns with unusual draping, sequined lehengas, a grand Ethiopian wedding dress. Both of us are surprised to see such a casually expansive, rich display of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian dress. Of course, we smirk at the name “orient” and chuckle, remembering all our conversations about post-colonialism and Edward Said, watching them trickle into a small part of a small store in an “ethnic” area of northern Paris. We think, we are sure, we are very intelligent. Orient is the kind of word that if it were an object, would surely reek of incense; it is a kryptonite for alternative Parisians, or the “bobos” as they’re labelled here, the bourgeois-bohemians.

Later, I will go home and type the clunky French name – “Barbès-Rochechouart– into my search bar and this will come up:

“Everyone has their own story about Barbès, but there are repeating themes in the stories of outsiders: the disproportionate number of men in public spaces, Friday prayers in the street, drug traders and crack cocaine, the market under the Metro overpass, hijabi girls, and pickpocketing. Told to loved ones and strangers alike, these stories form the public reputation of Barbès and regulate the paths that individuals take to work and the places they frequent and shop. “They’ve never been here,” a co-worker tells me of her friends as we’re walking to my apartment. “And I don’t think they ever will.”

But of course, the orient is more than a word, I realize as we quickly walk towards more open spaces, wider streets. The orient is, in fact, an object. Just like a woman is an object. A piece of humanity made into concept, then galvanized by ignorance, misperception and blindness, into nothing more than a thing. It is an erasure of complexity – within this place, within Barbès, within the Orient, within people like me. It reeks, every single day.

Barbès is described as the kind of place where “disorder becomes danger”. There are no neatly lined boulevards but neon signs and corn husks and salons for African braids. It is a tapestry. The French is woven through with Wolof, Arabic, Urdu and more. The butcheries sell halal and there are foreign spices in the local groceries. There are swarms and swarms of swaggering, staggering men, hands stuffed in pockets, whether yours or theirs. There is the colonial and the natural, designer and original, splayed together on the streets like lost, scuffed Adidas sneakers looking for their pairs.

I am suddenly angry – a hot flush of shameful frustration. I am angry that an immigrant area is approached with such disdain. That my default setting is to think of an area as “shady” if it is full of black and brown men. I am angry that almost every immigrant neighbourhood I know is a blemish on a city map, a place of poverty and disrepair, a place to avoid. I am angry but I also understand. Of course. Of course, Parisians are scared. One is scared of the unknown, what they do not know, what they do not understand. This is a Parisian orient. This Barbès, this tapestry, this thing. I too am scared. In my H&M dress and bourgeois stability, I too am scared and I write this to try and redeem myself. Barbès, in a way, is a bit like Porte de Choisy. It is a place of outsiders trying to belong, trying to assert themselves in an environment that does not try to understand them. It is a place for people like me, teetering on the edge of a home but never really getting there. It is a place of cardboard constructions, both literal and metaphorical, on the street and within inner consciences. Barbès is ugly. It is poverty, low prices, sweaty pockets and gangs. But Barbès is also hope: it is coins found on the pavement, tinny boombox rap, markets, hot meals, intoxication. Prayer.

In the windows of the Rose d’ Orient, the mannequins resemble queens, beckoning me to two different kingdoms, that of my past, watching technicolor Bollywood films in the living room, and the shallow future, the color of my bridal lehenga, jewelry and rituals around a pious fire. Zoe knows I have been feeling homesick and she asks me if I want to go inside. I do. I want to go inside because Paris is a place of cravings and here I crave control: control, because some part of me thinks touching these fabrics could let me place a steadying hand on both my trembling past and trembling future, or in other words, just a trembling me, the notion of my identity. I want to go inside because I feel a greater sense of kinship here, somehow, than when I walk along the Champs-Elysees or the cafés in trendy St Michel.

Inside the store, an old hijabi woman in spectacles giggles in Arabic with her colleagues as she spreads out 4 euro-kaftans for Zoe to look at. I wonder, as I do with almost any immigrant in the west, how she got here and what exactly she is doing in this foreign place. It’s the writer’s elusive bait: what’s the story? My fingers run over the sequins of a children’s lehenga on a hanger and I am back to being a little girl watching Bollywood films in my bedroom, unaware of her own story and how it will unfold, from the foot of Africa to the foot of Montmartre, like a magic time-travelling carpet. As we walk out of the store, I return to my 20-year-old self, feeling less scared and more disoriented, as if I have just emerged from daydreaming on the couch at home. We walk back to the metro station and as I swipe my Navigo pass, I smile faintly at the strawberry vendor before boarding the train.

 

Porte de Clignancourt

Writing about a city, just as writing about any subject, is a way of documenting it within history, for giving it a voice, for making it human almost, letting it breathe and move and speak. It may have dreams, it may have fears, it may have flaws and disease. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow asserts that “the city has always been an important literary symbol, and the ways in which a culture writes about its cities is one means by which we may understand its fears and aspirations.” When we narrate a city, just as we when we create any story, we add complexity to an existing or new narrative about it. Some cities, like Paris, have been written about for a very long time, by many people –  famous, poor, foreigners, nobodies. They have been filmed and spun into verses, boxed into blog posts and captured in fiction. A place like Paris is complex in a way that it has many narratives, regardless of whether these are diverse or multifaceted. Complexity is the key word. The more narratives that exist on a particular subject, such as the city, especially if they come from various types of sources, differing socially, historically and culturally, then the better it is. The story of the city thus gains complexity and there is more to untangle, to pick apart, to unravel into understanding.

In his book Crepuscule, the novelist Roman Payne describes how people wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. The answer, he states, is simple: Paris is the best place to pick ideas. Just like if you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia, if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris. Perhaps in Hemingway’s lost Jazz Age, this meant something different. Today, when I think of Paris as fodder for the budding novelist, I think of how history collides with gritty graffiti modernity, how Senegalese men shift awkwardly beneath the city’s greatest monument, so much a part of the Eiffel Tower lens yet always photoshopped out of history. I think of how a Syrian man beneath a Chanel advertisement asks for a “coin or a smile” at the Denfert-Rochereau station, close to midnight when I return from a sour date, foolish and feeling sorry for myself. I am a crumpled receipt in a Parisian street bin but I am still a scholarship student; I stop to smile at him, almost sinking to my knees. I think of how a young black Frenchwoman makes and sells feminist art using only black and white inks, at the Clignancourt market, right opposite a little, old white lady stooped over her vintage flea shop. She tries to sell me a leather bag as soft and pliant as memory, then closes up early because of her bad knees.

 

Saint-Paul

Halfway into my Paris fairytale, I am disillusioned. I become that bridge across the Seine that needed its love locks sawn off because it couldn’t take the burden. I sag under the weight – the towering Eiffel, the catcalling in Barbès, the crowded Louvre, the bobo cafes and daily commute on the RER B. I become the bags under the Crepe Man’s eyes, grocery bags full of debt and unshed tears.  This place is a mess. A raggedy patch-up of stories held together by the needle of the Eiffel.

I have been living in Paris for months now. I have spent these months unravelling a tapestry of Paris that existed in my head prior to arriving here. I’ve been trying to worm my way to the apple core of this city but then I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. However much complexity we create, however much we try to unlearn then understand then re-weave a place in our own words, can we ever really find the “real” Paris? Does the “real” Paris even exist? Can a city, like a human, ever be caught in essence, ever hold a singular truth about its identity?

The question then becomes a matter of authenticity. Everyone is in search of this mystical thing, this “authentic” experience. We want the local food and the checklist of historical monuments and the native lifestyle and all the years of history classes we took, come to life.

But what happens in between? In that liminal space: the metro carriage travelling between Concorde and Stalingrad; the blank spaces between the checkboxes on your TripAdvisor itinerary; the margins of A Moveable Feast; the gaps in conversations between Arab perfume sellers, Canadian tourists, French bankers, Indian exchange students?

One afternoon, I decide to watch a film called “Paris, je t’aime”, meaning Paris, I Love You. Ironic, actually, because right now I hate it. It is foreign and it doesn’t make sense, this place, this thing. Baguette crumbs slide off my mouth onto my shirt. I lie in bed, retreating from the disintegration, the slow crumble, of my fairytale. I press play.

Halfway through this city montage, my face is wet. I am the pedestrian in the corner of a scene set in Montsouris. I am the protagonist in the 3rd arrondissement, a visiting actress of a period film who quietly falls in love with her hashish dealer. I am a rat scurrying under the Hotel de Ville, suffering from an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome. I am living and breathing in Paris.

“Paris, je t’aime” is a collection of 18 vignette-like short films. Each film has a different director, all of them setting a different-colored lens on the city. These directors are diverse, offering various cultural backgrounds, styles, genders and perspectives to the overall cinematic collage that is created. In one short set by the Quais de Seine, a French boy, sitting by the river with his two catcalling friends, meets and falls for a young hijabi woman. In another set at the trendy Marais, a prominently Jewish-gay neighbourhood near Saint-Paul station, a male art customer is attracted to a young male printshop worker, behind one of the heavy Marais doors that hide whole art galleries behind them. The customer spends the whole film explaining how he thinks this worker, who does not open his mouth, is his soulmate. After he leaves, it is revealed that the worker could barely speak French. A segment at Place des Fetes in the 19th has us watch a Nigerian man who is dying from a stab wound ask out his female paramedic for a cup of coffee. The story unfolds into flashback and it is revealed that he had fallen in love with her at first sight some time before in a parking lot where he worked as a cleaner. By the time the paramedic remembers him, the man has died. The film ends on a shot of the paramedic holding the coffee that has finally arrived, the clink-clank of the cup in her trembling hands drowning out any other thought.

What unifies each of the short films in this movie is, of course, Paris, the muscling, electric, sweet city that contains all these people, whether they are permanent or transient. Each film is also, in some kind of way, a love story. But none of these romances are conventional, often twisting and turning into the world of misunderstanding, chance and the macabre. Some are not even romances involving people, but instead ideas, objects, narratives, the city itself. “Paris je t’aime” picks up the label of the “city of love” and plays with it, stretching it, poking it and ripping it at the seams.

You may have realized by now that this piece of writing does the same thing. Every vignette I have written is set at a different metro station. Each one plays with my own pre-existing label of Paris, my initial passport stamp, the Hemingway-esque fantasy I carried here. It pulls it and pokes it and plays with it, this thing.  The first time I felt any sort of relationship, any kind of love story, however flawed or twisted or magic, with Paris was when it was contextualised before me in “Paris, je t’aime”. In two days, the stamp on my passport will go moot as I fly out of Charles de Gaulle and end the final chapter of this fairytale. I will leave with this on the page, a collection of my own love letters to Paris. Love is a complex thing. It can start at a metro station, lie quiet on the street like a stubbed cigarette, flow down the route of the RER B and end up on a young girl’s notebook page.

If there’s one thing I know, Paris is always there, waiting for us. It beckons and we come. We will always show up for love. We will snap that Instagram photo of the Eiffel Tower and it will come out grey and blurry. And we will go back aboard the RER B while the West African men smirk into their hoodies, quietly palming our euro-worth dreams.

 

This piece is part of the Invisible Cities series.
Photograph by Rita Crane

The Eiffel Tower Dangles: Writing a City

This article overlaps in conjunction with Taking the RER B

Writing about a city, just as writing about any subject, is a way of documenting it within history, for giving it a voice, for making it human almost, letting it breathe and move and speak. It may have dreams, it may have fears, it may have flaws and disease. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow asserts that “the city has always been an important literary symbol, and the ways in which a culture writes about its cities is one means by which we may understand its fears and aspirations.” When we narrate a city, just as we when we create any story, we add complexity to an existing or new narrative about it. Some cities, like Paris, have been written about for a very long time, by many people –  famous, poor, foreigners, nobodies. They have been filmed and spun into verses, boxed into blog posts and captured in fiction. A place like Paris is complex because it has many narratives, regardless of whether these are diverse or multifaceted. Complexity is the key word. The more narratives that exist on a particular subject, such as the city, especially if they come from various types of sources, differing socially, historically and culturally, then the better it is. The story of the city thus gains complexity and there is more to untangle, to pick apart, to unravel into understanding.

Indeed, to document a city within the realm of literature offers a different kind of complexity however, in a way that a staid historical essay, ethnographic study or research paper simply cannot. Literature is an extremely fruitful vehicle for this because it is so precisely concerned with human experience. This is especially important because cities are only cities due to the humans inhabiting them; without human presence, they are mere nebulous land expanses. Even their imaginary borders are positioned by human hand. Thus, the very idea, the very construction of a city, is dependent on human endeavour, without which it is an amorphous stretch of space, formless and nameless.

In that sense, one can assert that cities as concepts to be studied and explored are entirely human constructions. So while it is vital to analyse these constructions in certain, more scientific ways, in order to conduct policy changes or future amendments for example, it is equally vital to comprehend cities as complex sites of primarily human experience. Unlike other forms of documentation, literature possesses immense emotionality, meaning it employs feeling, something so intrinsic to human experience, to evoke empathy within the reader and allow one not only to examine a city from an objective distance but instead be placed right within it, to nestle in the apple core and touch, observe, taste. Thus, writing and reading a city in text is an absolutely fundamental way for comprehending how it does and could possibly function as an evolving human construction.

This notion is reinforced by Bellow himself: “the city’s air too may be blent, composed of the hopes, aspirations, disappointments and pain of those who live in it; …it is a kind of vessel, filled with human experience. the city is an aggregation or accumulation, not just in demographic, economic or planning terms, but also in terms of feeling and emotion. Cities thus become more than their built environment, more than a set of class or economic relationships; they are also an experience to be lived, suffered, undergone…”

Situating cities in literature is a rather paradoxical experience. On one hand, we complicate the city’s existing narrative(s), we colour the lines in just a little more, we give it heightened complexity. On the other hand, we also trap the city in text, however multifarious this collection of words may be. The idea of the city becomes confined to the sum of several subjective experiences of it that have been combed through, examined, then pinned down into words, as if hammering down nails into floating ideas or gathering them into a picture frame. So whilst translating a city into literary text is enriching to our understanding of it, there is also a kind of loss, as it is with any kind of translation, that takes place.

However, what is unusual is that this loss does not particularly matter within the transferring of writer’s experience to written text, but rather in that space between written text and the reader’s experience. Any reader approaches a text like a solo voyager on a journey, carrying their own baggage – this could be emotional, cultural, religious, ethical, moral and so on. Therefore, whilst city narratives themselves are subjective sums of writers’ experiences, more importantly, the illumination of a city within a reader’s mind is a doubly subjective process. The reader’s predisposed background and ideas, or their specific subjectivity, is imposed on top of the writer’s own subjectivity.

The double subjectivity that occurs when encountering city narratives is an interesting idea to consider in how these texts eventually influence our experiences of that city. When I first went to Paris, I carried Ernest Hemingway’s romanticized “moveable feast” within me, but I also quietly carried my identity as a South Asian woman who grew up in a diverse southern African society. Before landing here, I dreamed and expected Paris to be smoking and drinking at streetside cafés, art museums, bohemian life and baguettes, and yes, it was. But it was also refugee slums parked outside an alternative youth club, graffiti-tattooed neighbourhoods, and metro stations housing the homeless whilst stinking of urine and abandon. It was feeling a constant sense of off-kilter, even when I managed to muster a conversation in the language, even when my coat was appropriately chic, and even when I began to change trains with a level of newly-minted confidence.

In her recent book titled “The New Paris”, author Lindsey Tramuta describes a similar sort of experience, in the sense that she too watched her fantasy-narrative of Paris disintegrating before her, only to be reassembled as something uglier but infinitely more complex and interesting. She states:

I came to Paris with many of the same motivations as the countless dreamers that came before me. As a student of French language and literature, I arrived…seeking a taste of the textbook reverie…the works of George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, and Victor Hugo…Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Both their use of the language and their relationships to the city planted the seeds of curiosity…like most wide-eyed new visitors, my viewpoint was narrow. In my colourful imagination, Paris functioned as a one-trick pony on an immaculate stage of perfectly packaged historic marvels – a picturesque trophy city…more like a simulacrum of a city – a living museum that trades on its past to woo travellers…[but its] true colors [are] as a livable, everyday city that is as grimy as it is chic, as maddening as it is edifying…trash-strewn sidewalks, offensive odors, and all of the various imperfections that intrude on the tourist’s idyll…

When I go home and type the clunky French name – “Barbès-Rochechouart– an immigrant-heavy metro station area in northern Paris, into my search bar, this is what comes up:

“Everyone has their own story about Barbès, but there are repeating themes in the stories of outsiders: the disproportionate number of men in public spaces, Friday prayers in the street, drug traders and crack cocaine, the market under the Metro overpass, hijabi girls, and pickpocketing. Told to loved ones and strangers alike, these stories form the public reputation of Barbès and regulate the paths that individuals take to work and the places they frequent and shop. “They’ve never been here,” a co-worker tells me of her friends as we’re walking to my apartment. “And I don’t think they ever will.”

When presenting cities in text, as blogger Anthony Chase tries to do on his neighbourhood of Barbès-Rochechouart in northern Paris, there often occurs a kind of dichotomy of narrative of the city. On one side, there is the beautiful, idealized Paris, which has many versions of course, but all of these seem to function under a kind of white, westernized, romantic umbrella, whether this is simply an area with few immigrants, or it is my fantastical Hemingway-esque moveable feast, or it is merely a neat, ordered and pretty Paris that conforms to European aesthetic standards (consider brightly lit cafes, Hausmannian apartments, spaces for riverside picnics and strolls, artistic bars, galleries, feats of historical architecture, museums, and so on). On the other side, there is a place like Barbès – immigrant-heavy, disorganized and non-conforming to traditional European standards, both aesthetically and physically, considering its ethnic, social, religious and cultural diversity. A place like Barbès, and other “shadier” areas of Paris, are present at the other end of the dichotomy as a kind of uglier, brasher, cruder counter-narrative to the idealized, ‘traditional’ Paris. This exists like a stain, that needs to be hushed up, ignored, avoided. It’s the rough area that travel blogs advise you to stay away from, its graffiti and foreign smells portents of danger, its very existence somehow carrying the capability to contaminate you with its disarray, unable to conform to an ancient, crafted mold for the European city. This side of the dichotomy exists on the fringes of both the city’s and the city writer’s imagination. It is the outsider.

Lindsay Tramuta too, as a young, green French literature student, like me, initially believed wholeheartedly in the beautiful side of the dichotomy. She functioned on a westernized, romantic, fantasy-narrative of Paris, built up from texts she had read, written largely by white European or American writers. – and perhaps even films, blog posts. tweets and magazines that contribute similarly to this narrative. Together, the various writers of the past that she mentions in her book The New Paris, make poetry out of Paris’ history and peddle it as one luminous yet, in Tramuta’s words, narrow vision – a city of love, a city of light, a city of history and wine and food and poetry and bohemia, a city of epicurean paradise and the starving artist. But this narrative is only one side of the dichotomy; it leaves no room for a place like Barbès-Rochechouart to be acknowledged and accepted, let alone celebrated as beautiful or ideal. It is stuck in the past, stubbornly clinging to a historical standard; it has not moved on with the turn of the century, with the influx of new cultural influences and people, with the rise of globalization. Tramuta herself describes recent attempts to gentrify neighborhoods such as Barbès, in a stubborn act of retaining the traditional dominance of the romantic, and ultimately white Eurocentric, Paris narrative.

There is a loss incurred through dichotomy of narrative and that occurs in the space in between. What is happening in the metro on the way from the majestic Tuileries Gardens towards Gare du Nord or Barbès? This liminal area too, equally, is Paris. Are we taking note of what happens between the glossy and the grit? The exclusionism occurring when we ignore more complicated issues in this space in between leaves no room for a complex city narrative, and prevents Paris from embracing true cosmopolitanism. By cosmopolitanism, I refer to philosopher Kwame Antony Appiah’s definition of a place where “we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship” and “that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance”, reinforcing the idea of community and solidarity despite social, financial, but more so, cultural differences. Tramuta herself urges that the modern approach to Paris must mean “grappling with what ails it and building upon the foundation laid by centuries of invaluable contributions to art, architecture, food, fashion and technology…but it’s also about finding constructive ways to address prevailing issues of immigration, security and national identity…” In other words, it’s stretching this dichotomy of narrative into a spectrum, spreading oneself out in new spaces and thinking critically about them in as many ways as possible, in order to arrive at more complex city narratives. It’s thinking about Hemingway’s Paris, about Vogue’s Paris, but also about the Afghani refugee’s Paris who lives in a tent next to a hipster bar in Stalingrad, or the Mexican medical student’s Paris, who lives in a lonely dorm in the unglamorous 14th, speaking more Spanish than French.

Paris, of course, cashes in on its dichotomy of narrative, especially its more dominant, beautiful side. The city is both a prisoner and an exploiter of its own deified history, of its immaculately constructed dominant narrative, of this one pretty end of the dichotomy, because its nostalgia towards its past glories, manifested still in the architectural and cultural monuments and aesthetic makeup of the city, makes it resistant to progress and diversification, or a more complex narrative, and this resistance is worsened when Paris perpetuates and capitalizes on it. It continues to market itself, through the lens of this romantic narrative, this la vie en rose, as an irresistible candy for the insatiable tourist.

For a few weeks, I have been working as a communications intern at a tourism start-up called Intripid, doing simple French-English translations and writing fluffy blog pieces to attract Anglophone customers to the company. The window by my desk at work looks over the city like an observant parent. In the distance, the Sacré-Coeur rises from the skin of Paris, a pretty little blemish that is the former village of Montmartre. Working at Intripid, coupled with living and travelling around Europe at the same time, has made me think a lot about how city narratives affect the tourist experience. Intripid is a company that organizes small “courses”, or “adventure challenges” within a particular city in order to discover and engage with more original, unusual and fun activities and locations in that city. The idea is to discover a “new” and “original” Paris, where the company is based, or Barcelona or Budapest or Nice, the other cities in which it additionally operates. As of now, Intripid’s customers are mainly bachelor(ette) parties in France, youth/student groups, businesses seeking team-building options, and young European tourists.

Intripid is part of a wave of companies that are trying to monetize the experiential tourist experience. This is defined as a form of tourism in which people focus on experiencing a country, city or particular place by connecting to its history, people and culture directly, as opposed to ticking off a checklist of Yelp-approved sites for example. The rise of this phenomenon is indebted to an increased desire “to escape from run-of-the-mill and homogenized experiences…travellers are seeking out more adventurous and experiential travel.” One web article cites a tourist lauding this new phenomenon, stating: “Travelling is always a new experience, but when you feel the place instead of just look at it, you have captured experiential travel. There are so many things that can turn a simple trip into a deeper experience. Suddenly you turn onto the wrong street, you find a new place, meet a new local friend and you make deeper connections.”

Experiential travel, in that sense, seems to encourage challenging the problematic dichotomy or dominance of one city narrative, to enter new and unusual spaces, really observe them and arrive at individual conclusions about a city that are perhaps more holistic. Essentially, experiential travel ideally perpetuates the creation of more complex city narratives. The idea is optimistic but as I witness the nature of the experiential travel packages offered by Intripid, something doesn’t sit right. It is not until I visit Vatican City with a friend of mine over spring break that I ponder this line of thinking deeper. After our trip, my friend Chiran pens a piece on how his experience of the Vatican Museum, which houses the Sistine Chapel, was akin to the curatorial imposition of visiting an IKEA store:

The place is full of people who are intent on taking pictures of the church’s grand arches, its frescoes. Each of these people, I imagine, have waited for more than 2 hours in intolerable heat to enter this church. I’m not a big photo-taker, but even I feel the need to capture my experience with a photo…to capture in a nutshell the experience of having completely and successfully achieved this feat of tourism… at the Vatican Museums, there is no liberation from the curator or from the Museum. Even the sense of sublime that one would expect the Chapel’s great art to incite in the viewer is undermined by the fact of imposed curation [like an IKEA] …an IKEA is ultimately a commercial venture, while we imagine the museum to not be one. The excruciatingly clear question, it seems to me, is why our museums are organized like IKEAs. The answer revolves around this notion of the reproducibility of experience. All tourism wants to curate experience so that the tourist has achieved all paradigmatic feats of tourism. Thus the museum, a touristic venue, is curated in such a manner that the tourist who is guided by the signs of curations arrives at the cumulative point – the realization of a feat of tourism.”

Chiran’s piece introduces a new element to this discussion: capitalism. Capitalism, being a system that encourages satisfaction of the individual as opposed to the society at large, ironically seems to perpetuate the reproducibility, the sameness, of experience, when it comes to tourism. In essence, capitalistic reproducibility diminishes the uniqueness of the individual’s experiences. Even a desire to individualize and complicate one’s own experience of a location is funnelled through the tunnel of capitalism and monetized into experiential travel packages such as those offered by Intripid – Amelie adventure in Paris, fiesta challenge in Barcelona, for instance. Although these packages promise a more unique, unusual and authentic “discovery” of the city at hand, their mere reproducibility for each person that engages in them, due to commercialization of the concept of experiential tourism, reduces the act of experiential travel into an inhibitor of complex approaches to cities and their narratives.

What can one take from this conclusion? Perhaps that any tourist must be extra mindful and critical when considering their approach to a city through the lens of a tourism company operating within a capitalist setup. Sure, many such packages can eliminate logistical worries like transport, food, navigation worries etc., but a more unique, complex and spontaneous experience of the city is also lost in this “adventure”. A tourism package itself is an imposition of a narrative: it is a carefully designed and curated experience just as visiting an IKEA store is, and in that sense it exerts control over the narrative of the city that you are left with. It thus robs the visitor of the agency to fully approach and construct their own narrative of the city, leaving no room for error, learning and of course, complexity.

I have been living in Paris for over four months now. I have spent these four months unravelling a tapestry of Paris that existed in my head prior to arriving here. Perhaps I’ve been trying to worm my way to the apple core of this city but then I’m not sure that’s entirely possible. However much complexity we create, however much we try to unlearn then understand then re-weave a place in our own words, will we ever really find the “real” Paris? Does the “real” Paris even exist? Can a city, like a human, ever be caught in essence, ever hold a singular truth about its identity?

The question then becomes a matter of authenticity. Everyone is in search of this mystical thing, this “authentic” experience. We want the local food and the checklist of historical monuments and the native lifestyle and all the years of history classes we took, come to life.

But what happens in between? In that liminal space that separates spectrum from dichotomy; the metro carriage travelling between Concorde and Barbès; the blank space between the checkboxes on your TripAdvisor itinerary; the margins of A Moveable Feast; the gaps in conversations between Arab perfume sellers, Canadian tourists, French bankers, Indian exchange students; the translation from imagination to text to imagination to experience then imagination again?

Perhaps we will think about this later, write about it later, as we board the train to the next monument, the next city.

 

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.

Artwork by M. Bleichner

References
Chase, Anthony. “Another Paris”, Shatter the Looking Glass. Web.
Faria, Wallace. “What is experiential travel? Here’s what we think”, The Travel Word, 11 June 2012. Web.
Fuggle, Lucy. “The rise of experiential travel and its impact on tours and activities”, Trekk Soft, 2 August 2016. Web.
H.A.T. “Book Review of Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Antony Appiah”, Global Ethics Network, 18 April 2013. Web.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. Jonathon Cape UK. Print.
Intripid. intripid.org. Web.
Preston, Peter and Simpson-Housley, Paul. “Chapter 35: Writing the City”, The Blackwell City Reader. Web.
Raj Pandey, Chiran. “Notes on Tourism, the Museum, Ikea and Capitalism”, Postscript Magazine, 23 April 2018. Web.
Tramuta, Lindsey. The New Paris. Abrams New York. Print.