Alternative Paris: Street Art & Suburbs

And so I left the Caribbean the evening before Easter.  It was surreal after so much time, hard to believe there would be no more Island Life for me, for now.  I was going to Paris.  I watched my last Caribbean sunset from a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, and arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the early dawn.  The landing reminded me how small and flat the city is.  Only the bend of the Seine was distinctive.

The RER commuter train took me from the airport to the northern suburb of Franconville, where my dear friend Ouiceme lives.  Big train stations thrill me even after all this time, even when I’m lugging around many kilos of Stuff.  When I bought my ticket, the agent pushed my change and ticket at me on a little drawer from behind her window, then quickly snapped them back as she remembered to drop a gold foil-wrapped chocolate egg in with them.  We shared a chuckle.

My New Yorkers can think of Franconville as the Cedarhurst of Paris.  It’s a bedroom community with nothing in the way of attractions, but it’s calm and quiet and a good place to concentrate on work.  And because Paris is about a third of the size of New York, reaching the city center from Franconville takes 25 minutes instead of an hour.

Ouiceme immediately put on a pot of Tunisian mint tea and poured it an ornate polished silver serving cup.  She laid out breakfast pastries – fresh croissants and pain au chocolat.  I’d decided in advance to let myself indulge in Paris.  It’s fkin Paris.

I always loved Ouiceme.  We first met seven years ago on holiday in the Dominican Republic, the only non-Italians staying at an Italian-owned beach hotel.  Her English and my French were more limited then, so we conversed less, but we still had an immediate familiarity, the mutual recognition of a multifaceted soul.  Since then, she worked on several English writing projects, and I spent several months in French West Africa, so we can speak with each other more easily.  It’s nice.

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Rendez-vous with Ouiceme (and an accordionist) some years ago in Brussels

Apres breakfast, my jet lag and I made a beeline for the bed, which felt like absolute luxury.  Ouiceme’s apartment is all in clean cobalt, silver, and white, with ebony wood floors.  She went out to the vegetable market before it closed early for Easter, and the place was perfectly tranquil and silent.  I stayed in bed for hours, alternating short bursts of writing with sleeping off my jet lag.  The sheets smelled like expensive detergent.  Out the window, a tree bore small purple spring flowers, and church steeple peeked over a low row of apartment buildings.  It felt in every way the opposite of my home in Dominica.  In the islands, on any given Sunday morning I’d awake to the neighbor’s blasting soca and sunlight filtering through fuschia cordylines outside my window.

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Jet Lag Recovery Station – Deluxe Edition (patent pending)

The last time I visited Paris, I did the tourist thing – the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and so on.  This time, I want to see the faces of the city that locals see.

I knew places would be closed on Easter Monday, so I headed for the 12th Arrondissement to see Paris outdoors.  I’d read about La Promenade Plantee, Paris’s answer to New York’s High Line, a long green space where Parisians walk their dogs and babies, in that order.  The first thing I saw when I exited Daumesnil Metro station was a bed of irises before an elegant belle epoque building.  I thought – Paris, I am in you!

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The Paris-est of Paris-y things

La Promenade Plantee was sweet and tranquil, and so I let it make me feel romantic for an hour.

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My own promenade continued up through the neighborhoods of Bel-Air and Charonne.  The streets were largely silent for the holiday, and it felt like I had a very fancy ghost town to myself.  You know I’m a nature person at heart, but Paris streetscapes are one of the finest things on earth.  Even – or especially – on a dramatically gray day.

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Somewhere between the Alexandre Dumas and Porte de Bagnolet Metro stations, I turned into a little side street called Rue Florian and noticed an open grafittied door.  It looked out of place in such a well-heeled neighborhood.  It led to a set of abandoned railroad tracks where street artists are just doing the hell out of what they do!  I walked along the tracks until I reached a tunnel too dark to see into.

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Today was a different neighborhood, different vibe.  Gritty.  Saint-Denis is home to a Gothic basilica, a large North African population, and one of the highest crime rates in France.

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Study in contrasts: A fruit market bustles at the foot of a basilica where centuries worth of dead French royals are just trying to catch some shut-eye
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Graves of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at the Basilica of Saint-Denis.  They appear to be asking forgiveness here, but yannow…too little too late

I can’t bring myself to think 18th-Century European aristocrats are worthy of anything but contempt, so it was refreshing to see a totally fresh exhibition by young Algerian-Parisian artist Ariles de Tizi in the catacombs.  “Mater: Queens of France” honors women who look more like those who actually put blood, sweat, and tears into building the nation.

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Streetscape across from the basilica

The basilica is surrounded by Parc de la Legion d’Honneur, which has a tulip festival on at the moment.  Now, I’m tough, ok?  I’ve had tense negotiations with corrupt, well-armed Nigerian border police and climbed mountains that have made people lose bowel control.  But I saw this field of tulips and some inner four-year-old I didn’t know I had was like “PRETTY FWOWERS!” with a speech impediment and everything.  But I’m tough, got it?  Seriously.  For real.

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Even in the grittiest part of a city, I must find a forest

Basilicas be damned: to me, the best aesthetics in Saint-Denis were the crumbling facades on the houses.  The word is Character.

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Saint-Denis sits on its eponymous canal.  I spotted a manicured waterside path and started to take a walk down it – but then noticed some incredible street art on the other side of the canal, by an overpass.

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By this time, it was 1:15pm (or 13h15, as the French would write) – after 7am in New York.  My colleagues would be getting ready for work, and so should I.  I hopped the RER back to Franconville and got started on my day.

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