Welcome to Paris, the city that pretty much inspired this entire project. Why? Because – Francophiles, avert your gaze – I’ve never really ‘got’ Paris. On the two times I’ve visited, the last one 10 years ago, I’ve just never fallen under its spell. I thought perhaps if I left the tourist trail, explored the neighbourhoods and met the locals, maybe I’d feel differently.
As to the choice of our first Paris neighbourhood, I assumed I’d have to hit the real suburbs of Paris, the banlieue beyond the arrondissements, to find the non-touristy. But turns out that ‘Paris proper’ inside the périphérique has a handful of pockets that aren’t on the typical tourist trail. One such pocket exists in the 10th arrondissement, around Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis. After much deliberation and flâneur-ing, that’s where I ended up.
Which was lucky because last week I hit a wall and just didn’t have it in me to venture far. Three months into the project with no break, I found myself exhausted and overwhelmed. Having just got my head around Istanbul, suddenly we were in Paris. Each time we land in a new city it’s a steep learning curve, one that this project doesn’t allow time for. As soon as we hit the tarmac, I need to be out there, exploring and photographing, but instead I’m inevitably held up just trying to orientate myself at the same time as sussing out the nearest supermarket/chemist/laundry.
It doesn’t help that we’re staying in what must be the noisiest apartment block in town and I haven’t been sleeping. Nothing like tossing and turning at 3am worrying about, well, you name it – the blog running late, money, Coco’s (lack of) home schooling.
And while I’m on a roll, sorry to confirm the rumour, but Parisians by and large are not a friendly bunch. Elegant, tick. Polite, tick. But friendly, non! As a consequence, I’ve found them the toughest so far to photograph. They’re not curious or interested, just wary and mildly irritated.
All this ‘blah’ reached a climax mid-week when, struggling to settle on my first neighbourhood, feeling the pressure to produce and so exhausted I was kind of swaying as I walked, I wondered if this was ‘it’ – the point at which I broke and said, very sorry but no more. It’s gonna just have to be 12 Suburbs Around the World.
But like a bloody-minded chien with a bone, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and waited for something to change.
Thankfully it did…
Part 1: From old French to new
Okay, so we’re in the 10th arrondissement, in an area that was once outside Paris’s walls, marked today by a grand arch called Porte Saint Denis (on the right in the first image below). Not that I knew that – in fact, until I turned a corner to walk down rue du Faubourg Saint Denis and saw the 25 metre high beauty, I thought the only arch in Paris was the Arc de Triomphe. Which makes it my kind of arch, the one you stumble upon, sans guide-book or anorak-clad tourist queue.
Named after Saint Denis, a Bishop of Paris in the third century, the neighbourhood has had many lives, from Turkish/Jewish/Armenian clothes manufacturing to the dot com crowd. And just 10 years ago it was super dodgy. A no-go zone filled with drugs, crime, etc.
It still has an edge about it, with Asian sex workers draped over motorbikes at one end and a vibrant African community who run the hair and beauty salons at the other.
I found the vibe quite full on around these salons. African guys dressed New York style hang outside the shops, waiting to swoop on potential customers to get them in the door.
But I’ve long been a little obsessed with African braiding and wanted to document it. Forget it. Aside from a few who agreed, most of the time when I asked a woman on the street if I could photograph her ‘do, one of the guys would suddenly appear and quite aggressively say ‘Non!’. Even when I was outside a wig shop taking a shot of a mannequin in the window, a guy threw himself at me – same thing – ‘Non!’
A wig. Vraiment?
Part 2: A mixed neighbourhood
As I said, the neighbourhood still isn’t squeaky clean but it’s undergone an enormous change and is now quite bobo, bourgeois-bohemian. Artists, architects and ad types have all moved in, either working in former warehouses or moving into the apartments with their young families.
It’s an interesting mix of white well-dressed French families walking cute apartment-sized dogs, alongside New York style Africans and the myriad other cultures that exist around the area.
Part 3: The built stuff
It’s not hard to see the attraction for the bobo crowd. The neighbourhood is filled with characterful industrial bits from its former life as a manufacturing quarter and charming old apartment blocks.
Paris ‘proper’ is actually quite small but there’s so much life crammed in that you can turn a corner and there’s an entirely different vibe and neighbourhood. Five minutes walk from rue du Faubourg Saint Denis but still within the 10th arrondissement is the Canal Saint-Martin. Too picturesque for my camera but I found it interesting how much chic-er and ‘shinier’ everything suddenly became.
The same goes for one of Paris’s Chinatowns, in Belleville. Although it’s in the 20th arrondissement, it’s actually right next door to the Faubourg Saint Denis area. One moment you’re in Africa land, the next, in Asia.
Part 4: Cafe life
Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis is lined with cafes and shops that reveal the layers of this neighbourhood – Turkish, Armenian, Algerian, Indian and the latest incarnation, bobo.
On one of my visits to Chez Jeanette, I met an artist called Laurent and a friend of his. I can’t fully explain what they’re into but it had something to do with starting a revolution and involved eyeglasses with one square and one round. Anyone?
And my second to last image, reserved for the friendliest Parisian Coco and I met in the neighbourhood, Sophie. She speaks French with an Indian accent, thanks to spending eight years in India studying graphic design, before hopping on a boat to sail around the world.
As someone on rue du Faubourg Saint Denis said, this is a typical Paris neighbourhood. While I don’t know if that’s true or not – there seem to be so many different Paris’s in this intense city – I did enjoy seeing such a mix in such a small area.
And has my experiment worked? Have I become a Paris fan? Too early to tell but I’m warming to the place for sure. And I’m hitting the French dictionary to see if I can come up with a better response to those irritating ‘Non!’s.
On the ‘home front’
My ‘hitting the wall’ last week made me reflect on this project and what it’s all about.
As with my first project, 52 Suburbs in Sydney, you, as in you as well as the collective you, are ever present in my mind. I’m not just saying it. I get excited when I see something interesting and can’t wait to show and tell. But I also feel the pressure to reward you for taking the time to peruse these posts every week with good, strong work.
So, if you feel like it, please spill. Tell me what you like, don’t like or want to see more of. Either here or via an email. Hopefully I can oblige.
Other than that, breaking news on the home front is that I got Coco into a Montessori school here for two days a week. Kid time for her, solo time for me. Things are looking easier already.
This suburb has been brought to you by Guy, Kalinda, April and Gina
I really want to get back to my Friday post days – so hopefully see you at the end of the week.