For the past few weeks Paris has had me in its picturesque, seductive clutches. It was fun but looking back at my images I did wonder, where was the challenge? Normally my thing is to seek out the beauty in the ‘unbeautiful’. And ‘unbeautiful’ ain’t Le Marais nor Les Batignolles.
It was time to get back to my mission brief.
My choice for this week was also influenced by the recent election here. All the talk about immigration leading up to the big day was a stark reminder that for many, Paris is a crowded 25sqm room shared with a handful of other people, and no prospect of a job any time soon.
Nowhere could this be more true than in the 18th arrondissement, around a neighbourhood called Chateau Rouge. Also referred to as la Goutte d’Or, this is the Little Africa of Paris. Exotic foods, tick, but also a slew of problems that can’t be fixed overnight, even if there is a new government in power.
Quickest ‘history’ ever – the hood is named after a red castle that no longer exists. Done.
Okay, iPhones away (will explain later), cameras away (ditto), let’s swagger…
Part 1: F-f-f-fashion
Amazingly, Chateau Rouge is just minutes away from tourist-crazed Montmartre and its top drawcard, the Sacre Coeur. One minute it’s all pretty pretty, then suddenly you’re wondering, what happened? Where did Paris go?
Unlike Faubourg Saint Denis, where there are really just a few streets dedicated to African hair and where there’s a strong bobo presence, this neighbourhood seems to be entirely African and Arab. Markets here offer gombo not oysters or foie gras, and you have to elbow your way through or be elbowed. Shops are filled with colourful African materials not trendy western gear. Butchers are halal. Welcome to Little Africa.
But at the end of the main open-air market a police car is almost permanently parked – along with the colourful exoticism are serious drug and crime problems. Add illegal immigration into the mix and you start to understand why the locals were incredibly unhappy about me and my camera pitching up. One woman explained that some Africans would even be afraid I might use their photos to do, er, black magic.
Up against it, I very quickly realised that any sort of in-depth photographic exploration of the area wasn’t going to be possible. No one was about to invite me into their lives and share.
At one point I almost abandoned ship. Then I’d get some kind soul to agree to a photo (even if they did give me no more than five seconds to take the shot) and I’d think, okay, maybe this will work.
Since I wasn’t going to be able to do anything too deep, I decided to explore one particular facet of Little Africa – its fashion.
The neighbourhood is filled with men and women who continue to dress as they would if they still lived in Africa – only now they’re in Paris, amongst the berets and trench-coats. The shock of hot, vivid colour against a sea of western blah and sombre tones is just fantastic.
Then there are the Africans who take their colourful heritage and apply it to a more contemporary look. I especially loved the men who wear suits, but in a playful, inventive way. I’d actually go so far to say that it was in Chateau Rouge that I saw the most interesting fashion that I’ve seen so far in all of Paris (not that I hang with the fashionistas of course).
Fashion, as an expression of one’s culture… très intéressant!
First up, the men…
The man below was very reluctant to be snapped. I explained I just wanted to take a shot of his inventive tie and not his face. “But it’s my creation” he said. Eventually after minutes of discussion he caved – and I had precisely three seconds to take the shot.
Next was Jean, interior designer. Different story entirely. He was one of the few who was quite happy to be photographed – and why not? Just look at that suit.
I ran into Jean again a few days later. He was wearing the same suit but with a different hat, tie and shoes. Could I please take another shot…
Then there were these guys…
Part 2: Senghor from Senegal
Okay, so this dude in his voluminous boubou deserves a section all of his own. I know nothing more about him other than his name and where he comes from, but my imagination rushed into the vacuum of information and filled it right up. To me he’s a witch-doctor-ish, magic man who appears out of nowhere and travels not by metro but by forces unknown. You could have knocked me over with a chicken feather when he said, yes, you can photograph me.
And while we’re on the subject of magical things…
Part 3: The women
Like my experience of observing the sari clad Indians of Sydney’s Harris Park, I loved watching the African women in traditional dress glide down the streets, so unFrench and yet so much a part of modern day Paris.
Then there’s the modern look…
Of course, an African woman’s hair is a big deal. Braided, shaved, extended, coloured, whatever. You gotta do something to your hair.
Part 4: Beyond the fashion
I would have liked to have explored the Arab, Muslim side of the area more – but couldn’t. I lost count of how many Arab men I asked to photograph – in my best French and as respectfully as possible. They were just not into it.
Anyway, the deal is that the neighbourhood has mosque problems. I think there might be two but I only visited one – and from the outside only. You’d miss it if you didn’t notice the small sign, or the collection box sitting on the street outside, raising money I assume to improve the current one or maybe build a new one.
It wasn’t long ago that space problems meant that Muslims in the area were allowed to pray on the streets in front of the mosque. There was all sorts of hoo ha over that and the practice was banned late last year.
There is, however, a major development happening soon – a new, very modern looking Islamic centre is being built nearby and as far as I understand, the mosques might have prayer rooms inside.
I am fascinated by the African presence in Paris. I understand the reason – France needed labour post-war so they invited all of Africa in – but I just find the contrast between the two cultures so incredibly striking.
It was therefore quite exhilarating to hang out in Little Africa this week. And as frustrating as it was to not be able to photograph more and different facets of the area, I did enjoy the challenge.
So what did I find beautiful in this decidedly unbeautiful neighbourhood? The vibrant colour and the ‘fashion’ for sure, but also the energy of the place. It’s hard to describe but it feels excitable, edgy, as if any minute it will reach a crescendo and… pop!, the whole place will implode.
Oh, and the warning to put away your iPhone and camera? Just passing on what I was told. Apparently if you wander around chatting on your iPhone, you’re very likely to have it plucked out of your hand. And one guy told me his friend was carrying a DSLR camera with the strap around his neck and had his arm broken when someone wrenched it so hard to get the camera off him.
On the ‘home front’
A lovely Australian blog follower living in Paris for a little while took Coco off this week for some home schooling followed by cartwheels in the park. Coco loved it so hopefully, if the budget holds out, there’ll be a little more of it. On my side, I’d just like the dreary grey stuff to disappear so I can have fun with the sun again, in a photographic sense. And I’d like more sleep too. But who doesn’t?
And to all those in Australia, Happy Mother’s Day!
This suburb has been brought to you by Zoe Thompson
I’ve decided to change my post date to Sunday or Monday by the way. It’s only taken me five months to work out that I’m probably missing a lot of good stuff that happens on the weekend by making my post day Friday and my so-called ‘day off’ on Saturday.
Which would suit you better by the way – Sunday or Monday?
See you next week.