I hate to break it to you but we’re done with Paris. However, before you pack your beret away and dust that last crumb of salted caramel macaron from your bouche, we have one last Paris to explore – the eastern suburb of Montreuil.
While one side of the suburb hugs Paris proper and is just 6.6 km from the city center, Montreuil extends a long way east. In fact, it’s the first place that I really needed a car to explore properly; apologies to any Montreuillois for ignoring large chunks of your neighbourhood.
Quick history: Named after a small monastery that the town was built around way back when. A peach growing, market gardening area until 1818 when the first factory sprouted. At the end of the nineteenth century, the film industry grew – and continues to flourish to this day. Now a mix of all sorts, including bobos who want space to have a garden or bring up a family, artists and film makers who don’t want to pay Paris rents, and Mali immigrants.
Okay, for the last time, on y va!
Part 1: Viewed from above
Day one I met Marie. Ex-foreign consulate, now school teacher, she kindly filled me in on the place as she wrangled a bike covered with shopping bags back to her home. As luck would have it, her home happened to be on the highest point for miles around – on the 30th floor of an apartment block, just over the border in neighbouring Bagnolet. Would I like to see the view over both Montreuil and Paris from there? Mais oui!
Much like Sydney’s Greenway Flats in Kirribilli, Marie lives with her daughter, Nour, in public housing that happens to have a million dollar view. With Nour’s solar system swirling around in the apartment and the whole of Paris behind it, I felt like I’d ascended into the heavens.
The next time we visited, the grey had lifted, allowing an even better view.
Part 2: The gardeners of Montreuil
As you might have noticed from the images above, Montreuil is rich in green space. For starters, there are three huge sprawling parks, only one of which – Parc Jean Moulin – we had time to explore.
Aside from that many of the homes have gardens, much coveted no doubt by day tripping Parisians.
And if you don’t have your own house like Marie, you can always apply for a patch of your own in the community garden – after all, if you’re a Montreuillois, you gotta garden.
In fact, the Montreuillois take gardening so seriously, there’s an annual event dedicated to making your life as la jardiniere or le jardinier that much more enriching. Started by locals Dorothée and Yann 12 years ago, Troc Vert closes off one of the streets and invites people to swing past and exchange their plants. Bored of your marigolds? Swap it for someone else’s rosemary. Everyone’s happy.
By the time Coco and I got there, most of the exchanging had been done. But there were still some of the potted shoes available for purchase.
It was clearly a green day but I couldn’t help noticing how much French Blue there was too, especially so on the females wandering around…
Part 3: Pink
Aside from green/French Blue Troc Vert, there was another colourful event going on that day called Les Manufactories, by a Collectif d’artistes et d’artsians. I only found out about it as it was winding up but as far as I could make out, various studios and shops of artists and artisans around the neighbourhood had opened their doors to the public for the day.
All you had to do was follow the pink line and keep an eye out for pink balloons – or garlands – or people…
As I said, we were too late to the party so I can’t show you any of the art or craft. But I did stick my head into Dorothee and Yann’s house towards the end of the day to see what a family house in Montreuil might look like.
It was only 7pm when we left but by that time I was absolutely exhausted, having stayed up stupidly late the night before working on last week’s post. I had just enough energy to take a few snaps of the band that was now entertaining the happy gardeners before Coco and I slipped away, back to the muted tones of Paris.
Part 4: More space
Aside from the green spaces, Montreuil also has an abundance of sports fields and tracks. On one of our visits we met a group of school kids doing soccer practice. Different ages but all from the same school. As I looked through my camera lens I forgot where I was for a moment – Paris? Non!
On another visit we caught the tail end of a soccer game being played on another field just around the corner. So different to Paris where petanque was the most energetic sport we’d watched.
Part 5: A few bits and pieces
As I mentioned before, I really only explored a small slice of Montreuil and probably the most affluent – I was told that the further east you went, the poorer it gets.
But even with my narrow focus, I didn’t take many shots of the buildings; aside from one newly sprouted number, nothing really caught my eye. As a local resident said, the houses may cost a whole lot more than they did 10 years ago, but they’re by and large pretty unremarkable. Fairly ordinary houses made expensive by virtue of the fact that “Paris is full” and people need housing.
Part 6: To finish with, some people we met while meandering through Montreuil
Beginning with Anar, a Montreuillois who started out in life as a Mongolian.
In our last hour in our last suburb of Paris, Coco and I met Lorent and François. Twin brothers who have just signed with Warner Music to share their version of “rockelectrohiphopslam” with the world. It was a good way to finish things – out in the suburbs with two young men who’ve obviously got bucket loads of talent, drive and optimism about the future. Bon chance Lorent and François! May your whacky 80s inspired stars shine brightly.
Used to scouring every inch of a neighbourhood, I probably only covered a quarter of this super-sized suburb. But what I did manage to see I found intriguing and hard to pin down, almost enigmatic. For one thing, it’s a stone’s throw from Paris but nothing like it. No charming buildings but the most beautiful parks. And while the place can appear super quiet, even boring, beneath the surface there’s a whole lot going on, bubbling away – film, art, music, dance. Potted pointy shoes. But it ain’t no paradise; I know it can happen anywhere but Montreuil is where I was almost ‘relieved’ of my camera, in full daylight. A reminder that for many these are desperate times.
On the ‘home front’
Some big news this week.
First up, I’m thrilled to announce that the Museum of Sydney will hold a major exhibition of images from this entire project next year for four months from July – November. MOS is where I had my first exhibition of my first Sydney-based project, 52 Suburbs.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful – MOS is one of Sydney’s best and I’m hugely honoured to be asked to exhibit there. If you don’t live in Sydney I hope you can somehow swing a trip down there to coincide with the exhibition. (Come for the opening so I can meet you!)
The other news is that instead of departing for Berlin next we are off to Rome! I was trying to ignore the fact that if I stuck to the original plan it meant we’d hit Rome in late July/August when it’s apparently melting hot and devoid of Romans. But a few Italian blog followers insisted it was madness. So I decided to switch the cities around. Apologies to those all geed up to see Berlin next but we’ll be there before you know it – in early July to be precise.
Coco and I leave Paris this week but the first post from Rome will be in two weeks time – I’m skipping a week to get some work done on my camera and to spend a few days in Rome before I start shooting to orient myself and catch my breath.
So get your espadrilles ready and we’ll see you on Monday June 4, in Roma!
Aside from all that – adieu Paris! I’m so glad I got to know you better. All these years I thought you were just all hype. Mais non! You’re a delight, warts and all.
This suburb has been brought to you by Simon Bassett
(For those who noticed, there hasn’t yet been a Coco ‘Paris shot’ like the ones we took in the other cities. We’ll do it this week before we go and include it in the next post.)