Our office in Paris has moved three times. We started out in a bohemian part of town, with many bars and geriatric prostitutes. Then, we moved to a chic part of town – near the Madeleine – with high rents and fine restaurants. And now, we are in Belleville – an “ethnic” neighborhood.
“When I was growing up,” said our new friend Jean-Paul, a Frenchman who has lived in Australia for the last two decades, “this was an Arab area. Now, I’m surprised how many blacks there are.”
Our new office is almost next door to the Communist Party headquarters. It is not a fancy area, but it has it charms.
“You filthy son of a b****. You rotten ***. You’re a miserable *****.”
We were having lunch in a local restaurant on Friday. All of a sudden we heard shouts and saw chairs flying. A fight had broken out at the bar. Two men were pushing at each other. One took a swing and hit the other in the mouth. The one who had been hit began a counterattack…but he was stopped by the barman and the waitress…who held them apart.
Both men had a vaguely swarthy look. Maybe they were from the South of France…maybe from North Africa…we couldn’t tell.
The fight soon turned to curses…epithets…and expletives. The restaurateur tried to get them to leave…one went out the door…but soon came back. Finally, they settled down…
“What was that about?” we asked the waitress.
“Oh, it was a religious argument…”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re both Jews…but one is Ashkenazi; the other is Sephardic. I don’t really know what they were arguing about…”
Leaving the office on Friday, we saw a man sitting in a doorway. He had large bushy hair…and a beard to match. We wondered if he had been drawn to the area by the commies; he looked just like Karl Marx!
Then, walking along the Boulevard de la Villette, we passed Chinese supermarkets, with strange odors coming out onto the street…Arab bars, with men sipping coffee on the sidewalk…and bicyclists threatening to run us over, coming from all directions.
Turning right on Belleville Street, we felt as though we might have been in North Africa. Most people seemed to have been from Algeria or Tunisia or Morocco. But there were plenty of people from sub-Saharan Africa too. Women in traditional African dress, with the colorful fabrics wrapped around them…an often a child on their backs…pushed shopping carts. The North African men sat in bars, smoked and drank coffee. A few French bums hung out on street corners, drinking from large bottles of beer. There was even a group of men from Eastern Europe – or maybe Russians – who had set up a tent in a square and seemed to be living there.
Shops adjust to their clientele. One offered shoes for 10 euros…which looked for all the world just like those on sale for 150 euros in better neighborhoods. Another had clothes spread out on tables…shirts for 5 euros…jeans for 25…underpants for 2.
We were walking down the hill. As we went down, the people on the street became whiter and whiter. By the time we got to the Place de la Republique, we were among a more typical assortment of the French again.
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