(all photos by Alexa)
The amount of times I thought “I wish I could instagram this smell” this week is ridiculous. Spring makes my brain happy. Daffodils, lilies, daisies, and poppies. The flowers here aren’t much different from the ones in the fields in my hometown, but they still make me feel good. Walking through Buttes Chaumont nowadays is more akin to swimming through big cherry blossoms. Monceau Fleurs, one of Paris’s many flower shops, is practically – O.K., literally – overflowing onto Rue Manin. I don’t mind stepping over hoses to get to the pool on Saturday morning. Then, last week, crossing the Seine to get to class, I discovered a hidden army of wisteria crawling all over a wall near the Sciences Po graduate school building. Sometimes, when I get home, my hair smells of rain and flower-stuff, and not like smoke. It’s a modern miracle.
Last weekend, Ale and I took a brand-new train to L’Isle-Adam, a commune about 45 minutes north of Paris, to visit a few of his family friends. I’ve been rereading The Handmaid’s Tale for the past few weeks, slowly making my way through it at a snail’s pace. I linger over the words as they remind me of the changing weather, and I like that. Once there, time passed between old friends. The family was half-Italian and half-French, and everyone (except for me, of course) spoke both languages with ease. I watched French MTV, sipped my espresso and inserted myself into conversation when I could. The weather has been shit lately. We took a walk through town, on the banks of the Oise River, to the tune of apologies regarding the incredibly strong winds. We didn’t mind (much) and were warmly invited back.
I spend a lot of my time in a part of Paris where no tourist goes. It’s called the Goutte D’Or, the “drop of gold”, and it’s practically on top of the Gare du Nord train tracks. Thanks to Fox News, which recently deemed the place a “no-go zone”, Americans are going to be even more hesitant to visit than usual. Which is, seriously, such a shame.
I’ve been to Africa only once: Morocco, with a former roommate during our freshman year, alternative-style spring break. But, when I elbow my way out of the Château Rouge metro stop on Friday afternoons, when the smells and colors and sounds hit me, I swear I’m right back there again. The women are boldly bright, draped with sunny patterns expertly knotted in place. You can find them leaning in and out of their beauty salons, smoking cigarettes. They walk together in packs, laughing heartily, and don’t move out of the way for men. It’s the men, mostly, who sell things: cell phones, tagines, hair extensions, spices, fabric, old records, hand-made artwork. Their fresh produce looms in small mountains. Dates, dried figs, nuts that I don’t have names for. Wooden cartons of plantains, stacked, become a small playground for kids. I often dodge clementine peels and furniture, which routinely meander into the streets and block traffic. You’d have to be somewhat crazy to drive here, though.
As I walk to Le Club Barbès every Friday around 6 p.m., as the sun is getting a little lower in the sky, as the tables are pushed a little farther into the street, as the espressos waft into the air, I’m grateful. Had I not taken this opportunity to “volunteer”, a.k.a. hang out, at a youth club this semester, I probably never would have ventured here. When I enter the Club, I hear the speakers blasting karaoke hits of the 1990s, my peers dancing and singing every word without even glancing at the screen, and I smile. This is fun.
I sometimes forget that what I’m doing here is helping them with their English homework, because they’re too busy helping me. The students I’ve met in this program have opened my eyes to a different Paris. The Goutte D’Or is one of the poorest parts of the city. In fact, the entire northeast part of Paris is known for its large immigrant and working class population, and the Goutte D’Or is the best example of that. The French government has classified it as a sensitive urban zone, due to its high unemployment and low homeownership rates. Although France’s socialist government attempts to help families that struggle financially (public housing, for example), education remains problematic. Not too many kids graduate from high school.
Some of them are refugees, others are third-generation immigrants, and others are still too shy around me to tell me their stories. Regardless, we’re all in this Club together, and it’s the most amazing thing, because I never expected this from Paris. I expected the Eiffel Tower to glitter at night. I expected midnight excursions across the Seine to wine bars with my newfound French friends. I expected to see extreme wealth and beauty. Which I do, but in a way better than I ever thought possible. I participate in the beauty. We make it together.
I think education is the best weapon against discrimination. I hope I’ve taught these kids something, because they’ve already taught me everything.