Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do the Right Thing

Several months ago, somewhat predictably, I had my iPhone stolen on the metro at Chateau Rouge. Last week I acquired a new one through a friend of mine which I have now restored and synced with my computer so that it more or less resembles the old one almost exactly. However, I hadn’t backed the original up for several months before it was stolen and, as a result, a lot of the latest music saved dates back to almost a year ago. In a strange twist of fate the weather in Paris has suddenly turned bitterly cold, I have also been teaching some English classes again and, ironically, I find myself listening to the same songs I was listening to last winter when I was traipsing the icy streets of Paris doing exactly the same thing.

This time, however, the classes are slightly different. Gone are the small groups of attentive adults who were polite and keen to learn. They have been replaced with a minimum of ten children ranging in age from four up to eleven. They have no desire whatsoever to learn English, very poor manners and such severe attitudes they could give some of the finest Hollywood divas a run for their money. I had four hours with such a class this morning and spent my time separating fights, confiscating marbles and trying desperately to explain the various activities whilst attempting to detach the tiny four year old, the youngest in the group, from my right leg.

I had a 15 minute meeting at a language school that my Aunt had given my contact details to and before I knew where I was I had been given various activities, several lesson plans and a variety of classes each week. These were to take place at a Montessori style school in Montmartre. The manner of teaching at the school, it seems, is rather laid back and it is acceptable for students to wander off by themselves and do something else if they are not interested in the current project. After four hours of teaching these children, some of whom it must be said were very calm and interested, I was hoarse from shouting, disappointed that I had had to shout (I always fancied myself as one of those teachers who simply had the power naturally) and full of new found respect for those poor student teachers we put through their paces when I was at school. The children left the language centre of their own accord at 13:00 (fingers crossed none of them got run over) and I spent the next half an hour cleaning up the mess before making my way slowly home. The first thing I did was to send an email to the language school informing them I would not be continuing with these classes but if they still needed help with corporate clients I would be more than happy to assist.

Despite this strange repetition of my Parisian routine I had two friends staying with me at the weekend and we managed to do a variety of things I had not yet accomplished myself. We found ourselves in the queue for the Catacombes at 15:00 on Saturday. The last entry is at 16:00 and we were the last ones to make it in before they cut the queue. Everyone ahead of us was in a great rush to make it down into the depths of the underground tunnels and we found ourselves completely alone wandering down the dark, dripping passages in complete silence. This certainly added atmosphere to the occasion and before long we found ourselves walking slightly faster than normal with visions of being locked in over night or something equally as terrifying.

The whole experience was extremely interesting and once we had completed the catacombs we made our way to the Grand Palais to the extensive Monet exhibition currently in place. This, too, proved fascinating and charted his whole life from early childhood in Le Havre to his final home in Giverny where one can find the famous water-lily pond.

The day was marred only by one occurrence and this took place whilst we were waiting to enter the Catacombes. The queue was formed just next to a little park comprised of several trees, a couple of benches and a wide, sweeping path that cut through the middle. Sitting on one of these benches was an elderly homeless lady in her late 50s or perhaps early 60s. She was dressed warmly in a thick padded jacket and was sitting, swigging occasionally from a can of beer. Presently, a homeless man dressed in jeans and wellington boots with a thick, grey beard approached her and began shouting at her. Things escalated and before long he had punched her in the face, hard, several times. The lady continued to sit benignly whilst the man continued to storm off and come back for another attack several minutes later. In between these assaults she would spit blood on to her palm and take another swig from her can. When the man returned for the final time he didn’t hold back and cracked her with the palm of his hand full force across the face. The sound of this slap echoed around the park. Presently, two policemen happened to be walking by and would have continued had they not been alerted to the situation by a passer-by who, by that point, was crouched next to the lady asking if she was alright. The Croix Rouge arrived soon after and we went into the Catacombes and didn’t see the conclusion.

Throughout this entire incident the whole queue was watching the events unfold with interest but at no point did anyone (myself included) make any effort to intervene. I felt terrible afterwards and recounted the story to a couple of friends who were quick to point out that it only takes one knife or one gun, used by such a man in a fit of rage, for things to end badly. Does this justify allowing oneself to be merely an observer? In a society where aggression and violence are rife how much must one be subjected to before they do the right thing? And what, precisely, is ‘the right thing’?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chateau Rouge

I’ve lived in Chateau Rouge, a rather infamous area in the 18th arrondissement, for a little over six months. As such, it seems fitting to give an account of the area, its inhabitants and the general atmosphere of the place. It is commonly regarded as rather a poor neighbourhood with a lot of crime. However, it borders Lamarck and is just behind the Sacre Coeur so, if you live on this side of the metro, as I do, you will find leafy, tree lined streets, reasonably priced accommodation and a selection of excellent restaurants.

It is true, however, that when one descends down to Chateau Rouge metro one will find a seething mass of residents camped out on the street selling pirate DVDs, counterfeit wallets and cheap sunglasses. Others make their living by selling corn on the cob, popcorn and a curious vegetable which looks rather like a small, bright purple aubergine. These they lay out meticulously on a cloth and buff to a radiant shine. On descending into the metro there will generally be two queues: one for those who have legitimate tickets and wish to pass through legally, the other for those who are intent on barging through the exit gates as they open for an unsuspecting passenger who has just got off the train. Either way one can expect cramped conditions, no manners and a multitude of imbeciles who stop just in front of the gates to search, endlessly, for their Navigo card or to simply chat with their friends. Enormously fat women waddle, painfully slowly, on their swollen feet along the concourse weighed down by bags of meat and vegetables purchased from the market as new mothers jostle for position with their pushchairs or, even their babies who, sometimes, are arranged on their back tied with swathes of cloth. It is a constant battle when one hears the metro approaching not to make a bolt for it but don’t expect for a second you’ll make it, you won’t. You may not even make the second one for no one will quicken their pace or get out of your way.

It takes energy and commitment to face the market but, if you are suitably en forme, it is worth making the effort as you will find a decent selection of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a wide variety of meat and chicken all at very reasonable prices. The quality is generally good although the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Enormous vats of tripe are displayed in glass compartments with the various furry pieces all smushed against the glass, whole chickens are stacked unceremoniously together in similar compartments and vast supplies of oxtail and goat pieces are scattered liberally in the spaces in between. Red meat is really the best bet since all the chickens are scrawny with hardly any meat and are really only any use for using in soups or stews.

The entire boulevard leading from Barbes (an even more infamous area) up to Chateau Rouge is lined with only two kinds of shops. Those selling mobile phones and those selling outdated, poorly fitting, cheap bridal wear displayed on chipped, rather sinister looking mannequins. Despite the ubiquity of these bridal shops it is impossible to find a wedding card anywhere on this street – I have learnt from experience. Just across from the metro, at the top of this boulevard is my local boulanger. Mercifully, he stays open all night and I have enjoyed many a delicious baguette or pastry from him at 4, 5 or 6am.

My friend Lisa and I were in search of a local flea market several months ago and we decided to ask for directions in a restaurant a few hundred yards up the road from my apartment. We were informed that there was no such market that they knew of. It was a cold, miserable day and the staff were so friendly and helpful that we decided to stay for some lunch. For €8.50 (insanely cheap by Parisian standards) we each had a delicious steak, pommes de terre sautées and a salad. Lisa also had an espresso which cost an additional 70 centimes. The atmosphere in the restaurant was like that of a student pub but with vastly superior food, a more mature clientele and excellent service. I have been back several times since and have always been equally impressed.

Rose and I see each other regularly but, as a result of always having little or no money, rarely do anything other than eat together which suits us fine since we both love to cook and, indeed, to eat. At the end of last month, with almost no money left, we decided to try one of the African restaurants in the quartier which advertised a formule for just €5. We entered the tiny restaurant through a beaded curtain and took a seat at one of the trestle tables with rickety wicker chairs. Unfamiliar with the African dishes on the menu it was up to Rose to explain to me what they were. I settled for a groundnut beef stew which was served with what, at first, appeared to be cous cous but turned out to be a lot more substantial. This arrived, fresh from the microwave, and piping hot. However, the meet was tender and flavoursome, the sauce tasty with just the right level of piquancy and the portion size generous. The atmosphere was somewhat lacking with a constant stream of people stomping through the restaurant shouting into their mobile phones together with an extremely powerful stereo system that pumped out the latest in African pop music. However, we had dined relatively well for €5 so we had no complaints.

There are many different personalities living in Chateau Rouge. There is the rather severe looking African prostitute who begins her night in the metro drinking beer before grinding up against passengers on the platform and eventually, when her luck is in, going home with someone. I have seen her accompanying many a different man through the streets of the quartier. With her closely cropped hair, extensive eye makeup, stiletto heels and, of course, her reputation she is not the most prepossessing person to see coming towards you on a dark night.

There is also the man with an enormous grey beard and wild hair who stands at the top of the metro exit distributing flyers, the man who stands quietly at the entrance of the metro with an enormous muzzled German Shepherd surveying everyone but with no apparent authority and the poor homeless man with no feet who sits on the platform.

These are the various elements that contribute to life in Chateau Rouge. Depending on my frame of mind I sometimes feel grateful for living in such a multi-cultural, bustling neighbourhood. Sometimes I long for the quiet, clean streets of a more respectable neighbourhood like the 16th. Nevertheless, this is Paris – a huge amalgamation of classes, cultures and ethnicities. Each makes a valid contribution to the overall atmosphere of the city and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.