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.