Backpacking 201-Paris

The first thing I see in Paris at  Du Nord station is a woman begging. I do not have the energy to notice if she could be East European or a generic looking French woman. I had boarded a train at 5.30am at King’s Cross Station and was too sleepy still. The second thing is what seems like a quarrel or argument between a passenger and those organising taxis for the new arrivals. This tall French African man, who was on my train and in the queue for taxis, suddenly gets out of the line and starts shouting Monsieur, Monsieur as he rushes towards the front of the queue. What followed was beyond my comprehension. Loud voices talking in French. Maybe it was just a normal conversation.  I mean we Indians and the Chinese gesture and talk loudly. Does that entail an argument? The third thing is the taxi ride through the streets of Paris. The shops are not yet open and it looks like Mahim the day after Novena at St Michael’s Church. My taxi driver changes lanes nonchalantly almost banging into a man on a scooter who then confronts him at the lights. C’est le Paree.

YHA offers a special package in Paris.  Two nights, three nights or four; free entry to various museums and a single ticket across all public transport. I have booked three nights at the Cite Des Sciences hostel. I reach the hostel at 9.30 the first morning and am told I cannot take my bag to my dormitory because the cleaners are in. I can only go there after 2pm. Yup in France the cleaning process goes on between 10am-2pm. So I go to the Louvre with two thailis – bags and leave my suitcase at reception.

I cannot add anything to what has already been said about the magnificence of the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is mysterious and myth adds to the mystery. She is just a tad too pale. The sculptures, the paintings, Napoleon’s apartment…it can all get crazy. I did not see it all and I would not recommend seeing it all in one day either.

When in Paris visit the Eiffel Tower. That is taken for granted. One evening I stand in a long line forced to listen to two yakkety American women go on and on about Parisienne women and their elegance. I thought the women in London dressed better than those in Paris. Quirky, individualistic fashion rather than enslaved to haute couture. It is always fascinating to listen to other people talk and on my way down from the top I try to understand what the Italian women are gossiping about. The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is priceless (or 12 Euro).  My YHA package gives me free entry to Arc de Triomphe and a ride on the Seine.

My hostel is in a suburb called Hoche. It could be a busy suburb in Egypt/Morocco/any North African/Middle Eastern country instead of Paris. Very multicultural and full of different hues of brown skin. This is not the Paris sold to the world. This is the Paris that France has ignored. It is like these people live in France but are not French and the French do not want to acknowledge anything that is ‘not French’, whatever that means. The world is sold the myth of old Paree but that is a lie. On my first evening in Paris I travel to ‘China Town’ of which a Chinese student on the subway has told me about. There is none of buzz of Chintown in London or Melbourne and actually not even on the Paris map. The few ‘Chinese’ restaurants are run by Vietnamese. It takes me a while to figure out why Vietnamese. Because Vietnam was a French colony! D-uh! Back in town a bunch of French-African krumpers and poppers pump up the jam on the street. We never get to see these cultural titbits as ‘French’ do we?

But then I am in Paris because it a romantic city so I am not disappointed when I visit Montmartre. It is quintessential France. Just out of Abbesses station are cobbled streets, beautiful houses, cafes and old American gentlemen playing jazz music. I have a chat with one of the jazz players. Richard Miller plays the cornet and does the vocals for his band. He is a well travelled man and ‘too old to ask you out’, he says to me. Up the hill is the Basilica, the permanent Dali exhibition and streets to wander in. As I finally feel ‘paisa vasool‘ (got my money’s worth) I hear snatches of an old Hindi film song. It is surreal.  ‘Itni Shakti Hume Dena Data‘ from the film Ankush (1986) playing in a French Cafe. Curious, I hang around and have dinner. The French owner/manager downloaded it on his i-pod because he liked the song. We have a conversation about Hindi films and I recommend a few. If there is a place in Paris I want to live then it is Montmartre. I am snobbish that way. No ghettoes for me, thank you.

The Paris subways are different from the London Underground. The trains bounce,  creak and squeak as they turn around bends as if they could derail anytime. The stations are quite beautiful though and have artwork all over them. From the tiles to the paintings…Abbesses station has stunning paintings all round the stairwell. These subways are the place to see the people of Paris, I reckon. All colours except white. There are many Bangladeshis around. The first one I talk to is selling roses to commuters. I ask in English ‘Are you from South Asia?’. He does not understand. So I ask in Hindi, ‘India se hai?‘ He says ‘Haan’, yes. Kidhar se, I ask. Where from? Bangal se, he says. From Bengal.  Something about his accent makes me suspicious. Bangladeshi, I ask. Yes, he says. Imagine a Bangladeshi going bonjour…bonsoir to passers-by. I can’t help but ask the man, legal hai ki illegal? The man glowers indignantly. Legal, he says. (Yeah right, I think.)

I cannot fathom how France considers itself a world power or anything of import on the world or even the European stage. If there is one thing to learn from the French then it is how not to deal with migrants, particularly coloured people. And of course Muslims. Just how Sarkozy is dealing with the hijab/burkha is to be noted. Then the other thing is the work force and labour. I go to the post office one day to get a stamp so I can send a postcard to my father. It takes more than an hour to get one and would have taken longer if I had not done the Indian thing of just breaking the queue. France was almost annihilated in the world wars (if my history is correct), stupidly tried to sink the Rainbow Warrior…Napolean was so long ago…sure there is the storming of the Bastille and concepts like liberty etc. There were Foucault, Lefebvre and other thinkers…but what about the world now? France is a permanent member of the U.N Security Council but cannot deal with its own people who are ‘not French’. It does not gel. I mean no country has got it completely right and democracy comes with problems but they cannot be hidden under the garb of sophisticated ‘Frenchness’ ya? Maybe I am plain stupid and don’t understand complex world issues. Still, I would love to visit France again. Maybe I will see something new?

The Algerian, who runs the internet cafe down the road, and I have interesting conversations in my broken French whenever I go down there. He wants to know where I am from. Je suis Indian, je ne parle pas francais je parle l’anglais. But I am from New Zealand. People get confused. So far on my entire trip, I have been mistaken for a generic South American to Mexican and Maori-only because I said I am from New Zealand. Never Indian.  I don’t mind at all. It reiterates my deepest thoughts to me-that I can live anywhere in the world and do anything I want.  People are people and you are bound to find like-minded souls in this universe. So it will be in Berlin.

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