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The International Writers Magazine
: The 19th Arrondissement

Unique and Undiscovered: Beauty in Residential Paris
Elizabeth Marx

With no intention and no Practique map-guide, I exited the Metro at Barbes Rochechouart. By passing the narrow straight streets lined with textile shops, I walked east up the major boulevard. I took time to stop at the patisserie for a croissant and pooled together the change for a liter and a half of water. After a month on a student’s budget had to appreciate experience without expenditure.

Tourists already flooded the stairs of Sacre Coeur, smiling faces blocking a low-rising skyline, flashbulbs blazing brighter than the midday sun. This morning, walked north until I faced the motorway belting in the city. In the 19th Arrondissement rues became wide, sweeping, multi-laned. Traffic-lighted intersections met divided highways as if I had been transported back to suburbia; schools, community centers, recreation parks as ordinary as any you would find stateside assimilated urban towerblocks, sweeping 20 stories high each with a small balcony, into the amalgamation. Many acted as giant billboard stands, hoisting neon Samsung and Sanyo signs 60 meters in the air beside the beltway. Arranged like a beige hive, I assumed a middle class neighborhood, filled with well-employed families living in these towering corporate endowed megaliths. Train tracks sprawled out in rotary style. A traditional building sat alone, no others with which to stand, surrounded by apartment complexes.
I walked though a park with equidistant trees and sparse grass filled over with paving stones. Strangely, lying within a city that prizes their flora almost as much as their cuisine, lived little green.
Weaving my way away from the wide boulevards and automobiles, I wandered down a stream of a street along one towerblock. Towels, clothing, dying plants, and international flags hung from the balconies. A group of boys perched atop a cinderblock wall that moated the complex called as I walked by. I was followed by two of them for a short distance before they shrunk back to their roost, subdued by a look; they were only 10.

As I rounded this building, I gazed over the lot adjacent. No playground, no trees, bushes, flowers, or even grass, as barren as any wasteland. I realized these monoliths were not where the fortunate lived but perhaps the Parisian version of the slums.

A few misplaced minorities shuffled their way in and out across their desert entrance yards. There were hundreds of them. Not people but buildings. Thousands of people.
Sinking deeper, the towers became shorter. Maybe only five or six stories tall in a palate of art deco pastels. One clean white complex connected its sections with waved, open bridges between every three floors against a backdrop of clear blue sky. A jackhammer plowed into the ground around a sewer grate. A dumpster overflowed with construction materials.

Apartments slowly dwindling, I gathered I was heading south toward the heart of the city. Every Metro station I passed was a reminder of the heat and my aching feet, but the living side of life astounded me enough to continue my journey.

There are preconceived notions of Paris and Parisians. Snooty, well dress, idly drinking coffee at all hours, watching cinema and taking walks in their lush urban parks. This was far from the Paris of myth and legend. This Paris bared more earthy and common.

I followed a flooded sewer grate deeper into the buildings sea. They became more and more like the buildings to which I had become accustomed; prototypical style, long windows, painted shutters, wrought iron. Most of the bottom floors had been converted into failed shops, or maybe they were just closed for the day, bolted shut with New York style roll down doors. Was it Sunday? Or maybe Saturday.

A window flung open. Bold kaftans fluttered on plastic hangers from the door jam. A fruit stand here. There some herbs and strange animal looking parts. Fresh fish. Stranger fruit. Stranger herbs. Stranger fish. Somewhere, I had come from the dunes of the towerblocks to the vibrant Haitian neighborhood of Paris. A small district of a few square blocks, this Saturday or Sunday market was in full regalia. Tribal beats pounded from media stores, their windows completely covered over with CD covers. Videos and DVDs piled out front in boxes. Everything was cheap. 3 euros for a DVD. Fifty cents for a bag of oddly shaped citrus fruit. Browsing, I realized my minority. In this international city, I was the only white girl around. Looking up, all I could see was an ocean of heritage, traditional dress, music, and food; everything alive and smelling delicious. As I slowed past a storefront of fish, an octopus leg flopped out of the bucket in front of me. I jumped. Several men laughed.

I left the 19th Arrondissement behind. Few foreigners must see these places, I imagined. Alone, walking the streets, tranquil, without care, glistening sun and bright, blue sky overhead. The 19th is unique, real, visceral. It is the almost arid smell, the dirt pounded by rays from the sun like the Sahara, a tall man’s shirt flapping coolly next to a petit pair of shorts, a half-dead fish going after my ankles.

© Elizabeth Marx April 2005

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