05:23:21 pmCategories: Places, Paris

A descent into eternal Paris?

Rue de Belleville, just above the metro station

What is Paris to me now, I wondered when I sat on the plane on my way south after an absence of more than two years and the experience of a couple of seminal, life-altering (no less) events. I didn’t expect to feel at home. I expected to feel a little anxiety, particularly as I was arriving late in the evening, long after dark, but that didn’t happen. Not at the metro, neither at the metro station where I changed to Line 2, my old favourite, and neither as I walked down my old street. What stuck me instead, was the bizarness of Belleville, as I’d been away for a long time. When I exit the station by the electric stairs in boulevard de la Villette, it’s dark in the street and almost deserted at this stretch of the pavement where, except for two a bit lost men playing a ghetto blaster way over the limits of the loudspeakers, nothing else than a scratching white noise coming out of them. And this morning, a screaming man walked down the street in front of the hotel. I heard his screams from far away, once every twentieth second perhaps, and then they faded away again down in the main street, like a weird human Doppler effect.

Walking down my old street, most is the same. The mild stench reminds me immediately. France smells. And in Faubourg du Temple it first smells of the metro, as everywhere, but then it is transformed into the particular sweet stench of rotting groceries, the butchers, waste, cigarettes, pollution, the density of the population and a hot summer night. I don’t know, I just recognise it immediately and, well, yes, feel warm at heart.

The languages one can hear in this street, I’ve written about before, but they’re the same as always. Belleville Babelville.

The day after, at the café everybody hangs out in, it’s the usual mix of old men (of all backgrounds) and middle-aged and younger people. A young, blond woman engages easily in a conversation with an elegantly dressed black man (suit jacket and straw hat at the chair besides him, collarless dark shirt, leather shoes) who was reading an article in Le Monde on how Sarkozy echants Africa before she sat down and asked for a light. (She left after the coffee, cigarette and good chat.)

Why did I expect to feel anxious?

More than feeling joy of being back, or the nostalgic bitter-sweetness that I expected and that I felt walking the old streets in my neighbourhood in London a year after I moved from there, I feel a warmth recognition. The warmth of enjoying the vibrant street life around me, the sounds of carpenters and other daily activities (and perpetuate traffic), the smells, the – nothing less – humanity gathered, mingling, speaking in different languages, dressed in different styles, exposing different emotions. When I walked down Freemantle Street in London, there was nothing there but memories. I felt pain, so much did I miss my life there. Here I don’t feel any of that nostalgic pain. I wondered before I landed whether it’s true that one will always have Paris. I guessed in a way that no, because most of what made up my world here is gone, as I hadn’t, and probably would never be able again to, keep up all the relations, as in London. But I realise now that that isn’t true. Paris is there exactly – almost – as I left it.

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