Friday, August 21, 2009

"Exotic" Paris

This summer when we visited Paris, we were interested in seeing more than the tourist hot-spots. We followed a suggestion to visit some of the quarters of the city that were home to Paris's vibrant immigrant populations.

We took the #4 Metro to the station at Chateau Rouge, in the 18th arrondissment. We came out of the station into a triangle of streets, and went down the Rue Dejean, a tiny street that's lined with markets selling produce, meat and fish.

Here many of the items were not only targeted to immigrant shoppers - they came from their homelands. These fish, round and flat as frisbees, were caught off the coast of Senegal, and marketed to West African cooks.

The neighborhood around the Chateau Rouge Metro station is said to be home to West African immigrants from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Cameroon, and Nigeria, but we also saw shops that catered to Haitian and West Indian immigrants as well.

These herbs are marked as imported from Togo.
The little market street feeds into the Rue de Poissoniers, and here were more shops. There were also several women vendors, all wearing bright African cloth, selling eggplants on the sidewalk out of shopping bags.

Here, this shopper bargains for a good price with a vendor. Eggplants seem to be a prized commodity.

There were many shops that carried African videos, CDs and DVDs, and shops that carried bottled and canned goods from West Africa.

And there were the fabric stores - displaying colorful "wax" - which is the name everyone seems to use for the brightly colored batik fabric favored in West Africa. Batik is a technique that originated in Indonesia, where fabric is painted with patterns in wax before being dyed. The areas covered with wax don't take the color. The fabrics were imported to Africa by Dutch colonial merchants, where they were so popular that locals soon adapted the techniques. Now many of them are made in Ghana and Nigeria, but you can still find Dutch or Indonesian "wax" fabrics. Here's an article that explains how this came to be - click HERE.

If you go south on the Rue des Poissoniers, you soon notice more North African stores and restaurants. This neighborhood is known as the Goutte d'Or - the Golden Drop, named for ancient vineyards and wineries that once were here. It was once a sleepy, almost pastoral neighborhood, but starting in the 1950s, immigrants from Algeria settled here, and other North African people followed.

This store, near the intersection of Rue des Poissoniers and Boulevard Barbes, is named for Mahgreb, a region of Morocco, and the clothing displayed here are brightly colored djellebas and kaftans, embroidered with gold thread.

We turned on Barbes, which is a wide, busy boulevard, and soon came to the intersection of La Chapelle. Tati - a huge discount department store with bins of clearance-priced clothing out on the sidewalks, looms over the street, and teems with shoppers. The elevated train passes overhead, and the approach to the platform is filled with vendors, barkers, pick-pockets and shoppers.

There are discount linen and fabric stores with bins on the sidewalk, everything is covered with graffiti, and the streets are full of the chaotic din of traffic, scooters, the train rushing overhead and people shouting.

Crossing beneath the trains, the boulevard changes names and becomes Magenta. As we walk further, we skirt diagonally past the Gare du Nord, and, beyond, the Gare de L'est - huge train stations. The neighborhoods near them are similar to what you'd find near the Port Authority or Pennsylvania Station in New York. Motor coaches and taxis and hotels and restaurants - here's where I saw more American chain fast food joints than anywhere else in Paris - McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

This was a colorful street stand right across from the Gare du Nord - selling all kinds of candy, lots and lots of Gummi worms!

As we continued down Boulevard Magenta, the views of the side streets were tantalizing. Here a narrow street lined with Indian and Pakistani restaurants leads to an elaborate gothic facade - the church of St. Laurent, built in the 15th century.

We turned down Rue Faubourg St. Denis, a narrower street. Lined with Indian and Mid-Eastern restaurants and shops selling prepared foods and produce today, it was once the home of affluent merchants and jewelers. Today it exhibits Paris's diverse immigrant mix.

This Chinese-owned produce stand was in the same block as a store Turkish restaurant, a wine merchant, a charcutier advertising foie gras, and a chocolatier. The one-way street was so narrow only one vehicle could transit, with the curb lane reserved for deliveries.
In this block, is the little brasserie named Julien. Now restored by the restaurant corporation Flo, it's a marvel of Art Nouveau decor that reminds you of this neighborhood's former fin de siecle elegance.

Every once in a while, a doorway would open onto the sidewalk, with a view of a passageway behind. These small passages lead to quiet residential courtyards, or sometimes alleys packed with discount sellers. We turned down one of these, the Passage Brady.

Passage Brady is home to perhaps a dozen stores, mostly Indian merchants and restaurants. A narrow hall between the buildings, its iron-framed glass ceiling let in the daylight. The passageway was crammed with dining tables for the restaurants, and displays of bright silks and garlands of flowers.

We took an outside table at a south Indian restaurant, Passage de Pondicherry, and had lunch. Dosas, crispy chick-pea-flour crepes served with dal and vegetable curry. The food was not as spicy as the food we've come to know in Southern California's Indian community - here they've modified its flavors to suit Parisian tastes.

When we finished lunch, we walked all the way through Passage Brady to Boulevard de Strasbourg.

Here is the edge of Paris's theatre district - the Theatre Antoine is a beautiful building with a significant history. Built in 1866, in 1887 it became the home of the Theatre Libre, founded by impressario Andre Antoine, who believed in a more natural style of acting than was common at the time. It began with a dramatization of Zola's novel Therese Raquin, and in defiance of censorship, they presented plays that were banned elsewhere, including plays by Ibsen, Strindberg and Hauptmann.

We doubled back to Rue Faubourg St. Denis, to walk its final block, to the impressive golden stone arch of the Porte Saint-Denis that serves as the focal point of the street.

This triumphal arch was built in 1692 by Louis XIV to commemorate his victories on the Rhine, and it stands on the site of a gate in the ancient medieval fortified wall that once surrounded the city.

Pretty cool, huh? We had traveled through exotic lands indeed - from a West African market to the gate of the Sun King, by way of Morocco, Pondicherry, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Parisian fin de siecle decadence. And all in one day!


KBeau said...

What a fun tour. How nice to get into some of the less touristy spots. Great pictures!

Gilly said...

My, you saw much more of an exotic Paris than we did!! When we went there,. it was mainly North Africanz that were there, selling stuff around theSacre Coeur, and they were reckoned to be dangerous streets. This was 1981 I think, and the N. Africans were regarded without any favour at all! We only had 3 days, and managed to "do" the Notre Dame and Ile de la Cite the Sacre Coeur, get my purse stolen on the Metro and at the same time cope with a teenage daughter who was into Sulking!! Oh, and we went to the Pompidou Centre.

I can see we need to go again.

Gilly said...

PS They are fantastic photos!

Gabriela said...


What a fantastic trip! And thanks so much showing us these photos.

~ Gabriela ~

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

I love Paris, and really love looking at parts of it through your camera lens that I haven't seen before.

Mary Ellen (megardengal) said...

How fun to do this kind of traveling!! I keep thinking....some day.....

Life with Kaishon said...

I really love your pictures. So beautiful! And I loved learning about the not so touristy parts of Paris as well. Very nice post!