Sunday, January 13, 2008

Across the Top of Paris

On the last trip, I dragged poor Alannah to cut a diagonal swath across Paris on foot. I promised her I wouldn't subject her to torture like that again, so now that I'm here on my own, I figured I'd continue my quest to carve up the City of Light on foot, like some sort of butcher's diagram.

If Paris is a pig facing left, then I started out in the ham, moved up and across the loin chops, and ended up in the shoulder. Ok, considering the number of halal butcher shops I walked by, maybe the pork allegory isn't appropriate. So here's a map:

It's Sunday, so I knew that other than the tourist spots and crazy department stores, there'd be little that's open. So I figured I'd look to an area where they don't consider Sunday a pesky day of rest: Belleville. Not only is it a huge ethnic enclave and home to Paris' second Chinatown, but it's probably the only area I hadn't visited before.

Most visitors don't wind up in Belleville, and it's a shame. Sure, there's no huge tower or Napoleonic arch or famous museum to speak of. But the bustling streets and overflowing shops are a sure reminder that Paris isn't just a romantic city founded on the artistic merits of Van Gogh and Baudelaire - it's also multicultural collage comprised of Chinese markets, Kosher delis, Arabic take-outs, and all manner of sights and smells.

Unfortunately, my first whiff of Belleville was courtesy of a skanky heroin junkie throwing herself at me when I got out of the Metro. "Please!" she begged. "I'll do anything for a little bit of money." You know, behind the two black eyes, track marked arms, and stink of a week without bathing, she was probably hot to trot. But not only am I faithful to my gal, I'm amazingly discriminating.

Except maybe when it comes to food. Passing by all the roast ducks in windows, freshly grilled meats, and tantalizing deep fried who-knows-what, I walked into... McDonald's.

I can't help it. I'm a total whore to advertising. Ever since I landed, I've been seeing these billboards for le P'tit Indien ("The Li'l Indian"), a new sandwich served under the golden arches of the American Embassy. The ad shows off a little pile of turmeric, some coriander leaves, and cinnamon sticks. And I'm of the firm belief that curry can make anything short of your Aunt Missy's Jell-O ambrosia taste great. And thus, le P'tit Indien is pretty good. Great? No. It's basically a McChicken laced with curry powder. But with a carton of hot fries and a cold Kronenbourg 1664, it's a totally respectable fast food meal. Ok, maybe not respectable. Acceptable, perhaps? Alright, I'm reaching. But I still believe in my curry theory.

Turning north, I walked alongside most of the length of the Canal St. Martin. It's placid and peaceful, lined with some newly trendy eating and drinking establishments. The whole quiet factor is increased manifold by the fact that it's closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays. As the sun came out, I was surrounded by people fishing in the canals, families strolling down the street, and all manner of pretty girls cruising by on their free Vélib rental bikes.

Vélib is amazing, and going by the number of empty dispenser stalls, it's a rousing success. It's a system where you go and check out a bike from one of 300 automated bike racks, and drop it off at any other one. The first 30 minutes of each rental are free, so as long as you drop off your bike as soon as you get to your next destination, you can pedal around the city totally free. Apparently, this program is a lifesaver during the many times the Parisian transit workers go on stirke. I can only wish we had something like this in the San Francisco, so I wouldn't ever have to get on the filthy Muni again. (For more info on Vélib and how it works - check it out here.)

Speaking of strikes, I have the TV on right now, and apparently CNN here plays a French edition of the Daily Show with an intro monologue that's more geared toward folks in France. Here's a bit from Jon Stewart's bit that just played: "As you may know, here in the US, the writers are on strike. Or as those of you in France would call it... EVERY DAY."

Despite it being a gloriously strike-free day, I continued along my march across Paris, following the tree-lined boulevards of La Chapelle, Rochechouart, Pigalle, and Clichy. And yes, that's the stretch that - if you've studied your guidebooks - is considered the seediest, most dangerous strip in Paris. I may have said it on the last trip, but if this is the worst part of Paris, those guidebook writers must be living in some sort of whitewashed ivory tower. Yeah, there's a sex shop or two or ten. Yeah, you've got a few thug types hanging around. But there are just as many parents rollerblading with their kids, old couples strolling hand-in-hand, and more of those pretty girls on bicycles. I don't know - maybe the authors out there are just scared of anything ethnic or a bit more risqué. I know shit's gone down in front of some of the bars and that some people get hassled walking around this area. But this is nothing compared to half the neighborhoods in San Francisco or New York or LA. Then again, maybe I'm just desensitized by America's love for thug life. Who knows?

Although I entertained the idea of walking the rest of the way, my feet were pretty beat by the time I got to Place de Clichy, so I hopped on the Metro and went four stops back to my hotel.

Maybe I should've walked.

The train was packed. Not so much with people, but with their things. What with the soldes going on, people are getting on board with rucksacks, duffel bags, and freakin' suitcases of marked down items they've bought from the department stores. At first I thought there was a sudden influx of tourists on good ol' Ligne 13, but no - I was being packed like a sardine in a tin can full of mass consumerism.

Oh well - at least they use public transit, huh?

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