Multicultural Paris in the Heart of the City

Porte de Saint Denis I can’t even put words to express the sadness that the November 13th terrorist attacks have inflicted on Paris. Despite the horrors, I’m a staunch believer that we cannot let the terrorists dictate our behaviour and that we must continue to live, while honoring the victims of the tragedy. However, as a foreigner in this beautiful city of the Luminaries and the writers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, I feel it’s also important to defend Paris’s multiculturalism. These terrorists do not represent the city’s ethnic populations and while there have been issues related to some disgruntle youth and integration over the past decade (that I don’t think have been properly resolved), most Parisians are proud to be parisiens and help make Paris the fantastic city that it is.

In my 15 years living in Paris, I’ve had friends from at least double that many nationalities; from Moroccan to Mexican, from Italian to Israeli and from Pakistani to Palestinian. My love for Paris is intrinsically linked to multiculturalism, starting back from being a resident in Argentina House at the Cité Université during my university semester abroad to when I’d first move back in Paris after graduating when my first friends were an Italian, a Czech, a Brit and I was sleeping on the floor of my mother’s half-Russian Jew/half-French friend. The following year, I was celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with an American, a Togolese and a really insane Irishman.

Traditional clothes - Goutte d'Or

Fifteen years later, when I had my nationality interview back in June, one of the questions my interviewer  asked was if my group of friends was a) only French b) a mix of French and foreign or c) only foreign. I gave the honest answer of b) because my friends are just French and North-Americans but Parisians, in all their forms.

In fact, the Paris attacks, by hitting the multicultural heart of the city, traditionally working-class or ethnic neighborhoods that are becoming popular with a wide dissection of parisians–represented in the diversity of the victims–the terrorists were also trying to destabilize what works in Parisian multiculturalism. As such, this post is intended as a multicultural hug, an embrace, une embrasse, around the geographic wounds of Paris in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, by highlighting these various cosmopolitan communities and some stories or memories linked to them. By staying united, strong and solidaire, we can help heal these wounds together.

rue du Faubourg Saint Denis

Original Chinatown in the 3rd

When thinking of the Chinese community in Paris, the 13th district of Paris usually comes to mind, however, a touch southwest of Place de la République you’ll find the city’s original Chinatown. Located on and around rue de Temple at Réaumur is a cluster of Chinese restaurants and shops. The community, mainly from Wenzhou, near Shanghai, first settled here at the end of WWII to work in the ateliers of the Sentier clothing district.

I first stumbled upon it soon after I’d moved to Paris, most surely getting lost trying to find my Italian friend Roberto’s apartment in the area. To answer my curiosity about this mini Chinatown, we went for lunch in one of the now dwindling locales. Their numbers may now be diminishing, but there are still a few places hanging on over there.

L'As du Falafel

Historic Jewish Marais

The same could be said for the Jewish connections to the Marais, south of both the 10th and the 11th. Although the historic centre of Jewish Paris is being gradually bobo-fied, its heart remains. It didn’t take me many years living in Paris to discover the free art opening nights which take place most Thursdays in the different gallery districts of Paris, including that of the upper Marais. So it became a tradition for us girls to do a little wine and culture crawl, a trail that usually ended at L’As du Fallafel (pictured here with Naughty from my book). Even back then in the early 2000s it was a Paris institution. We’d dream of one of Lenny Kravitz, one of their most illustrious clients, breezing in as we wolfed down the best falafel spécial in the world for a mere 5.50 euros. Food can really be a cultural conduit; I can truly thank this cheap sandwich shop for helping introduce us to Jewish culture and its history in the area, which would grow over the years though other channels.

You’ll still find the long lines snaking out of L’As, and while a lot of the other Jewish shops and restaurants have been replaced by trendy boutiques, I’ve heard of a new Jewish takeaway place opening up on rue des Rosiers. The heartbeats on here and at the Judaic religious centres of the district.

Traditional Arab desserts

Belleville – Crossroads of Cultures

Just to the northeast of the targeted zones, is one of the first crossroads of cultures in Paris; the traditional working class neighborhood of Belleville, mostly overflowing off the Boulevards between Menilmontant and Colonel Fabien métros. I distinctly remember the first time I’d come here. It was back in late 2001 on the first—and only—date with the zaney Irishman mentioned above. He said he was taking me somewhere very, very authentic. Picking me up on his scooter we zipped over to Belleville and down a little side street where we fought our way into a crowded, brightly lit Vietnamese Pho restaurant, about the worst place to suggest as a first date. I hopelessly attempted to delicately slurp up the slippery noodles, splashing soup broth all over my red shirt. If that wasn’t bad and sad enough, my date narrated this punishment with the story of how he’d tried to procure illicit drugs from his brother-in-law on the eve of his sister’s wedding. He really wondered why they’d made such a big deal about it…. and I was really beginning to wonder what I was doing there.

At least I got something worthwhile out of the date, I quickly found my way back and my explorations of Belleville’s ethnicity have carried on over the years; picking up my tofu and bok choy at the Chinese supermarkets (yes, another Chinatown other than the one down in the 13th), taking in the aromas of mint tea from the shisha bars or being tempted by the treats at Jewish delicatessens… or slurp on some Vietnamese Pho.Indian clothing shop La Chapelle

Little India

Near the northern border of the 10th, the vibrant streets around La Chapelle are probably the most colorful in all of monochromatic Paris, mainly because of the area’s dazzling clothing shops and mouth-watering cantinas of Little India (well, really Little “Indian Subcontinent”). Back in the day, with Naughty being half-Indian and us all being poor, we could alternate L’As du Fallafel with our then favorite little divey Indian restaurant. They barely had to ask what we wanted to order, we’d get sucked into the Bollywood videos and leave sated with tasty food and laughter for the low price of 8-10 euros.

What I love more in Little India than sitting in at one of its restaurants, is slowly strolling down rue Louis Blanc and its arteries, peering into the shop windows at the samosas, and a whole variety of snacks I’ve never seen, but one day should dare to order. My second favorite place is the G and Co, the Indian, Pakistani and Mauritian supermarket at the corner of rue Louis Blanc and the Boulevard de la Chapelle. I always spend ages in there wandering the aisles and browsing curious ingredients, leaving with some peculiar pickled chutney or kilogram-bag of curry.

La Goutte d'Or Paris

La Goutte D’Or

I’ve had a good deal of North African friends while living in Paris, since they live all over the city, the place that evokes North Africa to me the most would have to be La Goutte d’Or, the heart of this community in the 18th district, just above the 10th. The “Golden Drop” street, so poetic a name, but with a turbulent history especially during the Franco-Algerian War. Today you’ll find the main street still dotted with cafes and provision shops, an Ali Baba treasure trove of aromas and colors. The lively atmosphere echoes ten-fold on Wednesdays and Saturdays with the spillover from the Barbès street market.

Even before I moved to the 18th, I used to come up here for two life essential ingredients: peanut butter and tahini. Back in the early 2000s before large French supermarkets started carrying decent options, the “best” peanut-butter I could find was this very odd tin can, with 60s-style smiling blond boy on it, called Dakartine. Tahini was a slightly different story. I actually tried to find it in an Arab grocers’ closer to my then home at Bastille so I could make some hummus. I found a grocers’ no problem… but the vendor couldn’t understand what I was asking for (it’s actually pronounced with an eh or ah at the end, not ee). My embarrassment forced me on the métro up north to pick some up with my peanut butter — and the other spices, pita, harissa or olives — I’d inevitably toss in my basket.

Goutte d'Or clothing shop

Barbès to Chateau d’Eau 

I often find myself walking from home in Montmartre all the way through the 10th to the centre, following a peculiar African clothing and beauty trail as I descend. It starts related south of Barbès with the festive reasonably priced wedding attire decking out most of the shops on Boulevard Magenta down to Gare de l’Est when turning onto Boulevard de Strasbourg all the way down to Chateau d’Eau where you’ll find a whole cluster of African hair and beauty salons. I always marvel at their window displays and signs featuring names like Gl’Amour or Black Beauty Centre, Afro King versus Supreme White or Fair and White. Regardless of skin color, they’re always trying to tempt you inside, if it isn’t for dreadlocks or braids, perhaps a manicure?

Faubourg Saint Denis

Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis – The Epicenter of Parisian Multiculturalism

The ultimate in Paris Cosmopolitan Culture might have to be the boisterous rue du Faubourg Saint Denis. Walking down it the other day, I counted over 15 different ethnic restaurants or shops. Among the diversity are the Indians and Mauritian restaurants overflowing from the Passage Brady, more Cameroonian, or Ivoirians beauticians, a Chinese grocer, an Italian Delicatessen, a Kurdish restaurant, a half dozen turkish kebab stands and an American burger joint. But squeezed in the mix, you’ll find the historic art nouveau brasserie Juliengrimy bar-tabac selling PMU lottery tickets and, since 2007 with the make-over of Chez Jeannette into a cool bar, hipster hangouts like Le Syndicat cocktail club or the Swinging Londress.

These hip locales might start inching out the ethnic ones, but they are hanging on pretty strongly. Everyone is coexisting, rubbing shoulders at that PMU or having the same late night kebab snack. The oneness that we have to fight for in our Paris.

If you’re looking for more on exploring Multicultural Paris have a look at this good read from the New York Times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *