Postcard from Paris

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Paris and me, we have history.

On a sixth-form trip, walking with friends down the Champs Elysées in the spring sunshine, it seemed Rimbaud had written his poem for us: ‘On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans / Et qu’on a des tilleuls verts sur la promenade’ (‘No one’s serious at seventeen / When lime trees line the promenade’). I’d never seen anywhere so beautiful or so alive.

The next time I visited I was studying French at university, and I arrived with a boyfriend – who dumped me without ceremony on the first day of our holiday. I made an excuse about making a phone call and left him for hours as the city welcomed me back. I walked until I was lost and re-found my sense of self.

I returned a few years later with another boy, and we fell for Paris together. On the next visit there were three of us. Our daughter was three weeks old and neither she nor I had a clue what we were doing. Sleep-starved, dazed and hormonal, I walked the boulevards with my arms wrapped round her while her dad worked, and began to see how life could begin again.

Well-loved friends moved to the city and – purely for the sake of loyalty – we went to see them often, and Paris became a city of playgrounds and boat rides and parks with wild strawberries where our children tried out their first (tiny) rollercoaster.

That first daughter is about to leave home in a few weeks, and we’ve brought her and her younger sister back to Paris, while their brother cycles the tree-lined roads of the south for a few days. 

Paris has been a place to which I always return, a distant constant when the rest of life has whirled and swirled around me. She’s a city of contradictions: elegant and seedy, grand and intimate, full of light and shadows, grime and glory. Her streets are alive with creativity, with the ghosts of philosophers and artists and writers I once studied, and loved for their humanity and wisdom. One of her bridges buckled recently under the weight of locks bearing lovers’ initials attached to them. She’s the city of love and longing, and she always has been. 

But this visit she’s shown a different side. 

We drove in from the north, scanning for that moment when the Eiffel Tower first comes into view. 

The road took us through a strobing tunnel to Porte de la Chapelle, and a makeshift camp of hundreds of tents under a flyover, where people walked, stood and sat at the edge of the dual carriageway. 

A woman with a cardboard sign asking for help weaved between closed car windows towards us. A boy washed the windscreen and came to the window for payment. We gave him 5 Euros but he leant in and demanded 10, then grabbed the wing mirror, threatening to tear it off if we didn’t give more. 

Groups of men stood in huddles, just yards from police and soldiers with boys’ faces, body armour and machine guns.

We googled ‘Porte de la Chapelle’ and read about the repeated rounding-up and removal of those seeking sanctuary in the city, including dozens of unaccompanied children. The issues are clearly messy and confusing, complex and nuanced. Around a hundred migrants arrive each day in the area, and the conditions they live in are unsustainable and insanitary. Criminal networks are quick to exploit the needs and vulnerability of the newcomers, and women who live nearby have found themselves harassed and endangered. The place is tense and brutal, and ugly.  

As Europeans we have raised our eyebrows at the words beneath the statue France gifted to the American people on their independence, ‘Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses...’, and what seems to be the current US administration’s betrayal of its country’s dearest values.

But those masses are also here, in Paris, and the government's response is to keep them at the end of a gun, to don hazard suits to sift through the debris of broken lives after another dawn round-up.

These Eritreans and Sudanese, Syrians and Afghans cannot simply be defined and dismissed as members of the wrong club, who lost the birth lottery and are now cluttering up the streets. 

They are people – with the guts to get out of a war zone, to seek a way out of endless violence, poverty and fear, to reach the city that champions freedom, equality and brotherhood. 

But the clarion call of the republic, emblazoned across every hotel de ville in the land, rings cracked and hollow in Porte de la Chapelle.

An evening walk took us into the heart of the city, past a family on a mattress, a boy covered in burns and a mother holding out a cup for coins.

I know that the first family I saw sitting together on a mattress at the side of the road tore at my heart, and that within a couple of days I was speeding up to get past them. I know that in the four days of our stay I saw no one stop to give money, or food, or exchange words. I know that they will have watched my family walk past awkwardly on the other side of the road, our younger daughter asking why the story of the Good Samaritan plays out differently on a Parisian avenue. 

I am bitterly aware that I don’t have answers. But the questions are howling round the boulevards and bridges, the parks and squares of Paris, and they demand a response that is concerted and compassionate, not ill-conceived, populist or panic-prompted.

The Musée d’Orsay houses the paintings of Van Gogh, a broken, impoverished foreigner, overlooked and undervalued his whole life through, whose works now draw millions from across all the countries of the world. Where life left him in despair he saw stars that lit the midnight blue and light it still for those who come. 

If only Paris, city of light, would now choose to extend her promise of liberté, égalité and fraternité to those who are huddled, and bruised, and grieving, and far from home, just like he once was.

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