‘Hi, I’m Oscar from Barcelona, who are you?’ ‘I’m Erika from Finland’ ‘I’m Gosia from Poland’ awkward silence… ‘So what are you guys doing in France? Are you here for the meeting? Travelling?’ And so on and so on.
Having been abroad as much as I have and having encountered as many people through my travels, I have become quite used to the traditional greetings of backpackers and globetrotters. Thus, arriving at two o’clock at Chateau Rouge Metro station, finding 50 other travellers standing around in a loose formation didn’t really freak me out. However, it always is a bit intimidating to get yourself out there and meet and greet new people.
The reason that we all showed up at Chateau Rouge was because we had received a general invitation through the activity calendar of the CouchSurfing community in Paris. Through a weekend in July, the CS’ers in Paris had organised a long list of events and parties – for free. This Friday afternoon, it was possible to take part in a tour through the 18th arrondissement. As an 18th fanatic, I could hardly let the possibility of hearing someone else’s tales pass me by.
Our guide was named Luis and is originally from Colombia, though he has lived in Paris for a long long time, having fallen in love with the diverse areas and neighbourhoods making up the 18th. A man I can relate to. For the next 6 hours Luis would take us through Chateau Rouge, Montmartre and Pigalle talking about known as well as unknown facts on the way. In this blog, I hope to recount the tour of Luis, which happened entirely in French and Spanish. So as I mentioned, we started at two o’clock on a Friday afternoon at the metro station Chateau Rouge.
The name Chateau Rouge, Red Castle, takes its name from a small manor which was likely build on the spot between 1775 and 1795 and demolished again in 1875. From 1845 and until 1870, it functioned as a very popular dance hall, and afterwards as, headquarters for the National Guard during the Paris Commune in 1871.
The neighbourhood had begun to truly develop in the 1840s and had quickly become an area of diverse socio-economic groups. Before long it also became an ethnically diverse area with first French people from other regions moving in and then Belgians, Italians, Polish and Spanish.
Moving to the 1950s the neighbourhood came to increasingly reflect the different colonial regions of the French Empire. From the 1920s until and particularly during the 1950s, a large North African community grew out of La Goutte D’Or. In the 1960s these were joined by the influx of Yugoslavians, Portuguese, Indians and Chinese. And in the 1980s, many from sub-Saharan Africa came along. Finally there has been an immigration of Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Latin-Americans. With such immigration it can hardly surprise that the proportion of immigrants in the area increased from 11,3% in 1962 to 24,7% in 1975 and to 34,9% in 1982. Today La Goutte D’Or existes of a staggering 41,4% foreigners, which is twice the average of the 18th arrondisement, 20,6%, and three times the average in all of Paris, 15,6%. There are today 143 different nationalities in the neighbourhood.
Such diversity makes the area extremely exotic to wonder around for a transparent Danish girl, and just as Brussels’s Motangé neighbourhood it is a little piece of Africa. See A love manifesto for Brussels. The area is a truly hectic and immensely chaotic place for newcomers. At Rue DeJean there is a huge outdoor African market which is open all days but Monday, from 8h to 19h. Here you can find anything you can dream of from Northern Africa, but also quite a lot of illegal trade of bling bling goods, which means that the police visit the plays every once in a while. Saturday morning the place is particularly crowded, when people come from all over l’Île de France, Luxembourg and Belgium to shop colourful clothes, cheap jewellery, spices and food.
Crossing Boulevard Barbès
Blv Barbès is the demarcation line in between Chateau Rouge and the Goutte D’Or on the Eastern side and Montmartre on the Western side. Moving down towards Metro Barbès Rouchechouart, both sides light up with huge pink patterned signs saying Tati.
Tati is known as Gallerie Lafayette pour les pauvres. It stretches to several levels both beneath and above ground in the buildings around Blv Barbès, Blv Rouchechouart and Blv de la Chapelle. As a huge bazar where you can buy anything the heart desires, it provides a cheap alternative to Parisian shopping for the poorer parts of the population. It is overcrowded at all times, but particularly on Saturdays. And the surrounding streets are a steady chaos of people with Tati-shopping bags. Personally, I found two very cute summer dresses for a bare 8 euros a piece. It is definitely not a stupid place to go if you are in need of basic kitchenware or an extra tee or towels. And then it is simply an experience on its own. The department store was created by a Tunisian Jew in 1948. He wanted to name it Tita after his aunt, but since the name was already taking he changed it to Tati.
Not far away on 26, Rue de Clignancourt an impressive building hides away. However, it is nothing compared to what it used to be when it was Les Grands Magasins Dufayel.
The department store opened in 1856, and was at that time called Palais de la Nouveauté. When former employee Georges Dufayel took over in 1888, he made massive changes to the place which at its height took up an entire city block in between Blv Barbès and Rue Clignancourt (about a hectare of land). Just as most hyper malls today, the department store housed a theatre, a cinema, a winter garden and a cycling ring. It was the first and biggest of its kind and at the beginning of the 20th century it employed 15.000 people. The place closed in 1930 after a fire had damaged much of the place.
Today only a small part is left standing used by BNP Paris. The statues on the top of the building represent progress as supported by trade and industry. To each side of the old entrance their is a statue representing credit and publicity, respectively.
La Butte Montmartre
Behind Les Grands Magasins Dufayel, a street leads towards the Montmartre hill. At the end it is possible to take two ways up to the top. The smaller of the two is a path which takes you through lots of green, yet also lots of foul smells of urine. The larger and more touristic walk to the top are the stairs which spread out in front of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Though the stench of urine is far from as bad here, the bottom of the stairs are occupied by extremely aggressive young guys who force tourists into buying knitted bracelets.
However, with Luis and the rest of the couchsurfers our group of weary globetrotters and backpackers seemed to scare off even the most aggressive of guys, and while many couples on a romantic weekend had to fend off the guys we were left alone. Luis off course began a long and thorough history of the Montmartre hill and the church which adorns the top.
In first French and then Spanish, he told two different tales of how Monthmartre got its name.
The first refers to Montmartre as a variant of Mons Martis, and thus relates to a heathen past, where the Montmartre hill held a temple for Mars, the Roman god of war.
The second and more detailed story explains the name Montmartre as meaning the Mountain of Martyr. In this version, the name is of Christian origin and a part of the central founding myth of Paris itself.
According to legend (or perhaps more befitting to myth) Saint Denis, bishop of Paris around 250 AD, apparently scarred the pagan population by his success in converting people to Christianity. For this reason, he was beheaded on top of Montmartre, which at the time was a holy place for the local Druidic religion.
However, Saint Denis wasn’t completely done yet and as a chicken runs around a bit after beheading, so did he. He took up his head and walked across what is today central Paris while preaching a sermon. After ten kilometres he stopped at the place that today holds the Cathédrale royale de Saint-Denis, where the French kings were buried before the French Revolution.
Which version is true is impossible to say, but personally I think there is more to the idea that Christianity as an invading religion took over the name and reinventing it, in the same way as winter solstice became Christmas and so forth. However, I do like the second story better, and I am certain a creative mind could create a computer game about it.
Reaching the top of the stairs and standing in front of the impressive Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, Luis continued his story of how it was build, who were the two statues in front (Jean D’Arc and Louis IX – both sainted) and how it was central in the rebellious events that lead to the rise of the Paris Commune in March 1871.
Apparently, Montmartre was one of several places where the National Guard in Paris had hidden canons from the invading German forces, after the disastrous defeat to Bismarck in September 1870 and when Paris stood against being overrun. However, when the National Assembly with Adolphe Tiers as leader attempted to retrieve the canons from the increasingly revolutionary National Guard at Montmartre, it turned into a mess. The two leading generals of the operation were killed by their own soldiers after ordering them to shoot at the masses which had gathered around the National Guard. The soldiers then joined ranks with the National Guard at Montmartre and from there it turned into a rapidly spreading revolution by the people of Paris against the National Assembly. Voilá, la Commune de Paris était née. Vive la France!
But Montmartre is more than a beheaded bishop and the beginning of a revolution. Leaving behind the basilica, Luis turned to stories of how the many cabaret houses had been witness to anything from the amour of world famous artists to the secret dealings between the Parisian and Corsican mafia families.
We ended up on a small square which seemed nothing more than an increased side walk at the turn of a street. The ‘square’ was adorned with a bust of a woman, whom Luis told us was the famous Dalida and the square was the Parisian gay-communities commemoration of her.
Yolanda Gigliotti was an Egyptian born, Italian descended singer and actress who has received cult status in France after a 30-year career and quite an interesting life.
Today she has received cult-status in homosexual circles due to her disco period. Moreover, she was a good friend of Charles Aznavour, which has made my mum immediately check her out on Youtube (My mum is a major fan of Aznavour, go figure).
But the most interesting part to the story is the alleged relationship between Dalida and French President Francois Mitterand. According to Luis, Mitterand’s decision to construct a glass pyramid in front of Louvre was apparently as a gesture to Dalida, as she had grown up in Egypt. Beat that Dan Brown!
Afterwards, Luis took us to Le Passe-Muraille and told us the story of the short story by Marcel Aymé from 1943. Moreover, as we went through the Passage des Abbesses he pointed out little faces looking down on us – other testimonies to the man who could walk through walls.
Turning to a small green area Luis finally directed our gaze to the Wall of Love, which adorns a small park next to the metro station Abbesses.
After a whole lot of love in a maze of different languages, the trip ended with a visit to the grocery shop and bar from Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain as well as the cabaret above all others Moulin Rouge.