Purple Magazine
— Purple #31 The Paris issue

anna dubosc

the paris i knew

text by ANNA DUBOSC

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement, between the Avenue de Saint-Ouen and the Place de Clichy. Almost all of my school friends were poor and lived near the Montmartre Cemetery in caretakers’ lodges, low-income housing, residential complexes from the 1970s with tinted glass railings, or those sad brick projects, which fill me with tenderness today.

We led a frugal existence, too, but we wanted for nothing thanks to our marginality and to my mother’s poetry, her taste for disorder, and her indifference to material things, which made our lives luxurious. We ruled over a chaos of worthless objects. Furniture handed down to us or scavenged off the street, towers of leaflets, books, photographs, clothes, which we would buy by the pound at Guerrisol or the flea market at Saint-Ouen. The only object of value — a pearl necklace gifted to my mother — lay at the bottom of a messy drawer and made her anxious, as though it would attract a burglar or bring us bad luck.

On Sunday, we’d walk up the Rue Caulaincourt all the way to the Avenue Junot. It was only a 10-minute walk, but the air there was different. The trees were larger, and the sidewalks were empty and silent, lined with massive stone buildings, architects’ houses, Art Deco facades. We hung out in this muted atmosphere, filled with childish delight. We had favorite houses we imagined living in, but eventually the air emptied out, and we were happy and relieved to go home.

My mother complained all the time: the walls were too thin, the hallway was too narrow, the garbage chute (which she eventually sealed with gaffer’s tape) attracted cockroaches, there were electrical problems or plumbing problems. But I knew she was fulfilled and would never leave our kingdom.

This carefreeness made me optimistic but also vexed my desire to belong to the impoverished community we lived in. I wasn’t exactly one of them. I didn’t feel poor, and my friends perceived our relative wealth. And then, there was that elsewhere issue: my Japanese mother was born in Manchuria. She told us about it constantly and dwelled on it in her writing and poetry. My lost Harbin… Did I dream it? Did I hallucinate it? Harbin [a city in Northern China]  was omnipresent because it was lost, and, just like Paris, it has become the city of my unattainable childhood happiness, which I seek desperately, leaping at its every glimmer.

Ten or 15 years ago, this old Paris still existed. I knew where to find it. All I had to do was walk up the Boulevard Magenta to Barbès to enter the zone — at once familiar and unreal — that could dissipate my torments. Once I had reached the Boulevard de Rochechouart, following the avenue that leads to the Place de Clichy, I was at home among the teeming people, the kebabs, the peep shows, the promoters, and the tourist buses. On the Avenue de Clichy, too, everything was there, intact. The old haunts, the seedy bars, the no-star hotels, the dirty children, and the enclosed parks.

Little by little, everything shrunk, though I experienced it all at once. It was one night, perhaps, walking by the bar Jeannette on my corner, that I felt excluded for the first time, though I’d been drinking there for 20 years. I looked at the faces of the patrons through the window, their youth, their beauty, their enthusiastic joy. This awareness chilled me. It was as though there was nowhere left for me to go, as though the entire city had cornered me into seclusion.

I sometimes still walk around in the 18th, but I am always weary. On the way, I cling to certain streets. The Rue de Rochechouart, those old working-class quarters dating to the end of the 19th century, with the two main buildings connected by a walkway and stairs under a glass roof. I discovered that place one night, years ago. The large entrance gate was open. There was a flood, the walkways dripped like the soul of a river. It was an incredible image, exalted by a feeling of never-ending youth.

I am always thrilled to walk by that building, but as soon as I pass one of its residents, I am reminded of the gentrification of Paris and the constriction of my life.

Now, with the pathetic efforts of an illusionist, I try to bring the facades back to life. Like that old secondhand store, Mamie, a little farther up on the same street, the Rue de Rochechouart. If I blink, facing the shop from across the street, I can blur the “For Sale” sign in the vacant storefront and glimpse the retro white-and-lilac frame, the diamond-patterned shop sign.

Because my mother had to move out of the Rue Ganneron, I rarely venture beyond the Place de Clichy for fear of spotting our old building, which can be seen from afar and from different streets. This sight will flatten me. One night, I had to overcome my anxiety to go for dinner with friends behind the Montmartre Cemetery. I followed several detours to avoid the Rue Ganneron, but it was all painful, nonetheless. The couscous places and little watering holes in the neighborhood, replaced by hip bars, and the Polish grocery store that no one ever visited, now owned by a young bearded man with a flamboyant clientele.

Strangely, it’s when I am far away, elsewhere, that I locate the particular charms of my childhood 18th. Abroad, amid the sounds of a language I do not know, I flutter with delight through my past. In Paris, near the train stations or the Grands Boulevards, I experience this fluttering sensation, when night falls or early in the morning. I convince myself that nothing has changed — not the people in the brasseries or the tourist bars. The waiters in the cafés are still the same, the headlights from the cars in that same gloomy glimmer, like a scene from a Maurice Pialat film on repeat.

In some lost corners of the 11th or in the east of Paris, above the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin and the Avenue de Flandre, there is something grim and tenacious that drags old people and their shopping carts out to the market on the Avenue de Saint-Ouen. Just like the beautiful, deserted neighborhoods of the 16th or 17th arrondissements, which don’t remind me of anything familiar, and have always made me hostile and fearful, but whose silence and vastness curiously reverberate in my memories, now more alive than life itself.

END

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Purple #31 The Paris issue

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