When friends back home think of my life here in France, they probably have an image of a charming little Parisian apartment: one with those narrow floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a jumbled skyline of zinc rooftops. Maybe there’s even a tiny balcony with geraniums and a little café chair where the cats hang out on sunny days? That is, unless my many Facebook railings against life in the Paris suburbs have effectively disabused them of this overly romanticized image.
The reality is that Michel and I don’t live in one of the best neighborhoods of the Paris metropolitan area … and that’s putting it lightly. We live in La Courneuve which, to most Americans (even those living in Paris proper), doesn’t mean a whole lot. If someone does recognize the name, it’s probably because of a vague memory of the 2005 riots—when young hoodlums were burning police cars in the streets—or last year’s eviction of squatters from some of the high-rise projects in the heart of town—when the police were beating people with billy clubs and dragging pregnant women across the asphalt. Oh … there was also the less publicized story earlier this year of the Sri Lankan guy standing on the sidewalk one night, who was jumped by a carload of Sri Lankan gang members who hacked off his hands and chopped him in the forehead with a saber before jumping back in their car and absconding to Paris … with his hands.
The truth of the matter is that daily life in La Courneuve isn’t nearly as bad as this violent image, although there are definitely neighborhoods where I wouldn’t walk alone in the wee hours of the night. The big problem in my neighborhood of La Courneuve is cultural … not the culture of my Arab neighbors, or my Pakistani ones, or my Czech ones … but a culture marked by a lack of civility, one characterized by urine, chicken bones, and loudmouths.
Less than three blocks from our apartment is a spot I call l’urinoir—the urinal. Why? Because this little spot on the side wall of the florist shop is where the male employees of the neighborhood garage (just next door) and the butcher shop (just a few doors down) urinate throughout the day. Before the public works department repaved that stretch of sidewalk and filled it in, there was even a little pothole in the center of the sidewalk that was regularly full of urine—our very own mini-latrine! Now we just have the urine stains that mark the flow from the wall to the gutter. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine the smell on a warm day.
Michael Bell, after spending a marvelous weekend in Chartres, has come back to the urinal that is his neighborhood. He means that literally … he had to cross the street so as not to walk in the stream of urine that one of his neighbors was in the process of making on the sidewalk. — Facebook status, October 3, 2010
But it’s not just the guys in the neighborhood who are fond of public urination. I will never forget the day when Michel called to me to hurry to the window. He was so agitated, I had no idea what the problem might be. While smoking his cigarette, he had observed a mother and her young daughter walking down the sidewalk when, suddenly, the mother took her daughter behind a little concrete barrier so the girl could pee. Okay, sometimes little kids just can’t wait, and that’s understandable. But then, the mother hiked up her skirt, squatted beside her daughter, and started to pee as well—in broad daylight, just a few yards from the sidewalk and in full view of the parking lot behind her! We were both shocked.
Even worse than the urine problem, though, is that the public areas of this town are treated like a dump. I’ve almost become desensitized to the filth because it’s so ubiquitous, but whenever we come back from somewhere cleaner (like even Paris itself), I’m struck by how little my neighbors care about their surroundings. Food wrappers, plastic and styrofoam cups, broken beer, wine and liquor bottles, cardboard boxes, old clothes, even broken furniture and mattresses, just thrown outside to rot.
And then there are the chicken bones and corncobs! Folks in my neighborhood eating chicken wings and grilled corn while en route to somewhere else just toss their garbage to the ground, even though there’s a public trashcan every block or so. I suppose when you have no compunction about peeing on the sidewalk, tossing a corncob or a chicken bone on the ground isn’t such a big deal. But the rats sure do love it! Not long ago, I was summoned to the window by Michel on another occasion just in time to see a giant rat ambling down the center of the street at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, as if it was no one’s business.
Michael Bell just saw a foot-long rat walking down the street in broad daylight! Oh well, that’s what you see when you live in a dump like La Courneuve. — Facebook status, July 18, 2011
And finally, there is the noise. When I first came to La Courneuve—about two years ago—there were minor noise problems: drunk neighbors shouting or playing their music too loudly, or the occasional young jackass booming bad French rap music from his pitiful little pimped-out 3-cylinder hatchback on the parking lot across the street. But recently this has become a more pervasive problem. The parties of our neighbors upstairs, complete with breaking bottles and—no kidding—accordion music, are now sharing the stage with regular convocations of area hoodlums who drink, get high, and blare their really bad music from the parking lot across the street almost every night. It all usually starts around midnight and continues until 2 or 3 in the morning.
I’m learning Czech by immersion. Thanks for having your drunken family reunion on the sidewalk under my window. But where’s the accordion? Oh, you broke it the last time when you slipped on your own vomit! That’s right. I had forgotten! Facebook status, July 4, 2011 (around 1 a.m.)
And then there is the group of guys who are always completely wasted, standing (or trying to stand) on the sidewalk, screaming at each other, and picking fights with each other that last only a few seconds before everything is apparently forgotten. Just last night, we watched one such episode. After a few loudly screamed insults and some violent shoving, the two guys just tottered over to lean on the mechanical arm of the parking lot exit gate, and started shooting the bull like they were Cliff and Norm hanging out at Cheers—all to the accompaniment of a single firecracker explosion that came from nowhere in particular.
Why don’t we call the police to quiet things down, you might ask? Oh, we do from time to time. They just don’t do anything about it. We sometimes even get this response: “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” … “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe do your f’ing job?” Apparently, keeping the neighborhood quiet is not that important when you have the threat of saber-wielding gangsters from Paris descending on the city’s sidewalks.
But all this aside, La Courneuve isn’t the worst place to live. I do regularly complain about the sanitary conditions and the lack of respect in the wee hours of the night, but I have never really felt unsafe and, sometimes, your neighbors can really surprise you. When I first met Michel and we came to his neighborhood for the first time, he warned me that it wasn’t like the Marais. We couldn’t hold hands here. We had to act “tough.” It was that kind of neighborhood. But you live your life everyday, and people aren’t stupid. Michel and I are now known to be a couple at the Arab-run neighborhood bakery. We’re always welcomed when we come in together, and when we’re not together, they ask how the other one of us is doing. The best of all, though, is that a few weeks ago, when we were on our way to Paris Pride, we passed a group of inebriated ruffians. One of them exclaimed in slurred French, “Hey, I know where you’re going! Bastille!” (The site for the post-parade party that afternoon.) “Yeah, that’s right,” we replied, a little wary. “Well … have a good time guys!” Wow. That’s not what you’d expect to hear in La Courneuve!
So, no, La Courneuve isn’t all bad. Yes, it’s very dirty and very noisy, but people are people, and our neighbors can be pleasant, too—even the drunk out-of-work street guys. La Courneuve is my neighborhood, but I’ll tell you this: if an affordable apartment in Gambetta opens up, I won’t be wringing my hands over whether to quit this place!
© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved