Walking on the wild side of Paris

The good news is Paris‘ kaleidoscopic, multiple-choice future is playing today not in a theater near you but in the Oberkampf, Ménilmontant and Belleville neighborhoods. That’s where Algiers meets Caracas and Istanbul via Zanzibar. Despite occasional intrusions by fanatics, the inhabitants here and in Paris’ many other ethnic enclaves seem to get along like traditional French peas in the pod.

Never heard of Oberkampf, Ménilmontant or Belleville? That’s not surprising. Outlying, in the north-by-northeastern sector of town, they’re not chic. They have no claims to fame other than as the home to Père-Lachaise Cemetery and the birthplace of Edith Piaf, the raucous crooner of “La Vie en Rose” and yesteryear’s hits.

For 20 years I rented an office in the Ménilmontant district. My desk now overlooks the Place de la Bastille and Marais. But I’m still a regular to my old haunts: the cemetery is Paris’ most atmospheric hideaway, if you ask me. And there’s no better place to get a haircut, eat as if you were on the Bosporus, or pick up spiky, smelly, scary specialty foods.

Why the haircut? My barber for years was affable Monsieur David-pronounced Dah-veed-a Moroccan who wore a Star of David and a beret and ate baguette sandwiches filled with many things, from many animals, including the kind that provide ham and bacon.

Nowadays it’s Mustafa or Ali who snip at the graying tufts still clinging to my scalp. Like Monsieur Daveed, when Mustafa and Ali work my head over they cut back and forth between French and other languages, their jaws moving like well-oiled scissors.

All three barbers favor Radio Nostalgie and Radio Montmartre, with tunes from Piaf’s heyday. Like them she was supremely French: a foundling whose parents and grandparents were immigrants-in Piaf’s case they came from the French provinces, Italy and North Africa.Walk down the Boulevard de Ménilmontant-the dividing line between the homely 11th and gritty 20th arrondissements-and meet Madame Chung. She sells Chinese cabbage and Tiger Balm. They are meant to be consumed separately, she jokes. Neither goes well with the plantains or pungent durian she hawks to her kaleidoscopic clientele.

Across the street a Berber baker makes flatbread from the deserts and mountains of Algeria. It’s the same kind Piaf’s Berber ancestors baked. The baguette is particularly crisp. Berber baguettes are also bigger and cheaper than the ones sold by “real” French bakers. The desserts come from the heartland of France: cream-filled millefeuille and flaky palmier cookies. Gigantic and sweet, they’re as cloyingly irresistible as the colorful pastries sold a few doors down. All are designed to be eaten with glasses of burning-hot mint tea, another specialty of the neighborhood.

Amble a few doors down toward the cemetery from my barber and see the bobos with pale Parisian skin, porcupine stubble, hand-held devices and catwalk clothes slumming at La Mère Lachaise. This hipster café-restaurant with a clever name serves faux French classics and what might just be Paris’ best hamburger, the beef ground fresh, the buns remarkable. Buns are definitely part of the program.

One of the waiters, a runway veteran by the looks of him, purrs with a Latin American accent. The kitchen crew is African from above or below the Sahara or Tamil from South India and Sri Lanka. French? Absolutely!

Abutting Ménilmontant on the south and to the west are Oberkampf and Belleville. Equally unprepossessing to the eye and hard-driven underfoot, the ethnic mix is different in each, a twist and turn of the kaleidoscope.

Oberkampf was colonized early on by a certain French star architect and his swirling solar system of sycophants. So the density of self-adoring poseurs packing the faux-everything cafes, restaurants and boutiques here-many of them in former print-shops, hardware stores, machine-tool factories and suchlike-takes the breath away. Actually, it’s the clouds of cigarette smoke that take the breath away. Visit Oberkampf to see how clever real French men and women can be when it comes to breaking the smoking ban.
Oberkampf’s nicotine-arugula-and-balsamic trendies live side by side with Paris’ authentic Little Turkey-not Thanksgiving turkey, but the Bosporus variety.

To the north of Boulevard de Ménilmontant and Boulevard de Belleville, the former village of Belleville scales the heights where Piaf was deposited on a doorstep nearly a century ago. The air no longer rings with the sound of accordions. It is scented by lacquered duck, spicy Laotian and Cambodian prawns with coconut milk, or steamed dumplings. Chinese rock blares. Imams call to prayers. Temples, synagogues and mosques share room with an empty church or two. There’s room for freethinkers in between, and it’s hard to imagine any of these people throwing fire bombs about cartoons of Mohammed.

At the top of the hill where Ménilmontant and Belleville merge is one of Paris’ best-loved bread bakeries. Many locals, including Monsieur David and Madame Chung, consider the “flute Ganachaud” the best baguette-like French bread anywhere. I would not dare to disagree, nor would I spread a Ganachaud bread with Tiger Balm. But it goes pretty well with just about everything else consumed in this lively, benignly globalized part of Paris.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via carac3]