When you’re too tired to walk, run. That’s what my grandfather used to say. And when you get tired of running, walk … around Belleville.
No one used to say that, but that was my motto today. After a long jog around ponds and horse trails in the Bois de Boulogne, my legs were feeling heavy and sore. So I took a break from running and started a slow and limpy walk through Paris’s 20th arrondissement late this afternoon.
Let me say this first — I love where I live. This edge of the 8th arrondissement is quiet and crisp. Grand yet family friendly. The foyers in any given apartment are enough to make eyes bulge. So when I took métro line 2 from this dry-cleaned neighborhood to Belleville, I was in for a breath of fresh air. And in exploring a neighborhood away from my home away from home, I stumbled upon a street named Rue de Juillet — roughly the same name as my street back in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The differences between these three neighborhoods started hitting me as soon as I climbed out of the subway into Belleville’s Chinatown. I’m trying to avoid using the cliché guidebook words bustling, vibrant, lively, and busy to describe the movement of this city, but all those words fit the area so well. I passed lots of shop with dripping, fatty red meat right in cases right on the street. Clothing stores with racks of sweaters to stroke as you pass. Not that I haven’t seen this stuff in all parts of Paris, but it seemed much more fitting here because everything about this place seemed livable.
Real people live in Belleville. Not to say the dry-cleaned masses aren’t real people. I just mean folks who do their own laundry; people I might identify with a bit more than many of my neighborhood’s occupants. In Belleville, the rents are cheaper (maybe even affordable). There are lots of good restaurants, also affordable. Sure, there is grand old architecture and a picturesque café on every street, but it’s all mixed in with the modern and mundane in a way that makes it seem reasonable. Or, reasonable for the dream that is Paris.
There was street art everywhere, and it fit beautifully with the mix of old and contemporary apartments, plus some I would even venture to call art-deco; all curved edges and rounded window frames. I passed a busy restaurant with the word « vert » (green) in it. On a wall next door, two artists were climbing up and down a ladder to paint the wall with a mural/advertisement (I can’t decide which; probably both) for a performance called “Zombie Guides.” A woman in a jumpsuit brushed highlights on a painted lady’s bare leg, then climbed up and pasted her head, which was originally painted on paper, onto the wall. People (real locals included, not just impostors like me) stopped to take photos and videos. A woman ushered her kids away after they’d watched it for awhile, saying « Allez … on prend un truc à boire » (“come on, let’s grab something to drink”) and heading into the green café.
I passed an old church with bicycles locked all around its iron fence. There was a café connected to a Steele fitness center — which I think we also have on Grand Avenue back at home. More shops — fruit, veggies, meat. A beautiful Italian traiteur with miraculous pastries in all colors spilling out of bowls on a huge countertop. But mostly people wearing real clothes. No Dior trench coats or 100-euro scarves (not to say those aren’t real too. They exist; I know that now), but 20-somethings with running pants under their pea coats. Guys wearing jeans and sweatshirts, not ridiculous James Bond casual wear. The streets were deliciously void of suits. Like I said: down to my version of Earth.
And then there was Juliet Avenue. Excuse me — Rue de Juillet. A short diagonal cut off of a bigger street in a quiet, sloping part of Belleville. Once I turned to snap a picture of the sign, I had to explore it.
Rue de Juillet
It started with a street sign, and then a dusty rose building with white window frames. One window was wide open, and I could hear the clattering of dishes. Someone was putting together a big Saturday dinner. A man leaned out that window with a cigarette, watching me and my iPhone.
A few buildings down, there’s an iron fence covered in vines. I peer into a small courtyard: a tiny lawn chair sits on a few meters of cobblestone. Then there are walls and walls of colorful graffiti.
It is so unlike my street back at home, with its wide road, squirrel-infested yards, and synthetic siding. No speeding moms in SUVs here; just a speeding motorbike. But after the motorist passes in a blur, the street is homey and quiet, and a great place for spying. Just like at home.
Before I start to sound too much like the creeper that I really am all the time, I will leave you with a few other pictures of Belleville and of other things I saw this week.