Sunday, January 23, 2011

Africans

As with the post on beggars, this post is based on impressions.  It is not gospel documentation of something; it is what I think I remember from past trips to Paris and it is what I think I am seeing during this four months.

And, as with beggars, I think I am seeing things changing dramatically.

My memory tells me that in most previous trips I didn’t see a whole lot of Africans.  The ones I did see seemed mainly to be on a limited number of Metro routes.  And those that I saw were mainly one of two types.

There were the honest to god Africans in their most formal native garb. 

Or there were the boys from the hood wannabees with their hugely baggy jeans falling off their nearly non-existent haunches and their gigantic athletic shoes tastefully in a state of random, untied, disarray, with the bills of their baseball caps skewed to some meaningful angle (probably – to them) to their direction of travel.

Oh, there was the occasional businessman (judging by his briefcase and suit) or the occasional professional woman (judged by her grooming, clothes and demeanor) and there was the occasional mixed race couple – usually the man was African and the woman European - but they were not very common.  At least they were not very common in the places that I frequented.

The indicators of any advanced state of integration didn’t seem to be in evidence, at least from my observations of the Paris scene.  It was depressingly similar to the scene I still observe in most of the places that I inhabit in the United States.

I have to mention one other African population, because although small, it is hard to ignore when one is in its vicinity.  And what its objective of existence might be – because it is a homogeneous group gathered in a single place and doing the same thing, and apparently doing it for hours, days, weeks, and, perhaps, months and years – is a thing that I have never divined.  But I have found them to be a fascinating group.

That group is the Africans that congregate around the exit of Metro Stop Chateau d’Eau.  They ring the exit, leaving only the steps onto the sidewalk from the steps out of the station clear.  They are all young men in their late teens or early twenties and they are all really black Africans.  They dress, as I recall, in normal casual clothes, eschewing the homeboy look for more middle class mainstream attire.

Their sole activity is to stand there around the exit of Chateau d’Eau and shout at the top of their lungs.  The language would appear to be African.  At least it is not a French that I can identify.  And the sound is deafening, and intimidating. 

Maybe that is the point.  But I have so far been unable to ascertain what the downstream benefits are that accrue to those guys.  I can’t figure out what the benefits of such intimidation might be.

But since Chateau d’Eau is the exit for my favorite Pakistani restaurant I don’t accept the intimidation.

That was then.

This is now.  Again these things are what I believe I am seeing.

The jeans falling off the haunches set is still present.  But it seems to have expanded.  The Africans aren’t the only ones dressing in that manner.  Large numbers of their male European counterparts have also adopted the look.  Apparently it has become such a compelling internationally embraced mode that it has to be considered mainstream.

But what is different is manifold.

Mixed race couples seem to be everywhere (African and European).  And they seem to be as likely European man and African woman as the opposite.  And they seem to span a wide age range.  Many of the couples I see are not kids.  On the other hand, there are enough kids that there are a lot of infants in strollers.

Bravo!  I find myself wanting to sometimes utter.

There numbers of Africans in every crowd that I observe in the places that I habituate.  They are young, medium and old.  They are dressed just like everybody else, and, like everybody else they can be heard to be speaking French.  They are stylish old women dressed to the nines just as all old Parisian women dress.  They are beautiful young women dressed in the tights, wool stockings or actual synthetic sheer stockings with shorts or short skirt look that has become the dominant mode of young Parisian women since the last time I was here.  (The last time I was here it was still the bare midriff look – even in winter.)  They are young men in blazers or, sometimes in the highly tailored, form-fitting double breasted black wool coats that are so popular. They are just average men and women of all ages and in all manners of dress just like everybody else.  They are the Postal mail carrier or the guy who drives a delivery van or is a waiter in a brasserie, or they are the woman that works in the boulangerie.  They are men and women dressed like business people.  They are the nice young man who pounded on my door the other day in search of Monsieur…He worked for Electricit√© de France.

But the main thing is they are everywhere – the streets, the brasseries, the metro, the museums, in Luxembourg Gardens with their kids or strolling the Tuileries hand in hand.  (And, I think, the Chateau d’Eau crowd has shrunken.)

And their ubiquity is new.  And it feels good.

It seems then, all the discussion and publicity surrounding the plight of the residents of the banlieues notwithstanding, that the French citizens of African descent have rejected the banlieue form of balkanized living.  They have embraced the French view of the world and have become French:  if you just speak the language well and accept a secular state that seems to care about its citizens, nobody much cares what color you are.

That seems to me to be a good way to live.

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