Paris meets Africa in St. Denis

We took advantage of an interesting program called "Paris Greeters'' to make arrangements to meet up with a local man, Michel Moisan, below, for a three-hour walk around a historical neighborhood called St. Denis in East Paris, about 40 minutes by metro away from the city center. The neighborhood is known for its Gothic-style basilica, named after St.Denis, the first bishop of Paris. Legend has it that he was beheaded, then instead of dying, walked all the way to St. Denis from Montmartre, head in his hands, before he reached St. Denis and died.  The basilica stands on the remains of a 4th century church where he was buried. Most of the kings and queens of France were buried here as well.

                                              Michel Moisan

The neighborhood today has a village feel with a big pedestrianized main square. It's  heavily populated with Africans from French-colonized countries such as the French West Indies, Algeria, Morocco, etc. Vendors at a market held three times a week - one of the biggest in Europe- sell all sorts of exotic foods and vegetables popular in Africa. Many of the women come dressed in colorful native clothing with matching head coverings and dresses.

 We found the man below at a littlle restaurant behind the market stalls called Royanume de l'Orientale (Kingdome of Oriental Women). He was grilling flatbread for sandwiches. Inside, a woman was making crepes which she filled with a delicious and slightly spicey veggie combo.

 The basilica looks a lot like Notre Dame Cathedral, and in fact, because it was built before Notre Dame, is considered the birthplace of Gothic architecture, a design style that defines most of the churches around France.

The tombs themselves were plundered during the revolution, so all that remains of the kings and queens today are some bones, and marble statues. Among the most bizarre momentos is the shriveled up heart of the 10-year-old heir to the French throne, Louis XVII. It was encased in a glass jar and installed in the church in 2004 near the graves of his parents, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI after a DNA test confirmed the match 200 years after his death.

Notice the animals at the feet of these statues. I'll be curious to research the explanation once I get home. Michel didn't know the significance, but we guessed it had something to do with luck or protection.

Meeting Michel was a treat.  He's 59, has lived in the neighborhood since the late 1980s,  and is one of those who will be affected once France raises its retirement age from 60 to 62. He was laid off his job with a pharmaceutical company last year when, in his words, he became "too old and too expensive.'' He got a three-year unemployment settlement which would have lasted him until retirement. Now he faces a "gap year'' with no income. I asked him if he marched in the protest demonstrations. His answer was "of course.''

Now that he's not working, he has time to volunteer as a guide for Paris Greeters. It's a great program. All you have to do is go to their web site and make a request for whatever day you will be in Paris and would like to have a local show you a favorite neighborhood. The walks are free, and last about 2-3 hours.

We also were able to squeeze in coffee with our friend Michele Rumeau whom I got to know years ago when she ran a B&B in her apartment in Paris. Michele has since moved to a farm in Normandy, but keeps a small apartment in Paris (not a B&B anymore) where she stays two orr three days while she takes a class and watches her two grandchildren.

                                     Michele and me at Cafe Contrescarpe

Michele is a retired Latin and Greek teacher who went on to do many things in her "retirement'' including going back to school to study art history, leading historical tours around Paris which she designed herself, working for her community newspaper and studying modern Greek. She retired at 49 after a friend told her of an obscure law written after World War II that allowed women who had at least three children and no husband to retire with a pension in order free up jobs for men.

The rain finally stopped, so we took advantage of beautiful weather on our last day in Paris, to walk all the way from the top of the Champs-Elysees back our hotel, eight miles total, with stops along the way to see the Monet exhibit at the Grand Palais, a lunch of fish soup at a cafe in the Jardin des Tuileries, a walk along the Rue de Rivoli and the Louvre buildings at sunset, then finally past the booksellers along the Seine river and through the little streets of the Latin Quarter. The weather can be unpredictable in November, but when it's sunny, cold and clear, there's nothing more beautiful walking through Paris on a late winter afternoon.

Dinner was at an Indian/ Sri Lankan restaurant in business since 1989 on the Rue Descartes, another recommendation by our British friend, "Mr. Ken.'' The owner, Selva, offers an excellent and filling 8-euro special before 8 p.m. The name of the restaurant is Ellora, and it's going on my list for good value in Paris.

                                            Selva and Mr. Ken

We leave for Reykjavik in the morning where it's cold (in the 20s and 30s), but sunny, so we feel lucky. Certainly better than rain. It feels as if we're going the opposite end of the world - totally different climate, culture, language, people, economy, environment etc., just 2.5 hours away.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to give you a detail about the animals staying under the feet of the statues of dead people. It is very common in the Middle Ages, almost "a must" when the tomb presents a lying dead : animals symbolize the main virtue of the dead ; the dog symbolizes fidelity and is often under the queens' feet; the lion symbolizes power and takes place under king's feet. (Michèle)