Paris in the Rain

     A dark cloud followed us around Paris.
     It rained most of the week, and was dark and cold the rest.
     Events matched the weather.
     From the open top of a tour bus, in the rain, I heard shouts. In the middle of a crowded metro stop at Place de L’Opera, four Chinese tourists were being mugged.
     But the attackers who looked vaguely Russian were amateurs, and the tourists and the crowd resisted, with one old lady kicking at one of them.
     When the bus came back around the same spot a few minutes later, the Chinese tourists were descending the stairs into the subway, talking excitedly, their expensive-store bags still draped on their arms.
     An article in Le Figaro the next day describes an upsurge in muggings of Chinese tourists who apparently distrust credit cards and walk around with loads of cash. An association of high-end retailers is petitioning the police about it.
     A couple days later, on a street crammed with such stores, I count six salesmen in dark suits waiting in one store empty of customers, and a similar number in another, with the math of one sale apparently justifying the ratio.
     A block farther along Rue Saint-Honore, I see two Asian women, already with bags on their arms, come bouncing happily down the street. It is late in the day, past 6 o’clock, gray, and raining off and on.
     They turn to go into an empty store called Miu Miu.
     From inside, a big, tall, black doorman, nearly twice their size, dressed in a fine, dark suit, opens the door with a smile and sweeps his arm in welcome.
     On another day, I go to Notre Dame to once again feel the immensity and beauty of its vaulted interior. But in the late afternoon the doors to the church are closed, and a policeman is standing outside.
     I find out why in the web version of The New York Times. An anti-immigrant blogger had killed himself near the altar, with a note warning of the foreign threat.
     Late on another rainy, gray morning, walking down Rue de Varenne, we pass government ministries and elegant cafes with black-suited waiters, waiting for the lunchtime crowd of bureaucrats.
     A tall, young policeman, with the trim, blue uniform and traditional, rounded kepi, stands outside one of the cafes, suggesting a dignitary dining inside. In his unoccupied time he shouts at a motorcyclist who is taking off on a red light.
     The motorcyclist, clad against the rain, stops, then takes off again, gesturing.
     The most telling conversation I had in Paris was with a taxi driver whose thick accent said he was from the rural south of France. I asked him if one could make a decent living as a taxi driver in Paris.
     He described a double economy. When the government was on vacation as it had been the previous week, business was slow.
     But when both the tourists and the government functionaries were in town, then, yes, a taxi driver made quite a good living.
     It struck me that that was mostly what I was seeing, functionaries, whose sharply tailored suits and beautiful shirts identified them as surely as a uniform would, and crowds, almost hordes, of tourists, even in the rain. And that was what Paris had become, a city of government officials and tourists.
     But a couple days later, I realized there was a second city underneath and around the center. And in contrast to the center, it was dark-skinned.
     I was coming back from a visit to see René Guimera, a friend of my parents, whose family lived a couple blocks from ours when we spent a year in Ormesson sur Marne, a suburb of Paris that has since become dominated by Portuguese immigrants.
     After a long and emotion-laden lunch with René, I took the train back into Paris in the late afternoon and transferred at a massive underground station called Chatelet-Les Halles in the heart of Paris.
     But, in navigating the underground, I found a small African village.
     In the center of open areas, between advertising pillars, African women congregated to chat animatedly, a scene repeated a number of times, as black men stood or leaned nearby, in one instance at the long counter of a vendor’s empty stall, talking some but mostly letting the time go by.
     There was something relaxed and easy about the scene, like a village square, only underground.
     Riders who were transferring between trains crossing at Chatelet walked on moving sidewalks, a kind of four-lane freeway of people, two sidewalks moving in each direction. It was rush hour with all the lanes full.
     As I went in one direction, a double flow of faces streamed past me in the other. They were in a worldwide range of hues, Indian, African, more than I could identify, almost all darker than those on the streets above.
     And I realized they were going home at the end of the work day, in all likelihood to the vast banlieues that surround Paris.

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