Hungry for Hidden Paris - Sydney Brown
I awoke on the third day of my third trip to Paris hungry for more than a baguette or a pain au chocolat. Hungry for something that I couldn’t ask for at a café or patisserie near my 6th arrondissement hotel.
I had gorged on the touristic treasures of Paris, yet I couldn’t seem to shake the pang of persistent craving for something raw– not beef tartare but a moment or experience that unlocked a hidden Paris.
I was looking for the kind of place where the morning metro rush was fueled by ordinary, working class French people on their way to make a living rather than the frenzied, bucket-list tourist on their way to make an Instagram post about the glass pyramid at the Louvre.
The Paris I was looking for was one that existed beyond the tour buses and camera flashes, and didn’t necessarily want to be found.
With a notebook in one hand and Google Maps in the other, I set out for the day toward an exposition in the 19th arrondissement.
Forty minutes and seventeen metro stops later, with a line change in between, I emerged on the corner of Avenue Jean Jaurès and Rue des Ardennes.
I knew I had stumbled upon something great when I turned the street corner and saw a Toyota car dealership. In Paris! It was the most significantly insignificant sight to behold in a city such as Paris, where I’d never seen a car dealership in any of the central arrondissements.
Looking down at my map and over my shoulder, I realized that I wasn’t in the city center anymore. In fact, I was just about as far outside of the center of Paris as I could get without leaving the city limits.
“Is this perhaps the place I’ve been looking for all along?” I wondered.
I consulted Google Maps. Not quite. I was still 12 minutes by foot from the exposition at the Espace Chapiteaux at Parc La Villette.
The sidewalk was constructed not of romantic cobblestones but of cracked, gum-splattered concrete. The buildings that stood on both sides of the street were worn and weathered like a favorite pair of shoes breaking at the soles. They were mostly apartments, with little variation in their facades. The units themselves were not decorated with flower boxes or juliette balconies, but with clothes hanging on the line and leafy plants in desperate need of a drink.
My thoughts were interrupted by the sight of an elderly couple–arms locked, bubbling with youth–sashaying across the street despite the walk sign warning otherwise. The whirr of an oncoming vehicle came to a pause as the car stopped at the sight of the lovers without an impatient honk of the horn or even so much as a frustrated hand gesture. Surprisingly, the driver of the vehicle actually rolled down his window to wish “Bonne journee!” to the sweet couple as if he knew them for 20 years. Perhaps he had. The jovial couple returned the greeting gleefully as they skipped down the street.
A dozen paces past the couple and the gracious driver, a mother pushed her baby in a stroller while simultaneously pulling at the leash of her scruffy white dog, who seemed to choose the most inopportune moment to rebel. Whistles, claps, and squeals all failed in persuading the dog to budge. With a closer look, I noticed the dog was not simply refusing the mother’s cooing, but actively wrestling against the leash in an unrelenting battle of tug-of-war. The mother threw her hands up, letting out a deep, disgruntled sigh almost as if she was saying “Here we go again!”
Before I could pull out my phone to check the directions, I reached a lattice beam bridge, the Passerelle des Ardennes–its base covered in remnants of graffiti and drunken shenanigans. I could see the Parc La Villette poking through the trees and knew which direction I needed to go: up and over the canal. Out of breath and desperate to arrive at my destination, I trudged up the concrete steps and found something quite remarkable amidst the rust and ruin. The pathway above the Canal de l’Ourcq doubled as a rail bridge, though I guessed from the height of the weeds in between the wooden sleepers that it was now out of commission. This living piece of Parisian history that once connected the 19th to the rest of Paris now fulfills a different purpose of connecting pedestrians to the rest of the city beyond the canal.
Passing by bike riders and boat goers, over the Canal de l'Ourcq and the Écluse Canal Saint Denis, I finally reached my destination: the Parc La Villette. I looked around for the hidden Paris I pictured in my mind, as if it would present itself to me in a little glass box with a bow on a bench in the park. Or even as a revelatory, elusive mirage that would sew together the threads of distant Paris into a masterfully crafted work of art and shout “Voila!” I discovered no such treat. But I did find a hot dog and a cappuccino from the food stall near the entrance of the exposition, and I devoured them in an instant.
It wasn’t until later that evening, back in the comfort of my city-center hotel, that the true revelation dawned on me. The hidden Paris I spent all day searching for was beside me all along, every step of the way, down the concrete slabbed sidewalk and over the rusty rail bridge. I had seen it in the greeting of a gentleman driver who embodied the values of community and tenderness toward thy neighbor. I had heard it in the sigh of a mother who needed an escape from the endless escapades of the fluffier of her two small children.
In the 19th arrondissement, I was reminded that hidden Paris isn’t necessarily a place but rather a convergence of people, perspectives, and possibilities.
I had feasted on the fare of ordinary life and, for today, I was finally full.
Sydney Brown is an emerging freelance writer living in Seattle, WA who loves sharing stories of unique experiences from her travels at home and abroad. When she's not traveling or writing, you can find her hiking the spectacular trails of the PNW alongside her partner and her dog.