Reprinted with permission from Rachel-in-Paris. © Rachel Rixen. All rights reserved.

(Part One) As I leave, the sumptuous gilded, gate of Parc Monceau with my camera still firmly around my neck for the occasional photo, I write illegible notes because the cold is slowing the muscles in my fingers. A group of older gentlemen cluster around the rotunda, laughing. I think they see me take their picture. Monceau is like a private party that I’ve snuck into and I know that I’m being watched. I follow a man with a Dalmatian out and down into the métro, slipping out on my way to Pigalle and boulevard de Clichy.

Pigalle, 3:37 P.M. – Sex shops line the boulevard de Clichy

Blvd de Clichy 3.00.45 AMExcusez-moi, madame,” an African man in traditional attire passing out fliers prompts me at the top of the stairs. I shake my head, turning around him as I take in my first breaths of Pigalle: weed. I’ve been here many times before, but I look around me. I mean, really look. Five stops northeast from Monceau, the air is casual here, louder and less occupied with self-importance. Maybe it’s the weed.

Gone are the grandmothers of Place Dauphine, the tourists of Étoile and the privileged scooter children of Monceau. On the boulevard de Clichy, each person who passes by is a character: a twenty-something man with a sandy-colored beard and a guitar case slung over his back, another man shoving the last bite of a Quick burger into his mouth, girls with ripped tights laughing their way out of the métro station. Workers converse mid-street and a group of RATP Sureté men cluster, flicking their cigarette ashes onto the street corner. People stare curiously as I take pictures.

The curling architectural details and fanciful boulangeries I’ve grown accustomed to and come to expect this afternoon have been mostly replaced with crumbling corners, simple windows and kebab shops. As a sort of answer to Amsterdam’s red light district, Pigalle has long been known for its sex. This stretch of the boulevard de Clichy heading west to Place Blanche is ripe with sex museums, sex emporiums, sex shows, strip clubs and nightclubs, a few of which bear the imaginative names of “Sexodrome,” “Lady’s” and “Pussy’s.”

During the day, these places are fatigued, resting for their nightly adventures. The area is virtually void of visitors at this time of day and perhaps only an adventurous few have come down from the Sacré-Cœur to make a quick stop down the street to the Moulin Rouge cabaret, where they are mildly disappointed—like I was at fifteen—that it doesn’t quite have the look or charm as the studio set from the Baz Luhrmann film and that it costs a pretty penny to see an actual show. When the sun goes down, the area is a blur of neon light. There are Irish pubs, grocery stores and fast food joints sandwiched between sex shops and clubs, and families with strollers walking through crowds of Pigalle patrons.

I stand for a while, watching the comings and goings of the customers of the kebab shop across the street. People talk loudly around cars in the middle of the road unapologetically, and the energy is picking up. For as long as Pigalle has been Pigalle—the quartier that entertained artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso—the party continues. The sun lowers and people are on the move. Pigalle is beginning to wake up.

Barbès-Rochechouart, 4:14 P.M. – The busy platform at Barbès-Rochechouart

Metro platform Barbès-RochechouartLine two is packed. It’s full of the Montmartre crowd, tourists and bobos (Paris’s hipsters) alike, aiming to transfer to line four, which will take them back to the city center and the comfort of famous sites. The train ascends like a rollercoaster up the tracks, where it will be elevated aboveground for four stops. The brakes stop us suddenly more than once and people who weren’t holding on scream and topple into other passengers. We stop once more, intentionally, for our arrival at Barbès-Rochechouart. I slip my camera away into my bag.

This is the place I’ve been (perhaps unfairly) warned about when I’ve asked locals which areas to avoid in Paris in order to stay safe. Most expats I know have never heard of the place and the ones who have told me stories such as being pick pocketed at the massive Tati store that takes up several blocks just outside the station. After living for four years in downtown Minneapolis, I can tell it’s a similar story for Barbès: People who spend the least amount of time in a place will be the strongest advocates for avoiding it altogether. In Cedar-Riverside, my former multi-ethnic neighborhood and home to the largest refugee and immigrant Somali population outside of Somalia, I’d receive concerned looks when I told people where I lived and went to school. I’d inevitably receive an earful on perhaps the epicenter of fear, a 1970s apartment complex, once inhabited by Mary Tyler Moore and now respectfully nicknamed “the Crack Stacks.” In sum, immigrant neighborhoods are to be avoided. Or something like that.

This is my second time at Barbès. I once came here to deliver a package while I was working as an intern at a tourist agency about two years ago. I had gone straight to the side-street hotel, handed over the envelope of Eiffel Tower tickets and Paris maps for the arriving tourist group to the concierge and I was on my way back to the office near Bastille. Subsequent glimpses had been from the window of a line four train, staring down into the masses of people below.

I pause for a moment on the platform, letting the passengers pass while considering a photo of the enormous Tati store and its neon “Les plus bas prix” (“The lowest prices”) sign against the backdrop of the white domes of the Sacré-Cœur. I’m at a perfect vantage point. As soon as I put my fingers on the zipper of my bag, I’m approached by a man and have attracted the eyes of several other observers. I forget the picture and walk down the steps.

Halfway to the ground level, police officers have stopped two young men, one North African and the other black. The four of them are standing as if waiting for something and I continue down the steps. One man nearly bowls me over as he briskly sifts through a stack of euro bills. I look for an out-of-the-way spot to stand on the trash-littered street, but everywhere is taken. Men swarm, resting against every available pole and I wonder what they’re doing. They’re not talking much to one another or smoking, but just standing there. I pass by and several of them turn their heads toward me and smile, one uttering “Bonjour, mademoiselle.” I continue east on the boulevard Barbès, passing wedding dress shops and cell phone stores with handwritten signs.

As a piece of a larger quartier called the Goutte d’Or, Barbès’s cosmopolitan spirit is a result of its growing population of people of foreign origins. The eighteenth arrondissement counts over a quarter of its total population as of immigrant origin, compared to about nine percent for the total population of Paris.[4] Most of the immigrant population is from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. I look up at the Haussmann buildings that look little different than in other quartiers. The buildings are occupied by members of the middle class—not necessarily the shopkeepers who own the ground floor businesses—who have seized the opportunity to live within the notoriously expensive bounds of the city, which is quickly being wiped over by gentrification.[5]

Everyone seems to have a plaid pink plastic bag with navy blue lettering in his or her hands. These bags come from Tati, the capital of low prices in Paris and have come to symbolize Barbès, the neighborhood in which Tati was born in 1949. Until the 1940s, Barbès relied on dense, traditional commercial activity and saw a far smaller influx of shoppers and visitors than its line two neighbor, Anvers. Jules Ouaki, an entrepreneur from Tunisia, saw this as an opportunity to attract more people to this “working-class and miserable” quartier, and opened the very first Tati.[6] Since then, Barbès and Tati have become inseparable; you can hardly speak about one without the other. Parisians in search of the lowest prices have made the area in and around Tati into a sort of marketplace of frenetic deal-searching. In fact, a real marketplace takes place on Wednesday and Saturday mornings underneath the elevated train tracks.

I’m back on the platform, groaning along with everyone else as a train pulls in but doesn’t stop. The platform is wall-to-wall people and a man behind me lights up a cigarette just behind my ear while we wait. There’s more talking here than I’ve ever seen in the métro and I can’t help but look around at all the different people. Once on the train I’m jammed against the door. The sunset casts orange light over the scene as we pass over the Gare du Nord train tracks.

This is not the Paris I know, but it’s a Paris home to a rich, cross-cultural humanity at the heart of the city’s future. This is a facet of Paris’s reality that faces the tensions that accompany assimilation, integration and racial profiling and is quickly changing what it means to be a Parisian.  La rue est à nous, a Tati marketing slogan once proclaimed. The street is ours.

Père-Lachaise, 4:08 P.M. – A couple strolls through the cemetery

Père-Lachaise cemetery“DOCTEUR EN MÉDECINE,” one grave stone reads. Three words to summarize a person’s seventy years of life is shockingly strange, but not unexpected in the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Occupying 110 acres in the twentieth arrondissement, Père-Lachaise, along with the Paris Catacombs, has become an unusual and macabre tourist destination where the remains of millions of Parisians are interred.

I’m back on line two on a Saturday afternoon. I exit the Père-Lachaise station, cross the boulevard de Ménilmontant and enter through the cemetery’s side entrance in the unmarked stone perimeter wall blocking the dead from the living. My eyes are immediately drowned in a sea of tombs rising up the hill and my ears adjust to the sudden respite from the sound of traffic out on the boulevard. For a few Euros, you can buy a map detailing the most famous graves, like Édith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, which have bizarrely become regular fixtures in Paris guidebooks.

The cobbled streets are slick with moisture from the heavy mist. The sky is darkening and people are few and far between, making for a distinctly spectral atmosphere. Birds are chirping quietly and a boy jumps out from behind a crumbling tomb, scaring his little brother. Couples walk hand in hand, stopping occasionally to look out over the city as they climb higher and higher. From the cemetery’s heights, this is where Eugène de Rastignac declares “It’s between you and me now!” to Paris at the end of Le Père Goriot, Balzac’s 1835 masterpiece. Instead of vengeance proclamations, the top of the cemetery has a lovely vantage point where you can take a seat on a bench and look out to the south and west and see the Tour Montparnasse and the Eiffel Tower on the horizon.

Père-Lachaise is a library of sorts, documenting Paris’s history by the deaths of its people (In order to be buried in the cemetery, the deceased must have either died in Paris or lived in Paris). I study long-forgotten graves left deteriorating and rotting and enjoy the refreshing quietness. This is the perfect place to wander and imagine the stories behind the people buried below who will never know their bodies are now part of a collective site for tourists and Parisians alike.

A group of French speakers go by, including a woman clacking a green rolling suitcase behind her over the cobblestones. I wonder why in the world she chose to cut through the cemetery with her luggage. The cemetery is closing, so I walk with her and the other stragglers out to the exit. In the last dregs of sunlight, a man with a wild crop of hair, orange pants and a purple shirt zips by, shouting the lyrics to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” At Père-Lachaise, as in all of Paris, the unusual prevails.

Nation, 5:11 P.M. – The columns and traffic at Place de la Nation

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 4.46.32 PMA Cherry Coke can rolls noisily out from under a seat as the train slows to a stop at Philippe Auguste. The moderate flow of passengers allows me to have a seat near the window, thankfully. It’s a relief to have space on the train. We pass the next stop, Alexandre Dumas, and I remember my friends who used to live on the rue de Charonne and making middle of the night runs for a hot pain au chocolat or two from its miraculous twenty-four-hour boulangerie. The eleventh arrondissement is one of the few parts of the rive droite to which I feel a strong connection. I was a terrified twenty-year-old intern at a travel agency on the rue Amelot, I was an accidental pigeon-feeder just across the bounds of the fourth in the Place des Vosges and I was an explorer of bars, clubs, cafés, restaurants, parks and opera in the slightly edgy, slightly grimy bobo haven. But I never went to Nation. How many times had I found myself underground, switching from the two to the six, the one to the nine underneath Place de la Nation? The can rolls once more to a stop, signaling that we’ve made it to the end of the line—or the start of the line—and my last stop on this trip through Paris’s Right Bank.

I emerge from the confines of the underground out onto Place de la Nation, half in the eleventh and half in the twelfth. It’s eerily similar to the Place Charles de Gaulle, echoing the twelve-boulevard traffic circle and staunch reminders of the power of the French state. At the center is a bronze sculpture, Le Triomphe de la République: Marianne, the traditional personification of France, stands facing Bastille in a chariot being pulled by lions and is surrounded by further symbolism of the nation’s strength. Formerly the Place du Trône, it was once the site of mass executions by guillotine during the French Revolution and was renamed as the Place de la Nation in 1880.[7]

Where I found myself in good company taking photos of the Arc de Triomphe, I now find myself solo, stared at by people waiting for buses as I photograph the Doric columns that bookend the eastern end of the plaza. People cut in front of me to head towards businesses—French businesses, this time—I can see, like Darty and Printemps and buses roar by every few minutes. A man sits on a bench smoking both a pipe and a cigarette simultaneously. Night has fallen and the familiar frenetic French energy that was lost on the Champs-Élysées and subdued in the cemetery is alive and well once again.

It’s time for me to journey back to the Left Bank. I take a seat on line one next to a mother and her son and daughter. The girl, with blonde pigtails and messy lavender eye shadow and probably no more than six years old, curiously looks me up and down. She wordlessly knows that I’m not from here and certainly not from Paris. She’s right, I’m a temporary dweller and discoverer of Paris who’s found comfort on the Left and a newfound curiosity for the Right. Maybe someday I’ll hop the Seine, move in and have a different response to the question Which bank do you prefer?

But for now, I just smile at her and give up my seat, heading for home.

Visit: Two for the Road: Paris’ Line 2 – small-scale adventures on the Right Bank (Part One)

[1] Original French: Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Élysées

[2] Sarah Krouse, “Rents Escalate Along Paris’s Champs Élysées.” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2013.

[3] “Un peu d’histoire sur le Parc Monceau,” Paris Connect.

[4] Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Paris : Quinze promenades sociologiques (Paris : Payot & Rivages, 2013), page 251.

[5] Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, Paris : Quinze promenades sociologiques, page 254.

[6] Emmanuelle Lallement, “Tati et Barbès : Différence et égalité à tous les étages,’’ Ethnologie française, vol. 35 (2005).

[7] file://localhost/C:/Users/Rachel/Downloads/Ligne%202%20(1).docx – _ftnref1 “Place de la Nation,” Travel France Online, Last modified: 27 May 2013,

Rachel RixenRachel Rixen is a Minnesota native who studied in Paris for a semester before earning her B.A. in French and cross-cultural studies from Augsburg College in 2013. She returned to the Paris to enroll in the M.A. in cultural translation program at the American University of Paris following graduation. Since 2011, Rachel has chronicled her experiences in Paris on her blog, Rachel in Paris. In her free time, she enjoys playing the piano, drinking wine, shopping excessively, painting and making a dent in her endless to-read list (most of which are books on France). (Blog: Rachel-in-Paris)

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Text copyright ©2014 Rachel Rixen. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2014 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.