Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Belleville, Paris.


What normally happens to me in Paris is that I end up having a series of arguments with waiters who don’t want to serve me and then I don’t get to eat. Given that I don’t have much French this is impressive and often quite creative. I’m not an attractive prospect to a Bistro – single, old and looking a little careworn/frayed at the edges and they usually make this clear to me. In turn I know how to return an insult.

This time it was all going to be different.

I took my aches and my blistered feet to Belleville in the 20th Arrondissement.

If you think of any of the French revolutions – they all started here. If you think of any of the revolutions that failed – Belleville is where the French army went to execute the revolutionaries.

Belleville is where the Communards made their last heroic stand at the Barricades of 1871 and Pére Lachaise at the bottom of the hill was where the firing squads were. There are good ghosts here; my kind of people.

Belleville is where the workers live and it’s where Édith Piaf was born under a lamp post on the Rue de Belleville. The way she sang – the hard nasal throaty sound; that’s the old accent of the Bellevillois, the equivalent of London’s cockneys. Little Édith Gassion at 4 ft. 8inches tall was given the nickname of ‘sparrow’ which is where the Piaf comes from.

The nature of the district has changed over the years – fewer French and more immigrants but the spirit is the same. There is always rebellion in the air.

Come out of the Metro and it all hits you straight away; poverty and trouble, the prostitutes, the pimps (Oh how I hate a pimp), and in the background shadows are lurking the gangsters that the pimps have to pay off.

And never to be seen in Belleville? Le Flic; the hated police who take a tax from everyone.

The police are so hated in Paris that it is accepted that when someone is in distress or suicidal no one calls the police – the fire brigade come out and they deal with many more social problems than fires as a result.

The fuel that keeps this economy going? Drugs and it would be so easy to just close down this whole sordid thing if anyone wanted to.

So, when I’ve negotiated all that I take a look at the new Chinatown and then walk up the hill along the Rue de Belleville. Right at the top is a park with a beautiful view over Paris but not for me today, I’ve been up enough hills.

What I really came to see was the art that is all around, because after the Algerians and the other North Africans, the Chinese and Vietnamese settlers, now there is another wave of immigrants; the street artists and they cover everything they can with the most amazing graffiti and sometimes real live artworks. I only scratched the surface….

Here’s a lorry that got a respray overnight;
These amazing pictures come from an alley way off the Rue de Belleville;


You'll want to click on that one to get the fine detail - you get a slideshow (spot the Piaf reference). 



Do you see the little homages to Piaf? They are everywhere. These are only some of the pictures I took. I’ve been sending them out to friends since I got back and I’ll look for excuses to post them here in the next few weeks.

By now I’m really tired, need to eat and have the little matter of an injection to sort out. Hey, this is the heroin capital of the city – it can’t be a problem.

I headed down the hill, on a hunt. What I was looking for was where all the Algerians go to drink tea – and here it is, ‘Le Myanis’ in Ménilmontant;

This was when I left but when I arrived there was a whole community of tea drinkers passing the afternoon away.

Here’s my meal;


It’s Couscous, the staple of North Africa. I’ve never had it before but it was delicious, filling, cheap and the staff were very patient at my ignorance and lack of French. Then again if you are from Algeria or Tunisia French is the language of the colonisers and not so popular.

I had a great meal and finished it off with a tiny coffee (arab style) but with none of the gravel at the bottom of the cup that I associate with the lebanese version.

So, full of new life, I headed down the hill to Pére Lachaise, always shut whenever I get there and then back up to turn down the Oberkamp – this is the street where Gangster meets Gangsta – it’s where all the music is.

Unfortunately I was far too early – so no music reviews today but this is where the affordable clubs and bars are and where the ‘BOBOS’ hang out. They are the ‘Bohemian Bourgeoisie’, similar to our ‘Yuppies’ but more interesting and more adventurous. They follow the artists and the music.


These two are great….


…. the artist was repairing them but ran away when I started taking pictures….

They aren’t graffiti they are paper collages, stuck on the wall.

In the end I gave up and overcome with nostalgia headed back to the tourist trap of Montmartre for my last hour. This time I had to admit defeat and pay for a ride up the funicular – what a wuss. This is just for tourists but it looks the part.

I was there for something you can’t take a picture of after dark (not with my pawn shop camera) when the Eiffel Tower is lit up and its giant searchlight turns achingly slowly like a lighthouse, round and round over Paris. Everyone is drawn to it – hypnotised as every part of the city watches it turn and turn again.

I have a Stella Artois.

Merdes! Oh, Merdes!!

I’m late! I can hardly walk now but the coach leaves at 1030! Somehow I stagger down all those damn steps, down to the metro at Pigalle where it all started for me this morning and onto the platform. On the train and change – I’ve gone wrong. Go back. Made it. That would have been an expensive day trip if I’d missed the coach.

I got back too late for the best part – when the Eiffel Tower goes sparkly at 1000pm. If you’ve never seen it, you should; tingly spine and everything.

And then we got held up – we finally left late at 11 00pm, just as the tower went sparkly again for me.


It didn’t help that I was playing ‘Le Départ’ and ‘Paris Match’ from The Style Council ep ‘Á Paris’ on my MP3.


The very best moment? Well it’s not a very good picture but how do you capture a moment of magic?

 Neil Harris

(a don’t stop till you drop production)

None of this could ever have happened without Gurdeep, Sharon and of course Dr Feelgood of Charing Cross Hospital to whom I am deeply grateful.

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