Thursday, 29 November 2007

Dangerous neighborhoods

// danger danger. This entry wanders into politics and other dangerous neighborhoods. Those disinclined to thinking and other such boring pursuits should skip to the next blog entry, which will likely return to the nice harmless unoffensive dogs and chickens and pilgrims again. Thank you. ///

There is much to think about and discuss in Paris these days.

For some reason, each time I come here, riots break out in the northern suburbs. In my own callous and self-absorbed way I have considered contacting the government and offering to stay away in exchange for a aid package of some sort. It is the least I can do for the sake of public order and civil society. But for whatever reason Mr. Sarkozy won't pick up when I call. I thought for a while it was because I'm a Commie, but the tabloids tell me he must be preoccupied with his divorce. Or maybe he's busy manufacturing tax breaks for his fellow conservative millionaires.

Anyway. I left the United States, in some part, because of such dangerous ideals. It appeared to me, more and more, the rich were getting richer while the poor were left to rot in the inner cities and Back Forty. The middle class meanwhile, despite their relatively heavy tax burden, could think of nothing but how to gorge themselves on bigger houses and SUVs and damn everybody else. The government sold out to the multinationals a few years ago, and all the flag-waving and patriotism and God Bless America was growing more and more cynical and grotesque to me.

So I skipped the country, kinda. My family is still there, and my roots, and I love what America is supposed to stand for. If it ever starts looking and acting like itself again, maybe I will go back. I thought parts of Europe were realistically more American than America had become!

I don't live in France, and the Camino de Santiago in Spain, where I live, seems to attract the worst people France has to offer. But as a reader of history (not to mention an enthusiastic consumer of wines, viands, and perfumes) I have to admire France.

France, at least since the revolution and/or enlightenment, has always been a real idealist's showpiece of 'equality, liberty, and brotherhood.' It's strong on labor and individual rights, philosophy, rationalism, and responsibility, and its socialist government has in the past century created a very reliably liveable society for just about all its citizens. It's just too bad, for its second- and third-generation immigrant populations, it does not work. There is just too much racism ground into the national character in France to let newcomers have a chance.

This is where the USA works better. If you're an immigrant there, you are beaten up and spat-on and treated like trash for a while, but if you're willing to work your tukas off, you (or your kids) can eventually settle in and integrate into the society. But in France, and most parts of modern Europe, if you 'look Muslim' (or Moroccan, or Jewish, or black or whatever) no one will consider you for a job or a break, even if you were born and raised right in the neighborhood.

Like one wise party-goer said this weekend, France has a beautiful, efficient system that does not work. America has an ugly, broken system that somehow does. So I guess it all comes down to good ol' Capitalism. Ugly and seamy and vicious as it is, it's got some good points.

France wears its history and fear right out on its sleeves.

Yesterday me and Libby and Jeanne decided to take the subway out to the Basilica of St. Denis, a very historic church in a suburb of the same name 10 km. north of Paris city center. This is where France's kings and royalty have been crowned and married and buried since about the year 700... a sort of Westminster Abbey. St. Denis is where Joan of Arc came to be blessed by the French king, and the medieval abbot and intellectual Suger held forth against the gathering darkness and anarchy, and where (most of) Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were finally buried. (It's also where the revolutionaries broke up the graves of hundreds of years' worth of royalty and ecclesiastics back in the early 1800s, and where Royalists afterward gathered them all back up and re-interred them, whilst preserving some fabulous funerary sculpture in relative safety through the Reign of Terror.)

The interesting thing about all this is, St. Denis is still a shrine for a few French diehards who practically worship the royal family. Great bouquets of flowers decorate the grave of Marie Antoinette and Family. The royal funerary robes, crowns, maces, etc. displayed in a side chapel are covered in coins offered by the faithful, as if they were offering prayers to some local saint. You have to wonder what kind of lives are led by the descendents of the old Bourbon dynasty. They're still out there. Some of them are still kings... i.e. King Juan Carlos of Spain. His cousin, if there still were kings in France, would be ruler here. Weird, man.

And weirder still is WHERE this early gothic basilica and former abbey stands. The neighborhood around it is one of those "explosive" immigrant-rich environments where violence and firebombs and riots tend to break out, where policemen fear to tread and Tourist Office officials warn People Like Us to keep away after dark, because the natives are restless out there, y'know.

I'm not sure it's all immigrant unrest. It seems to me the Basilica of St. Denis chose a perennially tough neighborhood to stand around in... and a whole ton of people associated with the place fell into violent hands over the centuries. St. Denis, for instance. He's one of the early Christian fellows beheaded up on Monmartre, and he's famously portrayed all over town holding is mitered, martyred head in his hands. (I'll post the pics soon as I can. Dennis is a scream, really.) Joan of Arc, as all Jean Seberg movie fans know, was burned at the stake for all her trouble. Marie Antoinette and her crew may have been Ab Fab in thier times, but they lost their heads, too. And it takes some truly twisted souls to dig up the bones of long-dead children, even if you really are mad at their families for getting all the breaks and having all the bread.

And the revolution and unrest continues all around it. Makes you wonder about that 'location, location, location' mantra.

Wow, I have wandered a long way from Moratinos, no? Long story short, we went out there and the neighborhood seemed just as clean and OK as any other French town. The abbey church, a national monument, was well worth the trip. We were utterly unmolested, except perhaps by the admission charge to the museum part of the church (6.50 Euro for a national monument seems a bit steep... no wonder only Royalists go there. Only they, and tourists, can afford it.) They shooed us out at 5:30p.m. It was getting dark. Nothing was on fire. Nobody assaulted us. A bunch of kids even smiled and waved at us as we rolled on over to the subway.

Fear is such a thief. And sometimes tourist offices can be, too.

Other than all that thinking, I have been feasting on extraordinary oysters, boujolais, lentils and veal, scallops in coconut milk, steak au poivre, fresh white cheese with raspberries, and just generally a gob-stopping (and calorie-free) cavalcade of delicacies. Libby and I went shopping this morning at Paris' lineup of famous (and mobbed) department stores, but we fled in horror soon after commencing. (only to return to the horrors of a teething 2-year-old godchild.)

We may be gourmandizers, but somehow the Shopping Gene missed us. Thank God for that, as I am running short of cash! No one's getting much from us this year for Christmas. Not after those oysters. Time to head back to Spain!

No comments: