The Beautiful Parisians, or the Nearby Machetes?

It’s hard returning from two months in Paris to a small colonial city in the geographical center of Mexico—Guanajuato. For the first week, you are too jet-lagged, the altitude difference is large (7,000 feet here), there’s the culture shock, and the general stress of traveling (25+ hours without sleep). You also have to climb 203 steps to get home, if you’ve gone down to the Old City. If you’ve suffered the good fortune to have already lived many years, it’s going to take you longer to recover. Now at two weeks, for the first time I am feeling like I can resume my life here. In the midst of the reentry muddle I have tried to understand why the reentry has been so difficult, an experience I’m sure others have also had. But coming back to Mexico, to its poverty and disorder, that is something apart.

I found myself focusing on the physical difference first. The trash, the graffiti—I don’t know how to say it more politely—the drying dog shit in the alleys that lace through the sides of the canyon, the friendly-hostile atmosphere in the barrio we live in, with its long history of mini gangs, juvenile violence, all overseen by the local drug dealer—whom we are on good terms with. (See earlier postings on this subject.) The drizzling rain that went on for days, the inability to sleep, cook, or find connection. For two months, I never felt I had to study a man approaching me to see whether he was a low-level gangster, although that might have been different if I had wandered at night through the banlieue, the outskirts of Paris, where minorities are essentially marginalized from Inner Paris by various kinds of social engineering such as red lining, i.e. not giving house loans or renting apartments to Muslims or any Africans, and by exorbitant rents, or by a combination of the two.

I felt other kinds of threats. A few times we walked away from an abandoned package or backpack in the Metro, although there was really no safe distance to be taken if they had been bombs. A policeman—once a policewoman—always stood in front of the five-story police building one hundred and fifty feet from our apartment, always holding a submachine gun The weapon was designed to be not too heavy but also able to fire twenty or thirty rounds in one blast, without accuracy. The guard’s shots would be the only warning if the station were under attack, and he or she would be the first person to go down—an event that lies within the boundaries of possibility because there will be and already have been all kinds of blowback from the wars raging in the nearby Ukraine, Mideast and Africa. Plus, the city is open, any kind of attack approach is possible anywhere thanks to the wonderful transportation system and well-kept streets.

Inexplicably, the city has placed a huge bottle-recycling container just in front of the police station. To me it seems it would be too easy to drop in empty bottles along with explosives and detonator, enough to blow off the front half of the building. Even though police vans park on both sides of the avenue, with special swat teams sitting in them. They are the GIPN, groupes d’intervention de la Police nationale, six in each van, including the driver, always in the vans, always ready to go. They are parked very close to the bottle-recycling container. Ten minutes away by foot, two police stand across the street from the Mosque, with submachine guns. They are always there. Just the way, until recently, there was a tank that sat guarding the entrance to the Jewish Center in Berlin. This morning, by chance, I read that someone had stolen large amounts of plastic explosives, grenades and detonators from a military base in southern France. Terrorists have struck and will strike again.

I do not fear terrorism in Guanajuato. Maybe a mugging at night. (We use taxis to return home after dark.) But not C4. Plus Guanajuato doesn’t carry the symbolism that Paris does—an old center of immense power, colonial and otherwise. Guanajuato is poor and small. Tourists come for the colonial architecture, the canyon layout, the Symphony, to stroll past the elegant Teatro Juárez. People want to come here to take pictures of their children standing on the university stairs, as if that act might suggest the idea of scholarship, and hence success. An urban legend tells us that the narcos send their sons and daughters here to study, and so it is off-bounds for any kind of retaliatory violence.

I mourn my Paris Navigo card, the chip-carrying plastic card that, for seventy Euros a month, lets you jump on any Metro, tram, bus or RER light rail (within the immediate city), and a year ago there was still a water taxi that would take you up the Seine from Quai d’Austerlitz to the mouth of the Marne. Evenings, we walked down to the Seine, maybe across a bridge and up the other side, or along it. It was light until ten o’clock. When we got tired, we whipped out our Navigo cards, swiped them across the green jellyfish entrance buttons and took city transportation home.

During the day, I went to a modest health club to lift weights or workout in classes led alternatively by one woman and two men who must have trained in the military, perhaps the French Foreign Legion. With them, you were expected to perform the most advanced movements and positions without step-by-step instruction or time to build up the needed muscles. Then I walked to the Café Dose on Mouffetard, where I had a cappuccino “déca” (decaf) and read background for my current novel. The small tables there are very French in that they are separated from each other by about an inch. Often it was too warm inside, and, worse, too much English is spoken by young American students who have discovered the good coffee. Then I walked home through the Jardin des Plantes, a mixture of botanical garden and park—a lovely way to cut through the city.

All this changed when I started attending the ARC conversation sessions, where I got to meet French discussion leaders and young professionals from foreign countries. I wrote about these extensively earlier (below) as “Notes on A Conversation, Paris, 2015.” In that new pattern, at a little before ten in the morning, I walked quickly to the Gare d’Austerlitz, bought Le Monde or Libération (newspapers, center and left), dropped down into the tunnels, swiped my Navigo card and rode the Metro Nr.10, direction Boulogne. On the train, I reviewed my French notes from the previous day. In ten minutes or so, I was in the center of the Left Bank and got out at Marbillon, rode the escalator to the surface and, in two three more minutes, got to sit down for two hours and fifteen minutes of French conversation with people from all over the world, but mostly Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Syria, Iran, the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Vietnam and Turkey.

I suppose what I did in Paris for two months was new and exciting. Anything afterward would be a let down. As I said, Guanajuato seemed dirty, but also stuck in dis-repair, mired in passivity and corruption at all levels, a jewel in a country without employment and education for so many. I discovered some hidden racism, in myself. The people I passed in the alleys seemed short, dark, poor, poisoned by the Coke they consume, not that any of it was a fault of their own. ( I had a short exchange with a friend as a result of the last line, on Facebook. I think she found the words “short” and “dark” and “poor” troubling. Maybe especially the word “dark.” I wrote back: “I made tribal, classist, elitist racist comparisons. The color (dark) is Indian blood, the height (short) is from centuries of malnutrition (maybe), passivity I blame on the patriarchal Church, corruption on colonial political and economic structures (not unique to Mexico), and I do not know what other petulant things I said. We are all racist and tribal. Those qualities surprise us sometimes when they ooze out. It is better to be honest about one’s feelings, the uncharitable beliefs we didn’t even know we had. And get them out where we can work on them.”

I was comparing, I know now, the humble, cordial people in the streets to the privileged, well-heeled, stressed, light-skinned, highly educated, hurrying young professional Parisians who stop in at Starbucks, then chase after success and professional survival amid the concentration of universities around the Metro stops of Cluny La Sorbonne, Odéon and Marbillon.

Unfair. Stupid. Did that mean I wanted to be in Paris?

At this moment, I am reminded of my French friend’s plaintive remark: that it was hard for her to paint in Paris when so many great painters had come before her. I did not have that trouble and wrote a fair amount. But, at the same time, I know that my real productivity (and thinking) is linked with this beautiful, wretched country of so little hope, that is so full of grace, where there is so much beauty, where you are not safe, but where you are also not alone, and where any of those humble people I have maligned would reach out to help me if I were in trouble. The vast majority of them.

Slowly, I have re-discovered young Mexican friends in the places I frequent—cafés, yoga, restaurants. Bright, kind people, there are painters, musicians, writers and teachers here whom I care about, and who care about me. Small things are beginning to happen again. Strangers greet me on the canyon stairs. In contrast, if I happened on someone coming or going from our small Paris apartment, they seemed to choke in their attempt to respond to my Bonjour. Slowly, all the small stories of people I know, from flower lady to beggar to affectionate neighbors are beginning to come back to me. A mixture of social classes, respect and, above all, cordiality. Except for the local little gangsters. K, whom I have written about before, and his brother (maybe two of his brothers) have been breaking into nearby houses with machetes. Taking things, menacing people. That was unwise. While the police may not do anything, men in the neighborhood may reach for their own machetes, literally or figuratively, and take justice into their own hands. Fifteen-year old M, whom I’ve also written about, liked to ride a pretty good bicycle I regularly lent him and said I would give him if he stayed in school. Last night, he knocked at the door, upset. He said men had taken the bike away from him at knife point. In our kitchen, he told us the story three or four times. It happened several miles away. In Valenciana, he said. We said it was not his fault. M spins tales, lies—for many reasons—most of them unclear, except that his parents (especially his father) have pretty well abandoned him and he has to invent the importance he doesn’t feel. He is very smart and could excel under the right circumstances. He has read every single book in our children’s library. He mentioned that K and his brothers would never have dared take the bike from him because they knew we would not stand for it. But now we are beginning to think that that’s what may have happened. With M truth often lies in the possibility he says does not exist. Did he sell it? Did they threaten him and he can’t say who did it? One good neighbor friend said, “In a few days we’ll know more, because people talk and it gets around.”

Oddly, M’s experience snaps me out of my two-week re-entry funk. My petulance, my whining. This is the world I live in, where people are good, where nothing is clear and everything is real—most of all when it is incomprehensible and always pending.

2 thoughts on “The Beautiful Parisians, or the Nearby Machetes?

  1. Brian, You misunderstand me. Mexico is not Hell. Islamic people are just like us. We have our fanatics. The difference, we are systematically bombing and killing over there. That pisses off a lot of people. What gave us that right? Their religion does not tell them to kill us. Freedom and Free World is not a concept black people in the U.S. enjoy. There is structural racism, and they are caught in it. And we whites are complicit. Same for native Americans, who we committed genocide against. I live in Mexico in order to change my thinking, about “others.” There is never “somewhere else.” Let’s just order each other’s book if we are so inclined. I have already read a few of yours. Keep on living.

  2. If there were more than a relative handful of “Islams” who really are fanatics there would be an awful lot more dead “Christians”.

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