Paris – I kicked off my semester abroad with a hazy three day-stay in a neighborhood just south of Paris. Le Kremlin Bicetre is a colorful pitstop near the 13th arrondissement. It is in prime location for the metro, but lacks any real focal point to attract a critical mass of people.
I spent the days as any American tourist would. I visited the Louvre, I took an elevator to the top of the Eiffel tower, and I fought a losing battle with jet lag. The second day saw me wake up at 5am to get an early start, followed by an eight hour nap that left me in a pool of sweat; groggy and delirious.
Upon waking up, I hurried to get ready to go see the sights, not wanting to squander my precious time. Two shots of Espresso later, I was feeling like myself. I took the 6 west, along the Seine to le Champs de Mars.
The Eiffel tower is great, but I couldn’t pay it much attention, as I was captivated by the people that lined the streets of the international tourist attraction. Vendors and panhandlers seemed to outnumber patrons, most of them selling absolute crap.
Eiffel tower figurines so awkward and unwieldy that maybe 1/50 made it from the site of purchase to the tourists home. I bought one and promptly abandoned it in my Airbnb. The vendor asked for 5euro, but after a short conversation he settled for 2. Haggling seems to be the norm.
In le Champs de Mars you can’t go five minutes without an interaction with a vendor. Trinkets, t-shirts, water, anything worth buying can be obtained through the vendors. Almost all of them had brown skin, many of them were very transparent about their illegal status in France. They hailed from places like Punjab, Senegal, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.
They gave me a preview into the subject of migration, but from the other side. Life for the people who, through whatever means necessary, migrate to Europe and try to make a life. These are people who are often overlooked by government census data, their means of income and survival not fitting the bureaucratic definition. Their skills include an inexhaustible energy, charisma, and what a young man from Punjab described as “hustle.”
I spent Friday night at the base of the Eiffel tower, watching the enormous structure light up as dusk turned to dark. The vendors remained present, though their wares had changed.
“Beer! Wine! Fresh Beer!”
Sitting in the grass contemplating the merits of sweet versus savory crepes, I was constantly having to wave off passing vendors. One such vendor refused my refusal, and kneeled down in front of me with his wares.
“3 euro for 1 beer.” He said.
I said no, and he lowered the price, offering me 1 beer for 2 euros, and then 2 beers for 3 euros, eliciting the same response from me every single time. Frustrated, he finally asked me if I smoked.
“What, like weed?” I asked.
“Yeah, I can get you a gram of hash for 45 euros.”
I laughed, half because the prospect of buying hash at the base of the Eiffel tower from a Senegalese gentleman was ridiculous, and half because the price was even more ridiculous.
I don’t think I learned any particularly coherent lesson about the life of quasi-legal immigrants making a living off of tourists at le Champs de Mars. It was unclear to me whether they were earning enough to lead a sustainable life, it was often unclear to me if they spent their nights sleeping on these same streets.
What was clear was that these men seemed to be happy, well adjusted members of society. Though there clothes were sometimes tattered, they were always smiling, and seemed to all be very friendly with one another. They were filling a gap in the legitimate French economy and didn’t seem to be any serious threat to French national identity.