A couple weeks ago, I was advising groups of communication students on their marketing campaign projects. These were large, long-term projects requiring the students to ultimately present in English before a panel of professors. I helped them hone their pitches, refine their vocabulary, and brainstorm possible responses to critiques from the panel. But one group asked me an unexpected question.
The group had decided to create and promote a fictional line of lingerie accented with candy (yeah, my job is a dirty one but somebody’s gotta do it). Their target consumers would be bourgeois twenty and thirty-somethings. As part of their campaign, they planned to open a pop-up store in Paris. “So,” announced one girl, “We wanted to ask you, since you live in Paris: what’s a good area to open our store in?”
I laughed. Huh? These young men and women had resided in the Paris metropolitan area all their lives. I was an American interloper who recently got scolded by the school’s lunch monitor for keeping my hat on in the cafeteria (unfortunately, it’s considered far ruder in France to wear a hat indoors than in the US). Surely they had a better idea than me of what would work where.
Then I looked around. Six pairs of eyes were trained on me, earnestly awaiting my response.
“Um. Well. The Marais district is pretty trendy,” I recited with all the tenuous authority of an out-of-print edition of Lonely Planet. “It’s pricey, but it’s got bars and boutiques that attract a young, fashionable crowd.”
The girl and her group members nodded solemnly while she scribbled down my suggestion. “Yeah, that’s what we thought too.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Someday I would be uncovered as a fraud, but that day had not come just yet.
So, what was going on? Why would a group of Paris area natives turn to me for insights about the city? In fact, that exchange with the communication students was only one in a series of incidents which would finally lead me to the epiphany diagrammed below.
What is the périphérique? Wikipedia describes it as “a controlled-access dual-carriageway ring road” surrounding Paris. Basically, if Frankenstein’s monster chugged five gallons of Red Bull and were a highway, that highway be the périphérique and you would never, ever want to cross it.
This is actually kind of a weird concept to me. I did most of my growing up in the suburbs of Boston, and if I met someone from out of state, I would nonetheless say I was from Boston. Working in New York, I also never blinked an eye at residents of the greater New York City area who self-identified as New Yorkers.
But that’s not how this town throws down. When I first met some of my classes, I would talk a bit about where I was from, then ask my students if any of them were originally from outside Paris as well. To my great surprise, the entire class would raise their hands. When I subsequently asked where they were from, the answers would be places like “Saint-Denis,” “La Corneuve,” or “Bobigny,” neighborhoods just a couple metro stops and fifteen minutes away. (My school is very close to the périphérique, on the other side of which these areas are located.) The students, however, looked genuinely perplexed to be lumped in with the intra muros Parisians when I waved my hand and clarified: “No. I mean, really outside Paris.”
This mental barrier also exists on the side of us intra muros, though it was only recently that I took note of it. When I brought Z to see my school, he gazed around in wonder. He didn’t recognize *anything* in the neighborhood despite growing up in the same, small administrative district. To my expression of surprise, Z shrugged defensively. “Yeah, but this is right next to the périphérique.”
His justification recalled to me past instances when I’ve heard friends in the city detail their apartment hunt. At some point, a Parisian apartment hunter would say, “The space itself isn’t bad… but it’s very close to the périphérique.” Upon these words, every listener would nod sympathetically, understanding there would be no further inquiry about that particular real estate lead.
Thanks to my students – most of whom cross the périphérique on a daily basis to attend class – I am gaining a deeper understanding of the surrounding suburbs (the banlieues). I had already been aware of the strained relationship between Paris and the poorer banlieues which are home to large immigrant and minority populations. In 2005, the tension ramped up to a whole other level when riots broke out across those neighborhoods in response to teens being injured in a police chase. Many of the rioters were young people with North African origins, prompting questions about French national identity and intégration which remain hotly debated to this day.
There’s a lot of racial diversity among my students, many of whom have North African heritage themselves. While some hail from wealthier or middle-class neighborhoods, a large number also commute from the poorer banlieues I mentioned. These are the students who are changing my impressions of such areas, which I had mentally associated with news images of grisly housing projects, burning cars, and disaffected youth. Fortunately, the kids I work with are bright, funny, and enthusiastic, and they take a lot of pride in their origins.
Given the lively classroom exchanges I have with them and seeing them interact with their diverse peers, I realize that the grim media reports of the banlieues do not do their populations justice. These images leave us with the impression that the problems in the banlieues run too deep to solve, and that it is impossible to reach their youth.
I now know this is not the case. While my feet are still firmly intra muros, I appreciate the lesson carried in by my students from just beyond the périphérique.