A Room Full of Strangers

It took me a few days to get used to Paris’ metro system. The idea is simple: buy a ticket, enter it into the turnstile, retrieve it, walk through, and then ride your train. But the details make it tough: the turnstile may lock if you take too long, it might eat your ticket and refuse to open the door, you might have accidentally taken the north train when you were supposed to take the south (something I did many times), or you may leave something on the train and only realize when it’s too late.

These worries flood my mind each time I step underground. On this particular day I board the number six train on the way to the Eiffel Tower. I run onto the car before the doors close and I clutch the grimy, cold metal bar for balance. Eventually a seat opens up and I take my place. I hear a dull quietness that can only come from a room full of strangers. It baffles me how so many people with one common destination cannot find anything in common to talk about. They would rather ignore each other and stare at nothing till their stop arrives. The sterile silence is suffocating.

Then at the next stop, one more stranger steps on. The elderly man wears a white beard and brown hat. He brings in a large stereo system and an accordion, says his greetings with a loud “Bonjour,” and then puts his instruments on full blast while singing. Before I can catch myself, I find my foot tapping and my head nodding. But I quickly stop myself, because I knew the drill. I have been on enough metro rides in Paris to know that these unsolicited singers are to be ignored. But off to the left of me two Parisian children, delighting in the happy tunes, dance and jump around anyway. And I cannot help but agree with their enthusiasm.

I nod again to the beat of his music. He sings in French words I have no hope of understanding. And yet, I feel his emotion. He expresses a kind of mournful delight, one that only comes after having accepted the nature of one’s loss, and then finding some happiness in continuing onward. He wears disappointment and joy all at once. As if he has accepted the bland truth of this metro full of silent strangers, and has decided to move on happily with it just as the train car moves on around us. As if he has long known all the minor fears I have about using the metro, but got on anyway. And just like that the man brought delight to my quiet, scary car. I feel indebted to him.

I pull out some spare euros and I happily offer my payment. He thanks me.

But then I watch as the old man walks down the car and not a single other person does the same.

I understand the logic of it; the man is a panhandler after all. But were these Parisians still not delighted by the brief minute of joy he brought to this world of silence? Apparently not, because after a few moments the old man leaves our car in a tired huff, likely preparing for his next thankless song.

The Reporter in Chief

Crowds prepare to enter the famous Hall of Mirrors
Photo by Anhar Karim

63-year-old Catherine Pégard started her career as a journalist breaking stories across the political scene. But today she’s gone from reporting on politics, to being the subject of political reporting.

Born in Le Havre, Pégard worked in journalism for over thirty years and topped off her career in reporting by becoming the editor at the French news magazine Le Point. But when an old acquaintance called her to catch up on lost time, her life took a radical turn. This is because the friend in question was the then newly elected President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. The two had met when she was a low-level journalist and he a little-known politician. But now that the two are both influential leaders in their fields, they decided it was time to work together. In a surprising turn of events, Pégard signed on to be one of Sarkozy’s political advisors, referring to herself as “a journalist for the president.”

A view of the outside courtyard
Photo by Anhar Karim

After a few years of this, Pégard marked her step into politics more formally when Sarkozy appointed her to the office of the president of the Public Establishment of the Palace, Museum and National Estate of Versailles. Colloquially, this means she became the president of Versailles. But what was the reason for Sarkozy’s seemingly infinite confidence in this journalist? Pégard saw it as simple:

“I’ll always tell him the truth.” She’d never alter her advice and work to tell him what he wanted to hear. And this paid off, because while Sarkozy only appointed her to Versailles for five years, the man who beat Sarkozy in the next presdiental election, the Socialist François Hollande, decided to leave her in charge.

Pégard understands that it is abnormal to hop careers so late in life.

“I knew it was probably forever,” she says about her decision to leave journalism in 2007 in favor of this new career track. But in some ways she never really left the field. She is aware that she is the first journalist to ever be president of Versailles and knows that that is strange. But in her view, the skillset of a journalist is more apt for this job than people would expect.

The Hall of Mirrors
Photo by Anhar Karim

“You need to be a journalist to be here sometimes,” she says. And that is because the entire mission of the person running any sort of historical site is to tell the narrative behind it.

“You must understand what it is, and you must tell the story,” she says. And doing this properly is crucial because, as she says, “the history of France is linked to Versailles.” That is, France’s entire story, from the beginning to now, is intimately linked to what happened at this particular site. And so it is important, essential even, that the French people, and even global communities, are aware of this history. So to ensure this she’s gotten very creative in thinking about the best ways to tell the story.

“Every day we try to create another way to understand Versailles,” she says. She admits with a chuckle that in the past she would write all of her articles in longhand. But she smiles with pride now as she announces that she not only learned how to use Twitter but employs it at Versailles daily to teach her followers about Versailles’s history. One innovative use of this medium was a series of tweets explaining the sorrows of the last king, Louis XVI, before his coming execution.

Tourists admire the art
Photo by Anhar Karim

However, as apt as journalism skills sound for this new job, being president of Versailles comes with a lot more administrative tasks as well. Pégard is in charge not only of conveying the story of Versailles, but also of preserving this cultural heritage, maintaining all the shops and businesses on the grounds, and caring for the hundreds of employees that keep the site running daily. All this isn’t easy, and many criticized Pégard’s initial appointment to this position because of her lack of experience in managing art sites such as this. But as she’s run the place without incident for so many years, she’s done a lot to prove these critics wrong.

Pégard’s new position has also changed her understanding of journalism. She spent most of her career looking into French politics with a critical eye. But now that she sits inside of the political bubble, she laments the negativity of journalists. She admits that, yes, the bad parts of politics are worse than you can imagine. But at the same time the good parts are great and need to be acknowledged. She wishes she could change journalism along these lines. But at the same time she admits that she is extremely grateful that it is not her job to cover the roller coaster ride that is the current French presidential election.

Mirror, Mirrors on the Wall

Inside Petit Trianon
Photo by Anhar Karim

Queen Marie Antoinette had cracked windows in her otherwise perfect home in Versailles.

Versailles places high on tourists’ hit lists when they come to France. So the main palace is, during normal operational hours, packed full with people from all over the world. But if you take a twenty-minute walk through the grounds and away from the main palace, you will find the much quieter area of the Petit Trianon. In the 1760s, esteemed architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel designed the small chateau for the then king Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. However, as she died early, the chateau’s first real inhabitant was Louis XVI’s wife Queen Marie Antoinette.

A Chandelier restored to look historically accurate
Photo by Anhar Karim

Marie Antoinette used this small and ornate chateau as a quiet space to get away from the daily stresses of the public court life at Versailles.

“It was a nightmare to live in Versailles,” explains the Trianon’s chief curator and historical expert Bertrand Rondot. Even before the advent of the modern paparazzi, people were always watching the king and queen’s every move. So Marie Antoinette would retreat to this secluded home to relax. Because of this, Antoinette did a lot to make a home of her isolated hideaway. She had the initials of the old king removed almost everywhere and replaced them with her own initials, tried and failed to replace paintings she deemed too lewd, and even had a private theater made in which she could perform shows for her guests. The Queen of France had the imagination and the resources to make almost everything perfect. However, there is one thing she could not make perfect no matter how hard she tried.

If you stroll through the Petit Trianon, you will notice several rooms have large mirrors adorning nearly the full length of the walls. However, these mirrors always have a straight horizontal line running through them somewhere near the top. That is, these mirrors are actually two mirrors put together and made to look like one. But nevertheless the effect is to make it look like all of the mirrors have a crack running through them. So to the viewer all these mirrors look broken.

Notice the crack at the top of the mirror
Photo by Anhar Karim

Rondot explains that during the time of Marie Antoinette they did not have the technology to make wall size mirrors. And so, the solution was to make one mirror as tall as possible, and then to add a second one to make up for the difference (in the main palace’s Hall of Mirrors, the solution was to make several smaller parts to add together). Rondot says the split would have been less obvious at the time of Marie Antoinette because the damage of the years would not have made the divide greater. But still, after so meticulously ensuring perfection in every part of this small house, it is astonishing that even Marie Antoinette could not have perfect mirrors. It is astonishing that she may have walked around her luxurious home and passed by a series of apparently broken mirrors.

It is not difficult to imagine her moving from one room to another, regarding herself in one of the many mirrors, and then looking up to note the crack in it. This one imperfection, surrounded by hand crafted furniture and gold covered chandeliers, was maybe a reminder that no matter how hard she tried, she too was not perfect. And this would be a fitting thought. Because just as the head of the mirror is cut off from the main body, Marie Antoinette herself would soon find something similar happen to her.

The Hidden Palace of Paris

Inside Bombay Palace restaurant
Photo by Anhar Karim

For an avid restaurant hopper, Paris is the place to be for high quality food and diverse experiences. However, this hobby has a way of burning a hole in one’s pocket. But if you dig deep far enough, you will be delighted to find at least one shop that serves a high quality Pakistani dinner for only five euros.

The Gare Du Nord area off of the La Chappelle metro stop is known for its South Asian community. There are many restaurants and shops here owned by Pakistanis, Bengalis, and Indians serving their diaspora communities and bringing their friends food from back home. And among these many shops, a single gem hides from the spotlight, right across the street from the unassuming Bengali tech shop Comptoir Du Bangal.

The restaurant’s sign announces itself as the Bombay Palace. And there really isn’t much else outside besides that sign. The words “Indien” and “Pakistanais” are written on the sides, and two bare wooden table sets offer themselves as seating. But there is nothing here to catch the passerby’s eye and lure them in. However, anyone with a keen sense of smell will immediately stop when she gets the first whiff of what’s cooking inside.

The food in its entirety is on display behind the counter: Chicken biryani, chicken curry, lamb curry, rice, chickpeas, and more. It all looks as if a chef in Pakistan made it just an hour ago and somehow found a way to teleport it to France. And for just five euros, the server will scoop of a heaping plate of rice, a meat curry, and a vegetable selection, and serve it you on a tray complete with a plastic cup for water and a little salad. Clearly, the restaurant chooses not to stand on ceremony. There are no ornate tablecloths, music, or fancy drinks. Those in charge want nothing to distract you from the food, because as soon as you eat it, all the other flourishes cease to matter.

A typical meal at Bombay Palace
Photo by Anhar Karim

Asif, who preferred not to give his last name, is one of the co-owners of the shop. The young man’s two mismatched earrings dangle as he talks. He speaks with a smile and a hushed voice, as if not wanting to disturb the other customers. He explains how the restaurant business has been running in his family for forty years and this particular shop opened 15 years ago.

“All kinds come. Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, French, Tourists,” he says in perfect English, nodding his head towards the room. And indeed the clientele are very diverse. On a normal day’s dinner, you may see a black man in the middle, some Pakistanis and Indians on the sides, and a few ethnic French sitting in the back, all picking at their plates with disposable forks and drinking from plastic cups.

There are many similar restaurants in this area, Asif admits. However, he says that this shop is different.

“Our food is always fresh. It’s always made fresh. You eat now and come back in an hour and it will be completely new,” he says. A morning customer will find a completely different array of offerings from the night customer, and both will walk away satisfied. Asif smiles; this feature of the restaurant is a point of pride for him.

Asif admits that the job gets tough. The hours are long and there isn’t really much money in it. But, nonetheless, it’s the family business and he has the responsibility to keep it alive. Besides, he says, “it pays the rent.” But despite this pragmatic explanation and the noted level of difficulty, Asif’s gaze upon his restaurant betrays something more. He smiles upon his surroundings with a look of compassion for a job that he loves.

Selfies at the Louvre

Katherine Trout ’19 admires the Mona Lisa
Photo by Anhar Karim

A mob of people surrounds the Mona Lisa portrait, snapping away at its modest frame. Some people push their way through to get as close to the image as possible. But once they get there, they only look at the painting for seconds. Because almost immediately after getting to the front of the mob, these people turn their backs to the portrait and stand in place.

Excitement before entering the famed museum
Photo by Anhar Karim

For fifteen euros, any visitor can walk into the majestic halls of The Louvre and step through its millennia of art. You can begin at the ground floor and dig through the ancient tablets of the Near Eastern Antiquities section. Then, you can venture to the first floor to look up in awe at the ceiling wide frescoes floating above the Roman Antiquities section. Then, journey down 2 levels underground to see the new Islamic Art exhibit flanked by large windows and natural light. And after all of this make sure to take a breath, because you have only seen less than 20% of the museum.

People are here from all over the world
Photo by Anhar Karim

However, today many visitors come here to not only look at ancient art, but to make new art, art which features none other than themselves.

The Mona Lisa stands in the center of a wide room on the 1st floor’s painting section. The glass casing ten times its size, the large empty back wall, and the guardrail separating onlookers by six feet, all dwarf the tiny portrait. The extra security, signs, and promotional material outside the museum make it clear: this is what you came to see. You will tell your friends and family and everyone about seeing this.

Outside The Louvre
Photo by Anhar Karim

However, many visitors only spend a fleeting moment actually seeing the image. Because many push themselves to the front only to pull out their phones, turn around, and smile for their camera. Here we witness the creation of the “second order portrait.” This new genre of photography art, taken in the form of selfies or group pictures by a volunteer, feature not only an ancient portrait, but a new one, all within the same outer frame. It is tempting to criticize this phenomenon, to chastise these people: Why spend all this money only to turn your back to one of our world’s greatest artworks? Why go through all that effort just for a selfie? But the counter is almost too easy: Why did great artists of the past spend so much money on supplies and tools for their paintings? Why did they spend so many years practicing to become perfect? The answer for both situations is likely the same: for the sake of expression. Therefore, are the portraits of yesterday and the second order ones of today so different after all? Well, the crowds of people passing through the Louvre don’t seem to fret about mixing the two.

Time will decide in the end. Though one cannot help but wonder how it would look if the Louvre eventually displayed a second order portrait on its own doubly secured wall.

The Warriors of the 93

A sign depicting a Bengali barber shop in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis
Photo by Anhar Karim

“The camera. Make sure you keep it close,” said the police officer in French. He then stomped away with his partners, all thickly-clad in body armor and holding machine guns. There stood Paris’ mighty warriors, bravely marching through what everyone else knew to be a high danger zone.

In the suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis, a bustling outdoor market and indoor food store breaths with hundreds of people as its oxygen. And if you follow the crowds through the market, you’ll quickly discover why so many make their daily pilgrimages here. In the corner, an Arab woman covered in hijab grabs onto the hand of a small boy as she pushes through the walkways. At the other end a black man peers into the glass for a look at the sauerkraut, perhaps imagining tonight’s dinner. And then, a white Frenchman, the kind one would find in the background of a film set in Paris, passes through to get to the Caribbean food shop. Here is a place where passersby collect ingredients for their next meal and spend the hours before it comes time to prepare it. Here is a place as familiar as home.

But it is also one of the most feared areas in Paris.

This place, infamously referred to as “the 93,” is not only home to a crime rate nearly double the national average, but also to a very low rate of successful criminal investigations. And so, while you move past the bearded man telling you to stop by his high-end baby fashion store and after you stop to take a look at the neckwear sold by the man claiming he imported everything from India, you cannot help but notice the four armor-clad police officers marching through the streets with jaded, blank faces. They creep through as foreigners in their country, unable to realize the joviality of the space around them. They are a reminder of the danger of this place, and looking upon them can make any visitor momentarily forget the otherwise joyous atmosphere.

This area is, objectively, a very dangerous one. However, a concentration of a few bad people need not discount the culture of everyone around them. Upon a normal visit on any afternoon, this market greets you with smiles, discounts, and bags full of fresh food. It is a little square of happiness locked away deep inside Paris. But the police force chooses not to see any of this. Instead, upon seeing a young tourist pointing her camera at the wonder of colors and cultures around her, one officer comes over and makes it clear that she should guard her camera from the thieves that surround her.

And just like that, this whole amazing world is reduced to a visitor clutching the camera in her pocket.

The Montmartre Business Man

Sacré-Cœur at night
Photo by Anhar Karim

The Sacré-Cœur church in Paris is a majestic and awe-inspiring structure towering high into the sky. It is topped off with two statues of horsemen in full armor, raising their swords as if ready for battle. And on this night, Hamdi stood right in front of the church at Montmartre square, armed with only some light up toys and trinkets. And yet, he could not feel more at home.

Montmartre wears the Parisian night well. Here visitors, Parisian and tourist alike, happily saunter through the space, drinking beers and pulling in strangers for a leisurely dance or two. Some teenagers sing a rowdy song to the left and to the right a young couple stares out at the Parisian skyline. Here Hamdi stands with a small sack full of trinkets: Eiffel tower toys, light up keychains, some tacky hats— things one would buy to remember the moment, to latch a happy memory onto an object in order to recall that happiness again and again. But Hamdi does not need these trinkets he sells to his customers. The fact of his life in Paris is enough fuel to sustain his smile.

The festively lit square right beside the church
Photo by Anhar Karim

Hamdi is not his real name. He requested that his identity be kept a secret because he is not legally in France.

“I’m just trying to do business and send money back to my family,” he says, waving his one free hand energetically to summon customers his way. He says that he knew from a young age he liked doing business and that he was good at it. And so when the time came to go earn money for his family, he decided to put his skills to use. It’s the mind of a businessman that brought him to Paris. He comes to this spot of town many nights of the week, or to several other similar spots, and sells whatever he can to people. He admits that some see it as in poor taste to take advantage of tourists’ naiveté by selling them overpriced trinkets, but he insists that this doesn’t make him a bad person. There are the bad undocumented immigrants in the city who rob and injure. But he’s not doing anything like they are. He’s only trying to make an honest living so he can make some money for his family at home.

“If you go to Gare Nord, you’ll think that you’ve found Bangladesh here,” he says. The area just outside the Gare Nord train station is a portal to South Asia. The place is sprinkled with Indians, Pakistanis, and, yes, Bengalis. One need only walk into one of the many Bengali restaurants there, eat the traditional pani puri snack, and he may forget that Paris exists outside the doors.

The view from Montmartre square
Photo by Anhar Karim

But not everyone wants France to look like this. Hamdi talks about how the country now has its own Donald Trump candidate now under the name Marine Le Pen. And, Hamdi laments, it looks like she has a chance at winning the coming first round of the presidential election. He notes that she only has support because there is a lot of racism in the country. Many people, like Le Pen, cannot even look upon darker faces. “Racists,” as he calls them, wonder where he came from and wish that he would leave. Though, interestingly, Hamdi says that it’s not only the native French that bear this guilt. Arabs, though likely victims of discrimination themselves, will often discriminate against Bengalis and other dark skinned people they meet.

Despite all of these unsettling factors, Hamdi does not see Paris as an unwelcoming home. People have never outright asked him to go away or to go back to his country. No one has ever so directly called him out like that in the three years he’s lived here. He knows those negative sentiments hide under people’s surfaces, but he sees hope in the fact that people choose to conceal them. When asked if he sees himself as a French Bengali, he responds,

“I am living in France, and I am Bengali.” Hamdi has not found that the French identity is his, but nevertheless he can proudly say that he loves the new home he’s made of this city.