La vie sur la rue Meslay (Life on rue Meslay)
The first thing I learned about the street I'm living on for these three months is that you don't pronounce the "s." This lesson was courtesy of the taxi driver who shuttled me here from Charles de Gaulle airport three weeks ago. The word therefore sounds like "meh-lay," which in my mind links to "melee" and how appropriate for this vibrant and colorful street!
A few doors down from me, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin was born in 1804--you would know her as the novelist/memoirist George Sand who had a decade-long relationship with Chopin. These days, though, this street that goes back to the 1600s is mostly lined with wholesale/retail shoe shops, as well as boutiques selling men's suits and shirts at extremely low prices (i.e., five shirts for 75 euros). The shoe stores have names like Pas a Pas (Step by Step) and Deux a Deux (Two by Two) and many of these, and the clothing shops, are run by Congolese men and women. Many of them dress in the bursting colors of their homeland--eye-scorching yellows and greens and purples, some of the women wearing headwraps that match their ground-length, boldly patterned dresses, some of the men in the "costume saharienne." Between the fashions and the shoes lined up in the windows, the street is literally bursting with color, but it's colorful on other levels as well.
In the early mornings, there's the creak and groan of the mechanical grates opening up on the stores and the shouts of greeting (I assume) back and forth across the street between fellow shopkeepers. Stools are dragged out onto the sidewalk where they sit much of the day, talking loudly on cell phones when they're not engaged in highly spirited conversations with others out on the street. Their voices echo off the ancient stone buildings and, if you close your eyes, you would believe they're in the living room with you. And it's not just the merchants. With everyone's windows open in the mild weather, you hear the music and ringing telephones and arguments and parties of all the neighbors, too.
During the heat wave that had gripped the city in my first weeks (now subsided), some of the tiny, cramped shops made room for a portable air conditioning unit (climatisation) that uses a wide, accordion-like white hose to release the exhaust. Not only on rue Meslay, but all over Paris, some shops had the mouths of these hoses wedged in their front doors, a low roar of air adding to the din of the street.
There are more than shopkeepers making rue Meslay lively, though. There are the neighbors across the way, whose wide open windows ensure their lives are on display--sort of like performance art focused on the quotidian. There are the two small restaurants nestled within all these boisterous merchants, the most notable a very trendy American BBQ place called The Beast the attracts small crowds outside on the weekend. There are the lines of parked motorcycles and the speeding roar of them up and down the street. There are the dogs who seem to accompany their owners on walks, as opposed to being walked, since they simply run alongside or skip ahead--no leashes.
The windows of my apartment are magnificent--more like doors--and I've got three huge ones looking out over the street, with a convenient railing to lean on to watch the world go by. This is clearly a pastime on rue Meslay--people staring past their own little worlds to take in the ones playing out on the street below, with curiosity as opposed to judgment, it would seem. I found it quite amusing when one afternoon, for instance, when one of the 20-something young men across the street leaned out his window to wring out some wet laundry. Not bothering to look below, he wrung the water out onto the head of a man walking on the sidewalk below. The man exclaimed something in French, kind of a quiet shout, and the young man looked down and apologized and then both of them laughed and life went on. I imagined the same scenario occurring in New York--it would definitely not have gone down that way.
And every day, there's some other curious thing happening on my street. Or curious to me, anyway. Whether it be the city employees who come to sweep the street with their green brooms, or the 6 am delivery of foodstuffs to The Beast that sit out on the sidewalk for hours without anyone disturbing them, or the "pop-up" fruit vendor who pushes his cargo of peaches and plums and lemons down the street, stopping as people approach to find them the perfect melon or scoop cherries into a paper bag.
In the middle of my portion of rue Meslay, there's a passage called the Passage du Pont aux Biches, a stone stairway that leads down to the next street over, the rue Notre Dame de Nazareth. It's an alley with some interesting graffiti on the wall, but also red carpeting laid in a sort of triangular pattern on the lower steps--who knows why. It's a fantastic shortcut most of the time, though there are sometimes homeless sleeping there, or young teenagers with desperate looks that inspire that conflicting mixture of empathy, compassion and fear. Late in the night, I sometimes hear what I think are either police or drunken party-goers hassling the homeless there, and in the morning the passage is empty and there's another civil employee washing the walls with soap and water.
But though just the next block, the rue Notre Dame de Nazareth is another street altogether. One lined with bio (organic) cafes and specialty food stores, bars a vin, Michelin restaurants, a used bookstore and a vinyl record shop, stylish boutiques selling clothes, sunglasses, jewelry. Three restaurants on that one block are among the most highly rated in Paris.
Two blocks, two different worlds. It's one of the things I love about big cities--that you can have different experiences on a block-to-block basis.