Whenever we’ve been in Paris for July 14, we’ve made that sacrifice. But last night, we just didn’t feel up to it.
Luckily, the Eiffel Tower is visible from lots of places in this city of generally low buildings – even places you least expect to see it. So we decided the best thing to do was think about and research vantage points where there probably wouldn’t be a crowd.
After a while, I remembered a view of the Tower from a street in the 20th arrondissement. As you walk, surrounded by drab architecture, it comes up suddenly to greet you on the clear horizon. When I first discovered it last Fall, the view delighted me so much that I wrote a post about it.
Like the neighboring 19th arrondissement, the 20th is mostly built on high hills in northeast Paris. Belleville is a neighborhood that sprawls over parts of both areas.
The 20th arrondissement is full of contrasts. For example, since it was a series of villages on the outskirts of the city for such a long time, many individual houses still remain among newer apartment buildings. There’s also the Campagne à Paris (“Countryside of Paris”), a series of streets filled with beautiful early 20th century homes that were built when Paris’ last city wall was being demolished just a few hundred meters away. Walking here feels like a stroll through a quiet, well-to-do suburb; it’s easy to forget the bustling metropolis you’re in. These are some of the most coveted residences in the city, and so the arrondissement has its share of artists, musicians, actors, and other famous inhabitants. The most notable are probably Vincent Cassell and Monica Belluci, who have a home on the nearby Boulevard Ménilmontant.
But the 20th arrondissement is more commonly known as a working class area with a large immigrant population and many housing projects. Belleville is famous for its diversity: besides native Parisians (like Edith Piaf, who claimed to be born on the streets of Belleville itself, but was apparently delivered in the neighborhood hospital), there are large Chinese and African populations. Muslim and Jewish families and businesses coexist peacefully side-by-side.
Unfortunately, it’s not all happiness and unity. For example, there have recently been huge protest demonstrations by the Chinese population against some of the younger generations of Africans, who have been attacking and robbing them. The protests can escalate into violence, with the people’s anger at what they perceive as the apathy of the police force manifesting itself in extreme reactions like the burning of cars. Burning cars, in fact, is a quintessential show of rage and rebellion among many disenfranchised-feeling populations here – and especially in the troubled northern suburbs outside Paris.
The street where we went to see the fireworks turned out to be a perfect microcosm of the area’s diversity. Leaving the Saint-Fargeau Metro station, we emerged into a wealthy area of traditional cafes and over-priced shops. Walking down the rue Saint-Fargeau, we passed a modern fire station, some pretty apartment buildings, and a street where there was a quiet public library. Gradually, the Beaux-Arts and Haussmannian facades gave way to 1960’s and ‘70’s structures. Beauty is a matter of opinion, but very few people consider this latter the best style of residential architecture in Paris, and we aren’t among them.
This isn’t a rare sight in many areas of Paris, especially not on the Fourteenth of July. It’s one of the busiest nights of the year for firefighters, not only because of the expected fireworks-related accidents, but also because of that aforementioned idea of people delivering a message of discontent with a burning vehicle.
As we drew closer, a forty-something guy with spacers in his ears and punk-style clothes came beside us and shook his head ruefully. “It’s a damn shame,” he said. “I mean, there’s insurance and all, but still…” An anti-anarchy punk. Yet another Belleville contradiction.
We continued down the street and arrived at a housing project whose architecture was much nicer than the rest of the buildings around us. On a small side street, a group of lean guys with the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled up – the classic “uniform” of delinquents (“regular” people here wear their hoods down, unless it’s raining) – were lingering in the midst of a nearly constant coming and going of cars. The passengers would casually get out, go up to one of the hooded figures, and exchanges would be made, money and drugs sliding from palm to palm. Meanwhile, on a street parallel to the one where we were walking, a small courtyard of multi-million dollar houses sat quietly behind picturesque ivy-covered fences.
We kept going, eyes searching the horizon. Suddenly, there it was: as the hilly street sloped down below us, we could see the distant Eiffel Tower, like a large, person-sized model. From here, it was about 6 miles away, at least 45 minutes on the Metro, but it seemed close enough to touch.
We’d thought it would be interesting to see fireworks from above and from a distance. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t as clear as I'd figured. Some rooftops and leafy trees were in the way. We could only see from the Tower’s second floor, up. Still, we found a good viewing spot and stood there, hoping we’d get an amazing show without the crowds and long ride home. Already a few other people had gathered on the sidewalks with the same idea.
These were neighborhood people: young bourgeois-bohemian couples with lively toddlers; eccentric fifty-somethings (known often as “soixante-huitards,” (“sixty-eighters”) since many of their generation participated in the 1968 student riots – they’re basically the equivalent of people who took part in anti-war rallies in the States); several immigrants (one from South America, and a few from Central Africa…and me). An old woman dressed in the classic French old woman summer ensemble of a discreet, short-sleeved knit top, knee-length light skirt, and espadrilles, kept shooing a cat away from the busy street. The small crowd was friendly and talkative. A girl passed by on a bike and asked for directions. The ambiance was convivial; most of the people there believed like us that we’d be able to see the fireworks, but no one seemed to be sure.
Behind us, we could hear the delinquents’ occasional arguments, and several of their acquaintances revved their motorcycles and set their shoulders square as they roared down the street. I wondered if there would be trouble. We’d brought nothing with us but our house keys and jackets (as my boyfriend remarked, July 14th is always chilly) – and the camera, which I clutched tightly.
The fireworks started late, as they always do. It takes a very long time for the sky to turn black in Paris in July. A little after 11pm, the Eiffel Tower shut off its lights. Everyone gave a collective gasp of anticipation. The show was about to begin.
From where we were, we were able to see a lot – but we knew there were things going on at ground level that weren't visible to us. And since, from our vantage point, the fireworks didn’t appear to be directly behind the Tower, some of the majesty of the display was lost.
In the end, everyone left happy, if a little disappointed that the view wasn’t better. Some of the delinquents and dealers had come over to the edge of the crowd to catch a glimpse of the display, but most of them had stayed on their busy street corner. I was relieved, but not totally surprised. I used to live across the street from a place like that, and I was never hassled. I guess you could say it’s a sort of peace, the peace of the city, where all sorts of people and lifestyles are crammed together.