Treading Softly In Villejuif
By Louis Martin

It was Spring in Paris and the weather was nice, but it was also Spring break. There were many students visiting the city and booking the hostels, making it sometimes impossible to find a room. Also, I was getting bummed out sharing rooms with students. They were like escaped prisoners grabbing at every amusement they could find while drinking as much as possible before being forced back into their cells.

One day there was no place at all available in the heart of Paris, so I booked a hostel that claimed to be in Paris but was really in one of the banlieues, or suburbs. The banlieues are where France had had problems a few years back with rebellious Arab youths burning cars ... I had also had my share of problems with these people, having been robbed and assaulted a few years back in Montmartre by some of them. I was cautious but curious about moving into one of the 'hoods. What was worse, facing the college crowd on vacation or minor hoodlums? I wasn't sure.

I took metro line 7 from the Stalingrad station down to the end of the line at Louis Aragon station in Villejuif. When I emerged from the station onto rue Maxime Gorki, I could see this was neither the Paris I nor Louis Aragon knew. As to Gorki the Russian writer I have no idea what he might have thought, though I think he might have been baffled; there was nothing discernably Russian about about the rue or the ville.

I followed the directions supplied by the hostel, which were somewhat strange, first taking a left after "forty paces" onto Passage Duport. The directions then had me spotting a Japanese restaurant name Yami on rue Jean Lurςat, taking a left there on Avenue Chardon, walking some unspecified distance until I spotted two parking garages, then cutting between them over to rue Dalou, where I was supposed to spot the hostel. I don't much like directions like these. As an experienced traveller who is often following directions to some obscure location, it is directions like these that bug me. The specific problem, which I flagged immediately, regarded the "two parking garages." I only found one and it was not the type of "parking garage" that most people associate with those words. In short, the instructions were an invitation to get lost in a banlieue of Paris and maybe get robbed. Nevertheless, I did find my way to the hostel but did so by looking at a standard street map. Standard street maps do not include restaurants and parking garages but they get you there. 

The name of the hostel? Namdemun. Does not sound very French, does it. That is because it isn't; it's Korean. But there are three nice Korean ladies who run the place. One seems to do nothing at all. That's because she is the owner. One of the others does the booking and greets guests, while the other, who reminded me of an Asian Cinderella, does all the cleaning and cooking. Sound like a fair distribution of labor? Karl Marx probably wouldn't think so, but it is fairly typical, as I think Marx would agree.

The above I came to know but my initial experience had to do with footware. Once inside the compound, shoes were removed and replaced by slippers, one pair for outside the building, the other for inside. I have no objection to wearing slippers but having to change from one pair to another presents problems. It meant that in going upstairs, where the kitchen was located, from downstairs, you had to take off the current pair of slippers you were wearing, put on an "outside" pair, walk the outside stairs of the building, then put on an "inside" pair. Heaven help you if you forgot something—I often did—and had to go back. While this had a nice spiritual quality in the beginning, it soon became a nuisance. Privately guests began to grumble and exchange looks of annoyance when meeting each other in the process of changing slippers. No one had really come to Paris, or its suburbs, for this cultural experience. It was a little as though, had it been an Arab guest house, we found ourselves on prayer mats five times a day. No, we came to drink wine, eat le sandwich, which most of us could still afford in the beginning, and in my case to write about things French.

One day I was in a hurry entering the "dorm" down below—I was just back from le ville—and walked straight in wearing my shoes. Suddenly the booking lady was there and spotted shoes, not slippers, on my feet.

"Oui, madame, vous avez raison," I said. "Ce sont des chaussures, pantoufles non." ("Yes, madam, you are correct," I said, "those are shoes, not slippers.") How could that have happened, I asked.

She smiled weakly at me.

Another time I told her that I had fallen over and hit my head while changing from my street shoes into slippers but I got no smile at all that time.

I stayed at Namdemun for a week because, in the beginning, I was getting some writing done; then I don't know what happened, but I could work no more. "Namdemun," is that possibly Korean for writer's blocks? The next day I took the subway to Montmartre and the writing flowed again and almost effortlessly. I was worried that exposure to Namdemun might crippled my writing for a long time to come but that was a "false thought," a fitting phrase for Namdemun.

One day I got an idea: I thought that I might be able to work in the local bars in Villejuif or nearby Vitry sur-seine, as I often did in Paris, but that idea proved to be a false thought too. I sought out and thought I found the perfect place over in Vitry sur-seine, but the next day when I returned it was closed. Commercial hours are short in the banlieues. Better short hours than to get robbed, right? Another place that looked possible in Villejuif itself had a very sticky table that acted like it wanted to steal my notebook by securing it to the table. It also had a pay toilet and a gambling operation in a room down below with hooting and howling at the end of every televised horse race and groans between.

It took me a week at Villejuif to discover all this. But it did give me an introduction to les banlieues. But since no one torched a car while I was there, and I was not mugged, I guess you could say it was quiet week in Villejuif, like Garrison Keillor often says about Lake Woebegone.

Before leaving I did try to make a few serious observations and I did walk around considerably. First, les banlieues are "planned" communities. They are somebody's idea about what a community should look like. They are not historically grown, organic cities, like Paris, France, or even Springfield, Ohio, in the United States. And very often such places look like "projects"; in the United States projects look just a step above prison. Rarely does anyone appreciate the project where they live. Having said this, I can say that the effort in Villejuif was a fairly good one. There was planning with ample space between the buildings; there was no sense of cramming. And there were lawns and grass and trees and playgrounds for kids.

The "community," if that is what it was, consisted of Africans, Arabs, and Asians, with a sprinkling of French. No one seemed particularly happy but at the moment, anyway, no one looked particularly stressed. African women, dressed mostly in native costumes, seemed always to be loudly berating someone on their cell phones, the Arab youths containing their discontent for some later time, and the Asians, as at the hostel, creating the most Asian environment possible in France. I didn't see a "melting pot" anywhere but everyone was at least on speaking terms. The French, however, looked stiff and old, and in a way I began to identify with them, though I'm not completely proud of that. I learned to walk a little more stiffly and resented others for being hopelessly non-French. I began to long for those days and times that will never be again. Particularly I resented the cell phone and wanted to crush them all. A week into this remarkable transformation, I spotted an available room in Montmartre and moved back to Paris "proper." I never got to see even one car get torched. That is all they do there in les banlieues, right? And I was never mugged. Amazing grace!