When I first started talking about buying an apartment in my current little section of the 18th arrondissement, one of the many comments I heard, said with surprise mingled with a bit of distrust, "Oh, that's a colorful neighborhood." Which of course meant that North Africans, Indians and Subharan Africans lived, worked and shopped here. It's true that when I take the bus that stops right in front of my building, I rarely hear any French spoken, but I love being surrounded by so many different cultures.
One day I was walking by a shop I had never noticed and saw a gorgeous blue dress inside. No one seemed to be in the shop, but the door was open, so I stepped inside. Soon, a good looking African man appeared from the back room. I inquired about the dress and he explained that it was a custom shop and that the dress was an order for a customer. I asked if the shop had been there long and he said yes and then asked if I lived in the neighborhood. I replied we'd moved there in 2008. "Yeah," he said, "that's when a lot of white people started moving in." I laughed and so did he, and we slapped each other's arms and shook hands at the joke. It was an odd flashback to the neighborhood I had moved to in Atlanta when my ex-husband and I bought our first house. We were the only non-African Americans on the block. We threw a housewarming party and invited friends and neighbors. One guy from a few houses down cracked open a beer, sat down with a huff and pronounced, "Damn white people moving into my neighborhood raisin' my property taxes..." That would make us laugh for a long time afterwards.
Right downstairs from our apartment is a miniscule shop run by Indians (or Bangladeshis or Sri Lankans, I really have no idea). It's so small that if you come inside while someone is at the register and wanting to leave, you have to back out to let them pass. It's stuffed to the ceiling with a mixture of Indian, African and Caribbean items. You can get ghee, peanut butter (Africans use this to make a dish called Chicken Yassa, among others), manioc, hibiscus leaves, plantains, okra and sweet potatoes. And scotch bonnet peppers, which are hard to find elsewhere because French people have an aversion to spicy food. It's also why you have to choose really well when you want "ethnic food" in a restaurant. The first time I went to the shop, the guy behind the counter - who knows me well by now - seemed very surprised when I bought okra, sweet potatoes, plantains and a pepper, but not as surprised as the African lady in her batik dress and head scarf who was just coming in. I wanted to explain that Southern US cuisine is heavily influenced by African cuisine through slavery, but it seemed a bit much for someone who was just trying to buy a telephone card.
One day this summer I went shopping for the ingredients for a ceviche and guacamole - it was hot day back in August - and when I stopped by one of the new shops that just opened selling items from Turkey, North Africa, and the Balkans (they have unsweetened pomegranate juice! Real feta from Greece! Pistachios from Iran that don't cost a fortune) and when I popped a lowly scotch bonnet pepper on the counter and nothing else, the lady asked, "So what are you going to make with it? A sauce?" She looked like she knew what she was talking about when it came to sauces. I said, "No, a dish called ceviche. Do you know it?" She shook her head no. I described the ingredients and she asked if you had to let it marinate a long time and I said yes, at least two hours. "And this pepper here will give it a nice kick, so it will be very refreshing with this heat!" I was on my way out the door when she called back, "Like you!"
Then I stopped at another corner store to pick up a few bags of our preferred brand of cat litter for the time we were going to be on vacation. I went to reach for my wallet to pay when I saw some multi-colored leather flower shapes fall on the floor. I realized they came from a decorative piece on my purse, and as I scooped them up and put them on the counter I said, "C'est pas souvent que je peux dire que je me jette des fleurs, mais là, oui!" (This is untranslatable, but here's the idea : the expression "se jeter des fleurs", literally, "to throw flowers at oneself" means to say something flattering about yourself, to boast, really. So basically this only works in French, but it was a good play on words, trust me.) The old North African man behind the counter laughed, touched his hand to his heart and said, "Madame, women like you make a man's heart sing."
Man, I like my neighborhood.
And the fact that when I told him the story, Handsome agreed.