PARIS, France — “She is a typical Parisian woman,” said a Latin American journalist who has lived in Paris for more than twenty years. We were sitting at a coffee shop, across the Boulevard Saint Germain, with a panoramic view of the Odeon Metro Station. He was talking about a young, slender woman, dressed in a black skirt, a gray blouse, high heels and the sort of make up that seems natural, yet calls the at-tention to the features. Had we been close enough, we would have probably also caught a whiff of Guerlain. The comment is one of many that Parisians issue as truisms about their own identity. Hear enough of them, and you will begin to notice that they betray certain anxiety.
In fact, it only takes a simple metro ride to get a sense that the idea of “a typical” Parisian woman—or man, for that matter—seems more of a fiction than a reality. If, for instance, you ride the metro from Odeon to Chatelet—two central and important metro exchanges—you will probably see a number of Parisian women who would not match the “typical” description: from college students wearing chador to women wearing Benetton garb, from girls in military fatigues to women in Senegalese kaftans. Though the idea of a typical Parisian woman seems a nostalgic evocation of a long gone past, it is probably safe to assume that during the 1920s, when the “lost generation” sought to find themselves in Paris, the City of Lights was already a multicultural, diverse metropolis. Today one of the neighborhoods that best reflects this multilayered Parisian culture is Belleville.
Located between the 20eme and the 19eme arrondissements, Belleville is a mere three miles away from Downtown Paris, but in a densely populated city with narrow streets that seems like a long distance, and it was probably more so during the fifteen century when Belleville was a small villa on top of a hill. The beautiful view (belle vue), which probably gave it its name, can still be enjoyed today. Belleville was annexed to Paris in 1860 as a working class neighborhood. This probably ex-plains why it became one of the two strongholds of the Parisian Commune of 1871. There is a painting in the Museé d’Orsay that depicts the Rue Ramponeau after the Versailles Army took over the town. Belleville’s political and independent-minded roots also explain the singularity of its street names: from Rue des Solitaires to Ave-nue Simón Bolívar.
But if Belleville was highly political during the nineteenth century, it soon became multi-ethnic during the 20th century: Armenians fleeing the 1918 massacre, Greeks escaping persecution in Anatolia during the 1920s, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and Spaniards escaping the aftermath of their Civil War in 1939. Each one of these ethnic communities brought a new ingredient to the ever changing identity of Belleville. More recently, Algerians arrived during the 1960s, and Chinese settled in the 1980s. In fact, one can see along the Rue de Belleville a number of business whose names and wares are proudly announced in Chinese ideograms. The several waves of new arrivals have shared two things in common: the need for an affordable place to live, and the willingness to accept diversity.
In fact, during the past fifteen years, its affordability has prompted yet another influx. This time around the new settlers do not come from overseas nor they have to cross borders. Driven away from more expensive arrondissements, notoriously Downtown Paris, a number of young professionals, scientists, artists and intellectuals have been relocating to Belleville. The cross section of the neighborhood is now as diverse geographically as intellectually. I had dinner at the apartment of a leading French scientist working in astrophysics who seemed happy to be living in a part of town that is certainly not dressed pretty for tourists—you can see graffiti on the walls, neglected piles of garbage in some corners and not a few unkept businesses. His house was half a block away from the Place Fréhel, which would hardly be a major stop in a Paris Guide, but which displays two murals that reveal the presence of the newcomers in Belleville. One, anonymous, depicts a man dressed for the 1940s who is just about to find a place on a map. In the background you see, faintly, clips from journals and popular media of the mid twentieth century: from a cover of Fantomas to headlines of the Petit Journal. The other mural, much simpler, was commissioned to Ben Vautier.
Vautier is perhaps a good choice. Born in Naples, Italy, he has worked most often in Nice, but has been engaged with French art from the beginning of his artistic career. His first pieces are inspired by Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement. Seen as forerunner of Andy Wharhol, his work has been very well accepted in France, even though his styles and thematic concerns have changed noticeably throughout the years. At one point of his career, for instance, he took to sign every object that crossed his path, conferring it, by his gesture, a status of work of art. During the past years, Vautier has become better known by his handwritten signs with slogans that travel the uncertain path that lays between profound wisdom and the blatantly obvious, all of them linked by a common concern with the limitations of language.
In a recent show, for instance, Vautier showed two pieces. The first one stated “Red is a word.” The word “red” was written in that color. The complementary piece stated “Black is a color.” You can guess what color the word “black” was written with. Other pieces include statements such as: “le monde change” (the world changes), “what you see is what you get” and “art est un mot écrit” (art is a written word). For Belleville, he designed a huge blackboard in which a man seems to be just done writing: “Il faut se méfier des mots” (one must be wary of words).
The slogan can be found in the chapter written by Gil Delannoi for the book De la prudence des anciens comparee a celle des modernes. Delannoi uses it to discuss the medieval concern with language. Nevertheless, it seems more probable that Vautier took his inspiration from the French thinkers of the 1960s—particularly, Jacques Derrida, who built part of his philosophical edifice upon a permanent mistrust of words. Fittingly, the slogan proposes a paradox. Should we trust it, we would find ourselves forced to mistrust the slogan itself, which has the effect of undoing the authority it tries to assert. In my reading, the slogan reminded me that I should mistrust the word “typical.”
In fact, the slogan in Belleville seems to acknowledge not only how difficult is to be sure of—or to fully understand—the meaning of words. But it also gives us a sense of unease when confronted with any reductive understanding of the world. This is also the case of a Paris in which nothing is typical anymore—and probably never was. A Paris where the daughter of Spanish immigrants of the late 1930s, who was born and raised in Paris, had the same right to be called Parisian as a Muslim girl, born and raised in Paris, in the twentieth-first century. How can I put them aside and agree that there is such a thing as “a typical” Parisian woman? “Typical women” might be closer to the mark yet still lacking. Perhaps in Paris, as in many other metropolis, one should stop pursuing a fleeing idea of identity, and embrace, instead, the richness of diversity.