Thursday, March 19, 2009
Who are the people in your neighbourhood?
Am I the only person old enough to remember a segment on Sesame Street called “Who are the people in your neighbourhood?”
It was the part of the show when Maria or Luis would sing this catchy little ditty about the people who comprised the Sesame Street quartier – the butcher, baker, the hip-hop music maker. Hey, it was set in Brooklyn afterall.
There’s not a day goes by here in Parigi that I am not entertained by the cast of characters that make up my neighbourhood. And so, gentle reader, I humbly present the first in a series of mini-portraits of the people that make up my neighbourhood.
But first, some context. We live on Rue Oberkampf – a lively street in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. If you were looking at a map of Paris, we are just to the north west of the Ile de la Cité (Notre Dame et al – generally considered the centre of the city). Our quartier, Oberkampf, is about a ten minute walk to Bastille and the Marais, a twenty minute walk to Notre Dame, and twenty five minutes to the Left Bank (but as confirmed Right Bankers, we rarely venture over that side of the river.)
Rue Oberkampf is what is known in French as a rue commercant ie: a street packed with grocers, bakers, butchers, patisseries, fishmongers, cheese shops, chocolatiers. It’s super convenient, with every delicious French foodstuff you can imagine at your feet – and makes for a colourful neighbourhood packed with all sorts of interesting characters. Not least among whom is Charlie – the local fishmonger.
Even in rue Oberkampf, a street packed with eccentrics, Charlie is a stand-out. He runs a little fish shop that functions as more of a stage on which Charlie performs than any kind of effective, seafood-vending small business. Charlie has been known to mount photo exhibitions in his shop
Charlie is also gay – and he proclaims it joyfully with rainbow flags and flyers for gay magazines and soirées and photos of him with his boyfriends plastered all over the shop. As far as I am aware, his sexual orientation has no bearing on his ability to monger fish – yet there it is everyday, hung out for inspection with his filets of sole and coquilles St Jacques.
Charlie is what the French like to call “une personnage” and “un animateur du quartier”, meaning his presence and activities in the neighbourhood liven the place up. As indeed they do.
And no more so than the current exhibit that Charlie has created in his fish shop. Installed back in February to mark Valentine’s Day (because he’s an old romantic at heart), the exhibit features large posters of semi-naked men and more red feather boa than you could poke a Vegas showgirl at. The posters are the blown-up, display covers of Tetu magazine – the French mag for gay men. Each poster – and there are about 40 of them - is framed by a long chain of red feather boa. A legion of dewy-eyed Adonises presiding over the perch.
It’s been six weeks now since the exhibit was mounted, and the boas are starting to sag. I can’t begin to imagine the kinds of health and hygeine laws such a display would be contravening in my home country. But here in France, anything goes. Vive Charlie, et vive la France.