Depressing scenes in Paris remind me of home

22 August 2013 - 03:00 By Peter Delmar

The French capital is terribly nice, as usual, but there are only so many croissants you can divide between however many million people are queuing these days to get up the Eiffel Tower at any one time. At the summer peak the Parisians are, as usual, grumpy about having to share their splendid city with pot-bellied English-speaking oiks like me.

I am starting to come round to their point of view.

Things have changed since I was last here; the rand's relative buying power chief among them. I have just bought a beer that cost the equivalent of a trolley-load of Pick n Pay groceries.

It was either one thing or the other, so my poor little family were forced to look on hungrily, drooling maws pressed to the outside of the window of the gas-lit, homely, brasserie in which Papa guzzled down his grand biere pression, and waved them away to scrape whatever was stuck to the insides of the oven in our rotten little rented garret.

Another thing that has changed since I was last here is the very large number of African emigres touting Eiffel Tower keyrings. I also don't remember so many people from the Indian sub-continent selling à1 bottles of water. It seems the Africans sell Eiffel Tower keyrings (five for a euro) and the Indians-Pakistanis sell bottled water.

I have seen one Indian-Pakistani chap with keyrings but I have not seen a single black fellow selling water. I don't have the foggiest why the black people don't go into the water business, for which there has to be a greater demand than the ubiquitous cheap keyrings. Outside the Louvre, my children and I watched while the African keyring-sellers fled as a phalanx of burly, white policemen scattered the (apparently) illegal keyring entrepreneurs.

The Louvre gardens across the road from the Tuileries Garden have a series of well-trimmed hedges and, as we sat, en famille, sipping the water we had bottled from the taps in said rotten garret, we witnessed how black heads bobbed up and down above the green hedges looking out for the white policemen.

Later, we witnessed more white policemen chasing black entrepreneurs with no premises and no licences and nothing to sell except the same Chinese-manufactured Eiffel Tower tat, this time at Place de la Concorde.

The next day, after alighting at the Franklin D Roosevelt metro station, a pickpocket was pursued by two aggrieved middle-aged Greeks. The pickpocket then sauntered onto our train to the Trocadéro and was promptly set upon by the two aggrieved Greeks. They weren't oafish sorts of Greeks, just the sort of Greeks who had been wrongfully dispossessed of their belongings.

They were so non-oafish that they let the pickpocket (a woman) escape. After just two days in Paris I had witnessed a great deal more running around and chasing of people than I would have expected.

Walking the chic streets of Le Marais in the third arrondissement early that morning, I had been forcibly struck by the number of people sleeping rough, not a few of them with children. By the time the tourists crawl out of their hotel beds, the homeless underclass have been moved on, to heaven knows where.

You would not ordinarily compare Paris with Johannesburg, but the poor trinket and water sellers bring to mind an obvious similarity: of a sophisticated first world being beset by an impinging, desperate underclass.

In particular, the futility of so many men all trying to sell the same unwanted merchandise (the keyrings) reminded me of the hordes of informal traders back home who, day in and day out, peddle the same brooms and ironing board covers.

At the traffic lights back home, the same faces try to flog the same car chargers and the little stallholders sell the same assortment of tomatoes, loose sweets and Peter Stuyvesant.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention but in places as disparate as Johannesburg and Paris, the poor display the same singular, and depressing, lack of inventiveness. It's a tale of two very different but very similar cities. Wherever you are, it seems, the poor will always be with us.