Student Stories

When in Paris, Do as the Parisians Do

Rising fourth-year Marina Fang studied abroad in Paris in Spring 2014 as part of the European Civilization program. Here is a postcard from her travels.

Depending on which direction you decide to walk after exiting the Belleville Metro station in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, you will find yourself transported to a different part of the world. Belleville is home to the second-largest enclave of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in Paris, so you'll no doubt find a lot of Asian grocery stores and pho stands. But head a couple of blocks in a different direction, and there's a row of halal shops and signs in Arabic, Turkish, and Greek.

I came to Belleville to explore the emerging Chinatown and to compare it with Paris's established Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement, but as I walked around, I began to appreciate the neighborhood for many other reasons. Too often, when we talk about racial dynamics in cities, we talk about segregation. It was a welcome sign to see a thriving neighborhood bolstered by a large melting pot of people.

What I also found refreshing about Belleville was its authenticity as a working-class, immigrant neighborhood. I would be surprised to find Belleville in a guidebook—it just doesn't seem like a place where tourists would go. It's a gritty neighborhood, but not in the pejorative sense. Its grit makes it feel more authentic.

Places like Belleville formed many of the highlights of my time in Paris because they allowed me to feel like a local. They also were the result of my wandering and getting a little bit lost. In Belleville, I walked around somewhat aimlessly, which allowed me to take in all the sights and the smells of the various cuisines and cultures that make up the neighborhood—something I wouldn't have been able to appreciate fully if I had simply gone there with a set agenda.

I loved discovering places by chance. One afternoon, I stumbled upon a sprawling open-air market with produce, cheese, meats, antiques, and plenty of other goods. Paris has a lot of these markets—some announced and regular, but many unannounced and impromptu.

On one of my last days in Paris, I discovered what came to be one of my favorite spots in the city: the Promenade plantée, a green path that extends for about three miles through the city. The inspiration for New York City's High Line, it was built along an old railroad so that much of it is elevated and enclosed within lots of trees and plants, providing a tranquil escape from the bustle of the city.

They say when in Rome, do as the Romans do. One of the best ways to do as the Parisians do is to wander through Paris's fascinating neighborhoods. Each takes on its own character and leads you to some unexpected discoveries and gems. Feeling like a local often means going to places far away from the tourist hotspots, and going off the beaten path is one of the best parts of traveling.