One of the nicest surprises of this visit to Paris so far has been an unexpected one, and one that most Parisians likely know nothing about. In fact, it is not traditionally French at all, although much to the dismay of traditionalists or the staunch defenders of the Old France, it is an ever more present element of the new way, the integration and overlapping of cultures, the blending that immigration and newer generations brings. This was one of the centers of Islamic culture and tradition, the grand Mosque of Paris.
My friend’s roommate recommended, vehemently, that I go see the Arènes de Lutèce, ruins of a roman amphitheater built in the 1st century AD for gladiator fights and whatever other entertainment. After, he advised, I could go to the mosque and drink some tea.
So I got on the subway, the Parisian subway that I have grown used to over the past week, on to line 4 at Alesia a few blocks from where I have been staying, changing at the enormous Chatelet for line 7 (that station always reminds me of the larger Beijing subway complexes, structures that only connected 4 or so subways but which led you in a maze of stairways, hallways, escalators, often broken, even outside through a gated area and then back down again, only Chatelet is much better organized, does not seem to be eternally in the middle of construction, and does not contain the thousands of people who always tramped along with you in Beijing, no matter what time of day). Line 7 to Place Monge. (The announcement of the upcoming station in the subway is always announced twice, but with two different recordings. The first always with an upwards intonation, and the second with a more definitive downwards one- almost as if to say ‘Well I guess this must be Place Monge I think it is?… Yes it is yes I was right, Place Monge. Yep.)
I followed the instructions of the roommate to not take the back entrance to the Arena but rather find the entrance on the street, an almost unmarked cement archway leading to a little maze of turns, which finally opened out to the Arena itself. Dramatic entrance indeed, but somewhat of a disappointing result- mostly an open sandy space where some teenagers played with a soccer ball, amphitheater seating around the edge where some other spectators had presumably sat two thousand years ago, and some nice greenery along the back part, trees and such. The roommate had been quite enthusiastic about this place; clearly he is in dire need of a trip to Italy, where ruins such as this are a dime a dozen, and where the good ones are mostly intact, and very impressive, and plentiful.
Exiting again, I decided to find this Mosque, if only to make the trek out here worth it. I rambled down the big avenue, went too far, checked one of the maps on a subway entrance, and realized it was a bit off to the side down one of the smaller streets. Passed a movie theater- Parisian movie theaters always seem very appealing to me- and, following the trail of headscarf clad ladies as well as my mind’s eye’s memory of the map, wove through, until a dream of a sparkling white building appeared, imposing and sacred looking. I doubted again this idea of drinking tea in such a place- would I be allowed in without a head covering? – but I traced my way around the wall of the formidable structure, when that thing happened again, the revelation of whatever it was you were looking for, rising out of the mist of being vaguely lost: as I turned the corner of the mosque a vision of green, white, bustle, mosaic tiles, arabic sweets, smartly dressed, stressed waiters running around to accommodate the crowd. First a front area just adjacent to the street, lovely little wrought iron tables and chairs; to the right, a glimpse of an inner, inside space, hinting of an entire restaurant (a friend latter told me they have baths there as well, expensive but luxurious); a small hallway with a case of sweets, baklava and rose water cakes, bird’s nest pastries with pistachio, many that I had never seen before; and finally the back area, roofless, tables arranged around the edges and some in the middle, groups of people or couples, quiet and cool or loud and hilarious, and again green and white and glowing and so utterly not French. After selecting a square of coconut cake (2 euro, the dryness of the coconut balanced by the moistness of the base of the cake, soaked with something delicious, not too sweet), I chose an edge table in the back space and a waiter floated right over with a laden tray: “Mint tea?” which is what everyone drinks there, and in fact the items on the tray were for no one but merely an endless supply of mint tea, since when I affirmed he plucked one right off and put it down for me. The tea was also 2 euro which is too much for such a small amount (served in one of those elegant decorated glass tumblers) but this was Paris, and the tea was good, sweetened and strong.