Learning to appreciate French provincial life

A creative/reflective piece for the publication’s “Home Sweet Hometown” series, published on North by Northwestern in May 2009.

If you’ve ever been to Paris, the name might ring a bell.

“Ce train est en direction de Poissy. Il desservira toutes les gares,” the crackling loudspeaker would say, as the doors of the dirty train close before lurching onward.

In the tangled mess that is a map of the Parisian public transit system, the red RER A line emerges from the lot, stretching its limbs westward until one of its final destinations : Poissy (pronounced “Pwa-see”), innocuous suburban town in the shadow of the City of Lights. The place I’ve thoughtlessly called home for fifteen years.

It is hard to explain how Parisian suburbs differ from the cookie-cutter American ones with their strip malls, neatly-trimmed lawns and SUVs parked in the driveway. People here expect a charming place, something akin to the small provincial town seen in Beauty and the Beast. But Poissy, like many other medium-sized towns in the area, suffers from a sort of split personality disorder.

On one side, we have the city center, with stores you only browse through once and the market where you can buy fresh produce and counterfeit shoes three times a week. On the city square, an old two-story carousel looks over skateboarding teenagers, and once a year, if you’re lucky, a pseudo-celebrity inaugurates the ice-skating rink. A semi-historical town, it saw the birth of King Louis IX in 1214 and the shooting of a John Travolta movie last December, but not much in between.

On the other, we have the kind of neighborhood you might have heard of in the news, where families are stacked on top of one another in tall affordable housing buildings, with hideous patterns of white, pink and black tiles, and where people sometimes burn cars to express their frustration. A city with a a small settlement of Roms camping on its outskirts that people look at warily. A city with a high security prison that I would hear about when watching late night shows about serial killers.

Despite having spent most of my life there, Poissy had never been much more than a flat backdrop to my existence. My high school being in a nearby town, Poissy only became a place of transit, just like for the many people who jumped on the RER train to head to Paris. The Poissy I knew was dreary. I saw no charm in its cobblestone streets and neatly-aligned bookstores and butcher shops, prefering to catch the next train to excitement in the capital. Poissy was a boring, lifeless acquaintance of a town, one that I didn’t particularly want to get to know better.

It took me a while to discover a more exciting side of my hometown, and oddly enough, it was only after I had left for college thousands of miles away.

It was an odd summer in 2008. I had a rather well-paying job, but the irregular working hours had turned me into somewhat of an insomniac. Some days, I would leave my home before the sun got up to take the first morning train; others, I would walk down the city streets at two in the morning; and sometimes, I would work all night and go to bed as the rest of the world drank their morning coffee. Yet somehow, it was only in these strange hours that I felt my town come to life.

When I walked alone in the dead of night, Poissy suddenly became thrilling. How eerie the carousel looked in the darkness, the ornate horses frozen in time, as bats fluttered from tree to tree overhead.

The marketplace became a delightful ghost town at the crack of dawn, when only a handful of merchants were propping up the gray metal pipes to hold together their fruit and vegetable stands, and I could already sniff the warm odor of baguettes emanating from the closest bakery. Yet, only a few hours later during the day, the colors, sounds and smells would become so much more vivid after a sleepless night, as I would stare in a daze at the strangers stirring their small café noisette on café terraces.

I also came to enjoy the endless stretch of concrete road cutting a straight line across the neighboring forest, when late nights out with friends in the closest town did not end late enough for the first bus to spare us the walk through the woods as the sun rose.

It’s funny how the places I had looked over dismissively for years suddenly gave me chills in those deserted hours, leaving me feeling like I was intruding on something no one had ever seen before. I could hold my breath on the walk home from the train station and only hear my footsteps on the cobblestones, or the occasional shout-out from someone on a balcony with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, both of us surprised to see another human being at this hour.

After a while, my walks to and from places across town became not just about the train I had to catch or the moment where I could curl up under the covers. Poissy might never really be a destination, but I had come to enjoy the itinerary.

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