Dusty in St. Denis

“…one of the most commonly repeated patterns in the lives of travellers is some degree of personal transference to the cultural identity of the people whose lands they have wandered. This new sense of self could leave them unable or ill-equipped to resume permanent residence in their country of origin…”

Mark Cocker – Loneliness & Time, British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century.

Thomas Coryat remained in England only a year after he published, travelling next through Turkey, Persia and India. He died in Surat in 1617, not yet 40.

The Paris trains don’t like St Denis station, though scheduled to stop. The first speeds on to Stade de France and the rugby statium. The return train goes past and on to somewhere.

There are hundreds of commuters leaving St. Denis when I finally arrive. The area around the station feels like a port. It is a holiday weekend, Pentecost, and all the cheap hotels are full and there are plenty to tell you so.

The first stalker follows around, “Go there, or come with me, I’m very cheap.” Me too: but no thanks. I find a house-hotel by the Polish community centre with a courtyard full of prams and mums. It’s opposite the Hallal butchers and has a room.

Tim Moore wanted to like St.Denis but didn’t. He moved on to a Formula One hotel further out at thirteen euros a night and kept his car’s hubcaps in the room. I love it here. Everyone is out of the street, there’s not a hint of uniformity. Down past the crowded streets filled with kebab restaurants and palmist stores, and across the large open market, is the Basillica, bringing cool, and the tombs of the “Old Kings” of France. Another beast, the Basillica. Where did all the money for these things come from?

St.Denis is Paris these days. It used to be a bridging point, a Hampstead or a Richmond from where it was a half-day ride into the City proper. Today it is like an altitude tank – an attitude tank – for the Seine-centre. Here all is streetwise poly-culturalism: one quite normal women’s clothes store is called “The Pussy Club”. It has a “No Dogs” sign in the window. There is a major art gallery; the St.Denis festival is advertised everywhere. In London this area would have been gentrified twenty years ago. Young kids roller-skate in the Victor Hugo square next to the Basillica; in Peter of Montreuil park some sun-bathe, others “smoke.” And we the last tourists try and fail to get the entire Basillica in our viewfinder.

In the “cultural café” – I am very near a university, I can smell it – many have had white graffiti painted on their arms and drink Coke. The cycle is thus: offer, acceptance, paint, photograph, look at photograph. At one stage half of the café is photographing itself. There is a DJ in the café; instead of the radio there is Dusty Springfield, Lovers’ Rock, Brazilian beach “hymns”, “No, no, no.” Men sit with laptops, women read books. A free magazine laying about writes the following about the English fusion band, Incognito:

“Incognito est l’indéboulonnable Rolls de la soul british capable de faire swingeur une division panzers hémiplégiques en un claquement de doights.”

You don’t get that in the New York Times.

At dusk the streets are still busy; in Victor Hugo square a police van and many police just making sure. In the internet café here are Chinese, Indian, African, Moroccan and me.

And in the Basillica the Kings of Old France are smiling, surely.

Almost 700,000 Britons have moved to and settled in France; in fact there are 31% more British moving permanently to France than there are Maghrebians moving from Northern Africa says Expatica.com

Fifteen years ago, in the Indpendent newspaper, the great travel author, Jan Morris describes the “classic” British travel writer as having: “the innate expectation they will be befriended by consuls, put up by ambassadors, entertained by friends from Oxford or bump into influential acquaintances…”

Today I met the Hallal butcher. There are probably more travellers tales in one square mile of St.Denis than in all of William Daunt’s Travel bookshops put together.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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