David Farley: Monkeying Around in Paris
A few facts about Paris: nearly nine million tourists visited the city in 2008. More than six hundred people are sent to the hospital after slipping in dog poop each year. One thousand two hundred people who rode the metro today ended their trips without their wallets. And according to Time Out Paris, an estimated 100 lions, tigers, and panthers are kept as pets in the city’s apartments. My wife and I had moved to the City of Light, settling into a tiny ground-floor apartment on Rue des Pyramides, a baguette’s throw from the Louvre. One day, when my landlord had dropped by to collect the rent, I mentioned the fact about the exotic, possibly man-eating animals living in Paris. “I believe it,” she said, unfazed. “We French love animals.”
If you believe that, here’s another fact from my guidebook to twist your mind around: in the Paris suburb Aubervilliers illegally imported apes have been trained to attack people — and to go for the face when they do.
The Paris suburbs are not the soccer mom safe havens like in the U. S. In places like Aubervilliers, about five miles north of the city, ambulances won’t even answer an emergency call unless accompanied by the police. This much could be true. But man-eating suburban apes just outside of Paris? I was doubtful.
I’d only been in Paris for a month, but the City of Light was already straining my eyes. I had to abandon the article I was writing about the myth of Parisian rudeness because, well, I had no evidence that it was a myth. My French was worse than I thought, as I was reminded just about every time I opened my mouth. And, given my limited budget, “eating out” mostly consisted of sitting on the banks of the Seine with a baguette and some cheese and a bottle of wine to wash it all down with.
One night, while doing just that, a man approached me trying to hock a French magazine about monkeys. In halting French I asked him if he’d heard of Aubervilliers and then pointed to the apes on the cover of his magazine while making the international “I’m going to tear your face off sign” with my hands. “Oh yes,” he said with enthusiasm. “There are apes in Aubervilliers. But I’m not sure if you want to go there.”
The next morning I was on subway heading in the direction of Aubervilliers. Armed with only a return subway ticket hidden in my sock, I practiced a few phrases I memorized for the occasion. The Aubervilliers stop was near the end of the line. As the train neared the northern border between Paris and its suburbs, ominous-sounding subway stations came and went: Crimee, Stalingrad. I then remembered a friend back in San Francisco warning me that the worst place I could go was the suburbs north of Paris. He had a Parisian friend who lived near there. Apparently, his friend once took a wrong turn on her scooter and ended up in a bad section. While stopped at a red light she was suddenly knocked to the ground. Within seconds, her purse, jacket, shoes and scooter were out of sight.
When I walked up the steps from the subway, the streets of Aubervilliers looked surprisingly civil. There were no burning mattresses on the side of the street, no roving gangs stealing people’s shoes and, unfortunately, no face-scraping wild apes. I walked around for fifteen minutes, looking into the plethora of seedy bars and cheap textile stores, hoping to get some clue about the apes — and also wondering if one might just run out of nowhere and jump on me. Finally, I wandered into a café where two rough-faced working-class men were drinking beer (it was 9:30 in the morning). I ordered a coffee, trying to give off a vibe that said I was meant to be there. In France, it’s all about attitude.
I practiced my French ape-related phrases as I nursed my strong, surprisingly tasty coffee. Rain started to pour outside. After taking my final sip, I took a deep breath and made my way over to the two men who were talking about futbol in between swigs of beer. “Excusez-moi, parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked, hoping for a more beneficial exchange in my native language. The man closest to me briefly looked up from his beer, then looked at his friend. I waited five long seconds before asking again. Finally, he responded in French: “You want me to speak English?” His tone was more aggressive than curious. He covered his upper lip with his lower and shook his head slowly, still not looking at me. His friend muttered something indiscernible. By this point, both men and the bartender wore smirks, as if I were wearing a clown suit with a sign on it that said, “MONKEYS SUCK.”
“Okay, I will speak French,” I said, deliberately slow, hoping I’d used the correct words. “I hear that in this suburb there is the killer apes.” The two men set down their glasses. Without turning their heads, their eyes met. Then they looked at the bartender, who was staring at them. In unison, they all shook their heads no.
“So, it is not true,” I asked in my best, yet still broken French. The man nearest to me rubbed his scruffy brown mustache. “You want to speak English here, huh?” he said still not looking at me. Which I found odd since I had switched to bad French. Then he added: “I’m not going to answer your questions. Go back to Paris.”
Slightly shaken, I did just that. I briskly walked two blocks to the subway station and headed back to Paris. Disappointed that I didn’t learn more about the face-scraping suburban apes, I leaned back in my seat, took a deep breath and felt relieved that I wasn’t ripped apart by a French suburbanite.
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