I took the Paris Metro to an underground garage to rent a car in the Place des Ternes.
It’d been a chaotic week in Paris enjoying the sights with thousands of foreign visitors who came for the European Football Championship. My family tired traveling by foot. It was time to drive into the countryside.
Driving in Paris is chaotic. Since I drive Boston, I was possessed to drive directly to the Arc de Triomphe for a wicked spin in its massive rotary. As I repeatedly screeched to halt at the veering Mercedes and Citrons, my joy transcended to the idea, I can get used to this.
Fun aside, my wife’s texts requesting an ETA brought me back to reality. My family was in the lobby of the condominium over in the thickly settled, one-way streets of the 17th arrondissement.
We had walked several evenings North to the Avenue de Clichy. My youngest, Lily and I walked there for a Metro station to Saint-Denis for the Germany Poland Match at the Stade de France (the suburb from which the jihadi cell resided who executed the November atrocity).
As one journeys along Avenue Clichy, one notices the population become more racial diverse, Middle Eastern, North African. I found that path with surprising ease; well, navigating was easy the traffic thoroughly congested.
The car loaded, I followed the trajectory of the Metro – station names I recalled from Match night.
I knew there was a Périphérique on the way to Saint-Denis. Paris has multiple travel bands, “Périphérique“, which ring the city; that, Americans might call “Beltways”. They make movement easier, eliminating cross town travel, street gridlock.
I’m blessed with a German acuity, an intuitive, natural GPS that seldom fails me, and once again, didn’t let me down. Because as traffic worsened, I knew we neared the “Boulevard Périphérique“. Our escape was imminent.
Then my eyes spotted a makeshift settlement of tents and canopies. It was blocks long.
I grew up in Los Angeles. I’m familiar with homeless enclaves of refrigerator boxes, canvas covered street squats, the adept no cost shelter of the poor, the displaced.
June had been an exceptionally overcast, wet and windy cold month.
The rain fell every day during our stay and this makeshift community built along the frontage street of the Périphérique was wet, mildewed and as dreary as the steel sky.
As we crept toward the on-ramp, we saw the human element under the corrugated roofs, tarps and tents. Tanned old men, browned, unshaven, grey beard stumble contrasting with their light, dead, staring eyes, they sat paralyzed on jersey barriers.
Behind them between the rows of shelters, children played safely from traffic. Old ladies walked up traffic lanes, Syrian passports raised in hand, pressing them to each drive-side car window begging for Euros.
Younger men, fathers held hand-written cardboard signs. In French they read, “we are Syrians. Please help us eat today”. My wife fought tears. In a daze at this sad visage, I entered the Périphérique – the wrong direction.
I exited immediately. Returning along the other frontage, there was a parallel settlement of hundreds, perhaps thousands of families along a periphery of life.