:: Article

The city alight

By Joshua Kepreotis.

I sit with my legs up on a piano stool, laying back on the lounge with a book and my head supported by a pillow. Outside my terrace the soft rain patters against the glass. It’s Paris. White sandstone fronts, windows poking out of eaves, blue jutted roofs. Each apartment sleepily awake. Uniform. Clean. Picture postcard.

For a short period of our lives, this is our reality—by choice. A life dreamed in cinema and literature. We rent in Paris and work as nannies in the suburbs. We live near enough to the Luxembourg Gardens to have the quiet of the wealthy, and not too far from the buzz of cafes and theatres to feel connected. At night the light from the Eiffel Tower reaches us, as it rotates around itself.

This Sunday morning is cold, as well as wet, which I am learning happens for ten months of the year here; varying versions of cold. Right now, it is mild. Which means I use a blanket to cover my legs, for the exact type of comfort I desire while reading.

Amazingly, just last week, France experienced a heatwave, recording the hottest day ever in Paris. It was also when I properly met the man who for a month had been sitting outside the supermarket at the end of our street. I had seen him there, many times, and between hazarded gestures and feeble French greetings, we struck up some form of familiarity.

However, in extreme conditions, humans tend to bond quicker over the shared experience, and so kneeling by him and asking him what he needed that week came easier to me. We communicated in broken languages; my awful French, his sparse English. He wanted water. His cheeks rosier than those of us with homes, his skin more weathered. I had moisturised in our bathroom mirror earlier that day.

We built a small rapport. A euro or two, nothing outrageous. I didn’t get to know whether he had fled war, poverty, famine. Was he in search of a better life or had he run for his life? Does it matter? He found himself here in the city of lights, huddled between a doorway to an expensive apartment block and the supermarket that feeds us. Dark when the sun went down. Scorched during the day. Isolated in a place full of people.

I’d been warned to discern between humans on the street asking for money. Most often by people who have their pick of work, and education. Who live a life protecting what they own, in fortified homes. I wonder how they identify who needs it most. Are they asking questions and engaging in dialogue? Or is it a way of relieving themselves of the guilt of not looking?

Regardless of his motivation to sit with his hand held out and ask for help, I see a human being. With the advantages I’ve had, I’m sure he would not have chosen to sit there. The circumstances that led to him being here are beyond my understanding.


This Sunday of light rain is perfect for me and my book. I could make myself a cup of tea, or coffee if I’m feeling cheeky. I could close my eyes and rest the book on my chest, letting the sounds lull me to sleep. I ask myself, what does the rain mean for him? Will he seek shelter elsewhere if it becomes heavier? Will he leave his belongings behind if they get wet? Will he get sick? These questions multiply the more I think of him. My personal paradise is not his. It does not factor him in. He is not thought of. He is not there.

Today I venture outside for a baguette at the local boulangerie. I want a large stick of fluffy dough and hardened crisp crust, accompanied by copious amounts of delicious French butter for breakfast. The centre of Paris is never quiet, though the days start later than I am used to in Sydney, and Sunday doesn’t really begin at all. Perhaps it is a rule, to stay inside with family. No one told us.

From afar, my new friend seems to be in conversation with an elderly citizen of the area. It’s just the two of them. That’s also not uncommon in France, the few who do notice the sea urchins of the street tend to converse with them—again, another contrast to Sydney.

The closer I get, though, I realise the conversation is of an agitated nature. He sits huddled close to his bag of belongings, scooping them in his arms and turning his back to her. She, a resident of the building, holds an open hose and is flicking it his way, towards where he sits, edging closer to wetting him and his things.

It takes me a moment to understand she is using it as a way of removing him from her property, washing the area outside her building door like he is rubbish, or stains of vomit left by a drunken student. A distorted neighbourhood watch for the have’s, ridding the area of the have-not’s. It is violent.

I don’t understand what she is saying, but the sentiment is clear. I throw a feeble ‘ça va?’ to him from across the road, as he catches my eyesight and nods back, then shrugs his shoulders as if to say, ‘what can I do.’ Defeated, he picks up his bag and walks on, away from the woman and her weaponised hose. In hindsight, I wished I intervened. Reminded her of his humanity, of hers, and of all as deserving of respect. Alas, my individualist western-raised way of self-preservation won out, and I never saw him again.

I’ve seen her since. She comes out every morning onto her top floor terrace and surveys the surrounding area. It’s not her fault, I tell myself, she’s afraid. Or bitter of the changing face of a place she thinks is hers. She looks like everyone around her, and he did not. She closes her protective shutters, sometimes keeping them closed for the entire day; if it’s too hot, or cold, as we do. That we share, privilege.

I think of him as I try to sum up our year in Paris. My partner and I speak of the difficulties we have faced; the language, the bureaucratic forms, the lack of welcome, the cold, the high price of anything. Paris is beautiful, we are told and encouraged to repeat, as if to convince us that thinking of it critically is not part of the experience. It perforates a bubble. Don’t do it, enjoy.

We could, sure, and it would be easy. Use our English and pretend to blend in as tourists. It works. Enjoy the monuments, the gardens, the brassieres. Enjoy the beautiful people. The expensive clothes. The style that is always grand.

What would the man chased off by a local with a hose say of the Parisian experience? Because he lives here as well, I think—sometimes I wonder if people in the same street in Paris are in fact in the same place. Does he live in the Paris of the movies and great novels? Of Hemingway and Fitzgerald? Would he tell me that this city is truly ‘a moveable feast’, as he goes from doorway to doorway, rendered invisible? Does he mind which side of the bank he finds himself on, or which café a certain novel was written in? Is he safe? Is he alive? How many times has he been moved on, displaced within his own displacement?

My partner and I could have it easy here. My gender privilege, as well as our collective racial, sexual, class and able-bodied privilege, means that we don’t experience most of the real hardships people face here daily, or truly understand the pain caused by systemic oppression. The western expat community was awaiting us, bound by an agreement that Paris is the unequivocal capital of romance. It well could be, for the few that definition applies to. We had to choose to see past it.


Halfway through our stay, we heard an alarmingly long and loud helicopter drone over us. In Paris, we have learnt, that is not insignificant. My first response was to resort to Twitter, and Twitter was inundated with images of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame ablaze. The city was in disbelief, something we could not only see, but feel. The sirens around us were sounding as Paris was pierced through its historical heart.

The New York Times, on its website, published an interactive recreation of what happened. Where the novice security guard sat, which building they checked first when alerted to the fire. Accompanied by a minute-by-minute countdown. The conclusion, damning; Paris will never be the same.

Friends in Australia messaged their condolences. As if we had personally lost something, or someone. I felt indifferent. Human life had not been lost. Perhaps it came from an apathy of not being connected religiously to the church. Perhaps it stemmed from a frustration at the attention it garnered in comparison to other world events.

The NY Times, as they admit in the piece, conducted ‘scores of interviews and reviewed hundreds of documents to reconstruct the missteps.’ The mayor of the 4th arrondissement of Paris, Ariel Weil, is quoted a few paragraphs later as saying, ‘There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake. And that Notre-Dame could be lost.’

The article compares the burning of the Cathedral to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris and the demonstrations by the Yellow Vest protestors that started in October 2018—claiming Notre-Dame to be the unendurable of the three. Six writers and a whole team of journalists produced the mammoth piece; a reminder to never forget.

It may not be coincidental that at the time of writing this essay, I am reading The Battle for Home, by Marwa Al-Sabouni. This book is written by an architect from Syria, and charts the devastation of her city, Homs, as well as the role architecture plays in the fracturing of a society. She speaks to the collective heartbreak a community feels when its history is lost and damaged, and the impact it has on identity.

In Paris, many praise the architectural ingenuity of Georges-Eugène Haussmann for providing the city with its iconic beauty in the 1800’s. We are encouraged to marvel at the uniformity, the rows of windows and sandstone fronts. It is a source of pride for the Parisian and something we are expected to be thankful for.

The history behind the transformation of Paris, however, is a violent one. Haussmann, working with Napoleon III, ran grand boulevards through shanty towns, evicting the residents outside of the city he envisaged—beyond the outer circle. Haussmann was selective about who he unified and at best careless about those who suffered as a result. Working class areas were divided to make it easier for the military to quell uprisings. ‘Clean water and fresh air’, was the project sold to the people; though not without thousands of them being displaced.

In the colonial period, it was France’s urban planners who set about deconstructing the harmonious built environment of Syrian cities. According to Al-Sabouni, ‘they blew up streets and moved monuments,’ disrupting the unified existence of intertwined living, focusing on a more separate style for the sake of ‘modernity’. It was divisive. People were separated by class and affluence, which encouraged them over time to focus on their differences, rather than any unity. And, as Al-Sabouni says of her beloved country, conflict is easier when there is an ‘other’: To be part of the city, you have to belong to the city, and the city needs to accept you. Without that, both you and the city are doomed.

In Al-Sabouni’s home city, Homs, and country, Syria, most of the built history has been lost and the people live in ruins. She claims identity depends on continuity and memory, and the architecture of a place is a determiner of that. If true, does the fact that Paris is a city built on Haussmann’s model affect its inhabitants? When you laud an architect for transforming a slum city into a world marvel, you disregard the movement of people and the resulting displacement. Haussmann performed a type of social engineering, the effects of which are alive today.

I don’t begrudge those who grieved the damage of Notre-Dame. I can’t, however, seem to reconcile with the disparity in attention. The world managed to galvanise and donate over a billion dollars within two days of the fire. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, made a pledge that night to rebuild. Money flooded in. At the same time, the Palace of Westminster in London is due a renovation, and staggering numbers between three and seven billion pounds have been bandied about.

What could that money do for those without water, without food, home or safety? Instead of rebuilding the spire, why not spend it on improving living conditions for those struggling within the city and on the outskirts? Allowing them to feel hope and pride in where they live, today.

Meanwhile, the Amazon is on fire, animal and human life threatened, our oxygen levels impacted—the G7 pledged 16 million pounds. Sudan experienced a revolution, a coup d’état of president Omar al-Bashir, an imposed curfew and the Khartoum massacre in June. Hundreds of protestors were murdered at a sit-in, bodies dumped in the River Nile, civilians terrorised in their homes and there was an almost complete blocking of the internet in the following days of the massacre—in 2019. Nothing.

Are we so conditioned to human atrocities happening in the world that we don’t see them? When they come across our timeline, if they do, do we scroll by, not wanting to look our truth directly in its horrific face? I was embarrassed to be in a city mourning part of a building. People will flock to it and lay flowers for years, perhaps forever. Yet human beings die here on the streets, refugees have been evicted from their tents in the middle of the city by police using tear gas and violence. Sudan was in turmoil. Syria is still ravaged by war. All fires that we, the west, helped create.

Are they only fallen trees in hidden forests to us?


Then, what drew us to Paris you ask. We also ask ourselves. At first, I chased the male artists of the Lost Generation; those I studied at university. I must have imagined myself sitting at a café on one of the boulevards and writing the next great novel.

That idea of Paris was quickly debunked the moment I walked up to the first one and cast a look over the menu. There’s a cluster of them in St Germain, where Hemingway supposedly wrote, and read Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, dined with Pound and Joyce and Stein. Each café looks and feels alike, as if they have agreed to up the prices and maintain an aura of off limits. The white waiters wear three-piece suits, glide around the tables, clean towel over left forearm, smile a wide grin, and are of a similar age, skin colour and gender.

Like Paris, when I looked further, I discovered Hemingway was married four times, cheated on each wife with the next, and laid the blame with them—for tempting him. I read of Fitzgerald who stole work from his more talented partner, Zelda, had her edited down in Save Me the Waltz, and then institutionalised, where she later died in a tragic hospital fire. I read her book and realised where he appears, her genius disappears—as does the truth.

So, I went into the Hemingway café with this new mindset and ordered a half beer. I was wearing a one-euro coat from the Kilo Store up the road. It was long, down to my shins, and suede. I felt out of place, but concealed.

It was the middle of the day and the other patrons were in suits. I sat back and observed the odd interactions, as writers are supposed to do. The bravado between the waitstaff and male patrons was palpable. The only female waiter had the job of taking the coats off the older men who entered, as if practised. It was an homage to a foul tradition.

Then, not long later, a white middle-aged talent agent entered. He had the slimy presence of someone who is considered important, and clings to it. He was holding the resume of a young woman in one hand, and her waist with the other—pulling her into him. She looked uncomfortable and awkwardly fell into step. His shirt was one button off, untucked, his hairy gut showing. He sat beside her in a small booth, needlessly, putting on a loud show the attentive waiters played into. At the end, he planted an unsolicited kiss on her cheek before going to the bathroom and not returning.

I wonder how many women or people of colour could turn up to work looking as slobby as he did? Or, if they were acting the way he was, how quickly they would have been denied service.

I realised the café was split into those who have, and those who have more—and perhaps Paris is that way. The story that flowed took me by surprise. I saw Hemingway and Fitzgerald at a table to my right, joined by Picasso. The hallowed painter gave them venomous advice on how to deal with women—two of his lovers later completed suicide.

I wrote: “I just burn mine,” he said and clicked his fingers, watching the space between them disintegrate.

He meets the young photographer, Dora Maar, at a table while she is driving a knife between her fingers in a game of daring. It was the start of their tumultuous eight-year relationship; a period in which he continued to see Marie-Therese Walter and then a young Francoise Gilot, driving Maar to a mental breakdown. A talented artist in her own right, she is remembered unfairly only as Picasso’s muse. Maar was his inspiration for The Weeping Woman, because women, according to Picasso, were ‘suffering machines,’ and Maar a portrait of tears.

In the story, Hemingway and Fitzgerald are taken aback by his abruptness; however, they don’t vocalise any objection. The three men treat everyone around them carelessly. They don’t take notice of me, or rather my character, or offer any of the mentorship I, as a writer, had come to Paris for. However, I had recently read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, then his essays, and watched his interview with Nikki Giovanni, then read her as well, followed by anything I could get my hands on. I realised I had been seeking guidance from the wrong literary greats. Now Baldwin, along with his character Ella, bounds through the café, excitedly, treated with disdain by the white staff. He is also part of the Paris I sought.

The story gets better. My character is interrupted, and then instructed, by two criminally unknown writers of the Paris expat community, Djuna Barnes and Natalie Clifford Barney. They talk to him about the literary salon they run weekly, where artists in Paris come and discuss their work. He also learns of the Académie des Femmes Barney established in response to the all-male Académie française. They invite the young writer to come along, to read his work out aloud and mingle with other older writers. Upon discovering them and fellow lesbian writers—Radclyffe Hall, Renee Vivien, Mina Loy—I wonder why they have been ignored by the Parisian cannon. Was it their gender or sexuality? Or both. Marginalised in their time, they should be celebrated today as pioneers of lesbian literature in twentieth century Europe, and as a safe space for many.

My character leaves the café, but the salon is nowhere in sight. Yellow vest protestors march through the city and remind him of the Paris he lives in. They break glass of banks and leave anti-capitalism slogans spray-painted on the walls. A family asks for money. Someone drunk lays sprawled on the path, his shirt up around his nipples, the cold biting his skin. Police instruct him to continue on. The rest of Paris happens around this.


I am Australian born, of a middle-class upbringing. My lived experience makes it important for me to challenge myself to see things from other perspectives. Those of us with the means to travel and freedom of movement can fly into most places around the world and participate in the culture the way we wish. We bring our privilege with us. That type of travel means we do not experience a place and its culture in an authentic way. We wear blindfolds to other people’s experience of the same space – privileging our experience as holidaymakers over the local. That’s not okay. It is an act of violence.

In Paris, low paying, menial jobs are primarily filled by people of colour. They are part of a system those with privilege profit from. Our comfort stems from someone else’s discomfort. When we visit Notre Dame and pay our respects, or go to the Eiffel Tower and walk the Seine, romantically, we don’t see the poor, the marginalised. It is designed that way. Consider it before you thank Haussmann. Understand that there are people in Paris suffering precisely for our luxury.

I am asked if the stereotypes of Parisians being rude and unwilling to speak a language outside of their own is true. It depends on how you look at it. I believe walking into any shop, in any part of the non-English speaking world, and brashly shouting instructions in English with the arrogance of an assumed reply, deserves to be met with the derision most English-speaking holiday makers encounter in France.

There is much assumed Englishness (whiteness) in the world and I hate contributing to it. My own Greek grandparents had to hide their language in their Australian homes, and certainly away from the shops they ran in mid-twentieth century Sydney. I know what silencing can do. However, in France’s case, it distracts from what is happening in the Paris of today.

A narrative of exclusivity for the English expat is a minor issue compared to the disassociation between those who are accepted as established Parisians, and the rest living here. Many who are born here, or have been living here for years—refugees, migrants, ethnic and religious minorities—are thought of as outsiders, and treated that way. But they are as much a part of France as anyone else.

As recently as 2018, police were given orders to remove thousands of migrant families living in tents along the canal Saint-Martin. They now reside in Porte de la Chappelle and to the north of the city. If you want to see ALL of Paris, go there. Walk those streets and ask yourself if Woody Allen’s set for his movie, Midnight in Paris, was a choice between it and the 5th. Or ask a local if they send garbage trucks there every morning, as they do in the arrondissements in the inner city. Consider how the city turns a blind eye to the conditions of the inhabitants up north or outside, or if Paris would even consider it Paris.

I had a bag of clothes to take to the new unofficial refugee camp. There’s a not-for-profit organisation there servicing the community. The train journey alone told a story. Metro line 4. I sat in a quiet carriage that filled with tourists and businesspeople the closer we got to the Seine, and then emptied out the further we went. With each stop north of Montmartre, people exited the carriages; few replaced them. For the final three stops before Porte de Clignancourt only I and three others who seemed to have been there all along remained.

The extremes of Paris are extreme. Take that line for example. You can get on at Odeon. A place of bars and packed terraces, people dissecting small meals elegantly with knife and fork, dressed expensively at lunch time. An oyster takeaway shop. Waiters placing napkins on laps. People escorted in and out of cars. Thirty minutes north by metro, and you arrive at a tent neighbourhood. One line, two worlds.

I walked from Porte de Clignancourt to Porte de la Chapelle, looking for the tents underneath and on top of the flyover. I saw some drug-affected groups of people; they greeted me as I walked by with a bag hitched over my shoulder. There were also students and mothers with children. There was one café, one supermarket, and many closed shops.

Contrary to what you might hear or read about, my experience of the north of Paris was not one where I feared for my safety, as much as we were warned away from Saint-Denis and the surrounding area. My shock was not in how I was treated. In fact, I was welcomed by the diverse communities of the suburbs. I was taken aback by the arid nature of the place. The dirt patch young families with babies sleep on. Clothes flung on trees to dry, public toilet blocks left uncleaned. Bins overflowing.

This legacy of eviction and marginalisation is one carried over from the past, but not spoken about. France grew rich from its colonial exploits around the world, creating wars and capturing and selling humans in the slave trade. The ancestors of those enslaved carry inherited trauma, and they continue to be the recipients of oppression, institutional racism and everyday discrimination in Paris and elsewhere.

In my experience with the western world, and where I am from in Australia, this is not commonly addressed. I believe when our bloody history is repressed, it causes division in human connection and a tension within ourselves. It’s okay to own up to the faults of the past. It is our moral obligation to do so. In the words of James Baldwin: Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.


As we prepare to leave I ask myself, who is Paris for? The famous streets and buildings. The museums. The fashion. The cafes. Who does it serve? The music along the Seine and the artists selling work. Did I profit from it? Yes. I lived in the inner circle, I come from Australia, am European-enough in appearance. I have money and a job. Paris could fit me fine. Not perfect, but close. I can see how others don’t stand a chance.

We will leave France with few friends. That may not be unsurprising, and maybe it says more about us than the city. Maybe we were too different, or, rather, difficult. Perhaps we questioned too much and sought to look beyond what is accepted.

I do have a fondness for Paris. It will always be the place where my partner asked me to marry her with my grandmother’s ring. Where I worked with young people and learnt to hear them, and to be silly and fun. Where we battled through family hardships and left with life lessons, intact. Not everyone has that luxury.

We will carry with us a few important people who became family, like our friend, Muhammad. We met through an expat group and stayed in contact, bonding with him in ways we couldn’t with people from Australia, America and England. An over-qualified data analysis engineer, he will have to leave France at the end of this month, because he has been searching for a job far longer than anyone else in his course. His fate in Europe will depend on someone taking a leap of faith on one of the kindest and most progressive men I know. His experience in Paris is much harder than mine was. He speaks three languages and has an abundance of international and field experience across many disciplines. However, his passport will never say he is European, and that matters here. Each rejection comes with an unnecessarily long apology. That he is edged out for reasons unknown. His confidence shattered, his conclusion being France does not want him. A return to Egypt is imminent.

We will also keep in our hearts, Shammi, my partners’ sewing teacher. She struggles daily with the French way of life in her field. She is asked to do more work than her contemporaries, or has had her work criticised in ways her French compatriots do not. Told to come in when she is sick, asked to repeat her French for their benefit, she has had work unpaid for and has been used. She is expected to maintain a level of excellence others are not, in fear of the severe repercussions she knows awaits her. Shammi supports her mother and sister on her single income making bridalwear for Parisian couples. They arrived as a family from Sri Lanka four years ago, but she still has the threat of departure held over her with temporary visas granted year by year. Can you imagine?

Both Muhammad and Shammi live outside the ring road. Outside Boulevard Périphérique. They exist outside of the circle. Their names and ethnicities exclude them from the benefits and stability afforded others.


Paris won’t change because of me. It has an established aesthetic and system. You come and partake and move on, and it remains. Who am I to it? No one. If it is listening, I’d wish for it to embrace all of itself, all of the time. Otherwise, I fear, it will remain fractured.

To know a place, to love it, you need to see it completely. All its different kinds of people. To embrace its diversity, not selectively. To value what has been brought here or cultivated elsewhere and come across. To value them as your own, with open arms. As France’s people. To be considered ‘French’, without an asterisk.

Take the men’s national football team who won the 2018 world cup for example. The girls I looked after sang a victory song learnt at school: Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Mendy, Blaise Matuidi. Allez les Bleus, allez. Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, N’golo Kante. Allez les Bleus, allez. Nabil Kimpembe, Paul Pogba, Nabil Fekir. Allez les Bleus, allez.

It was heartening to hear. Names of footballers of colour, sung and celebrated for taking the nation to the top. The youth embracing them as heroes. Before the world cup, however, there had been talk in the country that the team was ‘too African’, not French enough. No trophy will change attitudes for good. Racism runs deep, and excellence, in any field, cannot be the deciding factor for social acceptance. It must happen from within us, from a fundamental belief that we are all equal.

France’s colonial history is complex and brutal. I don’t pretend to understand much of it. I have barely scratched the surface. I ask questions and know, from experience, a country that denies its ugly history lives a fractured and false life. I come from such a place. My country of birth, Australia, engaged in an ethnic cleansing of its indigenous population that lasted for 140 years, ending not that long ago. We currently contain people who have sought asylum in offshore detention camps, without trial, paying Papua New Guinea to imprison them in a place where children who have forgotten their names answer to their assigned number, when spoken at by prison guards.

Our poor treatment of other humans is, and will always be, our national shame. Our half-hearted apologies don’t work in mending anything—not least our souls. We have to own it, rather than hide behind a façade of inauthenticity.


Whenever I talk to people about our time in Paris, they express genuine interest in my concerns. They then respond with their own stories of flying into CDG and taking the Metro to Gard du Nord, before finding their way closer to the Seine and their expensive hotel. They tell me they couldn’t believe what they saw on the train and at the station. I know they are really saying that they are surprised by who they saw. That France is not only made up of white people.

I don’t know why they tell me. It has no place in the conversation. Perhaps they feel safe to explore their own racism with me. Or they are seeking forgiveness for their unconscious bias, blaming the city rather than themselves. Whatever the reason, it’s well past the time we challenge ourselves and the single narratives we have about place and people.

At night, my partner and I sit on the terrace. We summarise our year in Paris and speculate on what our new life in our next city, Athens, will look like. We discuss what we have learned and what we had not expected. As we talk, the glow from the Eiffel Tower shines in the cloudy sky, over our building and the one across the road. We are close enough to feel its protection, inside the bubble of privilege. What once was a nice thought, now sits awkwardly between us. The light shines only on some.

Joshua Kepreotis is a writer from Australia, of Greek heritage. His nonfiction has been published at HuffPost Greece, Neos KosmosOther Terrain Journal and HCE Review. His intention is to write through his privilege and challenge dominant ways of thinking.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, February 12th, 2020.