On Monday, Courtney and I went salsa dancing along the Seine (rhymes with zen) River. Some volunteers from the organization Courtney works with met us outside the metro and showed us where to go. We walked cobblestone streets until we came to the green waters of the Seine.
As a river, the Seine is not one I’d want to swim in, but it looks nice winding its way through Paris. And if you catch it at the right hour, the reflections of the crowded building fronts and lampposts across the way look just like a painting or a postcard photograph.
I knew we were getting close when I heard the music. Spaced evenly along the bank, there were four semicircular depressions carved out with stairs where people were sitting and dancing. Someone had brought a loudspeaker and music blared loudly in Spanish.
We sat down and watched the people for a couple songs. Those who got up to dance clearly knew what they were doing. They smiled and spun and stepped with an easy precision I’m not accustomed to seeing except in theatres. Others sat on the steps, clapping or slapping knees along with the beat. Several percussionists—playing bongos, güiros, claves, and cowbells—sat clustered around a guitarist, playing along with the music. One man clinked bottles together until one of them burst open in a fountain of foam.
One of the volunteers who came with us, a woman from Tunisia, took Courtney and I aside and taught us the basics of how to salsa. We joined the dancers on the floor and did our best not to feel too self-conscious. Soon enough, we let go of most of our inhibitions and just had fun, trying to adapt swing moves to salsa rhythms. We waved to passing boats and tried not to fall in.
The sun soon set, and we danced and danced and the people around us smiled and spun in the smoke-tinged air of the evening. It felt like a truly perfect moment. A moment I didn’t want to end, that I tried to bottle up inside my soul, so that I could save it and open it up and return to it anytime I wished.
As I’ve since reflected on the feeling I felt dancing with Courtney on the Seine, I’ve realized that it had something to do with an absence of tension. All the people there were smiling and happy and having a good time. They didn’t care who they were dancing with. They didn’t care about age, race, or native language. I saw a Chinese tourist in crocs dancing with a Parisian woman in an animal print dress and a twenty-something back kid dancing with a white grandmother who took twice as long to twirl as the rest of the dancers on the floor. They enjoyed dancing and the music and that was enough.
There has been a tension that I’ve noticed in Paris, that I didn’t see in London. I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until that night on the Seine. In Paris, there is a lot of diversity, similar to London. However, in Paris, the diversity is tensioned. Courtney says that it’s because of immigration issues, and I think she’s probably right. Cultures are mixing at a rate that makes them feel at odds with one another. The Parisian identity is challenged by diversity while the London identity accepts diversity as a natural characteristic.
I think it comes back to language. In London, English is the lingua franca. Everyone speaks it. Sure, people speak their native languages too, but English is what gets your message across.
Paris, on the other hand, is fighting for French. With the increasing influence of the English language via media and the internet, as well as with the influx of Arabic speakers in Paris, French is under attack. Instead of everyone speaking French, as everyone speaks English in England, the French feel the forays of other languages into traditionally French territory as hostile trespasses.
I’ve noticed the same kind of thing happen in the United States in areas where Spanish and English compete for dominance. It’s a real tension and I’ve felt it here in Paris. Except for two times.
The first was when the French won the World Cup. No translation needed to speak the language of scoreboards or celebrations in the streets. The second was dancing on the Seine, where music bridged the gap and differences were left far behind.
There was a sort of human beauty to that moment that I love. I don’t know that there is a simple answer to the inevitable clashes of language and culture. What I do believe is that there are ways to find common ground and peace in the chaos. Just go salsa dancing on the Seine. You’ll see what I mean.