By Chloe Karaskiewicz
The U.S. is often referred to as a nation of immigrants and as someone with heritages from all over Europe; I thought I understood what that meant.
And then I moved across the pond.
With immigrants making up 11 percent of the French population, and Paris as a microcosm of the country, there is no denying the diversity in this city. As if we needed more proof, many of Paris’ 20 arrondissements, or districts, are attributed to a specific immigrant population and are known for their vibrant markets, traditional cuisine, religious centers, and cultural identity.
In large part this sense of ethnic community comes from a shared religion, language and cultural background. The French government is even currently trying to encourage immigrants to integrate into French society by, not giving up their culture, but adopting French culture as well. After the First World War, France saw an influx of European immigrants from countries hit hardest by Nazi occupation like Belgium, Poland and Italy. At this time the colonies of European nations were starting to gain power and demand their independence, and France received many immigrants from the Maghreb nations of Northern Africa. These two groups, along with immigrants from the French Asiatic holdings, are responsible for the religious diversity France sees today.
Once called the youngest daughter of the Catholic Church, France is now one of the most religiously diverse countries in the European Union with significant Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist populations, in addition to the long-established Christian religions. The Grand Mosque of Paris is the center of the Islamic community with the main religious buildings, a library, an institute of Arabic study, a café and a hammam. The hammam, or a bath house, is a traditional spa with a steam room, gommage—extreme loofah scrub—massage room with a cushioned platform for reposing with sweet Moroccan mint tea. This tradition has been authentically transplanted into the heart of Paris and has been enthusiastically welcomed by French women, who nearly outnumber their Arabic counterparts at the baths.
The Mosque may be in the 5th arrondissement but the largest Algerian population is in the 12th. This is the home of the Marché d’Aligre, a permanent covered market that sells fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the additional open air market on select days. The area is surrounded with wine bars like Le Baron Rouge and Salons du Thé with traditional teas and pastry delicacies.
The Marais is the focus of the Jewish quarter, specifically the Rue de Rosiers, which has a full block of the best falafel in the city. This little slice of heaven, appropriately called L’As du Falafel, has even been personally endorsed by Lenny Kravitz—as multiple signs, photographs and newspaper articles proudly declare.
The 5th arrondissement is home to the Latin Quartier, famous for its nightlife and Paris’ Chinatown lives in the 13th on the Avenue d’Ivry. Markets all through the city advertise fresh fruit from Morocco and Berber markets sell African fabrics in bright colors and batik patterns.
The flavor of this big city is so enriched by other cultures from abroad you get to take a turn around the world in 34 square miles. There is a national museum devoted to immigration, a museum of Arabic culture, memorials to holocaust survivors, and so much more. A lot of big cities have ethnic quarters and museums of culture, but somehow it’s different here: there’s a palpable richness and depth to the ethnic influence here. In Paris in general it’s impossible to get bored, and with the incredible diversity, it’s okay to admit you just can’t eat another baguette, because there’s always falafel, focaccia, mint tea and baklava.