From Dakar, Senegal to Paris via Cameroon, Michael Ngj, aged 25, now sells miniature and medium-sized pewter Eiffel Towers, watches and lighters amongst perhaps 30 others from all over the world (India, Senegal, Gabon, and Bangladesh to name just a few), all selling the exact same items. For 7 years, Michael has come to the Trocadero fountains in front of the Eiffel tower to sell these small pieces of tourist souvenirs which are all, according to Michael, made in China.
Originally coming for work that he had heard about from his friends in Dakar, Michael came over with his family only to find long hours at the Trocadero and perhaps not the easy life that he had originally hoped for. I ask him what he thinks of Paris and I get the standard answer: “The people are nice, the place is nice. Everything is nice.” He looks nervous now as he looks around and sees the potential buyers of his goods pass by.
I gather that from a central location in France, these pieces are bought en masse by particular sellers and brought to the center of the city where other buyers come to gather their goods. Paying no taxes to the city, the police are to be avoided and there is a nonverbal understanding between the seller’s activities and the police standing guard not 20 feet away from the general area of the sellers around the base of the Eiffel Tower. Some, such as David Bea from Libreville, Gabon, aged 15, who came after the passing of his family, feel Paris to be, “dark, not easy, and the people are not so nice.”
It is difficult for me to get more information from Michael as he needs to get back to work, we have just met and there is a slight language barrier which leads to frustrations and failed questions. Seven days a week, he and so many others (all men) come to sell to the continuing ebb and flow of tourists that come from miles away to view one of the most widely-viewed monuments in the world (tourists numbering on average around 7 million per year). Immigrants come to make a meager living in one of the wealthiest districts in Paris, passed by daily by hundreds, if not thousands of people, some buying, others merely walking by.
Reading the travel blogs on people such as Michael once I return home, there is a large dissonance between the people with stories, histories, faces, and names such as Michael and David and some of the viewpoints of the tourists:
Says 4fromOz on their Travelpod blog: “On the day we visited the magnificent Eiffel Tower we walked across the bridge to the Trocadero and passed at least 30 African men selling the same mini Eiffel Towers. There were more hawkers than tourists. These people were a pest rather than a danger. Anyway the Police are everywhere in Paris.”
Says JBushie on their Travelpod blog entry entitled “Love this City”: “Tonight, we returned to the Trocodero above the Eiffel Tower to grump [sic] at a few more gypsy men selling tacky Eiffel Tower souvenirs.”
Says Mimmy21 on her Travelpod blog entry entitled “La Vie Rose…Paris”: “Not knowing how to get to the metro (Paris is hopeless with tourist signs and info!), we asked one of the souvenir men trying to sell us Eiffel tower key rings [sic]. He pointed us in the direction down the river, we soon realized that he had pointed us in totally the wrong direction as we had not bought a key ring from him.”
Says Sim1 in her Virtual Tourist entry “Palais de Chaillot and Trocadero fountains: Place des Droits de l’homme”: “The square is crowded with people, and that attracts of course your obvious annoying street sellers, trying to sell you the most crazy kitsch pieces of souvenirs. The crazy souvenirs brought a smile to my face, but my eyes were quickly distracted by these bronze statues that align the square on either side.”
Hawkers, pest, African men, danger, gypsy men, tacky, deception, annoying, crazy, kitsch: the words in just a few blog posts (there are many more) speak loudly of tourists unwilling to see people such as Michael as human beings attempting to make a living. It is seemingly not enough to simply refuse to purchase a key ring. Instead, distant interpretations of the characters of these men and their occupations abound. How do these constant and regular occupants of this corner of the world, on this territory through which they all make their living seven days a week, come to be seen as pests, deceitful, and annoying in the small span of time that it takes for a tourist to navigate through the Trocadero to the police-ridden base of the Eiffel tower?
Michael poses in front of the Eiffel tower as I shoot his photo. We shake hands and he promises to send me an email when he gets back home in the Northern section of Paris, which he shares with eight other people. Before we part, he mentions quickly in an off-handed way that one day, when he has money, he would like to have his own apartment for his family and would maybe like to go back to school. But today, and in the foreseeable future, Michael and many others in the same situation as him will continue to make their livings off of small, pewter Eiffel Towers made in China.