hidden europe 2

Orient Express

by Nicky Gardner


Razvan cannot wait to get home to Romania; a tale of one train journey

Posh Paris normally hates its suburbs. And yet over the past few months even the denizens of the chic city have been seduced by a new voice from the wilderness lands beyond the ring road. Faïza Guène's first novel Kiffe kiffe demain has taken France by storm. The title loses something in the translation, but roughly it means "More of the Same Tomorrow". It is a book about a little corner of hidden Europe, for it is set in the edgy world of the Parisian suburbs where Moroccan and Algerian immigrants struggle to survive. Guène explores this world where the exotic blends imperceptibly into the everyday. It is a book for a long train journey. Kiffe kiffe demain was published in August 2004 by Hachette Littératures (194pp €16). An English language edition is due out early next year. Faïza Guène is just twenty years old, the daughter of Algerians who moved to Paris before she was born. She was brought up in the suburb of Pantin, northeast of the city centre, a place of railway yards, canals and grey apartment blocks. Pantin is a place ignored by the thousands of commuters who pass through it each day on the trains to and from Paris Gare de L'Est railway station. One of the many trains that rattle past Pantin's apartment blocks each day is the Orient Express.

The business travellers running for the train have long ceased to notice even the elegant arch of the great fanlight window at the south end of the booking hall. The spring late afternoon sunshine illuminates the station concourse. Still less do the regular commuters remark on the delicate sculptures that represent the cities and rivers of the regions of France served from this great terminus. As the latecomers rush from the booking hall to the platform, they dash past Alfred Herter's monumental painting of hundreds of soldiers leaving by train for the front in 1914.

A woman wearing a chador stands alone on the tiled concourse, a spectral figure amid the commuter rush. The train guard shouts as a man clutching a laptop computer, a briefcase and a coffee runs for the train at the last moment, and then, just after a quarter past five the train is on its way, picking a route out of the Gare de L'Est through a corridor of graffiti, over the Canal St-Denis and under the boulevard périphérique. It trundles out through Paris' eastern suburbs. As the train gathers speed, no-one notices the little suburban stations. And they ignore the gritty world of the rough, tough streets, where the apartment blocks smell of last night's couscous, Algerian music fills the air and young men go mad watching reruns of silly American sitcoms.

In the corner seat, a manicured woman in her thirties reads the first few pages of a novel called Kiffe kiffe demain. The young Romanian with tousled dark hair sitting opposite her has never heard of the book, but studies the picture on the understated front cover. The woman reader glances up, the travellers' eyes meet just very briefly, and the Romanian averts his gaze and hides in the pages of the medical journal on his lap. A plane passes low overhead on the glide path down to Charles de Gaulle airport to the north. And now, on the right, a first glimpse of the River Marne, and beyond the heartless sprawl that leads to EuroDisney.

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