BY CATHERINE YESSAYAN
One of the main reasons I decided to visit Paris on my way to Armenia was to learn and write about the small community of Armenians living in Issy-Les-Moulineaux, a suburb located on the southwest edge of Paris.
My father’s family moved from Tehran to Paris when he was 9 or 10, and they had lived in Issy-les-Moulineaux. So I was on a mission: first, to visit the old neighborhood where my dad grew up; and second, to visit the City Hall to find out about the Armenian community in Issy-les-Moulineaux, which I will call ‘Issy’ for short.
My friend Lala, who lives in Issy, had invited me to spend the night at their home so that I would have a nearby base from which to explore the neighborhood. Lala and her sister live on a street named Yerevan. Rue d’Erevan is a short, narrow, uphill street which ends at the top of a hill, where their apartment complex is located.
They live on the seventh floor and have a commanding view of Paris with the Tour d’Eiffel in the middle. At night, when the tower is illuminated, the view is even more spectacular.
I arrived on Monday evening around 5:30 p.m. at Issy by metro, the last stop of Paris-Metro Line 12. As I stepped off the train I saw a shoe repair shop. The guy inside the shop looked Armenian. My patriotic blood sensed a connection. I gathered my courage, entered the shop and asked him if he was Armenian.
“Bonjour monsieur. Est ce que vous êtes Armenian?” And indeed he was Armenian. He was a handsome middle-aged man with dark Armenian features. His name was Lionel Sarkissian. His surname was same as my maiden last name.
I had many questions, but he was preoccupied with his work. It was a busy time of the day. While I was there a woman brought in a pair of shoes needing repair and another picked up a pair. I really wanted to ask him if by any chance he was related to a long lost great-great uncle of mine, but I didn’t. All I learned that he was born in France and his parents were too. He spoke Western Armenian. I was happy to observe that as a member of the second or maybe third generation he could still speak Armenian.
I had a rendezvous with Lala at 7 p.m. To kill time, I decided to look around for another Armenian shopkeeper. Close to the metro station, there was a small hamburger place. The owner was Indian or Pakistani. I had a hamburger and asked the owner if he knew of any nearby Armenian shopkeepers. He said that there were many Armenians in town, but he didn’t know of any Armenian shopkeepers close by.
Wandering around I noticed that most people, who seemed to be coming from work and heading to their homes had baguettes in their hands. So I joined a queue in front of a bakery to buy a baguette with the hope that I would meet an Armenian in the line.
Lala arrived around 7 p.m. We took a bus to their home. We couldn’t walk because the streets leading up to the apartment complex are quite steep. From inside the bus, Lala pointed out two Armenian churches and a youth club.
When we got off the bus, we crossed Rue d’Armenie. On the corner was an Armenian grocery store, but since it was Monday the store was closed. I thought I could check it out the following day, but I didn’t get a chance to do that.
There was another Armenian grocery shop called “Markar,” which is my grandson’s name, but I didn’t get to visit that store, either. My slow pace limits me to about a project a day.
Lala took me around and showed me a few monuments in the city that memorialize Armenians’ presence. All were within walking distance from her home. The Genocide monument was directly at the bottom of the hill – literally under their nose.
We took a set of steps down to visit the monument. It was built in 1982. Flanked by a hillside with a terrace-type setting, it was striking and very interesting. I was moved by the Armenian-themed architectural features and the bas-reliefs. The monument was built with pink Toof stone brought from Armenia. I learned that the monument’s construction was funded half by the Armenian community and the other half by the City.
From this Genocide monument, we walked to an abstract bronze statue which had been erected to commemorate the victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. The statue was located at a square called “Etch-miadzin.” I was really impressed with the number of street names and structures dedicated to Armenians.
The following day I met Nicole Essayan, one of the 18 elected deputies of Issy’s mayor André Santini. Essayan believes that Mr. Santini holds the record of being the longest elected mayor in the modern history of France.
He has been mayor of Issy since 1980!
Essayan has lived in Issy for 60 years. She says the main influx of Armenians began in the 1970s. Of the City’s 63,000 population, about 5,000 are Armenians. The Armenian community has two churches, one Apostolical and one Evangelical and one school.
The “Sourp Tarkmanenchatz” Armenian elementary school (k-6) was founded about 10 years ago. There is also an active Armenian soccer team. In 1975, “ASA Issy” (Association Sportive Ararat Issy) was formed to unify Armenian soccer lovers of Paris and its surroundings. In the beginning, the club was limited to Armenian players, but now it is more open and has become the town’s only major soccer team. Today, it has around 400 members and 30 coaches.
By the time I visited my dad’s neighborhood and walked to his school, “Lycée Michelet,” it was time to head back to Paris. I invited Nicole to visit Glendale. I hope one day I’ll be her guide in Glendale.
Catherine Yesayan is a contributor to Asbarez. You may reach her at email@example.com or read her stories on her blog