By the time we leave for karaoke, I regret everything. It’s half past eleven, fifteen degrees, and a ten minute walk to Le Fleurus, a cramped bar down the street that invites the 14th arrondissement to come sing their hearts out every Wednesday. It doesn’t get interesting until midnight, which is why the six of us are tramping through the dark and the snow with our faces shoved into upturned coat collars.
The front door of the bar is blocked by a handful smokers– Americans, surprisingly– and we squeeze past. It’s toasty inside, fogging over the front windows, but the tables near the door are surrounded by empty chairs covered in coats. Our coats join the piles and we snake in a six-person conga line toward the back, toward the white sheet hung on the wall where the lyrics of “Human” by The Killers are currently projected. Someone’s going ham on the Brandon Flowers impression but I can’t see them through the crowd. Nearly everyone in here is a student from the neighborhood universities- a lot of exchange kids, like us, and international students, but locals, too, and Brandon Flowers enthusiasts, apparently.
“Human” finally ends, thank god; it’s succeeded by “Toxic” by Britney Spears then what feels like eighteen Maroon 5 songs (this is routine, French millennials have a shocking affinity for Maroon 5). Finally a group of Spanish girls wrench the mic away and get started on a round of songs you’d probably hear at a discoteca in Barcelona circa 2008. I don’t know any Spanish but I know none of the lyrics are words you’d share with your grandmother. We all sing along anyways, tuneless and wordless, at the top of our lungs, smushed together with hips swinging and hair flying. Someone elbows me in the back and apologizes in a language I couldn’t identify; two songs later this stranger and I are side by side on the mic, hollering the chorus to “Empire State of Mind.”
Wednesday night karaoke isn’t exactly in line with the utopia envisioned during the early days of the French Republic. For all the work France has done to hype up the fantasy of Paris, they’ve also got fantasies of their own, of a country where skin color and religion and ethnicity don’t matter because you’re French first and everything else second. But when I look out into the sea of singers, flickering under the light of the projector and casting shadows against the wall, I don’t think I want that.
I’d rather sing lewd songs with Spanish girls, or wait in line for the bathroom with an Algerian grad student from Marseille, or mix up scarves and hats with a group of kids who took the train one stop from the banlieue to get here. Very few people in that bar would tick “French” as their only identity, given the choice, and that upsets a lot of right-wing secularists. For them, there is such a thing as too global, and when I look at the Starbucks across from campus, I understand why they’re worried. But inside that bar is the future of Paris. It’s diverse and loud and probably singing “Thriller,” not that anybody’s too concerned with the fate of the country at the moment. We don’t come here to talk about politics or women’s rights or immigration. We’re here because it’s a Wednesday, and on Wednesday everyone goes to Le Fleurus to sing their hearts out.