On my first proper day here in Neuilly-sur-Marne, I walked down to the local shops to get some groceries. The first thing that struck me was just how many immigrants there were in the area. It was just like being back in Tottenham or Edmonton. But, for some strange reason that I just could not comprehend, I didn’t feel comfortable. This really bugged me. All of my friends are black FFS! I’ve lived in areas like this all my life. Why the hell do I feel uncomfortable here? Is it the fact that I’m in a different country where I don’t speak the language? Whatever it is, it’s really bugging me.

As the days went by, I noticed a group of guys that always hung around outside a specific shop. Are they dealing drugs? Are they running some kind of criminal activity?

Today I thought, “Bollocks! I’m not having this. I cannot, and will not, think this way.”

So, I went up to the guys and asked them if I could take their photo. There were four of them. The tallest guy seemed to be the leader and was fine with it. He also spoke pretty good English. The others weren’t too sure.

“Why you want to make photo of us?”

“He’s not beautiful.”, followed by guffaws of laughter.

“No, none of you are beautiful. But, you all have very interesting faces. You look good. You look interesting.”

I could see that they were all drinking from little plastic cups. One of the guys put a condition to me.

“You can only make photo if you drink rum with us.”

“OK. After photo. Photo first.”

“No. Rum first!”

The tall guy said something to the others in French, which I assumed to be words to the effect of, ‘leave him alone, he can take his photos’.

I fired off a few frames, none of which were really what I was after because they were all (apart from the tall guy) intent on posing. I wanted something more casual, more natural. At one point, the more drunk of the four, who couldn’t speak a word of English and insisted on talking to me in French, even started posing with his little yappy dog. No, this wasn’t what I wanted.

The banter continued as I took my photos. Until I was finally done and, seemingly realising this, they went back to their own conversations and their drinking. They began to turn their backs to me. But, I didn’t want this to be over. Not yet.

“Hey, what about my rum?”

Immediately the banter and the laughter resumed. One of them rushed into the shop to get me a clean cup. A little bit of brown sugar, a healthy squeeze of fresh lime juice and a good shot of pale yellow rum. While my drink was being prepared, I continued talking to them. They were all from the Caribbean, Martinique (a former French colony) in particular.

“This is really good rum.”

“You like? It’s from Guatemala.”

“Yeah, it tastes really good. Really smooth.”

“Tastes better with a joint. You want?”

“No, I’m too old for that stuff now. When I was younger, yeah sure. But not now.”

They all laughed at that. We continued to talk, they asked me if I’d been to the Notting Hill Carnival. I told that I had, many times. I told them that my two best friends were from Trinidad and that I’d visited Trinidad and Tobago. This met with nods of approval. The tall guy said that he had been to the UK but never at the right time for the Carnival.

And then it was over. It wasn’t quite 03:00pm and I walked back to the house feeling slightly buzzed and very, very happy.

As we had stood there chatting and drinking, various other guys, some black some Asian, had come along. All had said “bonjour” to me and all had shook my hand.

What a fool I’d been to forget the lessons that life had taught me.

We are all human. We all deserve respect and civility. Be polite. Be friendly. Be genuine. Be human. That’s all that is required of any of us. Just be a real human being, just like everybody else is a real human being.