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Letter from Paris: Multiculturalism, homelessness and cookware

June 12th, 2009 · 15 Comments

This is a strange moment for me, but this post brings all of you news that I am going to be writing from France and Italy very temporarily. That means I’ll still be following the usual Vancouver civic dramas, thanks to the wonders of modern and technology and ongoing emails from my spies, but I’ll be mixing that in with my doings here for the next four weeks.Blogging is such an intense and non-stop activity that it’s a dilemma for those of us who do it as part of our journalism jobs to figure out what to do when we go away from the usual site of our activities — keep writing and pretend we’re still there? go dark for the duration? post only about our away-from-home activities? I’m choosing a bit of 1 and 3, as I do some work over here along with, um, perhaps enjoying myself a little.

I missed posting a few things while I was in the whirl of getting ready to leave, leaving, and then arriving: Constance Barnes’ news release about her drinking problem, police charges, and what she’s doing about them; Vancouver council’s decision on parking reductions; the ongoing hullaballoo about the fact that Penny Ballem made some good money doing consultancy work in Ontario. More on that, as warranted.

But in the meantime, here I am in Paris, the city that most urbanists see as a Mecca. It’s got a great transit system, lovely walkable streets that seem to draw people out, and a philosophy that the civic government is responsible for making the city as pleasant to live in as possible. During the summer, they put on fabulous free concerts in the parks and turn one part of the Seine into an impromptu beach called Paris Plage. They’ve got the coolest bike-sharing system – so cool that the stylish gray bikes have been displayed in some Japanese design museum — and a great transit system. And the whole city is an enticement to walking and conducting life out on the street.

So far in my first 48 hours, what’s struck me is:

How comfortably multicultural it is. Yesterday, an older man I was interviewing talked mournfully about how no real Parisians live in Paris any more because all of the “people from elsewhere” have taken over the city. It doesn’t seem that way to me, because 80 per cent of the people we see look like they have been taken straight from French Movie Central Casting – the old toothless guys with their glass of wine, parked at the dingy counter of some hole-in-the-wall bar, the hip young French women in little boots and black tights, the men who look like they just walked out of Paco Rabanne commercial with their perpetually not-quite-shaven faces.

But there are new Central Casting characters who seem to fit right in: the new generation from around the world. We got a ringside seat last night when we were having dinner at Café Charbon on Rue Oberkampf, the Commercial Drive of Paris.

Next to us at the row of sidewalk tables were two young women – one the classic Paris type, pale and dark-haired, and her friend, who looked north African, with her hair in cornrows — who seemed to know half the people who passed by in front. A couple of young men joined them for a while, one black, the other not, both with their motorcycle helmets tucked under their arms. At one point, a young Chinese guy came up and distributed kisses and handshakes all around. Later on, a couple of Arab-looking men came along and said hello to the group. And they all spoke that beautiful French that gets taught here, where every sentence sounds like it was written by a philosophy professor.

The homeless are around if you look. Like any Vancouverite who travels, I’m always aware of how other cities compare when it comes to having drug users, the mentally ill and homeless visible on the streets. Only a few cities I know of have the kind of open drug use that exists in the Downtown Eastside. Certainly there’s nothing like that here that I’ve seen. And, although I did see a few people in our midnight walk around Paris version of the east side who looked as though they could do with some medication and a few panhandlers, it wasn’t more than that.

But the homeless are here. On the way in from the airport, I saw a row of tents lined up under a viaduct near Porte La Chapelle. Strangely, all the tents were identical, with the same logo. Is there an agency distributing them to the homeless here? I’ll have to check on that. And nearby, a group of people were waiting with squeegees at the intersection, the tent city’s residents, I presumed, making a little money.

And as we walked through the Parc de Belleville at lunch, there were at least a dozen men sleeping on the lawn or on the benches along the pathways. They didn’t look to me as though they were napping away the effects of a three-course lunch with wine.

Even palaces of consumption have their revolutionary side. I went to visit the famous Paris kitchenware store, Dehillerin. I had expected a chichi Williams-Sonoma-style place. Instead, it looked like a hardware store. As the fifth-generation owner explained to me in an interview, that’s on purpose. Eric Dehillerin and all his staff believe it’s important to focus on the quality and comprehensiveness of the cookware, not silly stuff like candle-holders and gourmet muffin mix. Food is serious, food is work, and so are the utensils for cooking food. This is not a place for trendy pretend cooks.

More to come. Now I’m off for a glass of wine and some people-watching.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Lovely! I do look forward to more observations on how the European cities compare with Vancouver. When I am traveling I often find that it is more exciting to find the ‘exotic’ in places that are similar, than to find the ‘similar’ in places that are exotic.

    Meanwhile, back at home….Council approved some reductions in parking standards, but refused to go all the way…and at the last minute, decided not to impose a cap on the maximum number of spaces as recommended by staff, since it feared this could deter the development of family housing in the downtown. (I’m not making this up!)

    As for supporting a more comprehensive review of parking policies….NYET! or as the French would say…NON!

    And as for my suggestion to start charging for on street parking in some higher density residential areas, (to help fund better cycling and public transit) Geoff Meggs accused me of channeling Fred Bass.

    Bon voyage.

  • Frothingham

    Michael Geller, are you suggesting that I should be charged to park on my street? Would you propose that the sur-charge be in effect 24/7 or some other combo? Would you have the City put in more parking meters in these “higher density residential” areas…?

    What a blight that would be.

  • Bill Lee

    Sarkosy pulling back on Paris plans.

    Earlier story of the homeless in red tents in my district of St. Martin (10th district)

    and the MsF initiative in this tent trial (and shaming) Seems like Woodward’s old Hastings and Abbot protest.

    And of course much more en francais.

    Going to give us coordinates for our Google Streetviews of Paris and environs?

  • umnhn, Michael has a point. But when it comes to a French reaction to anything to do with regulating parking, the real reaction would be a minor explosion of air from pursed lips coupled with a slight forward shrug of the shoulders. Parking. You just do it.

    As for homelessness…check out the people sleeping in the tunnels connecting the Gare Lyon with the #1 line. The day before you arrived, a middle aged woman had neatly arranged a series of freebie magazines under her close in by the wall so she could sleep out of the traffic but not directly on the floor. She was part of a line of people tucked away where the flic didn’t seem to care. It’s not the Downtown Eastside, but it is there.

  • I think the onus is really on car users to provide a logical rationale as to why they are entitled to more public space than other residents… rather than claiming it must be so because it has always been so.

  • Corey

    Nice observation about Dehillerin. My wife also tells me that this is the chief reason behind the dowdy look of some Chinese restaurants, despite their serving delicious food – the concentration is on the quality of the food, not how the place looks.

    Great cuisines think alike?

  • Frances,

    Please enjoy Paris and as you look across to Montparnasse from the steps of Sacré-Coeur note that obtrusive stump obstructing the sky-line. It is the last high rise Paris will suffer: Parisiennes wont tolerate any of that stuff. Stick ’em where the Sun don’t shine they say: à La Defense!

    Which brings me to the beating-up I get when try I relate the semiotics of Vancouver with our, increasingly sorry, image broad:

    We cannot do damage to the world, or indeed our town, and expect the old Pearson-esque impressions to be respected any more.

    We just ain’t as lovable as we thinq we are . . .

  • Frothingham, Twenty five years ago, I proposed the introduction of pay parking on Granville Island in order to help fund the construction of new parking facilities. This was not popular, but today visitors to the island have a choice…free parking and pay parking…and there is a parking garage which does help address the parking situation.

    I appreciate that proposals to start charging for parking that has traditionally been free will generally be very unpopular, and do little to help me make new friends! But, we do charge for on street parking in some areas, and I question why we shouldn’t charge for on-street parking in other areas, IF, and this is a big if, we could be assured that the monies collected would be directed toward improved public transit and improved facilities for cyclists and pedestrians.

    So while not wanting to detract from Frances’ letters from abroad, I am proposing that we undertake a comprehensive analysis to review the pricing of on-street parking permits…

    For example, it seems foolish for the city to allow people who live in the West End in apartment buildings with empty parking spaces, to pay a fraction of the cost to park on the city street in front of their building.

    I also think it is foolish for the city to not charge for parking from 7 in the morning until 9, or for that matter, after 8, when this could generate millions of dollars that could be directed toward transit improvements. Impark doesn’t stop charging at 8….why should the city? Eventually we should charge for 24 hour parking.

    And yes, I am advocating that we consider expanding the areas where pay parking is in effect, on a phased basis, provided the monies are directed to other transportation improvements. For further thoughts on parking, check out my recent guest editorial at

  • Frances Bula


    Oh yes, I have often noticed the lovely Tour Montparnasse. It’s sticking up in the background of a photo that an elderly gentleman from Marseille kindly took of us at the Parc de Belleville — hard to miss.

    But I should say that one thing I notice when I explore outside the central arrondissements is that you DO see apartment towers here of 10/12 storeys in some areas. There were at least a couple in Belleville — a newer area, and also built on a hill so that a higher tower can be built in without being too unobtrusive.

    There was an interesting story in the IHTribune the day before yesterday about Paris’s struggles to provide affordable housing, while not daring to build too high.

  • gmgw

    Michael G:
    This is going to make me sound like Darcy, but for quite some time now it has been justifiably argued that Granville Island should not have *any* free parking. Eight million visitors a year come to GI, and far too many of them arrive by car. It’s felt that if parking on the Island was to be made more difficult, visitors would then be encouraged to find other means of getting to GI. Unfortunately, that rose (green-?)-coloured vision presupposes that practical, workable, appealing alternative means of access to GI would be brought into being; but that has not yet happened despite decades of lip service being paid to the subject. At various times increased ferry service, a pedestrian bridge across False Creek (this one has recently come up for discussion again), an elevator down from the Granville Bridge, and scheduled bus service onto and off GI have all been proposed (the latter was actually in place for several years, running between the Market and Granville & Broadway; it was heavily subsidized by CMHC, but was eventually cancelled due to lack of use). CMHC Granville Island has always vigourously opposed any plan to restrict or discourage automobile access to the Island. And with the downturn in sales suffered by many GI businesses over the past few years– including but not restricted to the Market merchants– their position is unlikely to change; in fact, for some years they have been proposing to take over half of the Ocean Cement site and build a multistorey parking garage. And there things continue to sit for the moment.

    As for your proposal to extend citywide metered parking even farther into the evening, even out to 24 hours (are there any other cities that do this?), I’m going to go into reactionary mode. What makes you think that the funds derived from same would be used for transit improvements? It didn’t happen when metering was extended to the already outrageous 8 PM; it’s doubtful it would happen now. And by the way, when was the last time *you* caught a bus out of, say, downtown at, say, midnight on a Saturday night? When was the last time you did so because you had no other choice of transportation? Ever stepped in a puddle of vomit on a jam-packed Hastings bus, or had your wife or daughter groped on a crowded late-night Fraser bus? This sort of proposal is just one more tactic proposed by limousine liberals in the ongoing campaign to ramp up the demonization and punishment of drivers of cars. But the end is already in sight. You think that permanent >$2 a litre gas isn’t going to have the same discouraging effect you seek? Just wait. Things are getting difficult enough already for drivers in this town without breaking out even bigger bludgeons.

  • Oh Frances, don’t get me going.

    I hope you are staying in a real hotel: i.e. anywhere close to Place du Tertre. As for affordability, as per lower income tourists like me, the hotel corridors there are barely wide enough for two to pass and hey . . . so you rub bums with the chamber maid . . . no prob!

    Most banlieues (don’t go there) have 12+/- blocks: i.e Neuilly closer in. Coffee for my grandson and I, 2006, cost us C$20+ at Monoprix and if that’s a reflection on local living expenses no wonder the IHTribune writes about it: hell the banlieues do more that write . . .

    Yeah, the ” lovely Tour Montparnasse” . . .

    Enjoy . . .

  • gmgw

    This is a rather confusing thread, since it seems to combine commentary both on Paris and on Vancouver issues. Having said that, I have a few belated comments on the Paris side of things:

    To Michael Geller: You really want to compare Paris and (choke) Vancouver? Here’s a comparison: Paris= Catherine Deneuve. Vancouver= Paris Hilton.

    Frances: The multiculturalism you’ve observed– and Paris is arguably the most culturally diverse city in the world– is in large part the legacy of colonialism and liberal immigration policies for citizens of former French colonies (call it guilt). Some of those young people you observed may have learned their impeccable French in school, in Algeria, or Cameroon, or in Tunisia. And some of them may be third-generation Parisians. It really is an extraordinary thing to experience, isn’t it?

    The flip side of the scene you describe is to be found in the banlieue, or suburbs, outside the encircling Peripherique (the mega-freeway that circles central Paris). There’s where you’ll find the immigrants who haven’t the wherewithal to acquire the sheen and polish of the sophistoes (many of them wealthy) you saw. In the bleak housing estates of towns like Clichy-Sous-Bois, northeast of Paris and the epicentre of the rioting that received so much media coverage a couple of years ago, you will find hard realities that the French government fervently hopes that tourists don’t hear about.

    But the African presence, as you no doubt noted in Belleville, is inside the Peripherique as well; especially in the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements, Paris’s “east end”; the one-time working-class districts of Paris and the home base of the Communards. Reportedly something like 10% of France’s population is now Muslim and there are entire blocks in neighbourhoods like those near the Porte de la Chapelle where it’s possible to imagine you’re in Tunis. There are also entire areas of towns like Clichy-Sous-Bois into which it is not safe for a white person to venture after dark. The rioting of a couple of years ago was a wake-up call that all is not well in Sarkoland. Either the French will have to abandon once and for all the xenophobic attitudes of Le Pen and the Front Nationale and find a way to give their new neighbours a bigger slice of the pie, or they risk a societal meltdown that will make the riots (which also took place in Lyon and other major cities) seem like a tea party. The seeds of disaster are germinating right now in the banlieue. And every time a CRS cop beats up an Arab kid from the ‘burbs just because the kid was in the wrong neighbourhood at the wrong time of day, the scale tips a little more. (The CRS are the special anti-riot police and are noted for their brutality, especially toward immigrants. You see groups of these thugs– Parisians joke that CRS stands for “Cons, Racistes & Salauds”– everywhere in central Paris, lounging about in front of their armored vans and challengingly staring at passersby.) There is much that Sarkozy could and should be doing, but thus far he shows little sign of fully understanding what’s at stake. His belligerent tough-guy stance during the riots didn’t help matters much.

    Re the homeless in Paris: They’ve been there for a long, long time. They used be called “Les Clochards” (now, of course, there’s a rock band by that name). Both Emile Zola and Victor Hugo wrote about them in the 19th century; what do you think “Les Miserables” was all about? The eponymous central character of Jean Renoir’s great 1932 film “Boudu Saved From Drowning” romanticized the clochard’s existence. The realities of homelessness in today’s Paris are considerably grimmer than Renoir’s humourous vision, and the perceptible gap between rich and poor is as wide as ever. Both Zola and Hugo, were they to return to life, would be appalled at how, in many small but telling ways, little has changed.

    Re palaces of consumption: Perhaps you’ve already been to Place de la Madeleine, one of the shrines of high-end foodiedom in Paris. The phenomenal window displays of Fauchon, Hediard and several other stores compete for your attention. Proust used to come to these stores to buy his madeleines (see “Swann’s Way” for much more detail). That’s Paris for you– again and again, you can be innocently walking down a street when history suddenly reaches out and grabs you by the throat. No wonder it’s my favourite city on the planet.

  • gmgw

    Re the Tour Montparnasse, I made a passing comment about it in another thread a couple of months ago– that Parisians’ standing joke about the Tour is that the best view in Paris is to be had from its observation floor, because it’s the only place in Paris from which you can’t see the damn thing. It really is one of the all-time great planning disasters.

    Frances, good on you for getting to Belleville– it’s a fascinating neighbourhood, with an extraordinary history (for those who don’t know, it’s the old working-class district of Paris, built on a steep hill, and it was the scene of much political strife in the late 19th century), but it used to be way off the beaten path for tourists. As recently as the early 80s there were large areas of unaltered, ungentrified 19th-century buildings and streetscapes that were still intact, though run down. The fact that Belleville was somewhat forgotten and largely unchanged until fairly recently has, ironically, made it a prime area for gentrification and redevelopment– no one in power cared enough to try to preserve it, and no one in power would have listened to the lower-income people who lived there had they organized to stop the wave of trendies moving in and taking it upscale (read: no longer affordable). Now, god help me, Belleville and Menilmontant have become chic. Think of recent changes to the Commercial Drive neighbourhood– and the reaction of longtime residents– for a possible, though wholly inadequate, analogy.

  • “To Michael Geller: You really want to compare Paris and (choke) Vancouver? Here’s a comparison: Paris= Catherine Deneuve. Vancouver= Paris Hilton.”

    I prefer to think that Vancouver=Carole Taylor!

  • Michael,

    Not Carol! She very beautiful and sort of, with Art, yesterday’s “Executive City” . . . blips on a screen and look were that’s got us!

    For Vancouver read Bif Naked . . . Bif is . . . well crazy . . .

    Not Catherine. She’s very beautiful too . . . like my grandmother . . .

    For Paris Anouk Aimée any day . . . she’s sexy and mysterious just like the city . . .