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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.

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