Letter from Paris

Bob Thomson, Ottawa, 10 October 2011

Returning to Paris for a month after our 3 year sojourn 3 years ago, I ran across Brazilian Dominican scholar Frei Betto's online "farewell to Europe" (1) and his assertion that Europe has become an ethnic cauldron. In four brief weeks, I discovered this for myself.

In the Passage des Voûtes behind a multinational chain hotel on the banks of the St. Martin and Ourcq canals in north-east Paris, a Guadeloupan Rasta proudly showed me his state of the art recording studio jammed into two tiny cubicles under an arch of the abandoned rail line from Bastille to Boissy-Saint-Léger. In this one block alleyway, Afro French poets, sculptors, musicians, painters and motorcycle mechanics have survived a 2007 effort to expel them and have turned a syringe filled back street into an enclave of the creativity which can flow from an ethnic cauldron.

A few blocks away, the Resto du Coeur soup kitchen serves 900 meals a day, compared to the 300 once a week when my wife volunteered there three years ago. In one morning at their food bank, we witnessed a stream of humanity from Mali, Chechnya, China, Russia, Romania, Algeria, Kazakhstan, France, Ecuador and who knows where else, queueing for canned tomatoes, white beans, cous cous, rice and dozens of other products, while volunteers greeted regular clients with "Ni Hao" and a dozen African dialects, and valiantly tried to make their desperate recourse to charity a more dignified experience.

In our favourite Latin restaurant, a Peruvian and Chilean argued over the national origin of Pisco, a fiery grape brandy. The Chilean claimed he won, pointing out that it got its name from the Peruvian port of Pisco from which the Spanish shipped wine, as well as some of the thousands of tonnes of gold and silver stolen from the Incas to finance the industrial revolution, and later minerals stolen from the slave labour of indigenous miners.

Over lunch a Cameroonian journalist friend regaled me with his archival discoveries and a project to build a memorial to the thousands of women killed in French hostage camps circa 1905 in French equatorial Africa (2) while waiting for their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons to come out of the bush to "volunteer" as labourers for French colonial projects. Another unremembered holocaust!

And as Frei Betto points out, all this in the same city where fashion houses, art galleries, architectural tours, gourmet wine tastings, bankers and dethroned IMF chieftains blithely go about a way of life that consumes energy and other peoples money at a rate destined to bankrupt Europe.

1. http://alainet.org/active/49814
2. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k2507349.texte