Archive for August, 2011

Just a South-of-France update, for those of you who are interested in social justice and/or camping in the great outdoors for months on end with no toilets or running water.

The local administrative court in Marseille has just approved a decree authorizing the evacuation (read: expulsion) of a Roma encampment near the city’s Porte d’Aix, which you might remember as the sad southern cousin of the Arc de Triomphe. The neighborhood is at the edge of Marseille, near the highway that leads to Aix-en-Provence (Hence “The door of Aix”. They make so much sense, these Frenchmen.), and every day (well, four days a week) for seven months, when I returned to Marseille from Martigues or Aix-en-Provence, I would pass the tent city on the side of the road,  frequently illuminated by bonfires and animated by children playing, surrounded by the most ordinary of life’s detritus: broken strollers, plastic bags, food scraps.

By most accounts, the place was disgusting, probably extremely unsanitary, and its residents would undoubtedly have benefitted from a better living situation. The problem is, however, that their current situation is being taken away from them, with no real alternatives being proposed. Several times since the beginning of the national campaign against the gypsies who are just bringin’ everybody down in France, humanitarian groups have spoken up to suggest Emergency Housing Centers and work programs for these immigrants, many of whom, as illegal immigrants, aren’t allowed to work in France, make their living on petty crimes and begging. But it is rare for such centers to materialize, as a well-publicized announcement in February to open an emergency center in April has failed to yield any tangible results in Marseille. And even when such centers do open, they are likely to close soon after due to lack of funding or general ineffectiveness.

The camp is periodically evacuated, but after several weeks or months, the debris reappears, the bonfire resumes, and it’s business as usual for its residents. By most indications, this expulsion does not appear to be any different, but the process grows tiring, and city leaders can only effectively express sympathy to the tent city inhabitants’ plight for so long. Marseille mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, justifies the expulsion from a humanitarian perspective: “conditions of despicableness [I am dubious about this translation, WordReference], extreme precariousness, insecurity and wretchedness”. So sure, the living conditions are terrible, JC. Are you going to suggest long-term positive social change? Probably, right? This guy sounds legit.

“These people, there are too many of them, we wish they’d go somewhere else.” – Marseille mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, five days earlier.


Yes, because of this encampment, the Porte d’Aix neighborhood by the Gare St. Charles has a distinctly shoddy feel. People living without water or toilets are risking their health, yes! They shouldn’t have to stay there!  But forcing them out without offering up a viable Plan B is just dooming this population to repeat this same exact story time and time again in a kind of bizarro Whack-A-Mole situation. And full disclosure, I might not be as interested in this if I hadn’t witnessed the comings and goings of this particular camp for seven months. This is by far the most esoteric and self-serving post this blog has seen. Not sure why you’re still reading. But it gives me a good soapbox from which I can chastise this group of lawmakers for treating the symptoms, and not the causes of a population in crisis.

Obviously this is all indicative of a larger trend in France, as you may remember Sarkozy ranting against the damage Roma do to the fabric of society blah blah et cetera. But as much as news stories and blog posts and public forums are dedicated to the reasoning behind their expulsion, next to no one talks about the end result: where do these people go? When you’ve built a life, however modest, what must it feel like to be told that not just you but your entire ethnic group has to abandon it? It turns out, it’s all the more cruel when the French government has decided that their destination is going to be You-don’t-gotta-go-home-but-you-gotta-get-the-hell-up-out-of-here-istan.

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The short of it: Jean-Louis Hecht a French baker, tired of drunk people around the Canal Saint-Martin knocking on his door looking for baguettes after the brasseries and bars had closed, installed a baguette vending machine outside his bakery that will deliver a baguette into the inebriated hands of anyone willing to cough up the slightly-expensive-for-a-baguette-but-if-you’re-paying-Paris-drink-prices-it’s-not-that-bad 1 euro.

I know what you’re thinking. Bread from a vending machine? Yuck. EXCEPT because it’s France they’ve got this covered. The machine stores pre-cuite/mostly pre-cooked baguettes, then when you slide in your magical 1e coin, IT HEATS IT UP AND DELIVERS IT TO YOU WARM AND CRUSTY AND DELICIOUS I PRESUME.

Previously, unless you were willing to stay out until the bakeries opened shop at 5am, your late-night food options were pretty much limited to stale épicerie bread that even your drunk palate tells you is disgusting.


On the other hand, this Jean-Louis Hecht fellow thinks this is going to do for bakeries what ATMs did for banks, which just seems false. The money you get out of an ATM is the same as the money you get from a teller, but even medium-grade baguette snobs such as myself will, if given the choice, pick a baguette fresh from the baker’s loving hands over soulless industrial bread cranked out like a Snickers bar or that hot dog vending machine that was in Lerner for like a month. But as I, like most people, generally become less discerning between the hours of 1 and 6 am, I say bring on the sketchy poorly lit ATM and the vending machine baguette! Talk about convenience!

If you’re interested, the vending machine in question is on Paris’ Avenue Mathurin-Moreau, in the 19th arrondissement, a mere stone’s throw away from the French Communist Party’s headquarters and the landfill-turned-park at Buttes Chaumont.

Seriously, if they expand this to crepes and/or waffles I might consider moving back to Paris.


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I have been back in New York for a week now, working at a small private bank where for the moment I collate and staple, but where I will hopefully eventually work in business development with an international client base.

I am sitting at a desk, where I’ve been for the last 7 hours with few interruptions, with a can of Coke Zero and an empty Snickers wrapper on the table in front of me.

Hardly a healthy lifestyle, I think we can all agree, and I can already feel the heart disease setting in, as a tiny French voice whispers in my ear that I should be taking two-hour-long lunch breaks and shopping at the market unless I want to end up as an obese American.

But then, in the way that reading 131 news articles in a day from boredom tends to encourage, the Internet comforts me with this tidbit:

As the United States struggles to cope with obesity rates, France is often looked to as a counterexample. Yet obesity is on the rise there as well now, and though French culinary traditions are often credited with keeping people trim, some worry those eating habits are under assault.

The most interesting part about this article to me is how it doesn’t even try to argue that typically French eating habits aren’t fundamentally healthier than their American counterparts. Home-cooked meals = good. MacDo’s = bad. And the problem here is that the American culture of convenience is infringing upon France’s right to two-hour lunches.

As you can maybe tell, I am incredibly conflicted by this assumption. On the one hand, yes, moving away from the traditions of French gastronomie is proving detrimental to France’s collective waistline. But on the other, I find it lazy to blame this shift entirely on American influence. France is a strong nation with a strong national culture, and to say that individuals in France are the victims of a tyricannical American fast-food culture is ridiculous. France is the second-largest McDonald’s market, not because it was forced upon them,  but because they like Big Macs just as much as anyone (perhaps even more so, because they’re willing to pay like $15 for a medium value meal).

Luckily, France is never going to be as fat as the US. Their appreciation for good ingredients and ceremony in their dinner routine is, at least in my experience, stronger than an urgent desire for convenience. And although the article points out that rural residents who drive everywhere are more likely to be obese, they are likely to walk more than their American counterparts. Unlike the suburban sprawl and SUV wastelands that I know all too well, even most small towns in France have a definable city center, where residents can and often do walk to get their daily baguette. But I digress.

The lesson, children, is that a balance between convenience and health is possible, both in France and America. A home-cooked meal is important, even when you’re all I LIVE IN NEW YORK I’M TOO BUSY, but Parisians aren’t going to start riding around on mobility scooters because of their lunchtime jambon-beurres. Everyone just needs to calm down. Jeez.

[“The French Are Getting Fatter, Too” via NPR]

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