Friday, February 09, 2007

Some thoughts from Paris

There are two things which I noticed in my time in Paris, which never struck me the first time I came here. That time I came for 6 days, like a wide-eyed tourist awestruck by the grandeur and beauty of Paris. It's been more than 2 months here, and since I've been "living" here, it's been a different experience - especially regarding food and race.

- Race

There's a huge African population in Paris, and like one encounters South Asians in London, Hispanics in California, it's Africans here. The area I live in is largely African, though a short walk away from the more gentrified Montmartre area. What amazes me is how comfortable they feel. A large number of them continue wearing clothes which I presume they wear back in Africa, but nobody seems to care. It's pretty common to see a big group walk into the metro, talking loudly, wearing clothes completely different from everyone else, and nobody seems to find it weird. Somehow GAP and Benetton haven't affected their sense of fashion, and it's nice to see them walking around wearing whatever they feel like.

The other thing I noticed, which I hardly saw in the US, is the large number of inter-racial couples and groups of friends. Seeing a Black person cuddling up with a white partner in a cafe seems pretty normal, as is seeing a bunch of mixed students in the university hanging out together joking around. It helps that universities are free. Somehow, I never saw such free and open mixing of races anywhere in the US. It wasn't too segregated there and Asian students and professionals mixed fairly well but blacks and hispanics weren't that visible in most places.

Maybe it's because Africans are the largest minority and there aren't as many Hispanics and Asians, and also the fact that I haven't seen anything outside Paris and its suburbs. It's far more relaxed here and I don't get the impression that an African feels out of place anywhere. Their football team is actually quite a just reflection of how comfortable the French (or at least Parisians) are with Africans in their midst. I noticed the diversity the first time I came but never noticed how comfortable everyone feels.

- Food

I found the story a bit dismaying. Banning street food in Delhi is one of the most unjust and stupid acts I've read about. Food is something Parisians are religious about, and although the restaurants aren't as diverse as in a big US city, the quality is simply amazing.

There are quite a few McDonald's and Starbucks outlets in Paris, and they seem to be reasonably busy. I remember reading about how Parisians were stoning the first McDonalds but somehow they've accepted its presence. What's interesting is the one near Notre Dame has a small creperie next to it. And next to the Starbucks are about 2-3 other cafes. All of them are busy, and I guess it's a good example of how free markets should work. Banning a particular kind of food, because it doesn't taste good or is unhygienic is stupid. The same judges should be sent to Paris and shown how food is made.

What makes the food so great is the rawness. The average Crepe maker never wears gloves and has no problems wiping his brow and then rolling the crepe. It's the same in all the food markets, and there are tonnes of them everywhere. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be found everywhere, within walking distance of every neighbourhood, as well as small boulangeries, patisseries, fromageries and boutcheries. If you buy anything from there, there's no obsession with hygiene nor are things packaged excessively. Some of the markets seem as dirty as chaotic as one would encounter in India. There are big supermarkets, but like the McDonalds and small creperie, they seem to being doing alright inspite of each other's presence next to each other.

My corner boulangerie worker knows I live 2 mins from there and gives me my bread with a small piece of paper wrapped around it. Since I live on my own, my intake of fruits, vegetables and meat is small, and I prefer to pick up small amounts every other day than head to a huge supermarket and stock up for 2 weeks. It's possible to pick up 2 or 3 types of fruits, some vegetables and pay the guy who's standing outside talking to his friend, in cash, without getting a receipt or a bag. If my French was better, I could try haggling, but I find things so cheap after the US, that I don't care. Inspite of the lack of attention paid to hygiene, I haven't had any health problems.


Rahul said...

Curiously, I too mentioned Paris's diverse African population and inter-racial couples yesterday.

The thing I liked about boulangeries was that they're willing to give you a half-baguette. One baguette is too much for one person, and it doesn't store well, unless you can heat it in a proper oven (not microwave) which I didn't have...

I've been enjoying your posts on the city, should thank s. for pointing out your blog. I don't think I've met you, so despite the photo it took some time to figure out who you were.

Tabula Rasa said...

i don't think the food is great *because* of the 'rawness' that you mention -- more like, *despite* the rawness. you're probably confusing correlation with causation here. (fwiw, i agree that the food is great -- loved it when i was there.)

Szerelem said...

Hmmm I wouldn't agree with you about the Arab/African minorities feeling necessarily at home in France. I agree that Paris is very multicultural and that you do see a lot of inter racial couples and groups in Paris. But the bigger picture is still pretty dismal. One reason the minorities have pretty much maintained their culture is due to the fact that they do live very segregated lives. There are areas of Paris that are pretty much only African or Arab. And there has been no effort at integration at all (the French aim at assimilation) and second generation immigrants are stranded in the middle of no where. The French probably dont have a problem with race but they are paranoid about religion and becoming the centre of Eurabia. They are also intensely anal about their secularism so the discrimination and racism comes out in more subtle ways.

It's interesting you mention the football team, because when they won in 1998 there was such a huge celebration of it being representative of the new France. It was a bit premature and superficial to say that. For one football isn't played by the middle classes in France - it is very popular in the housing areas where the immigrants live and that is why there are so many black and arab people in the team. Most white people don't really care that much about the football team - it changed (during the WC) when they started winning of course. And also in Paris football is associated with hooliganism (especially over the last couple of years or so) especially when it comes to PSG matches. Which is basically supported by immigrants and blacks.

Btw, the area near the Louvre is full of Japanese immigrants and restaurants. Have you been there? It's a bit of a surreal experience :)

Rahul said...

szerelem -- there is indeed a problem with assimilation of the Arab immigrant population. The problem areas are not in Paris, but in the suburbs ("banlieues"). And it has nothing to do with religion. (And little to do with race, either.) It was only some clueless American journalists that kept using words like "jihad" and "intifada".

Even issues like the headscarf ban are more complex than international reporting suggests. A lot of support for the ban came from Muslims, who are trying to control fundamentalism in their midst. And the protests in France died away the moment some French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq and the kidnappers referred to the headscarf issue: French Muslims do not want to be associated with militant Islam.

I don't agree that the French are "paranoid" about religion at all.

bandafbab said...


I meant rawness more as a comparison to the excessive packaging and processing one encountered in the average grocery store in the US. Correlation and Causation? I'm a mathematician, these terms confuse me.


I was a bit wary of writing a post about race after barely 3 months of living here, but I was comparing it to my experience of living in the US for so many years. I've seen 2-3 suburbs fairly often (Asniere, Villeteneuse, St Germain) and they are fairly segregated depending on how expensive they are. Unlike the US, it's probably harder for immigrants to find jobs (it's been hard for me to just get paid!) but in terms of social interaction (like couples and groups of friends) the assimilation is far more positive.


Thanks. I was wary of generalising about things like universities, race, food, cafes after barely 3 months of living here, but it's good to know that you agree mostly - considering you spent 2 years here.

I knew your younger brother in college. We went hiking in Sikkim almost 10 years ago!

Tabula Rasa said...

okay. i thought when you said:

What makes the food so great is the rawness. The average Crepe maker never wears gloves and has no problems wiping his brow and then rolling the crepe.

that you were implying some sort of causality from the second sentence to the first. clearly i was mistaken and it was only correlational. (or maybe even casual :-D)

bandafbab said...


This is just a blog...not an academic paper to referee!

Anyway, I also wanted to point out the rawness (maybe that's not the right word) after reading about the Supreme Court banning street food in Delhi.

Rahul said...

Well, there are farmers markets in the US, which are usually pretty good, and I've seen crepes and other street food at street fairs in NYC. I agree that the US tends to be over-packaged. I don't see what's the harm in wearing gloves though...

But it is rare to fall ill from eating in Paris, whereas those who eat street food in Delhi do need a strong stomach.

bandafbab said...

There's no harm in wearing gloves or using prepackaged sanitised food. But if people are still willing to eat at these places, it shouldn't be banned - compared to what they're doing in Delhi. Someone who prefers the supposedly hygienic McDonald's food should be free to choose.

Likewise, smoking in cafes shouldn't be banned if people (including non-smokers) are willing to sit in a smoky cafe.

Rahul said...

I agree, why ban street food. And I don't see why the SC thinks they'll do it more hygienically if they cook at home.

The SC seems to have appropriated the Delhi Government's role to itself. The whole thing about demolishing businesses in "residential areas" (according to a 1970s "master plan") was stupid, too.

Smoky cafes I'm more ambivalent about, because "choice" hasn't worked -- no cafe declared itself smoke-free until the government mandated it, so it's working against the interests of 70% of the population.

bandafbab said...

Sometimes the Govt or Supreme Court can be right about banning something - when they decided all autorickshaws and buses had to use CNG, and moved out polluting factories from Delhi. There were lots of protests and I remember the outpouring of sympathy for taxi/auto drivers who had to wait in long queues at the limited CNG stations. But within a year things were running smoothly for the drivers.

When I left Delhi in 1999, the air was filthy, but each time I go back it's great to see the sky at night, and also go up to Raisina Hill and look down Rajpath all the way down. The air's much cleaner and it's made life far more pleasant for everyone.

Regarding smoking in cafes and bars, I think the owners should have the freedom to decide. Smokers shouldn't be treated like polluting taxis or buses.

Szerelem said...

@bandafbab: I guess youre right. The social interaction is probably much more positive but I havent heard very good things about economic interaction.

@Rahul: I never said that the French muslims were becoming radical or using terms like jihad or intifada. And I didnt follow American reporting on the riots but rather the French journals.
I am not sayin that just religion or race are a factor. You are right -it is more complicated than that. For one the French idea of muliticulturalism and secularism is well, as of now completely out of sync with the realities in that country. The seperation of the minorities in the housing estates has just made matters worse.

And yes there is a great plurality in the muslim community in France but the head scarf issue led to quite a divide. Also, perhaps paranoid was a wrong word to use. The French are staunchly, staunchly secular. I dont even know if secularism conveys the meaning of the term they use - laicite. And the growin number of muslims who are very publicly religious does make them uncomfortable because it is such an opposite to the french way of life. And I am not sayin that all french are paranoid about Muslims. Obviously not. But there are a fair number. have you heard the rhetoric of the right wing parties in France? They have a fair number of supporters dont they?

Tabula Rasa said...

i think the street food issue can be handled very well if there's someone willing to monitor the hygiene. after all, that's what they're worried about, right? and there are plenty of places in the world where absolutely delicious street food is sold, adequately monitored. unfortunately, somehow i don't think delhi's going to get a functional, non-corrupt, street-food monitoring system very soon.

fwiw i totally agree that mcdonald's type stuff is highly unhealthy too. read this for an eye-opener.

sorry about the reviewing - had a couple to do and got a nasty one back myself, so was in the mood :-|

Rahul said...

szerelem -- yes it's a complicated issue and you obviously know something about it. As for the right wing, they're all over Europe. I'm particularly disappointed by the Netherlands, which used to be the most liberal country in the world. At least in France they've remained at the 10-15% support level and don't have a hope of capturing power.

However, as for french laicite -- I'm totally of the opinion that if you want to live in France (or any foreign country) you should do as the locals do The French are just as justified in finding burqas offensive, as the Saudis are in finding bikinis offensive.

In fact, a jewellery shop in Pune recently tried to ban burqa-clad customers, after a spate of thefts. They had to back down. But it is a real issue.

And again, I really don't think this is the cause of the problems, except for a pretty small fringe minority. The majority of the disenchanted maghreb-origin people want to be more accepted by French society, not more apart. They object to the way they're treated by prospective employers, landlords, the police, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rahul:

You wrote that if one wants to live in france one should do as locals do.

What do locals do? Is it defined by what the simple majority of locals do, or by a supermajority?

Who gets to decide what is the french way of life?

Why does the french way of life necessarily have to be homogenous and unchanging? Why can't there be 62 million different french ways of life, one or few of which involve wearing a burqa?

Suppose there is only one main french way of life and if such a thing is identified, does it leave any room for the losers in this cultural contest to have any say in how they should live their lives, how they should dress?

Is it not at all possible that a french man or a woman might choose to become muslim ( if they were not already so by birth) and may choose to wear a burqa or a hijab?

Will that person, who was born in france and lived their whole life there, suddenly stop being french and will not be welcome?

Shouldn't a woman living in Saudi Arabia have the right to drive a car is she so pleases or wear a bikini?

Do you see how coercive it is to impose on everyone the values of the so called majority?

You sound so much like a very familiar enemy we have back home.

The Saudis and the French clearly don't understand the concept of individual liberty and nor do you.

A society can contract on any set of rules but a society which doesn't value or protect individual liberty will necessarily be an oppressive and coercive one.

I find your ideas offensive and retrogressive, just like you may find my burqa or my bikini offensive, but unlike you I am not going to trample on your liberty and your civil rights and on my own ideals, just so I can feel a litte more comfortable.

Muslim women in India have always worn burqas and there haven't been higher rates of jewelry theft in muslim dominated areas in India. The burqa ban in jewelry stores in france is just a pathetic example of how bigoted the french are and how petty the french are getting. It just harassment and if the BJP had passed such a law in Gujarat, I have no doubt that all of you would be able to see what I am talking about.


Rahul said...

I don't want to hijack this blog. Just one comment:

"The burqa ban in jewelry stores in france is just a pathetic example of how bigoted the french are and how petty the french are getting."

shows you didn't even read my post properly, much less think about it.

Rahul said...

ps - Anshuman - I've followed up here.