2 January 2016

Paris Prose: A Water Tale From Vicente Ulive-Schnell

Vincente Ulive-Schnell, photo by Mickael Moine


My husfriend’s friend Vicente (Ulive-Schnell aka Vinny), who I’ve stolen as my friend too, told me a story during our pondering over #Cop21 which initiated introspection from my ignorant Western self.

I was going to retell the story in my own words, but since I’ve got the memory of a gold fish and Vicente is a bad ass writer who can perfectly produce poetic prose in three damn languages, I figured he’d do a better job.

To top off being a writer of the bad ass variety, he’s a bad ass human too with enough intellect, interest and thoughtful reflection to render you speechless. He's a story teller with a written and spoken voice that carries you through his thoughts the way your mother's storytelling used to do (though he sounds more like a buddy of Jack Kerouac's generation than a 30-something version of my maker).

His book, Au pied de la butte, is an insightful, funny and moving view of a less than post-cardy part of Paris which welcomed him, with reality's swift kick, upon his arrival from Venezuela. It is a fiction, based on reality, of how ones path and expectations can lead to a flowering tale which blooms with wisdom and growth in an uninvited but intriguing way. If you can read in Spanish or French, and want to feel the second side of this fine city, I highly recommend it. (you'll find it here)

The story fits within this week’s #GoneGreen2016 theme on water, and is bound to teach you a thing or two about being grateful for what you’ve got.

- Below are Vicente's Words - 

It was circa 2002. I was working an internship at the ADIE (Association pour le Developpement de l'Indépendance Économique), a "bank for the poor" that loans to people with bad credit. I was conducting an evaluation of the ADIE's perceptions by their customers, so I had to visit a lot of people in their homes. 
Now, the ADIE worked with a lot of poor immigrants, specially from Africa. Most of them where squatters who claimed apartments and buildings through the DAL (Droit au Logement), a radical Association that hunts for apartments and puts families in them if they're abandoned. 

So my colleague and me - a French blonde called Céline - went to different squats in Paris and in the suburbs, conducting our survey and collecting data. The people where lovely, treating us like guests and going out of their way to accommodate us. They where mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, had enough kids to start their own volleyball team and mostly came up with buy-for-a-dollar-sell-for-two schemes to make extra income. Most of them where cleaning ladies in hotels and companies, a thankless job if there's ever been one. They had insane schedules: get up at 4, clean from 6 to 8, get off till 12, and then at night clean two more hours, and seemed endlessly tired. The squats in themselves where ridiculously clichéd; I remember a squat in Belleville that looked as if it had been taken off the set of La Haine, by Mathiew Kassovitz. Run down, elevator not working, dirty and with a funky smell hanging over the whole thing, at the end of the corridor 12 to 14 year old kids listened to a ghetto blaster playing bad French rap (sorry for the pleonasm) and passing a joint around. Fathoumata's apartment still had the plastic cover on her couch and the TV, on at full volume even though no one was watching, was showing some old Baywatch reruns.  

"Fathou sat there groaning -she'd been up since four-, while she sent one of her kids to buy some generic Cola drink and knock-off cheetos of the radioactive orange kind for "the guests". "

And so the days went by, from squat to squat, family to family. As luck would have it, we wound up watching the France-Senegal football match in a squat full of Senegalese women who were ecstatic at seeing them beat the world champions in the opening match. They threw jinxes and incantations at the TV and were adamant about the fact that Zidane's injury a week before was due to Senegalese witch doctors. While all Paris was in shock when they lost the match, we were in the only place that was celebrating Senegal's win... It was an amazing experience.
Notwithstanding, it wasn't all fun and good times. Most of the people we saw were getting by, working two jobs and raising a plethora of kids. But some of the squats were in terrible, terrible condition.
The worst was an abandoned building in Saint-Denis where a whole family lived. We got there after a 20-minute walk from the suburban train; Céline was convinced we'd get mugged. Of course we didn't, and the run-down, crumbling 3-story building appeared. 
There was only one family there, albeit with 3 children. The husband, sporting full desert garb, headscarf, robe and sandals, welcomed us to his house with a warm smile. Céline was a bit shocked, she told me later she'd never encountered abject poverty. Walls were semi-torn down, holes in the wooden floor with beams prodding, no heating: living conditions were dire. The family invited us to have lunch with them, an offer I accepted even though Céline was shaking her head like Rainman trying to get on a plane other than Quantas. She later explained the food was pretty much a step above dumpster diving: supermarkets and stores would take food past the expiration date, dump it in Chlorine or something to kill the bacteria, and then visit squats to sell it off.

They'd set a [tarp]aulin on the street, throw the chicken legs and pork on it and wait for squatters and poor people to buy it for cheap. 

I thought the food was delicious, chicken and rice in tomato sauce. They prepared a huge wooden bowl full of it and we had to dig in with our hands. Céline, at this point staring catatonically at the food and unable to dip her bare hand in the communal bowl of rice, was afforded a spoon by the family just before her head exploded à la Scanners. They joked about her and explained she had to put on weight, because she was too skinny and wouldn't make for good child-bearing. Somehow, I came into the equation and was reprimanded for not "feeding her enough". I found it hilarious how Céline's budding pseudo-feminism crumbled in a swift move: she managed narry a peep after being reduced to a fat child bearer. It was a delightful turn of events for a serious, chain-smoking french girl who had berated me about women's lib in rap music a couple of days ago...
Anyways, having eaten and completed the survey, the gentleman stood there, beaming at us and asked if we had any more questions. I looked around, saw a beam protruding from the floor with what looked like rust, shivered from the lack of heating and reflected on the fact that the whole shack might just crumble in the next few days... So I asked, as politely as I could, "I'm sorry to ask and I really hope you don't feel offended by my question, but, how can you live here? Are you happy? The building's conditions? You're whole family is here

Good question -he said-. Follow me. He took me to the kitchen and opened the faucet. "See?", he asked. "See what?", I replied, like David Foster-Wallace's fish. "Water. We have water in the house. Not only water, but water *that is safe to drink*.
Where I come from, we have to walk for an hour with a bucket to get to the closest well, and then pray it isn't dry, infected or what have you... I tell people back home I have running water *in my house*, and they think I'm rich..."
I nodded in agreement, not knowing how to react, lest I even further the image of rich burgeois asshole I was giving. 
We left after that; Céline worried all the way she'd get food poisoning while I pondered how lucky we were. We're better off than half of the world: we have *water*. Drinking water, at that: I come from a country (Venezuela) where water is rationed and you'd never think of drinking it straight from the tap unless you like cholera... But here we are, in Paris, with running water, food in our fridge and no ethnic cleansing or war; and still we complain. Why do I only have 300 followers on Twitter? Why is my phone charger so short? Why did George Lucas ruin Star Wars? And other ridiculous, stupid stuff.
We are blessed. We are soooo lucky. Actually, if you can read this, you're part of the minority who has a computer and reading skills. You're part of the elite. So stop complaining and enjoy!

-

You'll find Vicente's books Au pied de la butte and Histoires d'un ghetto parisien selling HERE and a number of his other works (Spanish and French) on Amazon HERE - you'll also find him on twitter too, @ghettoparisien

Today's #GoneGreen2016 which this story accompanies can be found HERE

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