Shops groan with food, the needy with hunger

Paris Dec. 24. Paris is shrouded in mist and rain. The temperature has dropped spectacularly leading weathermen to make their usual dire predictions about black ice, frost, hail, wind and snow with warnings about road accidents.

Despite the cold, the streets of Paris are ablaze with lights thick with last-minute, late night shoppers frantically picking out presents from the meagre pickings still left on the shelves.

The van moves slowly, the large red heart painted on its side visible through the mist and rain. It travels purposefully along the right bank of the Seine towards the Gare de Lyon, Paris's southern station where trains from Italy, Nice, Lyon and Burgundy terminate. Despite the cold, steady drizzle, a straggly line of regulars has already formed. Stamping their feet in the cold, blowing on bare fingers to keep a semblance of warmth, these people are waiting impatiently for the van that will bring them their dinner, put some hot food into bellies contracting with hunger.

Pauline is here with two friends. They are homeless like her. "We have a small squat where we can boil a kettle. Nothing fancy mind you. Usually I go to the distribution centre of the Restos du Coeur for our food parcel. But today we felt like a hot meal. It's Christmas, after all," she says with a hoarse, hollow laugh.

The menu is a Christmas special — soup, meat, pasta and a chocolate mousse. "We feed two types of people. Those who have basic minimum cooking facilities and those who are really homeless. To the first we give uncooked food. The typical parcel contains meat or fish, rice or pasta, one vegetable, oil, sugar, salt, milk and other provisions such as soap, washing up liquid and detergent. For those who live on the street we have cooked meals," explain Roger and Catherine who work for the charity Restos du Coeur or Restaurants of the Heart.

The charity set up 19 years ago by a comedian named Coluche who died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years after setting it up, is one of the most active of its kind in France, distributing food to the needy and hungry in this land of plenty. The Restos du Coeur has 27,000 voluntary workers and distributes over 35,000 tonnes of food each year, enough to fill 17000 large trucks.

"Each meal costs about one euro and contains 1200 calories. This year we have distributed some 65 million meals. Three fourths of those who come here do not even get the minimum insertion wage or the dole. Most of them are past caring or are so socially handicapped they do not know how to go about registering," explains Catherine, a volunteer.

Elsewhere, the French capital is all festive joy and fun and the contrast is piercingly sharp. On the stroke of each hour, the Eiffel Tower sparkles with a million twinkling lights. The shops are groaning with food. Fish and fowl jostle with scarlet shelled lobsters, the aroma of freshly baked bread does battle with the sharper but equally enticing smell of ripe cheeses.

Sylvain is buying shucking oysters, preparing huge sea food platters for the traditional Christmas feast this evening. "Well, a platter for two can cost as much as 150 euros, especially if you take things like oysters, sea urchins or large prawns. A lobster will push the price up even higher," he grins.

What with wine, champagne, chocolates, desserts and other Christmas `musts', a family of four could easily spend up to 600 euros on a Christmas meal. "Well, we plan for it of course", says Corrine, a mother of four who carefully budgets for the huge meal that is a tradition with her family. "We always spend Christmas en famille, never in a restaurant. That is reserved for New Year's eve when my husband and I go to a restaurant by ourselves. But for Christmas we fetch my mother from her retirement home. My sister's family joins us and we are usually a dozen at table. We all pitch in otherwise we would not be able to afford it," she says.

But its not just food that is doing booming business this Chirstmas in France. "Oh yes," says Isabelle, the young lingerie assistant at the Galleries Lafayette's newly opened section, "We have done booming business this year." Like other retailers big and small, Paris' most famous department store is profiting handsomely from the economic upturn that has come here on the heels of the recovery in the U.S. "This has been a good year. We were worried in October. But the latest figures published by the National statistical institute show that the recovery is here to stay. Last year was bad. This year we hope to recoup some of our losses," says Marcel Dacalor, who runs an upmarket stationary business in the chic Montmartre area.

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