Little South Asia

Some years ago, I lived in San Francisco—still one of my favorite cities. One of the things I loved about it was its neighborhoods populated by minority ethnic groups, including Chinatown, North Beach (Italian), the Mission (Latin American), Japantown and even a tiny French area (a few restaurants, a French church and the French consulate between Union Square and Chinatown). I loved the cultural and linguistic plurality these areas brought to the city, in the form of distinct architecture, street signs and advertisements in languages other than English, restaurants and grocery stores selling foods from other lands. In some of these districts, especially Chinatown and the Mission, I sometimes felt as though I had stumbled through a portal to another land.

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Like any self-respecting major city, Paris has its minority ethnic neighborhoods too. My favorite one is the area roughly between and around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, home to large numbers of people whose families hail from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as countries farther afield such as Madagascar and Mauritius. There isn’t really an official name for this neighborhood, although I very often hear it referred to as the quartier sri lankais. For the sake of full inclusion I will refer to it here as Little South Asia.

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All along rue du Faubourg Saint Denis and the various side streets are shops selling colorful saris and jewelry, sweets and Bollywood DVDs, as well as restaurants and cash & carry stores. Garlands and fluttering mobiles can sometimes be seen decorating the streets for various holidays.

The most festive time of year in this neighborhood is definitely La Fête de Ganesh in late August or early September, when an elaborate and spectacular parade honoring the elephant god winds through the streets from the Temple Sri Manika Vinayakar Alayam (17 rue Pajol) around the La Chapelle area and back again. The participants include women wearing pots of burning camphor on their heads, shirtless men pulling the Ganesh statue down the street with ropes, flutists and drummers, mustachioed dancers with papier-mâché horses and larger-than-life ambulant statues. The festivities are accompanied by energetic smashing of coconuts on the streets and free distribution of cold drinks.

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The rest of the year, this neighborhood’s main draw for me is VT Cash & Carry (11-15 rue Cail), a wonderland of spices, lentils, nuts, teas and exotic fruits and vegetables hidden behind a nondescript storefront on a side street. When you enter, the shop at first appears to be fairly small and cramped, as many of the cash & carrys (carries?) in the neighborhood are. But as you proceed further through the coats at the back of the wardrobe, it opens up, revealing a much larger space full of aisles packed to the ceiling with wares and edibles of all kinds.

It is of course a great place for spices, both common and rare, at better prices than at mainstream grocery stores. And it’s also where you can stock up on staples like lentils, rice, flours and grains.

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Lentils of every description and color!

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If you’ve got the muscles to carry it, and room at home to store it, a 20 kg (44 lb.) bag of rice is really your best buy. Or, of course, if you run a restaurant…

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Every time I go here, I plan to get a can of ramboutans to see what they taste like, but then I invariably end up with too many other heavy things and decide to leave it for the next trip.

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Some interesting jams and chutneys (ginger, chow chow, candied citrus peel, pineapple, lime, ambarella, passionfruit, tamarind, soursop, baobab and more) and a mysterious English thing called golden syrup that I have not tried yet. My favorite jam ever, which I discovered here, is made with physalis fruit, also known as aguaymanto in Peru and pok-pok in Madagascar, where this particular brand comes from. It is simply heavenly, with a tanginess reminiscent of kiwi and a sweeter side that brings to mind raisins or dried cherries.

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These metal bowls, usually seen only at restaurants, are an elegant way to serve dal or curries at home.

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Here, you can get many imported European items that are hard to find elsewhere, such as Marmite (if you enjoy it, or like me are trying to acquire a taste for it), psyllium powder (good for thickening raw desserts), date syrup, the aforementioned golden syrup and (not shown) Heinz baked beans, cream crackers, Scottish and Irish oatmeals and baking ingredients. VT Cash & Carry is also the place to head when you’re looking for your favorite brands of English tea.

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Other often-tricky-to-find items include fonio, an African semolina, and peanut butter. Yep, in France peanut butter is a somewhat exotic item. You can still usually find it at regular grocery stores, but at really high prices. My favorite place to get PB is actually at Franprix, in their growing organic & fair-trade section, both because of these characteristics and because the taste is just nice.

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Some ready-made sauces in foil packets that you immerse in hot water to heat up. Some of them are vegan (just check the ingredients carefully).

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The produce section always contains a few items I’m unfamiliar with, so I sometimes buy things to find out for myself what they are and how they taste (trying to remember to note down the name before leaving the store!). Here, among other things I was already able to identify, we have fresh and dried turmeric root.

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I did once buy a wood apple in spite of an Indian fellow shopper’s warning that they aren’t very good. Turns out she was right!

Also available toward the front of the store is sugarcane, young coconut (good for raw dishes) and fresh aloe leaves.

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If after your lengthy shopping experience you need to rest a bit before facing the crush of people on the metro ride home, pop into one of the three Krishna Bhavan restaurants on the same street (at 15, 21 or 24 rue Cail) for a tasty bite. At the one shown above you can also get take-out veggie samosas at the front counter for €1 a piece.

Enjoy your explorations!

Vide-grenier

Every fall, an event is held in my neighborhood that I look forward to with much the same excitement I used to feel when I was little and Christmas was approaching: the vide-grenier. Literally “attic-emptying”, it’s what we in the States call a rummage sale.

Paris is also home to the largest antiques market in Europe, Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen just north of the city limit. It’s like a gigantic partially outdoor museum of beautiful furnishings and art, and I love to visit it, but it can be a source of frustration in that the prices are often prohibitive. This is where rummage sales become an attractive alternative. But they’re also an excellent way to renew your wardrobe or book collection at low cost while helping maximize the longevity of consumer goods and protesting planned obsolescence. Plus, pretty much everything you find is unique.

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For a small sum, neighborhood residents can sell unneeded items from a space on a street bordering the park or an adjoining street a block away. Like at rummage sales all over in the world, you can find dishes, clothes, books, jigsaw puzzles and Scrabble games.

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Everything 60s at this table. I adored the color of the deep turquoise ashtray, but couldn’t talk myself into buying an ashtray.

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Pre-loved mystery novels with yellowing vanilla-scented pages. I love the typeface and simple illustration.

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I quite liked this large oil painting, but don’t have enough wall space at my place. But it would be perfectly at home in a cobbler’s shop (of which there are still many in Paris).

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Like Proust and his madeleines, one look at an album like this whisks me back in time to my grandparents’ house.

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This table was run by a man and his pre-teen son, who seemed to be liquidating his toy-car collection in preparation for adulthood. I bought the Paris bus (more on that later) but soon noticed that one of the wheels was missing. The boy briefly rummaged around for it at the bottom of a box to no avail, and then, regaining control of the situation, puffed out his chest and instructed his father to refund me 50 cents.

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What seems like a reasonable thing to buy while on vacation often ends up at a rummage sale. Souvenir plates from various European destinations are a mainstay of Parisian sales. Andorra is a common one, for some reason.

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Another item you always find at French rummage sales is ceramic fèves from inside the galette des rois (king cake), which is traditionally eaten in January. Whoever gets the piece with the fève hidden inside is the king or queen of the evening, and gets to wear the paper crown supplied with the cake. Some people become serious collectors of fèves, which are often figurines of people in medieval dress but can take other forms. The word fève means bean, as a dry bean was originally the thing hidden inside these cakes when it first came into being some 300 years ago. I picked up two of these for 50 cents each.

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An ingenious telephone-lamp, from the 60s and made in the 60s, as the stand-keeper explained. Both parts work! Somehow I can’t help thinking of Jemaine’s camera-phone on Flight of the Conchords.

So what did I end up taking home?

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One of my best finds this year! A recipe book whose title could be translated Cooking with the Mafia—now that’s something you just can’t refuse. The lady at the stand, recognizing my accent, told me in very good English that her mother was American. She threw in this little cookbook for free. What is American cuisine? Even I am not sure.

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A set of presses for making beautifully shaped turnovers and ravioli. May just come in handy for the Mafia book!

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A set of old metal canisters for tea, coffee and sugar.

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My personal collection of fèves, with a 50 euro-cent piece (similar in size to a US quarter) for scale. The pink lady and purple guy in the back row are the new acquisitions.

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The bus! I think this is my favorite among all the things I found. I love that it’s a replica of the real buses of Paris (even bearing the RATP logo), and I find it so charming that a vehicle as decidedly unglamorous as an articulated city bus was manufactured in miniature for children who, one imagines, would normally be more interested in racecars. I also couldn’t resist getting this mini Paris garbage truck for my three-year-old nephew, who has a burning passion for anything on wheels. I often take photos for him of the real thing—much to the amusement of the garbage-truck men, when they catch me—and send them to his mom via Telegram. Actually, I have a feeling he’ll end up with the bus too.

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All aboard for Porte d’Italie!

My neighborhood has its big vide-grenier only once a year, but there are other ones in different parts of the city most weekends. Sometimes they’re devoted to higher-priced antiques, art or stamps, in which case it might be referred to as a brocante. Whether you live here or will just be passing through, you can check out this dedicated site to find upcoming vide-greniers all over France.

Something from nothing

As a translator, I’m not used to creating something from nothing. I’m not accustomed to writer’s block or, as they say in French, l’angoisse de la page blanche (blank-page anxiety). Always, in my work, there is some existing something to be transferred, transposed, flipped or otherwise shaped into another form. It’s just a matter of starting, as I always have a lump of predetermined raw material waiting for me in what we refer to as the source file.

Freestyle writing, as it could be called in contrast with the writing of a translation, offers a tremendous amount of freedom. If a sentence isn’t working out, I can abandon it and move on to a new idea rather than being stuck molding and massaging until it reaches a satisfactory state, no matter how long this takes. It’s a bit like being used to walking with heavy shackles around your ankles and suddenly being freed from them. Now you can easily go anywhere. But then the page blanche question pops up: where will you go?

After reading blogs for many years without any intention of starting one myself, I’m now curious to give it a try. Partly to share my culinary experimentations, travel discoveries and anecdotes from a life lived abroad, but also as a reason to more regularly practice original writing—setting down some of my own ideas for once.

It’s a strange feeling, knowing that I’ll be creating something from nothing. But it won’t really be from nothing. Like with any kind of writing, there will be a formless something hanging about in the ether that needs to be caught and expressed. I don’t know quite what it will look like, but finding out may be kind of fun.