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October 25, 2010
 by Steven Hill

HOPE FOR MULTICULTURALISM IN SOUTHERN FRANCE…AND PORTABLE TEA BAGS…The e-mail below is from Angela Shaw, an American friend of mine who has lived in Toulouse, France for many years. Angela grew up in New York City and was one of the first African-American females to graduate from Harvard Law School. She has lived in China, Belgium and now France, and has worked as a lawyer for IBM, the FCC, the NAACP and Hofstra University. As an entrepreneur she started her own broadcasting company, Spectron Broadcasting and Applied Communications Technologies. Angela is one of the people I turn to when I want to get a read on how race relations in France and Europe are going. Having grown up black in America, her antenna is attuned acutely to both the large injustices as well as the smaller things beneath the radar that others don’t see. Her e-mail below is a tonic for the recent rash of anti-immigrant headlines and loud claims that "multiculturalism has failed." Perhaps France is making slow progress, inch by inch. Time will tell. But as the history of race relations in the U.S. shows, progress often is incremental and takes time. Patience is advised.

From Angela: Georges [her husband] and I were invited to an annual multi-cultural festival in the banlieue (akin to the American projects, but not as sinister and menacing) yesterday. While much of it was mired in political correctness, at one point of this French choir's singing, I turned to the seat behind me and saw the passionate singing of a 40-something woman from Cameroon. There at once, all the political correctness and feigned sincerity was lost within a sea of authenticity. For this woman there was a real life behind her voice, there were real villages of people in her eyes and for that one moment in time in the south of France, we brought home to a woman who was so far away from her village.
Sometimes I am just so overwhelmed by the pride I have in belonging to such a human race that can be so empathetic. Probably no one else (of all those singing) but that single Cameroonian woman understood those lyrics and understood the context from which the song emerges. For their reckless abandon, I love the French, even though I am frustrated by sights of piling garbage in front of my favorite cafes. (Thankfully, this Sunday morning the sanitation workers cleaned our block for the first time in about 5 days. Hallelujah!)
It just made me so proud to see such a host of the worlds' cultural expressions all coming together in this typical urban community center. My mom spent 33 years of her professional life in New York City public housing and I would accompany her to more than my fair share of community centers all over NYC. This was a community which not only hosted people with varying medical disabilities in the audience but on stage as well. Everyone was patient and complimentary and supportive of each contribution of talent that was offered. The stereotype of the urban gangster was nowhere on display.
Indian women dancing in their saris. Muslim women were in their hijabs. Spanish women were in their flamenco dance attire. In this very Latin culture [in the south of France], I am so pleased that women could organize such a treat not only for other women but for children and for a very few men as well. Slowly, very slowly I could barely recall my youth in my mom's NYC public housing community centers. I had almost forgotten how much fun and excited I had there as a young child.
It's too bad that Steven Hill wasn't with me yesterday. I'm sure that the experience would have affirmed his faith that the future of Europe holds so much promise. Lots of love, Angela

Portable tea bags. On a slightly different note -- let’s file it under “European minutia too juicy to pass up” -- I have got to tell you about the most important development in human gastronomical affairs since the Dutch East India Company first brought tea to European shores. I discovered it on the marvelous high speed TGV train from Paris to Brussels, which whisks passengers along -- comfortably -- at 180 mph (forget it Acela-Amtrak, you ain’t even in the big leagues). I had ordered tea, and the waiter handed me a cup of hot water and what looked like a short, thick plastic straw. He indicated that the tea was inside the straw, so I began trying to tear open the straw, first with my fingers and then finally with my teeth. He looked at me with wide-eyed alarm, like a gourmand would an uncouth barbarian invited to his table. His English wasn’t good, but he gestured with his hands, then grabbed the straw from me and stuck it into the water. Immediately the clear water began turning familiar tea brown, and I realized that the bottom half of the straw was constructed of permeable material that allowed the tea inside to soak through. It was like a portable plastic tea ball, and I could take the tea straw out of the water when the strength was sufficient, easily saving it for a second cup later. No more soggy tea bags to deal with! It was a small moment of pure epiphany, the clouds parted and the sun came out on my day, as my mind played out the brilliance of this invention and the wars it might have prevented in centuries past. The world has always detested mushy tea bags, one of life’s little annoyances that have contributed immeasurably to the bad moods of kings, queens, generals and bankers. Yes, I had no doubt that I was in the presence of a work of pure genius, and such a simple one too. Simple genius can be the most pleasant kind.

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