Culture Shock #1

In June 2013 my family and I moved just 200km (124 miles) from the beautiful city of Canterbury in the UK, to Lille, France.  When you really think about it, it’s not that far.  It’s further to Paris if you wanna talk kilometre-age.  This week Roger had his France-iversary and in a couple of months we will all have been living in France for a year.  Doesn’t time fly?!

As culture shocks go I think we’ve had it pretty easy.  We’ve had a lot of lovely visitors bringing us yummy food packages from home, a mild winter, made a few friends and enjoyed being together as a family having come from very busy lives when a spare evening came once a fortnight (if we were lucky).

In February I was driving to a friend’s house in Hellemmes, a rather unglamourous area of Lille, for our weekly French conversation over a Tisane (herbal tea – I’ve learned to like these in order to be accepted here).

It was a cold and wet day and I was thinking how thankful I was for our cosy, warm Renault Scenic.  As I was driving, thinking and taking in the surroundings I passed a very small, what can only be described as, ramshackled camp surrounded by muddy puddles and beaten up cars.  I’ve driven past these ‘homes’ a number of times but on this particular Friday, as the rain was sheeting down and I saw a few adults and kids milling about in the mud and rain, a few rather obvious thoughts struck me.

  • These people are families, they have children just like me
  • This is where they all live, in these one room shacks made of corrugated iron and bits of wood.
  • Where do they wash?
  • Where’s their toilet?
  • On days like today, do they have sewage floating around their house, cos I sure can’t see that they are attached to the sewage systems?
  • Are the kids getting any kind of education so they can get themselves out of this way of life?

I’m embarrassed to say that this was perhaps the first time I’d thought of these things, of these people, and how middle class can I be?!  Here I am moaning about the fact that we no longer have a bath, that I have to go all the way down a flight of stairs to use the very cold toilet in the middle of the night, that our kitchen is so small!  Wow, how your heart can harden in less than a year!

When we first moved to Lille I was shocked at the number and size of some of the, mostly Romani, camps around Lille.  I was saddened every time I drove up to some traffic lights and a young child, a middle-aged or an older lady or gent came to my window to ask for a small amount of money.  My heart would sink when walking around the city centre and I’d see a young family or a lady with a small baby sitting on the floor with a beaten up paper cup in her hand and a few copper coins in it.  My heart still does sink, but more out of guilt and wanting to avoid them than out of compassion.  I’ve since learnt that over a quarter of France’s Roma population live in and around Lille.  Just last week one evening our doorbell rang and there on the door step was a young woman with 2 children asking for money.  She was either very gutsy or very desperate!

Here I am, just 200km away from the gorgeous, and pretty middle-class city of Canterbury, and yet I’m faced with more poverty than I’ve ever come into contact with.  I just cannot imagine what it is like for those who feel called to go to the Favela’s of Rio de Janeiro, the slums in Calcutta or the open sewage areas of Jakarta.  Don’t get me wrong, the UK has its social problems.  There are homeless and poor people in Canterbury and I’m sure there are areas of London I would be shocked about.  What I’m saying is that I’ve lived a very naive and privileged life and yet I’m shocked at my now almost lack of shock!

I don’t know what the answer is.  I don’t yet know of any local charities or organisations that are working with the homeless in Lille, but I’m sure there are some.  Do you give money, or don’t you?  Do you give food, or don’t you?  I’ve heard it said “Oh they are all being controlled by people who drop them off in the morning and pick them up at night”…..  errrr, isn’t that worse?  They are effectively slaves, it’s 2014 people and this is Lille, western civilisation, and yet we are passing people literally in slavery every day!

There’s so much more to this sad subject than I have time to write about today, like how for many in this situation, it’s their choice to live a life with no fixed address and connection to a given state. I don’t have any quick-fix solutions to all the poverty that goes on every minute of every day in the world.  But for now, in regards to the people in my city, my community they can have my 1 or 2 Euro piece (if I’ve actually got change in my purse, darn the credit card culture we live in!), and if they give it to their ‘pimp’ then at least it may stop them getting a beating that day.  As I hand over my change I’ll look them in the eye and remember their face as I pray that God impacts and changes their life as only He can do.  Finally, they can also have a smile, and as neither of us speak very good French that’ll have to do. For now.

A couple of interesting articles for those interested: