Soup kitchens

I joined the queue, we shared a meal. I came home transformed. Let us always remember those who are in a state of defeat.
Jardin de Montbrillant

Genève, Switzerland — The door opened at 11:30. I moved up the queue and received my portion -- tender mutton and potato in gravy, plus salad -- all prepared by quality cuisine standards. The hosts greeted each of us with respectful eye contact, "Bonjour!" and "Bon appetit!" The ladies who scooped for us did so according to our personal preference, respectfully. I sat down in a corner, and ate. A gentleman joined me at the small table. He fetched two cups, one for me. He appreciated my "Merci!" He finished first, got up and gave up the place for others. Another gentleman joined me. He appreciated my "Bon appetit!" which he did not expect, and responded "Bon appetit à vous aussi!" I finished, got up, washed my plate and came out of the food distribution centre. There I stood at the exit, and recalled how some years ago I stood at the same spot wondering what the place was. I remember the noticeable design marking, in an arc, "Le Jardin de Montbrillant". Now I know. It is a house for free lunch, all are welcome, all are respected -- with and without a job, with or without a home, with or without an addiction. I came home feeling dignified and warmed for many days to come, loving Geneva more than ever. I promised myself that when I go next I shall sit in the middle of the dining hall, not in a corner. I came away with the hymn humming itself to me, “Au coeur de nos détresses, aux cris de nos douleurs, c'est toi qui sourffres sur nos crois et nous passons sans te voir.”

Thereafter, I did return twice. Once on a rainy Saturday, the queue was crowded. Fellow visitors were less reserved this time, and we chat a bit. I left without dining. My friend rebuked me for depriving others! So I scheduled my third visit to be an hour and a half after the door-opening time. To my surprise I found the dining hall in complete tranquility, fulfilment and order; all servings over; chairs on the table; mission accomplished for the day; nothing to shout about; no trace left for show.

This place is a close cousin of the red London bus stationary behind the train station. The red bus which held me in curios suspense for four years. I kept asking around what it was, something mysterious was taking place there. Congregations ate and drank and laughed, but they didn't look like random customers. Everyone kept telling me there was nothing there. Finally, during my final bow out of Geneva, I found out that it was a food distribution point.

Another close cousin is around the diagonal corner — the green (fluorescent green, like a highlighter pen) square building under the train platform. Again, something was there but I could not make out what. It was only during my bow-out that I got to know it is an injection centre. That's Genevois courtesy of Genevois catholicism (small-letter c, meaning all-inclusive and all-embracing rather than a church) of Genevois style. No banner; no labelling; creatively marked with colours and shapes of unmistakeable sorts so that such places may be identified easily by those who need. Not for public judgement; none of busy-body's business. No brass plates naming sponsors or ceremony openers.

The beauty of the whole thing is unless you decode as a detective, you won't know who are the people behind this full chain of hospitality centres running in perfect coordination, unison and resonance. They all appear to run like auto-pilot, multiple centres around Geneva taking turns to complement the meals between this and that day of the week, this and that hour of the day. The network is run by organisations independent of each other. For visitors to Geneva I propose this itinerary which would be more enriching than posting beside Jet L'eau.

Downtown Eastside

Vancouver, Canada — I was just exploring my bearings as a new arrival to the city. I felt more and more certain, at some point absolutely sure, that there was something unmistakeable about this street. Or indeed, this neighbourhood. I noted the intersection: Main Street and Hastings. I got home and googled for Main Street and East Hastings. The answer laid bare. Over the 20 months that followed, I spent many weekends and off days here, trying to understand the place, combing streets, chatting with men and women called out by the litany of discriminations.

Downtown Eastside (DTES) is 45 minutes' bus ride away from where I stay, the university endowment land — the wealthiest neighbourhood in Canada. UBC is for University of British Columbia.

DTES is famed as the poorest postcode of Canada. I find the place needing comprehension because it is the sort of poverty I haven't seen. I don't know, maybe Mother Teresa hadn't either. Genève is no short of addicts but the addicts in Geneva are just not like this; they are in many ways normal people. I had mothers with crying eyes begging in front of me but those mothers have a life to live for, no matter how trying. In India crowds of kids beg and fight over their findings, but their eyes sparkle. Even in the favelas of South America, that a slum is a slum can be seen in the poor-quality housing and messy electric-cable bundles but the people are pretty much normal people who gossip about and fight with their neighbours. That a slum is a slum is not recognised from people's faces. In Malaysia ill-treated foreign labourers at least have the motivation to pursue forbidden relationships.

Nothing of that sort in this corner of Vancouver, those people are just dead men drifting. I just couldn't understand. It has the highest social service per head than anywhere else; a million dollars per day gets poured in there. Something is just horribly, horribly wrong here in Canada.  

In the early months I kept discovering corners even more dire than those I had already befriended. At some point I discovered Oppenheimer Park. Now dispersed, it used to be a park full of tents for the homeless. The neighbourhood is such bloody hell that I felt punctured, felt like dropping down by the curb opposite that mass of mess of disfigured creatures.