Mie de Pain literally refers to the white part of the bread. For me, it means so much more: it is the name of the largest overnight shelter and soup kitchen for homeless men in all of France, providing over 550 meals each day to men who live on the street. At night they are given shelter; in the morning, a shower and a hygiene kit; during the day, psychological and medical resources, and even recreational outlets. I am blessed to be part of this incredible force of good, giving a brief three and a half hours every Monday to serve meals to those in need.
To be honest, I was a little scared to participate at first. I started at the end of my first month here in Paris, when I had only just established my schedule (remember when I was in that two-week orientation, before my real classes began?) and when I had not yet built much confidence using my French outside the classroom. When I arrived at the Mie de Pain — a huge building in not-the-best-part-of-town — I was met with a throng of homeless men congregated outside it. They were all waiting to enter… and I was just supposed to push past them and go in myself? I almost turned back, because even though it may not sound that scary, the situation was intimidating to me for a number of reasons. But I made it inside, met with a directrice who helped me sign up, and was put to work right away. I am so glad that I didn’t turn back that day.
Over the past two months, I have grown to love the Mie de Pain and the team I work with. A kind woman named Isabel is the shift leader, and the other ten or so volunteers (bénévolats) change upon occasion. About five of them, like me, are permanently assigned to Mondays which means I’ve gotten to know them and have grown close with them. Most of the bénévolats are adults or retirees. Occasionally some girls from service groups work with us for a night, and if they’re anglophones (as they often are), I get the delightful job of showing them the ropes and translating for them — which is kind of surreal, because I haven’t even been there that long! These bénévolats are some of the best people in the whole world — hard-working, funny, generous, and always the first to compliment my mediocre French and bend over backwards to let me know how appreciative they are of my coming here.
What’s my role? In some ways, it’s just like working in a cafeteria. I arrive and get dressed in special gear: a white robe, a hairnet, plastic covers for my shoes, and gloves, all of which are disposable. Then I am assigned any of several jobs — I could fill up water pitchers, separate plates, open milk containers, etc. Basic preparatory stuff. The guests begin to arrive at 18h (6 p.m.), and that’s when we serve the food. Depending on what role I have, I might interact with the customers minimally (when I’m loading food onto plates) or quite a lot (when I go around refilling the milk in their cups). Oftentimes we change roles several times per shift, to keep us all alert and happy. As for me, I’m really content doing whatever; I just feel a little badly sometimes when I’m interacting with the guests and I don’t really understand what they say. My comprehension is pretty good, but not when people are mumbling, and that unfortunately happens a lot here. God knows I don’t want to make their lives more difficult, and I’m put in especially uncomfortable situations from time to time when some guests think they can get me to bend a rule for them because I’m new or because I can plead “I don’t speak the language, I didn’t understand.”
I don’t, however, want to give you the wrong idea: the men at the Mie de Pain are unbelievably grateful and kind. I was blown away on my first day. Big, bright smiles on their faces, making conversation with me, asking my name and telling me theirs… I’m serious! You’d think they’d be worn out after a long, cold day, but that’s not the case at all. Of course, there are those who are on the older side or who are immigrants, and they understandably aren’t as chatty. But I’ve never had anyone treat me rudely, and conflicts amongst the guests are rare (at most, every other week). The tone is generally upbeat and fast-paced.
I love, love, love working here. Yes it’s tiring, yes there are some days when I’d rather go to the Louvre, but working here has been one of my favorite experiences in France and I am eternally grateful to Isabel and the Monday crew for supporting me from the get-go.
To learn more about the Mie de Pain, visit www.miedepain.asso.fr
For more Parisian stories and photos, visit christinedoesfrance.wordpress.com.