Every Monday night in winter, I stand outside in the cold. Not waiting for a train, or a lover, or for a dare. No. It’s because three hundred others need me to.
La Soupe, the charitable kitchen at Paris’s Eglise St. Eustache, feeds that number every night between December and March. I’m honoured to be one of its volunteers. I am neither Christian nor Catholic. Something much stronger draws me here.
As the great bell strikes 6, we’re hard at it behind the cast-iron west gates, shielded from curiosity by sheets of rain-washed chipboard, bathed in a miasma of steam, integrity and the smell of food. Here, we all have a task. Stirring industrial-scale pans of boiling pasta. Hand-carving two thousand croutons from yesterday’s baguettes. Filling 300 goody-bags with clementines, chocolate and tins of sardines. Spreading pâté, or just putting sugar in 300 plastic coffee-cups. Crucial nonetheless.
Outside, the darkness sets in and the queue grows. Some of us, in blue gilets and thick scarves, join it with water jugs, trays of pâté, brie and three hundred bonsoirs. Three hundred come back. Here, giving and gratitude are one. Behind us, the Les Halles shopping complex, the unofficial blue-glass checkpoint between having and needing, remind us that, more often than not, we are sadly two.
The bell strikes 7. Gates screech apart, the friction of steel on stone, revealing a table, a Mount Etna of scalding soup and an avalanche of bread. Like soldiers we take up our stations, at the table, the ladle, the queue, serving, shaking hands, meeting eyes, still warm in the chill. Soup in hand, it’s down to the concourse for croutons, salt, pepper. The wind often gets the salt ahead of the soup, but anecdotes and thanks travel even faster.
Being in the front-line of something like this is the most potent reminder that collective efforts bear bigger fruit. Whether we want to make a great ad, build a mean brand strategy, tackle social divides or save ourselves from extinction, we must be more than online groups.
We have to roll up our sleeves, and act like real ones.