Geographical triumph

Today may well be the first day that I did not get lost in Paris!

It also happens to be one week after I arrived, which means I’ve made it through seven full days without anything disasterous happening – no babies drowning in the bath, no kidnappings, no forgetting to pick a child up from school, nothing at all bad actually except the odd slight delay due to a misturning.

I spent the morning in my room, reading and catching up on blogs and generally chilling out. Then I went into the centre of Paris to visit Shakespeare & Co, a truly wonderful bookshop opposite Notre Dame in the heart of the Left Bank tourist trap. It was even more surreal than the American Library because it was filled with english-speaking people taking photographs and oddly-dressed students picking through the kind of books you’d find in the fiction section of the UL (dusty and well-thumbed). The upstairs part is a sort of library and I spent a surprisingly enjoyable hour reading Shark for Sale, what I took to be a non-fiction account of a man’s experience of owning a shark-fishing boat. There’s also a piano anyone can play, and another couple of rooms I didn’t have time to investigate.

Something I’ve noticed that is prolific in France (nearly as prolific as terrifying driving and smoking) is begging on public transport. I spent most of my journey into Paris wondering why it was that this particular kind of begging annoyed and almost offended me, whereas I have often given people food or money if they were just in the street. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because the people who get onto the metro, give out little cards which say, in both english and french, that they are unemployed with 2 children and no house and all kinds of desperate plights and therefore deserve to be given money, seem to be trying it on. Daughter One and I were on the metro a few days ago when a lady with a son (dressed in designer clothes and with a pierced ear) got on and showed us the little card, and then went round the carriage putting their hands in front of people’s faces. We didn’t give them anything then, and when today a man got on the metro and gave out the same cards, I came to the conclusion that it’s either a family or a group effort – you might even call it a sort of business – with access to a computer and printers and at least one person who is bilingual.

Am I just being callous? The thing is that it’s a constant onslaught of people being quite invasive and asking for money, in a space where there is no way of politely saying no and moving away. On a twenty minute journey, in addition to the man with the cards, there was also a man who got on playing the accordion (badly) and then went round every person with his hand outstretched, and a man with a saxophone who got on, announced to everyone something like “good afternoon ladies and gentleman, I hope you are having a nice journey, I am now about to make a lot of very unpleasant noises and then attempt to relieve you of your euros” and played something that didn’t really resemble music at all. I don’t know if anyone gave him any money because I got off at the next stop.

I’ve been wrestling with the question all day. I think I’ve decided that actually, if someone were to get onto a train and play music loudly from their mobile phone or something, that would be widely accepted as rude. And if someone just came up to you while you were sitting on a train and demanded money, that would also be accepted as rude. Combining the two, and also bearing in mind the fact that there are several indicators suggesting that the people in question are not actually suffering hardship but just trying to make some easy money on the side (such as the fact that you have to pay to get into the metro station in the first place), I sort of feel that it’s not an acceptable way to try and earn money.

On the other hand, I don’t object to buskers in the street and I don’t object to people sitting with a little cup or a blanket to collect money, or even coming up and asking for money in person. Is it double standards? Or do I have a right to feel that someone is attempting to trick me (by suggesting they are desolate when in fact they are sufficiently well-off that they can afford expensive clothes, jewellery and instruments) and also invading my space when I have no way of escaping? It seems like an attempt to guilt-trip me or force me into paying for something I didn’t want in the first place, like an obnoxiously bad rendition of a tacky folk song on an accordion.

I don’t know. Anyway it’s something I’ll have to get used to because this sort of begging appears to be very common here.

On a similar and possibly contradictory note, Daughter One and I are planning to start making small items such as purses and bags to sell in order to raise money for something she called the Association. In the past, she and a friend have made items, sold them, and with the money purchased food which they distribute to anyone who looks in need of it in the centre of Paris. Since the family moved to the suburbs it’s rather fallen out of habit but she’s hoping to start again in the next holidays and I said I would help.

Double standards? What do you think? I can’t make my mind up.

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