As an outsider preparing to study abroad, Paris sounded incredibly charming. The movies and pictures set me up for a Paris all about the Eiffel Tower and baskets full of baguettes lining the streets outside of bakeries. I could almost hear accordion music and see a mime performing beside the Seine. I could picture wandering the hallways of the Louvre in a vintage coat bought in the fashion capital of the world. It doesn’t get much more glamorous than that. Unfortunately, Paris doesn’t quite live up to its romanticized expectations.
Don’t get me wrong, Paris is still a beautiful, elegant city with more history packed into one road than I can even imagine. But what the movies don’t show is the smell of urine on the subway platforms, and the stink of cigarette smoke in the staircase of the apartments. The Eiffel Tower is incredible, but surrounded by dust and construction. Cigarette butts and food wrappers litter the bridges over the Seine.
The movies and the pictures also didn’t prepare me for the homelessness in Paris. I thought D.C. had a problem, but I had never seen anything like Paris. There seemed to be a homeless person in every neighborhood, even in the cold of February.
In my neighborhood, an older man claimed a spot between the subway stairs and the bakery – probably because of the constant warmth. He slept in a tent behind a little radio and a paper cup for collecting people’s spare change. Every day, I would pass him once on my way to class and once on my way back home. Maybe a third time if I went to the bakery for a baguette. Sometimes he was listening to French music on his portable radio or reading a worn book inside his tent. Sometimes he was bundled up, drinking beer and laughing with a friend. He was always smiling.
I tried talking to him a few times, but he didn’t speak any English and my French was mediocre at best. Still, we smiled politely or said “Bonjour” when we saw each other on the street.
Twice, the local police forced him to move away from his spot. He would have to pack up his tent, bags and books, and move to a different corner for a night or two. He’d always leave a passive aggressive note about the police in his empty spot and assure his friends that he’d come back soon. And he always did. He’d reappear the next day with everything exactly where it was before. It was like he’d never left.
As the weeks went by and the temperatures dropped, everyone started bundling up in warm scarves and coats. The homeless man traded out his cold beers for warm cups of soup. One night, it even snowed. My roommates and I wandered the city after class and took pictures of Paris coated in a thin layer of fluffy white snow. It was like a scene straight out of a vintage movie.
On the walk home, we realized that the homeless man’s tent was gone again. We didn’t think anything of it. But then we read the note. This time, it didn’t say that he’d been in a scuffle with the police and moved down a block. It said that he had died of hypothermia in his sleep the night before.
It was a sobering evening. My roommates and I sat in the living room, quietly, for a long time. We couldn’t help but contrast it with our lighthearted afternoon in the park, laughing and taking pictures of the snow. We never even considered the idea that someone in our community was suffering so terribly.
In the following days the note disappeared, his paper cup was swept away. Our neighbors left flowers in the empty spot where his tent sat.
I didn’t know him well. I didn’t even know his name. But for me, that was part of the tragedy. I walked past this man, who I knew was in need, every single day without ever finding out his name. I knew it was getting cold. I bought myself sweaters and scarves and warm baguettes from across the street all the time, but never even bothered to put my spare change in his little paper cup. It made me wonder. How many hurting people do I walk past every day?
I had never been confronted by the amount of privilege I have, in such a tangible way.
This experience taught me that I am not nearly as generous as I tend to think I am. Too often, I walk past people that I am capable of helping in some way. It doesn’t always look like walking past a homeless man in Paris. There are people who need help in the U.S., too. People who are homeless or hungry or even just in need of someone to talk to. How many times have I walked right past them?
I assume that somebody else with more money or time or resources will help them instead. I shouldn’t think that way. The responsibility to care for people in my community falls on me, just as much as it falls on everyone else. And if I’m honest with myself, I have more time and money to spare than I usually admit.
I am far from perfect, and I’m sure that I always will be. I’ll probably walk past many more people in need in my lifetime. But the memory of that man in Paris will always be in the back of my head. A part of me feels partially responsible for his death, or at least the neglect that contributed to it. Moving forward, the least I can do is use my privilege to help the people who need it most.
There are hundreds of different ways to use our privilege well, but if you want to donate to an organization that helps homeless people, The National Alliance to End Homelessness is a good place to start.