Enough romance: Paris as a reality check

A petite woman approached my friends and me while we were picnicking at the park facing the Eiffel Tower and asked us if we spoke English. With quizzical looks, we nodded yes. Silently, she handed us a slightly wrinkled piece of paper with a handwritten paragraph. As I read it, my jaw dropped; the sandwich bite nearly fell out of my mouth. The note summed up the story of her month’s stay in Paris, the poverty she’s experiencing back home and her plea for our donation towards her brother’s leukemia fund.

I stared back at her, taking in her appearance. She didn’t look much older than us, wore long, modest clothing and had her hair braided into a plait. The woman appeared to be Eastern European or a gypsy and was obviously someone who wasn’t here to vacation.

I felt very sorry for her and for a while, had even regretted telling her “No, I can’t help you.” That is until her twin sister approached us at the Notre Dame Cathedral with the same note. Then, another one came…and another…and another.

I couldn’t believe I had been so naive. It didn’t even occur to me that we were being scammed when my friend offered the first woman some of her lunch and she refused. Or when her most eye-catching accessory was a necklace with a giant wooden Christian cross around her neck. And that note was just too perfect.

I was always warned about pickpockets and con artists roaming the streets and it wasn’t even my first time in Paris, so I felt stupid and was quite angry about the whole thing. How dare she, how dare THEY?

But shortly after, I gradually calmed down and accepted the situation. The rage that had built up in me was replaced with great sadness. The mirage disappeared and I began seeing my surroundings differently. Suddenly, France no longer looked as lovely.

Before going on my weekend trip to Paris, I received an email from a faculty member of The Perpignan Project after I wrote my first blog post about how my ethnicity and gender affect others’ misconceptions of who I am. He said he was relieved to see a critical piece on the website and perhaps in an effort to lighten the situation, he told me if I traveled farther, I would find “few racists in France.”

It was one of the most complicated messages I’ve ever read. I don’t think he was experiencing the same country that I was.

Take for example, the city of lights. It is the most visited destination on Earth, the Eiffel Tower being its most symbolic landmark of beauty and human achievement. You’d think I’d feel weirded out by the clichéd romanticism frothing all over the place but to be honest, I love Paris. I didn’t realize how much I loved the city until I traveled there by myself with new friends. I know I have only touched the very surface of its many diverse layers.

As much as I would love to keep on my rose-tinted glasses, I can’t accept Paris as a whole without also accepting its truly ugly, tragic parts.

If there were few racists here, then why is the note-giving woman and her fellow collectors not white? Why is it only black and Arab men standing in every corner of the city hawking cheap miniature Eiffel figures, fake Louis Vuitton bags and bottled water in iced buckets, barking “Euro, one euro”? Why is it that I hear other English-speaking tourists gossiping about those people conning them out of their hard-earned money –- spitting out the word “gypsy” with such disdain?

I had to ask myself: what would the difference be if I gave that first woman a euro or two? She could easily go to another group to hand the note to and probably extract even more money. Everyone she approaches would be made the fool.

However, I can’t be mad at her for that. I don’t think she or anyone else in her position would want to continue conning others but they probably have to in order to survive. Really, everybody should be mad at the system in place for perpetuating such incredible levels of injustice. Most likely, we all are pretty pissed off right now but there is still a real lack of action being taken to stop it from happening over and over again.

I often hear about beggars making more money from change collecting in a day than an average salary worker would earn in a year. Those kinds of stories enrage many of my peers and drive the main population to look down on the poverty-stricken. Whether or not it’s true, when you hear about generosity being taken for granted so often, giving change or acknowledging the homeless becomes stigmatized.

There is a real shame in being poor.

And when you look at who are the most affected by scarcity, you see people of color. You probably only see people of color.