Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Parisian Stare: A Tale of Selective Ignorance

A woman jingles her cup as I walk by. She has two babies, one in her lap and the other half naked as she changes his diaper on the sidewalk. “Madam, s’il vous plait, madam, madam,” she pleads. I turn my head and continue walking, still hearing her begs over the clomping sound of my suede boots. I stop at the street corner and touch my hand to the ground, assessing the temperature of the concrete against the baby’s bare skin. It is October and I am thankful it is not very cold. What happens when it gets cold?

Two metro stops up, another man sits on the ground, armless. I don’t look at him either. No one does. We have all trained each other not to look. Not to stop. Not to question where this armless man came from, how he ended up without arms, or how in fact, if we did give him food, he would even go about eating it. With his toes, I presume?

He also has a lit cigarette in his mouth. I’ll let you ponder that one.

This is Paris. A city assumed modish and artsy. I moved here with plans to treat my eyes to everything beautiful- people, architecture, paintings, literature, pastries. I was not expecting aspects of poverty I once grieved in Ghana to follow me to Paris.

Curbside residence seems like the end of the line for these people. They come in all forms- artists, gypsies, punks, jugglers, druggies, mothers, kids. Regardless, they all have the same address.

It’s not so much about the conditions. It’s about numbers. No one knows how many homeless people are in Paris. It is uncountable, because it is always changing, growing. Yesterday, a man crab walked next to me on the street. Wearing his shoes on his hands, he inched across the ground dragging his immobile legs through a crowd of people. Everyone stepped over him. I stepped over him. I saw many situations like this man’s in India. India. Why am I seeing this in Paris? There are Apple Stores here.

My personal struggle is my learned ability to so easily step over the problem. Parisians have something I call negative expression. It is normal to walk around with zero facial expression, but when Parisians are approached by annoyances, they produce a less than neutral (hence the term negative) appearance. This subtle glare fully reassures the bothersome that you are not going to react no matter what is said/sung/performed/recited.

I have developed this stare- partly because it is more contagious than the Ebola virus, and partly as a defense mechanism. My blue eyes and yellow head make me a kitschy target for riffraff. So I wear this stare more than my favorite sweater. And when someone approaches me, my new Parisian reflexes roll my eyeballs to the slight upper corner of my eye, and then I faintly drop the sides of my lips to produce an almost rude glare. Because this is what the French do. They selectively disregard. But as a girl from Tennessee who could make friends with a gypsum board, or a pigeon, this unsociable stare is not my preferred norm.

I assume this expression is why the French have developed the ever-so-famous stereotype: rude.

A crusty, one-legged man totters on the metro swigging mead from a hipflask, shouting ethnic slurs of what I can only translate as French begging and Pig Latin. Eyes roll away in unison. Faces switch off like someone just cut the electricity in Best Buy. And no one turns their head too much, because then it would look like they noticed the ragged man enough to have to go out of their way to not notice him. This facial expression is about not making any expression, and it occurs everyday like a calmly rehearsed play.

How long can we go on acting in this play? I don’t know if I want to be in it anymore. People are suffering third-world lifestyles parked on the stoop outside Louis Vuitton, and I’m inside browsing. A law recently passed banning begging on Les Champs Elysées, but that’s just sweeping dust to another corner of the room. It’s not fixing the problems. Why won’t someone help these people? At some point all I want to do is stand up in a pungent rage of fury and yell:


I decided to rummage the poverty further. I took the metro to the North of the city, a place I had once been to bargain for knock-off ray bans. There is a buzzing homeless population here, and a number of wandering street vendors selling everything from cigarettes to hair weaves. I didn’t know what I was looking for- answers, someone to talk to, another pair of sunglasses, perhaps?

A woman approached me with a bag full of hairpieces.
“You want long hair?” She questioned, using her hands like she was casting a spell through the air as she spoke. I smiled and responded in French that I already had long hair. We began chatting. Her name was Amina.

“You must be American,” she told me. “You Americans have perfect teeth.”

I was flattered she noticed my teeth.

Amina was from Algeria. She has lived in Paris for 20 years. She likes Obama and The Matrix.

And her family?

They live in Algeria. They moved after her grandpa was killed by the French police during a Paris massacre in 1961.

“They knocked him unconscious and threw him in the Seine,” she said. Along with anywhere between 70 and 200 other Algerians on a peace demonstration during the French-Algerian war.

I didn’t even know about this war.

She said there was a memorial where the massacre happened near Saint Michel, so I went to see it. The size of a placemat on the side corner of a bridge, the memorial plaque might as well have been under the bridge. It was put up…brace yourself… just ten years ago. Why in this place of beautiful statues and monuments and memorials, would they not better commemorate the losses of such a terrible tragedy? And why did it take them so long to put it up?

Then I realized. The French are a culture of selection. The French are selective in what they pay attention to and what they remember. But in this world of such mayhem, it makes sense. The world is unkind and unfair. There will always be homeless people and massacres. The French’s selective unawareness is not so much a way to escape real life, but perhaps a way to see (excuse my language) the silver lining. Maybe this is why L’Arc De Triomphe is the size of 90 elephants, and the Algerian War Plaque is the size of a book. Maybe this is why it has become so easy to step over problems? In a city with so much to actually be proud of, why would anyone want to cherry pick the issues?

I don’t want to say that the French don’t do anything to solve the problems. Major associations like Restos Du Coeur supply hot meals and shelter to the homeless, and tents are governmentally distributed in the winter. A number of charities and volunteers work together to make the situation better. But as an individual walking around Paris among many other individuals doing the same thing, this culture does make it simple to turn your head away from what you don’t want to see.

A skinnier version of Bob Marley plays guitar in the metro. With his microphone attached to a rolling suitcase housing everything he owns, this man belts Tweest and Shout in a heavy French accent. Dozens of people huddle at the split of lines four and seven to watch. Watching soon turns to dancing, and dancing eventually forms a line of can-canners I am in the middle of. We laugh, we dance, we smile. It’s his last song. Strangers twirl me around. We all know this jig like we rehearsed it. The song ends. We all get on the metro. We sit down. Back to the negative facial expression as I ride home.

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