Paris : A Weekend of Firsts

First published on September 4th, 2013

After spending two -almost three- very frustrating months looking for volunteer associations and finding out that everyone shuts down for the summer, I was quite disheartened. I know that time off and vacations are very dear to the French and a large part of their cultural makeup but at hadn’t realized to what point this was tangible. During the month of August, even in as much of a tourist-heavy city as Paris, a very large part of businesses shut down with signs noting their vacation time on the door. Robin heard an announcement on the radio saying that an alarming number of homeless people were dying this summer because we tend to think that thoes living on the street only need help during the cold months.

So, this past Saturday, Robin and I helped out with Action Froid, a startup association that delivers goods to the homeless. We had signed up for the ‘tri’, which would involve sorting the clothing and goods that had been donated. Alongside us was a young Romanian woman in her 20s with her three-year-old son. Both had been taken in from the streets because they were dying of hunger. As a way to say thanks, she had been spending what time she could volunteer with the association. The little babe was happy crawling around the floor, playing with whatever he could find. It stood out to me how little attention he needed and could easily entertain himself which was, no doubt, a direct result of living on the street.

We were preparing baskets for the ‘maraude’ that night which involves Action Froid volunteers taking different arrondissements of Paris and driving around talking with the homeless (called SDF or sans-abris) and distributing hot drinks, food, and taking orders if they needed crutches, for example. One person goes to talk to the people, one stays in between the car and the first person, just in case they’re needed, and another stays behind keeping watch of the car in case they need to move. I hadn’t signed up for this part because I was honestly a bit scared. I’d never really had a conversation with someone living on the street and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I saw children. I agreed to do it and let me tell you, spending a Saturday day/night shaking hands and chatting with people living on the street turns your world upside down. We met such interesting people with a sense of humor.

The first stop we did was around 7 pm. Robin and Christine, an Action Froid veteran who’d been there since its creation two years ago, went first and talked to two men. One was sitting on the ground and looked hurt while the other was a real fast talker and followed them back to the car, which was parked streetside, to get some goods supposedly for his friend who was waiting behind. They talked for about 15 minutes while I waited in the car. As we were getting ready to pull away, the man who had been sitting on the ground hobbled over to the car and tapped on the window. I opened the door and he handed me a rose. It was one of the most heartwarming things I’d ever seen and it completely dissolved my distrust and fear of the homeless.

I won’t write it all in detail because it would take far too long but the conversations I managed to have with the people really surprised me. There was a couple outside a Franprix that spoke about 5 or 6 languages between them. The husband was a riot. He wore a fake beard and cane and kept making jokes and hitting on Christine. We later met an Italian man who seemed a bit uncomfortable and ashamed to take food from us and asked how he could get a work permit. (By the way, translating Italian to French is a LOT harder than I thought. It was pitiful.) When Robin and I went by ourselves we met an elderly Romanian woman with whom we shared no common language but who exclaimed, “Oooh.. sexy!” upon seeing saw the pair of pants we gave her. There was later a one-toothed Polish man with a big grin to who I made the mistake of saying  ‘Добрый вечер’ (good evening) in Russian. Upon hearing this, the man started speaking in very fast Russian thinking I understood.

One of the most memorable and surprising experiences, though, would have to be a conversation Robin had with a man which went more or less like this:

“Good evening, would you like something hot to drink?”
“‘No, no thanks.”
“Something to eat?”

“No no, it’s okay.”

“Some soap or a bottle of water?”

“No thanks, I’ve got everything I need. I’ve got no need to lie to you. If I want something, I’ll ask. I wanted to watch the game today so I went and begged until I got enough money to buy myself a beer to drink while I watched the match. [insert team name] won, by the way.”
Later that night right outside the Saint Paul stop, an Asian performance artist painted in white writhed on the floor (and at our feet) for a good 20 minutes. According to two women who were talking about it next to me, he’s a pretty well-known performance artist who lives in Paris and does this to ‘see what emotions it evokes in the viewer’. I didn’t have my camera on me but since there were many Canon-clad tourists around, I’m sure if you google it, you’ll find a picture of a confused/amused me amidst the crowd. In a way, this brings to mind the way we react when we see the homeless. They are very obviously in need but some of us walk away feeling too uncomfortable to react, others reach out to leave money at their feet but most of us walk by, pretending not to see them. Very few of us actually take a second to see them for what they are: people who, whether by choice or by circumstance, are living on the street feeling hungry, scared, unloved, and most of all needing not just food but human warmth.

The next day was the Fete de Ganesh. Nothing like being handed bowls of free homemade Indian food (Spice level: Total tastebud removal), walking around beautifully adorned Indian women and shirtless Indian men chanting while breaking coconuts to make you feel like an outsider looking in. From what I had read, the breaking of the coconuts represents breaking through our tough ego to overcome our obstacles. It was very interesting and I’m glad I was able to be part of something so big that it made me feel like a little plankton in an Indian sea.

They were selling wonderful-smelling rose chains that were carefully hand-threaded.

We were able to hop upon onto a tiny ledge on a building to be able to get a better view and avoid being squished.

Beautiful henna tattoo that was done in 5 minutes and only cost 4 euro … Cool!


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