Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Down and Out in Paris

I wandered a long way through Paris last weekend and on my way I saw a surprising number of bag ladies, tramps - - whatever you choose to call them, or whatever the current term is.

One was sitting on top of a grating, drying all her clothes, which were spread out next to her, in the hot air coming up from below.

Several more were just wandering about, and many were asleep.

This old lady was by the church known as La Madeleine, near the Place de la Concorde, as all the worshippers were coming out on Sunday morning:

Here she is from a distance: if you follow the railings along from left to right, she is just to the right of the end of the railings.

Three hours later I passed the church again, and she was still there, still muttering to herself, still holding out a plastic cup.

Walking by the river Seine, I passed another old lady:

What was strange was that all of them, both male and female, had a lot in common in the way that they presented themselves.

All the ones who were sitting down had a little notice made from a cardboard box, folded, and on it it said SVP JAI FAIM. Now I know what it means: it means S'il Vous Plait J'ai Faim, or Please I'm Hungry. But they all had the apostrophe missing, and they were all written in a similar style. It was very puzzling. Is there a centralised Tramp School somewhere where they learn to make these signs?

And they were all holding out a little plastic cup. As a matter of fact, if you are hoping that people will give you money, then a plastic cup held in a wobbling hand is not a good receptacle: any would-be givers would have to get far too close to you. Some kind of hat a couple of yards away would work far better. Part of me wanted to go up to them and try to explain this.

I found myself intrigued. Where were they from? How had they got there? What happens to them?

Most of them didn't try to make eye contact or ask for money at all - just sat there holding out the little plastic cup.

The ones that really upset me were a much younger woman and a very grubby child, both asleep in the middle of the Rue de Rivoli, as shoppers and visitors to the Louvre rushed by.

I found the whole thing very unsettling. This was all, of course, in one of the richest parts of Paris with shops and headquarters of famous designers everywhere.

Here, if you look closely at the writing on the building, is L'Oreal. Because you're worth it.

Do we care about the tramps? I found them both intriguing and disturbing. I didn't have the courage to speak to any of them - I wasn't even sure if they were French or from elsewhere. I have the lingering feeling that Something Should be Done, but I don't know what, or by whom.


Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

I had similar feelings in Santa Monica, USA in 2005. We arrived in the early evening and went out to find some dinner in one of LA's prime shopping streets but what really sticks in my mind is the down-and-out people pushing old supermarket trolleys filled with all their worldly goods. Mostly men. Some of them angry. Some of them war veterans. Some of them messed up. They were like shadows on the wall that rich LA shoppers seemed so skilled in ignoring. One of the richest suburbs in the world and there was poverty lurking like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

9:21 pm  
Blogger rhymeswithplague said...

Maybe they're not tramps. Maybe they're Moonies -- you know, those people who used to sell flowers on every corner (in the U.S., at least) and all the proceeds went to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church?

Seeing all those signs with the same error (jai instead of j'ai) would make me very suspicious.

11:02 pm  
Blogger Oliver A. FP said...

I wish there was some magical way of telling who is really homeless, and who is just trying to scam you...

I mean, some people out there would happily sink that low.

Gareth gave money to a homeless bloke earlier, and I would've done the same if I'd had any - after a while of living in a city, you get an instinct about it I guess.

But it's only a quid or so... better to give money to scammers than to avoid helping actual homeless people.

1:07 am  

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