Is Paris hardening my heart?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The other day, a busy and rainy Sunday afternoon, as Gui and I were leaving McDonald's to get on with the day, a young boy stopped me and asked me if I had a euro. We were still inside the McDonald's when the boy approached me, and I had to ask him to repeat himself because I wasn't really sure what he said the first time. When I understood that he was asking me for a euro, I told him, "no," continued walking out of the restaurant and then proceeded to feel like the scum of the earth.

Being asked for money from strangers has just become part of my daily life as a Parisian city-dweller. I come across homeless people on a regular basis, and I've managed to grow a thick skin of indifference, knowing that my usually overly-emotional self is just not suited for denying a beggar some change. But, it wasn't until I firmly and quickly rejected this child's bid for a bite to eat that I realized how cold and callous I'd actually become. I walked by the McDonald's again a few minutes later and saw the boy sitting at a booth eating a burger. I wanted to cry.

A friend of mine makes it a point to give food and not money to beggars he encounters on the streets and in the tunnels of Paris, and I generally agree with that approach. But, rarely do I find myself with an extra piece of fruit or bag of chips in my handbag, and sometimes it's just not all that practical for me. And, I realize the trouble with handing out cash to people when they ask for it; that there's an organized ring of criminals who make people beg and take their money, but how am I supposed to pick and choose who I help and who I don't help?

I understand now that I should have asked the boy what he wanted to eat, bought him his Happy Meal and made his day instead of flatly rejecting him a slice of happiness that I could so easily have provided. But what if someone older had approached me instead? I might have felt less guilty knowing I'd said no to an adult and not a child, but is that morally OK?

There are a lot of things that I have changed about myself to adapt to living here, but I refuse to let my moral compass be one of them. Of course nobody has asked me to change, to become a different person or to conform to the norms of my new social setting; any changes I've made about my personality or my habits have solely been self-imposed. But, I'm realizing the high price my need to "fit-in" has cost me, and I don't plan to continue paying it.

If I can spare some change to make someone happy or buy a cheeseburger to feed a hungry boy, there's no reason I shouldn't. I won't be able to feed the world or make everyone happy, but at least my humanity will remain intact, and really that's the only thing that fits in everywhere.


Emeline said...

I feel you Sarah. Something similar happened to me last Saturday at McDonalds when I saw an old man asking for a glass of tap water. I wanted to ask if he wanted something to eat, but I just didn't know how to do it. People's reactions here are very strange sometimes.This makes us realize how lucky were are to have a job, a place to stay and some food on the table.The problem is that there are so many homeless in Paris, and you cannot help everybody, but you can help somebody every once in a while. I always give some money to a guy who plays the xylophone in Montparnasse, just because this Carribean music brings some sunshine to this sad place.

Candy said...

you never know when that person may be Jesus in disguise. that's my thought anyway.

Zhu said...

I do the same when in Paris... Especially around Les Halles or Montparnasse.

The last time I was there, I started saying "no I don't have..." when I realize the person just wanted to know the time. Ooops... I felt bad. But between the scammers, the begging etc. you do have to say no quite often.

It's the same in the US... isn't it?!

emily said...

I know what you mean. Here in London I could give to one person though, and still have to walk past another 20, that I'll feel guilty about. In the past I have picked just the one and given to them, but one night I was at a bus stop and I watched a homeless guy (cough cough) get up, roll his stuff up, throw it in a nice looking car and just drive off. Then I just get confused and don't know what to do.

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

It's not Paris, it's city living, unfortunately; I went through those emotions when I moved from a college environment to Philadelphia, where I regularly bought coffee for one man and often gave another cash for playing an amazing flute outside of City Hall. I didn't give cash otherwise, but yes, always felt awful when kids were involved.

Here in southern Italy in the bigger towns, we have "gypsies," always children or young women holding babies. It's heartbreaking :(

ahtokaz6 said...

I too experienced dismay in regards to my response to beggars when I first moved to a metropolis from a small town. But the more I experienced it the more I began to question my need to not say "no".It prompted me to write this:

I put a dollar in the blind man's box,
Even though
I know
His vision is there
Hidden somewhere between despair
and craftiness
Even though
my pocket now holds only my hand
I put a dollar in

Lynda said...

It is difficult to know what is the right thing to do. I found it even harder to give money here in Germany on visits when we were living in India - poverty here seemed laughable in comparison.

But... 5 years ago we were having a bit of financial struggle - money was really tight. We took the children for a walk into the city to look at the xmas lights - and walked past an old man sitting in a doorway. Before I know it, I took the last $10 out of my wallet, took his hand (making sure to touch him) and gave it to me. He looked at me with such kindness it stayed with me for a long time. Shortly after that, our fortunes turned dramatically and I have always believed that it was this one act that contributed more than any other. But who knows?

FB @ said...

I have to agree with Michelle.

It's just city living, not just being in Paris.

Being in the city hardens your heart.

That being said, when I was in Dallas for a week, I didn't see a SINGLE beggar, which was a shock for me, because having lived in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and some other cities in Canada, I've ALWAYS seen beggars.

Animesh said...

I completely understand your predicament Sarah, and thanks a lot for thinking of my approach.

Here's my take:
Most cultures think of donating as "good karma". However, I was taught as a child that the good karma comes to you only if you donate to the "deserving recipient". Therefore, I tell myself that getting good karma is not easy, and find myself saying no a lot to beggars when all I have is money. However, sometimes, when I feel a strong enough urge, I _do_ take out the time to actually buy stuff from a bakery etc, go back, and give it to the beggar. Sadly, there is no shortcut to the good karma/warm fuzzy feeling :).

Of course, there are times when I feel "I'd be happy to buy this musician a drink", and then I give money :).

Hope the above rant helps in some way. Courage!

misplaced texan said...

Thanks everyone for your comments! I think y'all are right about it being a big-city thing (although, I guess it kind of depends on what city, because, FB, you're so totally right that it's rare to spot a beggar in Dallas which is absolutely not the case in the much smaller city of Austin).

I'm glad I'm not the only one that struggles with figuring out what the "right" thing to do is - I didn't think to mention it in my post, but Gui is so oblivious to beggars. I think he's been so forcefully instilled with a sense of apathy or more a type of cynicism towards beggars that he makes no emotional connection when he comes across one. And that makes me sad and confused about how I react.

Thanks again, everyone for your comments. I think I'll have to revisit this topic after I've gone back to the US to visit. Will be interesting to compare.

Animesh said...

Coming from India (remember slumdog millionaire and the beggars there?), I can completely understand why Gui acts how he does. That said, I think my stint in the US has softened me :).

@arjantupan said...

It's a difficult choice, especially since the number of street people in Paris. On my last day there, I hads some food and drinks in the fridge that I was not going to take with me to my new country. I put it in a bag and went to the first street person I saw with a dog (also had some dog food left) and gave the bag to him. He seemed very happy. Money is often not the thing I'd give, unless the person has an entrepeneurial spirit: selling homeless papers, singing, etcetera. But that's my rule of thumb.
And sometimes I just remember that song by Arrested Development: Mr Wendall...

Leesa said...

Hi Sarah...

I feel EXACTLY the same way as you ... and I'm with you all the way... Sometimes I think... Oh.. why don't I have some cupcakes or something with when people ask... Well, actually... I've bought an ice cream cone for one of our local centre ville beggars last summer, I gave away a clementine to a homeless guy in town... and I gave away one of the cupcakes from Animesh's b-day party to a gypsy young man on the RER on the way up to Paris last Sat... So, sometimes.. but I, like you.. and not always equipped with food..
I don't like to give money to gypsies, because it perpetuates the system... and I really do feel for homeless people, but they also smoke and drink and I don't want to give my money to support their habits.... I do feel bad saying no but when people ask me, instead of ignoring them... I look at them in the eye and smile, and say... No, I'm sorry...
I know that we still feel bad about it.. but I don't know what you can really do to help, other than to buy someone food if the occasion arises again...
Take care,

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