Paris, France. The epitome of my childhood obsessions. The city of love, art, and wonder. And, one of the dirtiest cities I have ever been to, second only to New York.
The concept of privilege is a controversial and confusing one, but there's one part that's remarkably clear to me: perception and romance. Those of us who hold privilege are capable of romanticizing places and things that those without perceive realistically. Paris is one of those places.
I've taken five years of French, planned a French-themed junior prom, purchased many cliche France-inspired decorations, and made many idealogical, addictive assumptions. I thought I knew exactly what to expect. My weekend in Paris was simply all my predictions coming alive in beauty and spectacle. I did not account for the unemployed selling the same knickknacks at every site hoping a couple of tourists will fund their next meal. Nor did I account for the pickpocketers forced to resort to illegal means to stay alive. And, I especially did not account for the homeless men, women, families, dogs, children, and elderly begging on every block.
Unemployment in France reached about three and a half million people claiming benefits in 2014, almost a year ago. To them, Paris isn't a vision of love, art and wonder; it's a vision of money, food, and life. Where's their romance? Their beauty? Spectacle?
I adored Paris, really. You can feel the history and intelligence completely suffocating you while simultaneously overflowing with breath, air, and art. It's extraordinary. However, loving a place and criticizing a place are luckily not mutually exclusive. See, to think this perception of the city is the only accurate perception is to be a fool of passion. And to walk past such depressing displays of poverty is to be much more than a fool of passion.
My previous post on Barcelona touched on the importance of not making a culture into anything more than a culture. I suppose I want to take that a step further. Utopia's do not exist. Your interpretation of a place may give you that impression. You may call it a utopia. You may believe it to be a utopia. You may think no other place comes close to such a utopia. But that's one interpretation. Another person may arrive to the exact same place, see the exact same things, and interpret it as dystopian.
So what contributes to these various perceptions? What can be considered the truth and what can be considered more? There are facts, and then there are values. Facts are bare. They are numbers, statistics, descriptions that mean nothing until a value is placed on them. Paris has a history of artists, poets, writers, and thinkers. That's a fact. Paris has an immense history of artists, poets, writers, and thinkers. That's a value. Paris has a homeless population. That's a fact. Paris has a significantly high homeless population. That's a value. Values contribute to our perceptions. Characteristics we value more are brought to the forefront. A tourist obsessed with Hemingway will view the city in an obsessive, worldly, sophisticated light because her/his values align with art and romantic history. A starving French lad living on the streets will view the city in a dismal, hopeless, dirty light because his values align with food and survival.
I should have known about the immense poverty I saw. I should have prepared myself to not be breathless by beauty. But, I hadn't. I hadn't because my perception is a privileged one. The perceptions I interact with on a routinely basis are privileged ones. We've never had to view anything from such a seemingly hopeless place. My French teacher had never been on the streets in Paris. My high school class officers had never been, let alone seen homeless there. Heck, I can safely bet not a single cliche Eiffel Tower decoration I own was made by a poor Frenchman. How would I, or anyone, perceive these issues if no one in our privileged world has told us? We'd have to break our privileged bubble to seek out these other perceptions. Instead however, when presented with them, we stop at the values and ignore the facts. Oh yes, a plethora of people are starving in Paris. And yes, a plethora of art and ideas are breeding in Paris. The day these two values finally coexist is the day Paris is finally understood.