Friday, November 18, 2011

Les Misérables

Last weekend, I skipped the country and discovered Luxembourg City: close enough to Paris for a weekend, yet far enough away to feel exotic. Most of my entourage raised an eyebrow when I announced my weekend plans, as apparently the going rap on Luxembourg is that it’s a) small b) boring and c) unsexy. Whatever. For those of you contemplating a visit to Luxembourg, it is none of those things. In addition to being gorgeous, G. and I found it to be plenty big (it’s the damn capital, people! 50 square kilometers—get with it!), plenty interesting, and ... well, it may not be sexy per se, but what do you want? It’s wedged between Germany, eastern France and Belgium; it can’t have everything. What it DOES have is money. Lots of money. And an entire army of invisible street sweepers who keep the place impeccably groomed. That, my friends, is one clean city. Even the fallen leaves look somehow artfully fallen. There is no “5-second rule” in Luxembourg; if you should let any food fall to the ground, you could probably pick it up whenever you felt like it and keep eating. No worries.

They also have really big cheese.

Oh sure, there is poverty in Luxembourg. We learned all about it at the city museum, currently featuring a temporary exhibit cleverly entitled “Poor Luxembourg.” Over the course of a really quite elaborate series of displays and installations, including full-scale models of a homeless camp and a “social” grocery store, we learned that “poverty” in the Grand Duchy is not so much a question of true financial insecurity, but rather of coping with limited access to social pleasures (fewer extracurricular activities for one’s children, for example). We also learned that the gross minimum wage is roughly €1,800 per month—by far the most generous of the EU. In other words, indigence is such an oddity in Luxembourg that it’s worthy of an entire museum exhibit.

France is not Luxembourg. France has plenty of poverty—as well as a fairly conspicuous homeless population. I would know; I was sat upon this week by one particularly conspicuous specimen. Sat. Upon. I was taking the métro home from work with a friend, when an extremely alcoolisé gentleman sporting rags and a half-consumed bottle of whiskey staggered onto our train, screaming what can only be translated as, “You bunch of #@*$!! I #$$& this &$*@ piece of #$$& world of @$#!! Go @#$% yourselves!” Everyone in the wagon stopped talking and stared at him, at which point the doors closed and the train took off. The sudden movement was obviously too much; in slow motion, he toppled backward ... right onto my friend and me, strategically seated as though we had intended to serve as a human safety net. It was nice.

Enter at your own risk.

Like the subway of your average metropolis, the Paris métro has quite a population of “residents.” Some drink themselves into oblivion; some peddle illicit merchandise; still others beg. Of the beggars, I count three categories: the passive, the proactive and the performing. The passive find a spot somewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels and stations and just camp there, with or without a puppy/child by their side, silently admonishing you to spare a dime. There is one such woman who hangs out at the station Opéra, at the foot of the stairway leading to the line 3 platform, just glaring at each and every person who walks by, her eyes boring right into you as you attempt to breeze past nonchalantly. I once fearfully offered her a few lunch vouchers—the fabulous tickets restaurant—and she actually turned out to be way nicer than I had imagined. I almost wanted to give her some marketing advice about the whole catching more flies with honey than with vinegar thing, but thought better of it. If I were homeless, would I take advice off some random commuter? Probably not.

The proactive métro dwellers go ahead and climb aboard the trains themselves, passing from wagon to wagon, shouting over the din about who they are and why they need your contribution. Some are polite; others are frighteningly belligerent. Consider this: back at home, my parents are harassed day and night by phone calls from perfect strangers soliciting money, but here in Paris, you can get the same treatment face à face! Who says urban living is impersonal?

Finally, there are the performers. Some dance; some sing; some play musical instruments. Some are quite good; others are so ear-splittingly bad I would pay them to just STOP ALREADY. And while I’m at it, I would also happily, happily pay them to cease and desist massacring such cherished oldies as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Hotel California,” anything by the Beatles, and the perennial favorite, “El Cóndor Pasa” (yes, I realize the tune predates Paul Simon. That’s no excuse to screw it up). There are also plenty of métro gypsies, but they enter more into the “nasty pickpocket” category than the “unfortunate homeless” one.

For the record, I do not have a heart of stone (plus I’m a Democrat; I’m like obligated to at least feign sympathy). Although, with the price of Paris’s monthly métro pass likely to increase to a whopping €78 over the next year, there comes a point when those of us who do use the public transportation system for ... transportation ... are perfectly justified in demanding, I don’t know, the right to not be sat upon by drunken homeless guys for example. I’m just saying.