Monday, 11 March 2013

Les Invalides

Planet Chez Patrice by boltron-


At the base of the hill, the conmen swarmed. On the steps of the church, the homeless begged. In the midst of the market, kitsch was king.

*

THE last time I was in Paris, I was small. It rained. It thundered. The queue for the Eiffel Tower was too long. The Sacre Coeur was a dazzling white, and not knowing my Parisian geography, seemingly far away from every other landmark. We walked along the Seine, we talked of hunchbacks in the Notre Dame, and then we left again to head back to our campsite, close to Disneyland, which had a fishing lake and a river along which we canoed, narrowly avoiding collision with a local fisherman’s line. I wasn’t allowed on the monstrous loop-de-loop rollercoaster at Parc Astérix, so we went on the rickety wooden coaster Tonnerre de Zeus lots of times instead. In the campsite, for the first time, I ate anchovies.

Fast forward to the present day. Now a grown up, I was excited to revisit Paris, to see how accurate my fractured memories had been and to add new experiences, new observations and new opinions. I was no longer small and the queue for the Eiffel Tower was significantly shorter. On the first evening it rained, but it did not thunder.

I liked Paris. It was refreshing. It confounded all of my preconceptions: it was neither shabby nor pretentious, it was clean and, though busy, never hustling. It didn't matter that a demonstration cut short our bus tour, nor did it matter that we had insufficient time to see all the sights, for it was the perfect city to roam, to browse, to feel safe. We ate in the cafe featured in Intouchables. In the Passage des Panoramas we stepped back into a forgotten world, a world of stamps, old photographs and postcards. And, thanks to Helmut Newcake, we found a solution to our gluten-free patisserie needs.

But there was one thing I did not like, one thing that I did worry about: in Paris, poverty is heart-achingly apparent.

*

Having zigzagged up a maze of small streets, packed with faux-artisan boutiques and overabundant opportunities for a painted portrait of varying quality — as expected of a hill renowned for its artistic history — we arrived atop Montmartre disorientated and out of breath, hoping to walk straight into the iconic basilica before being pounced upon by a caricature artist. The main square was heaving, for the Christmas market had arrived, with stalls identical to every German market throughout Europe lining the churchyard thoroughfare. Parisians were parting easily with their Euros for their own slice of the kitsch, knick knacks and confectionery on offer.

Diverted from the Sacre Coeur entrance by the market hubbub we entered what we thought to be a side entrance of the church, only to find it to be an entirely different neighbouring church, a smaller, quieter affair but no less of a haven of serenity. As we made our swift departure a homeless man stood, bedraggled, at the door, his hand partially unfurled in the hope it might make contact with food, money or some sign of security. His other hand was positioned underneath, propping up the first. He said nothing, nor did he stand in our way. He merely leant in the corner by the door, seeking a shadow in which he felt he belonged. I fished out the only coins I had on me, totalling not much more than one Euro, placed them in his hand and moved on, feeling sad for him but disgusted that up here, with so much money spent superfluously on art and tacky Christmas trinkets and on the doorstep of a church, he was allowed to live in such a state. I was wrong to be so affected so prematurely, however, for he was not alone.

When we eventually found the entrance to the Sacre Coeur we found we shared it with hundreds of tourists, all taking the same photograph of the view across the Paris cityscape. We were all treated to a dire rendition of Rihanna’s Umbrella by a wannabe troubadour amongst the crowd. Pigeons weaved bravely among the people in search of crumbs. And, at the door of one of the most famous churches in the world, which is so lovingly preserved outside and lavishly adorned inside — even with a shiny disco Jesus — two homeless women begged for crumbs like the pigeons.

21Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!””

Mark 10:21-23

I find rich churches uncomfortable places to visit. I find rich churches surrounded by poverty distressing. Now, let us be fair, the Sacre Coeur may be working tirelessly with the local community and poor, as it should be, but it is just so hard to tell. I tried to contact the church upon my return but they have yet to address my concerns, months later. It is time to be frank: a church must be the moral lynch pin of a community. As long as there are people in need on its doorstep its work is not complete. If it is not seeking to fix these ills, then its heart is in the wrong place.

Of course, it could be that these people are not homeless at all but con artists, like the many that swarm at the foot of Montmartre. If this is true, then the church knows about it; in failing to remove them, it is supporting their deeds. Sacre Coeur: the ball is in your court. What say you?

We left, despondent.

*

The Metro, somewhere between Richelieu Drouot and République. A scruffy, dishevelled man boards the train and begins to sing. He is evidently homeless. His song is a lonely song, a simple melody without adornment or flourish but strong in sentiment. I do not understand any of the words, but I do not need to. He passes, silently but obviously, through the carriage, chipped cup held aloft, hoping for donations. The passengers ignore him and he receives none, and at the next station he bids a forlorn farewell.

"Bonne journée à tout le monde"

And with that, he is gone.

But then something strange happens. A man with an accordion immediately begins to play, perhaps in celebration, at the far end of the carriage. And at our end, in what seems to be coincidence, a third man begins a speech. His intentions are as clear as the first, unsuccessful man. He walks through with a collection cup just the same. And this time, everyone donates.

Everyone.