I live in a very white-bread community. It's actually one of my biggest complaints, this total lack of diversity. Growing up I had friends of all different races and cultures. I could go from having dinner on the floor, with my hands scooping rice out of a communal bowl, at my Indian friend's house, to eating authentic Spanish cuisine at another's and then delicious Iranian food at another's... I consider it a gift that I was able to be surrounded by friends of many different races and cultures. I believe those experiences growing up helped shape me into a well rounded and open minded person who likes to try new things and is not quick to judge a book by its cover. I struggle in finding (natural) ways to expose my children to these same kinds of experiences in a community of people who, aside from vast differences in income, all pretty much eat *generally* the same food, speak the same language and share the same culture.
It was my hope that Paris would help expose Ellie to all of these things which we lack here in my little Suburbia. And, it did. But along with that came a hefty dose of blatant racism that made me very uncomfortable. The neighborhood my friend lives in is extremely diverse with a population mostly from north Africa and various parts of the middle East and Eastern Europe. If you know anything about the Metro in Paris, you also know that during certain times of the day it is PACKED. And by packed, I mean, SARDINE PACKED. Forget sitting down, you've basically got everyone's armpit in your face. Or for Ellie, the poor child had everyone's crotch in her face! And people push up against you, by virtue of the total lack of space. There are even times when you have to skip a train and wait for the next one because that particular one just could not accommodate one more person. It's what I imagine New York Subways and Tokyo subways to be like during commute hours.
This lead me to believe that the forced proximity, where you are all holding onto the same "pole" for dear life (just kidding!) as the metro sways harshly from side to side, would result in people understanding/accepting that we are all the same. Wouldn't that be the great equalizer? I falsely assumed that living in a highly diverse community would mean LESS racism rather than more. I was wrong. And it pains me to say this because I love France. And I am sure there are parts of France that are nothing like Paris. But Paris, as beautiful and amazing and glorious a city as it is, also happens to be incredibly racist as a whole. Ellie and I witnessed several instances of harsh and blatant racism that took my breath away (young white people refusing to give up their seats on the bus for a very elderly Afghan man, gypsies in the subway verbally assaulted and berated just for being gypsies, etc...) Stereotypes run deep in Paris. Yes,admittedly, the majority of the gypsies in Paris are thieves and pick-pockets (this is a fact) but they aren't all. They are also a community of people so hated, so truly despised and so terribly persecuted by the citizens of Paris that they absolutely CANNOT find even the most menial of jobs to support their families and therefore have little recourse when it comes to feeding said families. This leaves them with few respectable options when it comes to getting money to feed their children. There are, as always, two sides to every coin.
It was all very hard for me to stomach. And all my hopes of exposing Ellie to the wonderful world of a richly diverse, progressive thinking and harmonious community were pretty much dashed on Day 1. On the flip side, Ellie and I were able to have really great conversations about racism (prompted by those incidents) which probably would not have been triggered otherwise. So, I'm trying to look at the positives here.
On one of our Metro rides two men (gypsies) came on the train with their accordions to sing (and beg for tips). Performers/Musicians aren't allowed during peak hours but when it's the "slow" time and there's plenty of room in the trains, they are allowed to come on and do their little "show." Now, for full disclosure, I need to mention that I have a particular affinity for the accordion and a huge emotional attachment to this particular instrument because my paternal grandfather (whom I adored more than words can possibly express) played the accordion his whole life. He played it every night after dinner when my sisters and I were visiting my grandparents in France during the summers and I have the fondest memories of playing on the floor and listening to his music as he played, while my grandma sat in her rocking chair knitting away, the click-click-click of her long metal needles blending in beautifully with his musical notes. So, yeah, I'm partial and completely biased and was absolutely delighted to have this wonderful musical accompaniment as Ellie and I traveled to our final destination for the day. Others on the train were not quite so delighted. At the end of their show when they went around collecting tips, Ellie and I were amongst only two people in that entire section of the train to tip them. I should mention that I am not one to usually give money or handouts to people begging on the street. I worked too long in Law Enforcement to know that, generally speaking, the money you give a homeless person will go straight to drugs or alcohol. I would much rather volunteer at a shelter or donate to a program/facility that provides ACTUAL help and support for people struggling with addictions/homelessness/mental illness. So, I have my own biases there based on having worked the streets for a decade and seeing first hand what most people never really see or experience in terms of how the "underground" world of the homeless operates.
But here, for these two fellows, they were, in my opinion, undoubtedly working for a living. They were spending long days going from train to train singing and playing just to earn a few euros. They were contributing in the way they knew how. So, I was very happy to give them money. It was just sad to observe others on the train yelling at them to stop, leave, or worse. Fortunately, Ellie didn't understand any of the heckling (the actual words used) but she certainly understood the negative tone and the intent of the hecklers, which was sad to both of us. After the gypsies got off the train in order to hop onto the next one, Ellie turned to me, bright eyed and bushy tailed and remarked: "how lucky we were mama! We got our very own serenade! Wasn't it lovely!?" Yes, indeed. It most certainly was. And then, in a sudden breathless moment, I felt an overwhelming wave of intermingled sadness and joy wondering if my grandpa, up in heaven, had played any small role in making sure those accordion playing gypsies had found their way to us in order to give his great granddaughter, whom he never had a chance to meet, a little taste of something that had brought me endless joy as a child? I guess I'll never really know for sure but I certainly like the idea that he was behind all of it. I truly did feel his presence in that moment. :)
(I secretly caught a snippet of their serendipitous performance on my iphone, please forgive the poor quality)