"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

7 Snapshots of Europe, Spring 2014: 6. Les Clochards

There is no denying it, the Eiffel Tower is impressive and, yes, beautiful in a way that sidesteps the cliches. It is astonishing to think that it was almost torn down in 1909 when the original 20 year permit expired and only avoided that fate because having antennas so high up was deemed useful. We took the requisite several dozen photos from various angles, necks constantly craned upwards, but what sticks in my memory is what I saw when I looked down. On the narrow cement boulevard in the street that runs between the tower and the Seine lay a man. He was black and shoe-less and lying face down, wearing a shirt that hung loosely from one shoulder and pants that were so torn that most of his left buttock was exposed. Streams of people passed around him on both sides like a river around a rock. It was hard to tell whether he was breathing. This was our first clochard.

Les clochards are the Parisian versions of bums or winos or what I suppose we now rather colourlessly call homeless persons. They have a long tradition here and few tourists fail to notice them. The clochard classique is a scruffy bearded fellow wearing too many layers sitting with his fellows on the banks of the Seine, gripping a bottle of red wine by the neck. These still exist, but the range is much wider today. The unconscious fellow under the Eiffel Tower represents the one extreme where it's hard not to imagine a heart-rending back-story involving a West African family pooling its savings to pay a smuggler to take their brightest boy across the Sahara and the Mediterranean, only to have the dream end in destitution, starvation and collapse. Or maybe he was just tired and needed a nap. At the other extreme, near where we were staying, we saw a pair of clochards pitch two spiffy mountaineering tents on a patch of grass under the Pont d'Austerlitz. Every morning they would pack up their tents and clean up their campsite and then every evening they would set everything up again. They didn't bother anybody and nobody bothered them.

My favorites though were the nattily, if eccentrically, dressed old men, greasy grey hair carefully combed, colourful scarf knotted just so, favorite bench reserved from where they would smile at the pretty girls (yes, no shortage thereof in Paris) and perhaps thumb a fat tattered novel, sipping something from a paper bag. Or perhaps these weren't clochards at all. Perhaps they were just happy to get out of the house.

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