Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Rain in France

The rain here isn't like it is at home. Sure there are grey clouds covering the sky that cast shadows on murky puddles, and people bustle down the street with their rain jackets and umbrellas just the same. But I've noticed in Paris the rain just doesn't drip down on top of umbrellas and rooftops, it falls on the heads of a countless number of homeless people. We can all spot a homeless man on the street. They have the "typical look", long hair, a couple of missing or damaged teeth, and tattered layered clothing. There's usually a bottle in a paper bag sitting next to him on one side and either a cup for donations or a dog on his other. It's not a hard scene to find.

What I think a lot of people don't notice while they hurry along the street to their corner office buildings is that the rain only affects their life for a moment. Maybe ten minutes at the most. Between taking public transportation and wearing some kind of rain gear, they only get wet for a very short amount of time. I personally like walking in the rain, there's something refreshing about such a pure element falling on top of me I can't help but smile. I generally don't walk into a building after choosing to walk bare-headed in the rain complaining about the weather and how my hair is ruined. Hair never falls the same way twice so why would I expect it to stay the way I place it before leaving my room? It's not a feasible request.

But for someone who doesn't have a brush, access to a haircut, or maybe not even a secure cover from the rain, the homeless have a much bigger say in how the rain affects their lives. So, while people run down the street, newspaper in hand, racing to catch the bus that's about to leave, even though the next one will inevitably arrive in three minutes time, they cease to notice the suddenly greater number of homeless people wandering the street. They wander without shoes, sometimes with soaking wet socks, looking for a vendor who will allow them to rest on the stoop for a few minutes. Most of the restaurant and grocery store owners look them up and down and tell them to move on. The parks aren't dry enough to sit under a tree and all of the benches are exposed to the crying skies.

At the end of La Rue du Val de Grace, there is a homeless man I have seen every day since the day I arrived who sits on the bench all day long. Sometimes he stands up to stretch his legs, or is laying down taking a nap. But when he begins to greet someone, or lay his head down, something strange takes over his body. I'm not sure if it was from an accident, a disease, or what-- but his head cocks to the side and almost rotates his chin clear up to the sky. The first time I saw it, I was a little scared but then I took a closer look and realized he is smiling the whole time. I'm sure it's so he doesn't scare people walking by, but I see something more genuine about his smile. It could just be how I see the world in general, but the past few days I've felt bad because I know the cafe owner doesn't necessarily want him sitting on the bench next to his establishment, but it's clear this man isn't an insane drinker and has nowhere else to go. So this morning I saw him walking around while I ran by, his socks were soaked, and it was evident his coat had been rained on all night long. But he just paced the street, wearing a dry smile.

Walking back up the road to school I stopped in a Boulangerie and ordered a Croissant au beurre and a Croissant au chocolat. I paid the man 1.80 Euros and grabbed the paper bag. Stepping back out into the rain, I opened my umbrella to protect my iPod and felt the warmth of the bag in my hands. I started to smile a little as a Brett Dennen song started, "Aint No Reason". It's a very, very powerful song, and usually has the ability to bring tears to my eyes with just one line. But it's inspiring nonetheless. So I told myself it had to be a good sign the song came on shuffle as I was about to give this man some breakfast.

I turned the corner and touched his shoulder and said, "Bonjour Monsieur, c'est un croissant au beurre et un croissant au chocolat que j'ai achete pour vous." He started to grab the bag and asked me to repeat myself. So I did and he replied, "Ah, merci mademoiselle c'est gentil mais non je ne peux pas les accepter." My heart sank and I replied with "Non, ce sont les croissants pour vous. S'il vous plait, il pleut maintenant, je voudrais vous aider un peu." And it went on for a few more seconds until he placed the bag back in my hands and held them for a second as he thanked me again.

There aint no reason things are this way, it's how they always been and they intend to stay. So I held the bag of croissants and walked away from the man. My heart continued to drop and I felt tears well up. I understand he probably felt like a charity case, but it's those times when I feel the most helpless. Not that I'm helpless, but that I don't know what to do to make a difference. Maybe it's silly to think that I can change a person's life by buying them one meal for one day.

The wind blows wild and I may move, the politicians lie and I am not fooled. You don't need no reason or a three piece suit to argue the truth. It seems overwhelming at times to think that just one person can make a difference, can reach out and change something. Today feels like one of those days. The rain rolls down the window of my classroom, my apartment room-- my shelter. But what about those who aren't as fortunate as I am? The rain rolls down their damp clothing, their faces, and when it reaches the roots on their scalp it sends chills down their spine.

Two croissants don't change much in the eyes of a homeless man and maybe that was his reasoning for not accepting them. I'm a firm believer in Aesop's quote, "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." And maybe it's easier for someone who has belongings, a shelter to run to from the cold, and the ability to perform such small acts of kindness, to see how successful they can be. But in the eyes of someone who has nothing, and who wouldn't be able to return the favor, the croissants might taste bitter. It's like when Charlie opened the chocolate bar present and didn't find a golden ticket. It wasn't an answer to his problems, it was just a bar of chocolate. Bitter, and almost useless.

So the rain continues to fall, and the number in my head grows as I count more and more homeless people walking down the street, holding themselves closer to keep warm each time a cold drop hits their body. Hopefully the sun will come out, even if just for a few minutes to warm the heart and soul of those who need it the most.

I can't explain why we live this way, we do it every day.