Beggars in Paris
Soundtrack: An up-tempo salsa song from that guy on the Metro with the fancy compact trumpet
In general, Paris is an visual and cultural overload. You can't spend eight days wandering the world's greatest museums, buildings, and historial sites amongst people from nearly every nation in the world without feeling more than a little overwhelmed. It's too much to take unadulterated; you have to break it down into smaller pieces.
For instance: Paris has some of the most varied styles of beggars and buskers I've ever encountered
- At the bottom of the begging rung are the simple stationary beggars, those who just sit there and ask for spare change, occasionally with a sign, a plantive look, and a rattling change cup, hoping you'll give them money just for looking so damn pitiful. The ever-present bottle of wine and permenently red nose hint at what your donations will be used for.
There are two variations on the simple beggar:
- The beggar with a dog. Often times the dog has been trained to hold a hat or something for you to put your donation into.
- The female Hindu beggar, often found in the Metro stations, frozen in a formal begging position: on their knees and facing obsequiously forward, heads down and hands outstretched. Innumerably ill-fed children sit next to them.
- A step above the passive beggars are the mobile beggars, who approach you while you're comfortable and not thinking about donations at all: relaxing in Luxembourg Park, riding the Metro, or looking through gaudy Eiffel Tower souvenirs. These are often a bit more strident than the passive beggars (who, after all, are called "passive" for a reason), and occasionally can try to get money out of you by being abusive and hoping that you'll give them money just to get rid of them. My favorite of these was the bastard child of Harlan Ellison and Quasimodo who started screaming at me on the Metro who I gave him a quick headshake and went back to reading. There's something vaguely comical about being yelled at in an incomprehensible language by a guy only able to look me in the eye while I'm seated. I had to resist the urge to shoo him back to his bell tower and finally get around to releasing "The Last Dangerous Visions."
- A variation on this are those who just go around asking for a cigarette. Many of them are kids who are too young to buy for themselves.
- Thankfully, Paris is surprsingly short of my least favorite of all buskers, the human statues. Those paragons of uselessness who think that painting themselves gray and standing still is worth my hard-earned pennies. These people are even more irritating than simple beggars, because they are often in the middle of sidewalks being useless.
- Above the statues are the real performers. While Paris has it's share of street acrobats, firebreathers, and jugglers, most of the performers are musicians of varied quality, on the Metro, either in halls or in the cars themselves. The less talented or persistent musicians are usually found in the halls, playing harmonicas, saxophones, or the occasional guitar. The better musicians work like traveling gypsies, boarding your Metro car with a speaker and playing a set quite possibly timed to finish just in time for them to walk around with a hat out, collect their stuff, and jump off at the next stop, to move one car forward. The two best acts I saw were an amazing Hispanic man playing salsa out of an expensive compact trumpet, and an actual four piece group that did a three stop long set. These were the only beggars/buskers I've given money to in eight months of travel.
- Of all those trying to make some under the table money out of tourists, the most irritating are the ones trying to give you "special" souvenirs. The postcard sellers I can handle, but in the park below Sacre Coeur, in Montmartre, there was a mass of aggressive non-English and non-French speakers selling friendship bracelets. They'd come up to you and try to grab a free hand to start tying ugly colored threads on to your arm, taking just enough time with it to create a sense of obligation; when the finished, they'd ask for some money for their work: usually between five and ten euro. They are extremely persistent, and after ten minutes in the park I was swearing at them to leave me the fuck alone!
- Better than that, but still not for everyone are the crowds of artists hanging out in front of the Louvre and huddled around the Centre Pompidou. For between ten to fifteen euro you can get a portrait or caricature done of you; if they weren't so persistent and forceful about their soliciting, I could almost like them.
- And finally, there's a rare and special breed of entrepreneur who sells you things you really want or need. Occasionally you can get rolls of film, but most commonly and usefully are the water bottle sellers, who trolls the entrance to the Arc D'Triomphe and the lines outside museums. And, in those rare instances when Paris clouds over and begins to rain, these same water-sellers pull handfulls of umbrellas from their bags of holding and start peddling them.
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