Erasmus diary: Behind the privileged facade

After an issue absence, UCC’s student abroad Jerry Larkin returns better settled and armed with a wider knowledge of sometimes paradoxical Parisian life.

I finally have my own apartment! Sure, it’s just a single room and involves climbing up 7 flights of stairs, but when you’re faced with the prospect of homelessness (or rodent infested hostels) then any run-of-the mill studio will seem like a sparkling penthouse.  One of the reasons it has taken me so long to find an apartment is the sheer amount of bureaucracy you have to get through to do anything in Paris. You have to go into a bank with a mountain of documents and identification in order to get anywhere.

However, I have to say I will miss staying in hostels as I had possibly the most fun of my time in Paris in one or two of them (including my first taste of absinthe in my life – never again), and the memories will last a lifetime! Of the ones I remember of course…

In moving from hostel to hostel, and finally to my own apartment, I’ve had to use public transport quite a lot.  I have to say that the public transport in Paris has been like a breath of fresh air from the likes of Bus Eireann, where the buses are rarely pleasant and even more rarely on time.

Say what you will about the French, but they certainly do know how to pull off a good public transport system e.g. Rennes in Brittany is smaller than Cork, and yet manages to have one metro line – one more than our capital city!  And if you miss one metro, it’s not a disaster as the next one is only 2 or 3 minutes away.  The only thing lacking with the transport system in Paris is how unfriendly it is to cyclists – I have only cycled through the city once, and that was enough to scare me off it!

Nevertheless, due to the sheer size of the population, the vast majority of Parisians take the Metro to get to school, college or work.  In this way, it is a fascinating microcosm of French society at large. There are businessmen with Blackberries seemingly glued to their hands, the hipsters who are each trying to outdo each other in the fashion stakes, the seemingly never-ending amount of gypsies asking for spare change, and even violin players who have perfected the art of busking at 70 mph.  Therefore the Metro is not just a handy way of getting around, it’s a bona-fide sociological experiment.

A far more negative aspect of Parisian life was made apparant to me when I was window-shopping for clothes in the Opera district (as an impoverished student, its all I can do really).  I was walking past the luxurious and world-renowned Galerie Lafayette (actual biggest lingerie section in the world… or so I hear) and I saw a sight that stopped me dead in my tracks – there was a beggar with no arms, not even with two stumps he could use.

A factor that added to the surrealness of the situation was that no Parisians even noticed him; they just breezed past, loaded with shopping bags and with no worries in the world.  It really brought home how lucky I was here, in this City of Light and Love for 9 months as a student with good prospects for the future, (hopefully – fecking recession) while this man had nothing, not even the use of a single hand.  The contrast really showed the good, the bad and the ugly side of this beautiful city.

Indeed, while the whole idyllic image of Paris is very much apparent in the city, if one moves into the banlieues, the scene changes completely.  There are slums in the suburbs of Paris that resemble something from American TV shows such as The Wire – largely populated with North African immigrants.  The youth unemployment rate in these places sometimes surpasses 50% (France has the highest unemployment rate amongst young people in Europe of 25%) – these are the kind of conditions which provoked the riots of 2005 that spread throughout France.

My problem with the Right in France is that they favour locking up, or even deporting, these unsettled citizens while not addressing the root cause of why these people turned to crime in the first place.  And while the bourgeoisies shop in the boutiques of the Champs Elysees, it appears that under Sarcozy’s reign, liberté, egalité et fraternité applies to some more so than others.

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