I only have 5 days left in Paris and before I embark on the next journey in my life, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about this city that has provided me with an abundance of opportunities in every aspect of my life. However, you must first know that what I am about to share with you are only my opinions and if you disagree with anything you find below, you don’t have to fret at all. My thoughts are never imposed on anyone else nor should it be taken as the whole truth.
So, let’s start right from the beginning to give you some context.
When I applied for this exchange programme in 2015, my top four choices were all in New Zealand. I just wanted to get away from a city life and despite what everyone else told me about the land of the Māoris, I knew I would still have a hell lot of fun in the woods or up in the mountains. My last choice, however, was Sciences Po, Paris and it was chosen for its relevance to my studies, nothing more and nothing less. And as you might have already figured it out, I was given my last choice despite having worked really hard for it. So this disappointment should set the stage for what’s to come next.
I told myself that since I am going to go anyway, why not make the best out of it. I pulled my spirits back up when I saw a silver lining far ahead. In my bid to mentally prepare for this six months long trip, I tried to go for a change in perspective. Maybe Paris is not just a city. Paris could be anything that I want it to be. And in that, I found the rich history of photography that lies within the city walls. So, the next frame of mind that I had was to go to Paris not as a student, let alone as a tourist, but as a photographer, an observer and a curious mind. This was important because it influenced everything that I saw, did and experienced in the past six months. I had almost no interests in their wine or cheese, the free museums or their iconic landmarks. To me, these are only the outer appearances of a place. If my past travels have taught me anything, it has taught that if I truly want to understand the place that I am in, I have to go where nobody else goes to.
You see, I believe that there are two kinds of students on exchange and really, there is no right or wrong in them. The first group sees being on exchange as a great opportunity to explore, to see as much as we can and to experience everything if possible. The second group doesn’t travel out of the country a lot and stays put in the city to better understand it. I feel that I belong to the second group. I had never been compelled to go for a Euro trip and to be honest with you, I was surprised by this myself too. In the end, I only went to Isle of Skye and Iceland because no matter what the mission I was on, a part of me will always crave for the mountains and the rivers. Two trips out of the entire six months? That pales in comparison to the average number of trips taken by anyone else that I know. To each his own right?
So, I began observing my surroundings as soon as I had settled down. But another surprise came and hit me. Instead of learning more about this city that I was living in, I began discovering new things about myself. I came here with a clear motive: to understand Paris inside out and not to leave a single cobblestone unturned. But look where did I get myself to in the early months instead? Something about being away from home taught me more meanings of home than I could have ever imagined to learn if I had just stayed in Singapore for the rest of my life. I see this as my first opportunity to grow as an individual. It was only when I am here that I begin to appreciate the duller things in life. Things such as familiarity, easy access to basic services and rights as an insider as opposed to an outsider. All of these were stripped away from me the moment I boarded that flight. And I learned a hell lot on how to survive without them.
Once that had hit its peak, the cycle repeats and I am back on my original mission again. I asked myself the most basic question first of all. If all these touristy fancy attractions are what the people on top wants to sell to the outside world, then where do I have to go to get a real grip of this place? I found my answer in the supermarkets here. I know it’s strange to hear that but please just sit through this.
The first supermarket that I went to was Carrefour just a few minutes away from my apartment. I didn’t really feel much at first except for the urgent need to find somewhere cheaper to do my weekly groceries (I am a big eater). That was when I found Lidl, also a few minutes away from where I lived. But as soon as I stepped right through that sliding door, my senses were immediately heightened. I actually thought my mind was playing a trick on me. So, I went back to Carrefour the next day which happened to be on a weekend thus a more sizeable crowd present. I looked at this crowd carefully before returning back to Lidl and did the same. The difference in demographic was startling to me. I can’t be exactly sure on what the stats are but it seems to me that I can find the blacks, muslims and the generally poorer ones easily in Lidl – a cheaper supermarket. This observation gave me a new insight on the society that I live within.
It bothered me a lot to the extent that I began to grow an interest in this topic. As a result of this, I started to see things that I would normally dismiss off quickly. I looked around me everywhere I go and I simply can’t believe just how beautiful the architecture was. The symmetry, the arcs, the uniform design, the urban planning and all of these especially when being lighted up during the golden hour. Magnificent! It gives me this impression that the society that exist within these walls must also be a wonderful society despite the common perceptions related to the arrogance and cold attitudes. But that’s not what I saw at first. Instead, I saw the poverty. I saw the class division. I saw the discrimination. And I was honestly taken aback. The number of latest Mercedes Benz is just as many as the number of homeless out there. I had also seen some ridiculously majestic homes and yet, I still wonder how could there be people still fighting for a meal everyday? I pondered on what it means to be homeless for a very long time. Extreme poverty means that all choices are taken away from us. The choice to love someone freely without being judged, the choice to pursue our dreams and heck, the choice over what to have for our next meal too. But if choice and the ability to choose is so fundamental to what it means to be a human, then what they have endured must be beyond our comprehension too.
I once walked down Champs-Élysées and saw a woman with her face touching the floor while holding a cup from MacDonalds begging for some change. Anyone, especially a woman, has a very high dignity and self-worth, and I wonder how extreme her situation must have been for her to get rid of all those just for a few dollars per day? I know that they could be Romanians and hence all the stereotypes that comes with it. But I am not interested in them. What I saw was just a woman, not by her nationality nor religion, just someone who deserves a lot more better in this current world.
The more I see all of this, the more I began to question everything. How can a society advance forward so much at the expense of its own people? And I think that question is the emblem of the human condition wherever we go to. The rich will always gets richer. The middle class always have to play catch up with no end in sight. And the poor, will forever be left behind. But in all these chaotic thoughts that I had, I realised that if the rich and the poor are very highly visible, then where are those in the middle? Coincidentally at the same timing of my wondering, their existence came under threat by those whom they had voted into the office. The protest against the Labour Law Reforms, Loi El Khomri, started on 31st March 2016 and continues on till now as this piece is still being written. I didn't only attend their gatherings and rallies, I followed them from the start to the end. So much so that there was once, a protester confronted and accused me to be a French police officer in a civilian attire, simply because he sees me around way too often (I take that confrontation as a compliment btw).
This is also where the third opportunity arises from for me. Coming from a country of relative high stability and safety, these social movements in France offered me a way into the very notion of freedom. I witnessed what it means to have freedom of speech here. Some may say that the ability to fight (literally) the authorities is also the very freedom that they champion. Well honestly, I am still divided on the topic and I would like to remain so for a while longer because I have seen the good and the bad that comes out of it. The synergy of the movement, the belief of the people that they can create change, not any kind of change, but a positive one is truly admirable and amazing. But for every positive thing that I had seen, there were also one negative aspect to accompany it too. The spilling of blood, the overflowing aggression that only leads to more unfounded hatred, blinding anger and the complete loss of order, both morally and socially, are just some of the cost of freedom if that freedom comes uncaged.
“Freedom stops being freedom when the cost outweighs the gains.”
Despite this gloomy outlook on everything, something about having my days in this city numbered has forced me to take a second glance on everything. Maybe there is a part of me that didn't want to leave with just a sad realisation and nothing more. So I was glad that I did run through everything that I had seen once again because it was only in the second attempt that I found a new understanding.
Yes, the French society is visibly and deeply divided along the social class lines. And yes, discrimination is also prevalent everywhere. But the people are not passive about this. Unseen and hidden from the surface, there is a strong undercurrent – a fight to change the world that they are living in for a better one. This leads to a strong desire for renewed faith in a more just and equitable democratic system.
But for that fight to happen, there must first be courage and courage is not in short supply in this city.