beauty of Paris, commerce, essay, fashion, France, gypsies, meditation on the public and private, Paris, personal essay, political essay, refugee crisis, refugees, Roma, Syrian refugees, walking in Paris
I don’t have one.
Not having papers or a photo or better still a lovely large grouping of papers all gathered neatly together with many photos showing concretely that it is, yes, me, Rachel Murane, who has such-and-such husband and who owns this amount of real estate and has these assorted children and is a legitimate member of the (rapidly disappearing) middle/upper-middle class, the sort who literally makes the world of commerce, tourism, consumption go round – not having such papers is an odd and interesting, if certainly undesired exercise in the intersection of public and private identity.
My world revolves exclusively around the latter, much probably to the detriment of my own development and my community. I live my life, as many indulged introverts do, inwardly, and I don’t engage all that much with the possession of a public voice or body or, god forbid, action. Is it that I am shy, lazy, a natural contrasting combination of aesthete and ascetic, both of whose temperaments tend to turn away, not toward, the public sphere? Whatever the answer, and of course it doesn’t matter, the circumstances of my life now – in France, with no cash, no papers – forces the question upon me.
Without the proper padding, there is no difference between a public life, an existence defined exclusively out of one’s circumstance and the manner in which others perceive that circumstance, and the private, or how one might internally react to and inhabit one’s own very life.
Paris is absurd in its outlandish beauty and pride. For a solid week now I’ve done very little but walk. Yesterday I finally found a wonderful Ashtanga shala, but outside of that practice, and a brief visit to Van Gogh at the Orly, my life has been walking in the cold, in the rain, in the muted winter sun. I know the city fairly well by now, which means I am seeing how mysterious and weirdly huge its beauty really is: the old comment about turning a corner to ever new delights here is true in a way that has to be lived on foot to really appreciate. It’s endless, the pale limestone, the light that plays off of it, the streams of people from everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, the bridges and churches and intersected houses. One could stare for ten years, it wouldn’t be enough.
I am however not the only one who wanders through the rain, the cold, and damp, and watches her feet swell with the effort. There are these others, these people – do we call they Roma, Gypsies, Manush, Kalo, what is their name, their state? ID, please. And now along side them, actually profoundly apart from them, but for the purpose of this musing they are of one, are the refugees. The hundreds of thousands of refugees. From Syria. From Iraq. From Afghanistan. From North Africa, though this is hardly new. And these people are decidedly not French, though in many cases the French had a brutal hand in creating the circumstances in which they now find themselves and their families, and these people are the literally stateless. No papers. No ID. No photo. Maybe some scars and a few stories? And if the stories match up, and are harrowing enough, beginning with the tortures of Assad and ending somewhere along the Austrian border after a three week boat trip to the shores of helpless Greece, perhaps then, one piece of paper. With a stamp. And that piece of paper with its precious state-owned ink will create a tiny link, like the needles the old women use to hook their woolen rugs, between state and person, between the public and private.
My lack of ID is a stupid irritation keeping me from Laduree and buying a bag at Longchamps. And a train ticket to Antibes, where eventually I will spend yet more euros on the Picasso Museum, cheeses at the market, lipstick at Guerlain. Not a big spender, but a spender, and despite the presence of Donald Trump the French still want spenders from the US. I will get my ID after it wends its way through the French bureaucracy (“this window,” “now this window please,” “will you be OK, mademoiselle, please if you will sit here,” “ahhh, now we close for lunch, if you will to please come back in 90 minutes?”). And after that I’ll wend my way back to being an indulged, protected member of the Named, more importantly the Named with money and security.
When you walk down the vulgar but kind of mesmerizing Champs-Elysees you will soon come to avenue George V, one of the most luxurious, lovely avenues in all of central Paris. At that intersection is a huge Louis Vuitton store. It is not really a store, actually, more like a multi-level shrine to itself, and to the flow of fashion in France, without which France would not exist. It is glossy and blindingly lit, and seems geared toward the masses even though one should not dare walk in there unless one is willing to pay thousands of euros. It doesn’t tempt me; I like vintage Vuitton, and I like to keep my body from seizures caused by flashing light whenever possible. But underneath that building several Roma (Romani, Gypsies, etc) have taken up their nameless, stateless place. They spread out, without shoes, without proper clothing, often it is the old women, sometimes holding an exquisite dark-eyed child, who are chosen, smartly, by their group to do this work. They sit, hunched, alone, in the rain, and beg for a centime, their hardened fingers gripped like old vines around a wet Starbucks cup.
No ID, no state, no papers, no euros, living in a country that only recognizes ID, country, money, papers. No one stops of course. I stopped once, and gave two of my precious euros to an old, old woman, knowing that my euros will be replaced and that, really, euros aren’t much for her until she has a public ID that will allow her private one to flourish.