A few weeks ago, my partner B & I took the trip to Paris via train: my third time in the city technically, although my second was a brief afternoon stop on the way from London to the south of France. We planned the three-day stay to meet B’s friends Sophie (a petite middle-aged woman who works as a civil servant and has a fascinating mix of books and old CDs in her apartment’s bookshelf) and Cecile (who had recently moved to Canada with her partner and children after living in India for a few years), and also my friends Amy and Wira, who flew to France from Singapore for Wira’s graduation ceremony at HEC Paris.
I told myself that it was my opportunity for a do-over after my harrowing experience the first time I was in the city when my passport and laptop got stolen at Gare du Nord, which derailed my and my friend Gretchen’s travel plans. This time around, I can play the relaxed tourist, relying on my partner’s admirable planning skills and unmatched knowledge of the language and the city.
We stayed at Sophie’s place, a nice two-bedroom flat on the second floor of an old building in Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, in the 11th arrondissement. The apartment was typically Parisian, with large sky roofs that splendidly let in the sun during daytime (and also allowed you to people-watch neighbors as they smoked their cigarettes with their coffee in the morning.) Sophie worries though that the building might collapse, as one of their neighbors dug up a basement and likely compromised its structural integrity. Cracks have begun to form on the outside walls, a fact that Sophie observed with mild amusement.
The neighborhood, compared to the more glamorous, polished idea of Paris––Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Ile de la Cité, le Marais––is rough, loud, and gritty: an antithesis to stereotypes of French sophistication and finesse. During one of our walks to the train station, Sophie pointed to a mosque nearby, sharing a rumor that extremists worship inside. In 2015, during the Paris terror attacks, they found out that the Islamist who killed four hostages at a Jewish supermarket frequented there. The memory of the attacks still haunts many Parisians including Sophie, and it’s no surprise that this area can be quite a tourist repellent, in the same way some Filipinos discourage travelers from going to Mindanao, despite the many wonderful destinations within the region.
But reputations can be unfair. I’d argue that I’d encountered more bigotry in the Sephora store along Champs-Élysées (where a store attendant was rude and unhelpful) than along Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. After finding out that Amy was Filipino, the bartender at L’Orange Mecanique, the drinking pub across Sophie’s building where we celebrated the night of Sophie’s birthday, beamingly talked about his upcoming diving trip to the Philippines, at Coron and El Nido in Palawan.
The problem with biases is not that they’re founded on wholesale untruths, but that they are grains of truths that become overblown for what they really are. While walking to our dinner at the Friendly Kitchen with B and his friends, I had a debate with Amy about one of the French values, fraternité.
“I don’t want to move to France. They pamper their people too much,” she said, observing how the French offer a lot of social support systems for their citizens as she rushed through the pedestrian lane just as it turned green, me trying to catch up.
“But that’s the beauty of it, right? That nobody gets too poor or too sick to be unable to escape poverty,” I argued, my left hand palm up to the sky, pretending like an 18th century philosopher making an impassioned defense on a very important social issue.
“I think it’s only great when the lazy ones don’t abuse the system,” she said.
“But how would you know who is?” I asked. Lazy is such a loaded word: it frames one’s circumstances often too quickly. It makes it easier to look the other way and say that it’s not your responsibility to help when you blame a person’s laziness for their poverty.
What’s sad as well is that it’s often those who survive that end up punching down. A recent study pointed out how rich people who got out of poverty may be less sympathetic towards those who struggle to get out. We could argue that this same othering was what influenced minorities and immigrants to vote for Trump, in that they didn’t see themselves in other immigrants: they were better. They were survivors.
I’ve been thinking about a recent conversation I had with my colleague in Taxumo about how unjust systems that are being reinforced by algorithms. As human biases become coded, these automated decision-makers shape our society in a ruthless manner that pretends to be fair, but only magnifies the biases that were there to begin with.
It reminded me of a TED Talk by data scientist Cathy O’Neill where she pointed out: “Algorithms don’t make things fair if you just blithely, blindly apply algorithms. They don’t make things fair. They repeat our past practices, our patterns. They automate the status quo. That would be great if we had a perfect world, but we don’t.”
It is probably human frailty, the tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist or to quickly arrive at conclusions from far too little or low-quality information. But the survival benefit of hastiness comes at a cost. Sometimes the price is being a better human.
It does make me reflect though about those times when I have made hasty decisions about the nature of people. I’m equally guilty of leaning towards a few heuristics of my own to make sense of the world. Maybe the problem-solving mind opens the door to more problems as it solves the one facing it (which reminds me of what Douglas Adams wrote: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory, which states that this has already happened.”)
This also makes me remember a book I finished recently, Benjamin Labatut’s historical fiction “When We Cease to Understand the World”—of intellectuals rejecting their work after realizing the doom that lay ahead because of what they were doing. In it, French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck said: “The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy fingers of a general, but by a group of physicists armed with a fisful of equations.” But I digress.
On Sunday morning, our last day in Paris, we said goodbye to Sophie, who walked us out of her apartment to the bus stop. “We’ll be back,” I told her, giving her a kiss on both cheeks.
But instead of taking the bus, B & I decided to take the twenty-minute stroll along the Seine and head towards Notre Dame Cathedral. I told him I wanted to see Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore that was popular for hosting “tumbleweeds” ––travelers composed of writers and artists who were looking for a place to stay in Paris. The tumbleweeds stayed in for free, in exchange for a few hours of work in the bookstore and the task of reading a book a day.
I’ve heard about the bookstore through my mentor and friend Jessica, who had mentioned it the first time I was in Paris. I missed the chance to visit so I promised myself I won’t leave the city this time without dropping by.
There was a long queue outside the bookstore, and B decided to wait at the café without our luggage, which we brought with us since we were taking the train from Gare de Lyon to Montpellier that afternoon. “Take a photo of me in front of the store,” I asked B excitedly, which I sent to Jessica over Viber: “Finally checked it out!”
Entering the store, I picked up a yellow book (I forget the name) in the French section and scanned it, as one of the tumbleweeds, a tall, gawky young man, pointed at it and said, “That’s a funny one.” I wanted to make conversation but he disappeared to another room. The place was a maze designed to make you linger, to have you take the least efficient route through the sections of books.
Visiting the second floor of the bookstore felt like coming into someone’s home uninvited. There were pillows and a duvet in one room, disheveled as if someone had just gotten out of sleep after a night, surrounded by towering bookshelves filled with old books. There was a cat somewhere, probably hiding. I took a photo of myself in a mirror before noticing that we weren’t allowed to: the no-pictures policy was meant to protect the privacy of the tumbleweeds.
What a nice life it must be, to live unhurriedly, cushioned in one’s delusion that there is nothing wrong with the world. There’s comfort to not being terrorized by the thought that one’s action or inaction contributes to an inevitable future at the mercy of eventual degeneration.
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