In Paris, where there are tourists, there are beggars, and buskers-a wide range of people begging, pleading, and performing for money.
First, there are the outright beggars. They are found on the streets and on the subway stairs. They usually mumble bonjour (hello) as they reach a hand out, or s’il vous plait (please), or J’ai faim (I’m hungry).
There are a few who simply stand at the Metro exit, holding a cup, saying nothing. I suppose they are hoping you will think there’s a charge for exiting, and drop a coin in without thinking.
Near the Opera Garnier I saw an old woman sitting, cup nearby, quietly reading the Bible. I gave her fifty centimes, and she thanked me profusely. Really, it was a nice moment.
On the Champs Elysees, another woman prostrated her entire body on the sidewalk, shamelessly holding a cup in her hands amid the fashionably dressed pedestrians and casual tourists who walked around her.
I always think that if people are willing to humiliate themselves in such a way, they must really need money, and I will give them some.
To Give or Not to Give
But it’s hard, isn’t it, to decide whether or not to give, and who to give to, and how often, when there are so many people with their hands out, and you are not rich.
I didn’t want to ignore them all-or to give to them all. I finally decided that each day when I went out, I would carry a certain amount to give. And in the course of that day, I would find the person I wanted to give that money to.
Good Music in Public Areas
Sometimes it was a beggar, sometimes a performer. In the beautiful parks and the Metro stations of Paris, you are treated to some very good music, by serious musicians who are playing for what money they can get.
In the Jardin des Plantes, for example, a pretty young woman stood and played the flute. Her playing actually enhanced my experience of the garden. I thought she must be a student, and I appreciated her playing, so I gave her something.
In the Metro station, a man played haunting melodies on a traditional Chinese instrument. He was good at what he did, and I guess it was worthwhile for him to perform in that setting, trying to fill his open instrument case.
One day I came across a man playing what sounded like Eastern European folk music. I can’t remember exactly, but I think his instrument was an accordion. With him were two little boys of about seven and nine, dancing like puppets. Many people were dropping coins in the man’s case. For me there was something sordid, though, about that picture. Was he their father, or their keeper? Did he share the earnings with those boys, or not? It made me sad.
Pleading on the Subway
On the subway you always have people getting on, playing a song in your car, passing quickly down the aisle for donations, then exiting and changing cars at the next stop. There are people, too, who get on and shamelessly tell their tale of woe to the people in the car, most of whom act as if they aren’t there. They collect what they can, then exit.
If you come from a big city anywhere, you are probably used to ignoring such displays. Others of us, though, might be tempted to reward a really talented singer, or to take pity on a young woman reduced to this begging, to feed her children, or so she says.
Eiffel Tower Bustling with Trade
Resourceful immigrants on the streets near the Eiffel Tower sell things to make their living-miniature souvenir versions of that iconic structure, some that sparkle or glow in the dark. Others sell bottled water-probably a better seller, more practical, at least, on a hot summer day.
I was handed two bunnies while walking through the vendors in the Eiffel Tower vicinity. When the man offered me a picture with them, I realized that was his gig. It was cute, and kind of fun-and we gave him a good tip.
The Bottom Line
I had to give them all credit, those poor people of Paris, making a living on the streets, in so many ways. Credit-and a little cash!
John Reese, The French Way Blog, “Beggars–To Give or Not to Give,” August 3, 2010
“The Curious Busker Tale”
Another Day in Paris, documentary on street musicians in Paris