As tourists window shop in Paris this holiday season, they won’t find any more homeless people asking for change around some of the city’s most popular areas; the French government has issued a series of decrees that ban begging around Paris’ most popular tourist and Christmas shopping spots. According to the Guardian, the Champs Elyssés was the first Paris landmark to fall under the begging ban, with Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores and the area around the Louvre and Tuileries Gardens soon also deemed “no-go zones” for the country’s homeless.
The news outlet writes that interior minister Claude Guéant said the anti-begging decrees were part of a “merciless fight” against “Romanian criminality,” adding that Romanian criminals account for one in six appearances in Paris courts. To target the offenders, 33 Romanian police officers have been contracted to round up beggars around the Champs Elyssés alone.
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, is unhappy with the new policies. He called the efforts a cheap “PR stunt” that targeted some of the city’s most well-off areas while brushing real problems in other neighborhoods under the rug. “Wanting to fight poverty by repression and fines is shocking at a time when the state isn’t fulfilling its obligations in housing vulnerable young people or providing emergency accommodation,” Delanoe told the news outlet.
Touts, hawkers and scam artists are a persistent nuisance in countries from Morocco to Vietnam, yet many a novice (and seasoned!) traveler believes that to remain open to local cultures, they must be polite and friendly to a pushy people who just want money.
In my experience, the best bet is to completely ignore anyone trying to sell you something if you did not start the business transaction yourself. Do not make eye contact or even say “no thank you.” If you do business in common markets, the things you want to buy will initiate plenty of genuine, local contact as it is.
In Antananarivo, the French colonial influence is everywhere: spired churches sit atop the city’s prominent hills. Pretty jacaranda trees line Lake Anosy, which wraps around a war memorial statue in the center of the water.
A large defunct train station sits negelected at the end of a wide boulevard. The sign below the grand clock spells the city’s old French name: “Tananarive”. Horse-drawn carriages and 1960’s Renault and Citroën taxis jam the stone-covered roads, with crackling radios blaring out a french news broadcast.
In this sense, Antananarivo feels like a fractured, soiled apparition of Paris.
But unlike most of the capital cities in Southern Africa, Tana was already a major city before colonization. Around 1625, King Andrianjaka conquered the twelve sacred hills of the city and established it as the capital. He named the city Antananarivo, “City of the Thousand”, because of the thousand guards that were kept to watch over the new establishment.
After the French captured the city in 1895, they remodeled many parts of it to host the growing population and improve transportation for trade and manufacturing. The population of Tana expanded from 100,000 to 175,000 by 1950, which has since exploded to a staggering 1.4 million people after independence in 1960.
The surge in growth, an unstable government, and a struggling niche economy has left many on the streets.There’s undoubtedly a strange beauty and exoticism possessed by the city, but also an almost equally dark and heavy atmosphere in the streets.
Mothers with small babies wrapped on their backs come and walk alongside me for several street blocks, holding out their hands and saying in a hushed, raspy voice: “le medecin pour le bebe, s’il vous plait”. Their requests need no translation, but I’m rarely able to justify the act of handing out money on the streets in a foreign country.
Local people refer to the beggars as the “quatre-mis” or “kat-mis” for short. In post-revolutionary France, society was broken into three estates, with the poorest being in the third estate. The Malagasy slang term evolved out of the connotation that the beggars were below even the poorest of the third class. The forgotten ones. Useless to society. The lowest of the low.
I finally find that the only way to halt their pursuit is by stopping, and looking at them eye to eye, and regretfully shaking my head. It’s easy to keep walking and pretend to ignore the quatre-mis, and just as easy for them to keep following and keep begging. In that sudden moment of acknowledgement, there’s suddenly nothing left to say – nowhere left to go. We are two antithetical souls staring at one another on a busy sidewalk.
The mother turns around and walks away. I stand in the same spot, waching as the baby on her back bobs up and down with every step. The lump in my throat lodges a little deeper.
I decide to walk up a network of small streets to see the Rova – the Queen’s palace. A young man who claims to be a college student approaches me and says that he’ll show me the way, which I know will end with me handing over a couple thousand ariary (a few dollars) for his guidance. He’s pretty knowledgeable, and I have no problem with paying in exchange for historical information, so I walk with him through the neighborhood.
He tells me about the fire in the Rova, the mixed up political situation, and the riots that took place this past February. When I press him about his studies, he admits that he’s not yet a student but is saving up, and giving impromptu tours to help fund his dreams.
On the way back to the hotel, I deliberately take as many side streets and small alleyways as possible. I pass a group of boys playing on a half broken fooseball table, and practice a few more words of French.
Ahead, a busy Sunday market is closing for the day, and vendors package up scores of textiles, shoes, and cheap Chinese electronics. A large taxi-brousse fills its rows with as many people as possible, for the last ride of the day.
Eventually, I find my way back to familiar streets just in time for another Tana sunset, and take a moment to look out over the twelve sacred hills now painted in an orange glow. It may have started as the city of the thousand, but it’s now the city of a million; with requisite scars to bear from such growth.
You never know what you’ll see when you hit the streets of Paris. From performers to beggars to local strange, there’s an endless supply of color. Everyone has a Paris story, I’m sure, involving the bizarre. So, definitely add yours to the comments below. I’ll kick the process off with five of my favorite crazy Parisians.
1. The “Bosnians” If you’ve been to any major attractions in Paris, you’ve seen them. Clad in a flowing skirt and headscarf, the woman approaches you, asking, “Do you speak English?” Then, she unfolds an index card with a sob story about escaping from Bosnia. Reply to them in rapid French (even if your accent and vocabulary suck, as mine do), and they’ll give up easily. Early in the morning, you can see dozens of them gathered in front of Gare du Nord, as if there’s about to be a shift change. That’s the beauty of France: even the beggars seem to be unionized.
2. The Nursing Student and Bride This is one person, actually. A young lady needed money for her upcoming honeymoon, so her fellow nursing students dressed her up and paraded her through the Latin Quarter. I just had to give her a few Euros, even if only for the performance. This was much more entertaining than the brides-to-be wearing sashes and giggling as they enter the porn shops on Eighth Ave in New York.
3. The Frightened American When you’re lost, running late or have any other question, you rehearse in your head what you play to say – I do, at least – and unleash it on the most sympathetic-looking local while trying to sound like a pro. I found my target and cut loose. He looked scared and slowly pushed the cuff of his sleeve back to reveal his watch. The poor guy had hoped I was asking the time.
4. The Openly Intimate Another young lady, to honor her favorite fairy tale writer, brought her bed onto Place des Abbesses in Montmartre. Like the writer, she wanted to “share her intimacy” (not in that way, sicko). You could kick off your shoes and hang out in bed with her for a while. Definitely strange, but it was an interesting concept.
5. The People Drawn to the Openly Intimate Yeah, these drunks were real weirdoes. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Shared Intimacy packed up her bed and left by midnight.