Looking at the number of weeks I have left in this trip (sadly only two!), I realize that I’m way behind pace in recounting all the stellar interactions I’ve had with people along my journey. So I’ll try to buzz through a bit to summarize everything that I’ve experienced before I go home.
On my second week at the hostel in Paris, I suddenly found myself surrounded by Brazilians. In two days, I woke up each morning with a different Brazilian sleeping in the bunk under me, and quickly met those Brazilians’ friends whom they had met by chance in the hostel. Their stories mapped a huge range of experiences, and highlighted how extreme inequality can make the same place, and the same journey, have widely different implications for people from different economic backgrounds.
I woke up in the morning to the strong smell of cologne being sprayed underneath me. I looked down and a crisply dressed man was spraying his hair into perfect form. I tried bonjour, and hello, and received no response, so we both smiled and nodded at each other and went on with our days.
I spent the day roller skating around Paris (if you’re not on roller skates, you’re playing yourself), then returned to the hostel around 10pm, planning to go out again. The hairspray man was in the room talking animatedly with another man in a language that I didn’t understand. Smiling, he picked up his phone and talked very quickly into it. Turning the phone around, he showed me a Google translate screen that said “where are you from.”
I spent the next two hours passing the phone back and forth with two men, using google translate to try to eke out a conversation with no mutual understanding. As much as I am a cynic of technology, it’s pretty incredible to be able to understand people from anywhere in the world by passing a phone back and forth. Both of them were traveling to Paris from Brazil, with distinctly different experiences of the place.
The hairspray man, Bruno, was on an international tourism journey. He had traveled on his own to Europe, speaking no language but Portuguese, and was making his way through most of the continent by speaking into his phone and showing people where he needed to go. For what sounds possibly a very lonely journey (Portuguese is barely spoken in Europe outside of Portugal), Bruno seemed to be having the time of his life, excitedly showing me pictures of his travels and providing captions via google translate. Some people’s friendliness knows no limits.
The other Brazilian, Lucas, was experiencing France in an entirely different way. He had traveled to Paris in order to try out for the French Foreign Legion, a program through which foreign nationals could gain French citizenship through serving five years in the army. Unfortunately, he hadn’t passed some of the testing, and was returning to Brazil the next morning to continue his training before trying again in 6 months.
What was particularly notable to me was just how much he believed in the opportunity of the Foreign Legion. His primary motivation for joining was to get out of Brazil. He told me that the economic opportunities were poor, the government was crazy, and some areas were unsafe for his family. So given the opportunity to move to France, he couldn’t imagine saying no. I kept trying to press Lucas on what downsides there might be—would he miss his extended family, his hometown, the culture he described is much friendlier? He conceded a bit on each of these points, but, for the most part, he wouldn’t even consider not moving to France given the opportunity. At the simplest, he said that he wanted to move to France so he could “buy a phone like yours.”
Culture is great and valuable from an outside perspective, but in lived reality, it pales on the hierarchy of needs next to basic economic opportunity.
Probably the most salient conclusion I took from this conversation is just how much our romanticization of culture in poorer countries fails to recognize people’s economic reality. For all advantages his friendlier culture might have had over that of France, he couldn’t imagine turning down the economic opportunity that was presented to him. Culture is great and valuable from an outside perspective, but in lived reality, it pales on the hierarchy of needs next to basic economic opportunity.
This brings me to a second troubling aspect of this conversation. On first glance, the Foreign Legion seems to be a very problematic program. France is promising citizenship to people from poor countries in exchange for them fighting and dying it its wars. This seems to reek of colonialism—a country that wants to fight, but doesn’t want to risk its own wealthy citizens, compensate people from the third world to sacrifice themselves for it. This can only be viewed as exploitation.
Yet this abstract perception of exploitation truly does not map onto Lucas’s experience. For him, this was an opportunity that couldn’t be beat! When I told him I was a runner, he asked why I didn’t join myself. If you can pass a range of physical tests, and a few written exams, you are granted a spot in the program. He couldn’t imagine why someone who was able to pass the test wouldn’t join the Foreign Legion. If people from less wealthy countries view joining a foreign military as an opportunity that anyone should be taking if they can, it is hard to construe that program as pure exploitation.
To further complicate the debate, however, I wondered if the opportunities Lucas thought he was getting would benefit him as much as he expected. Describing the salary to me, he imagined that he would be living like a king. Yet the cost of living is so much higher in France that, hearing what he would be making, I wasn’t sure whether he would be able to attain a substantially improved standard of living over what he had in Brazil. And finally, I wondered whether the culture he was leaving behind would turn out to be more valuable than he expected once he had left it. Yet on both of these questions, I am inclined to differ to his lived experience, and guess that what he thinks is best for himself, probably is.
In the end I was left with more questions than new understandings, but I truly cherished the opportunity to be able to talk to someone from a diametrically different background, with no common language, and learn about their fascinating story.
There is one more Brazilian I met the next day who had great stories to tell as well, but that will have to wait until next time.
Will often finds himself confused and disoriented in dangerous situations and usually, joyfully stumbles his way out. His one cool story describes the time his Subaru broke down in the Utah desert and he was forced to spend three days camping out in a junkyard until a distant friend gave him a free 1995 GMC Safari van. Nothing has gone wrong in Switzerland and Paris just yet, but he has all his muscles braced for an escape effort. Outside of frolicking around the merry world, Will likes skiing, mountain biking, and reading. He studies Social Studies and would like you to know that is a very important and meaningful subject.