Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do the Right Thing

Several months ago, somewhat predictably, I had my iPhone stolen on the metro at Chateau Rouge. Last week I acquired a new one through a friend of mine which I have now restored and synced with my computer so that it more or less resembles the old one almost exactly. However, I hadn’t backed the original up for several months before it was stolen and, as a result, a lot of the latest music saved dates back to almost a year ago. In a strange twist of fate the weather in Paris has suddenly turned bitterly cold, I have also been teaching some English classes again and, ironically, I find myself listening to the same songs I was listening to last winter when I was traipsing the icy streets of Paris doing exactly the same thing.

This time, however, the classes are slightly different. Gone are the small groups of attentive adults who were polite and keen to learn. They have been replaced with a minimum of ten children ranging in age from four up to eleven. They have no desire whatsoever to learn English, very poor manners and such severe attitudes they could give some of the finest Hollywood divas a run for their money. I had four hours with such a class this morning and spent my time separating fights, confiscating marbles and trying desperately to explain the various activities whilst attempting to detach the tiny four year old, the youngest in the group, from my right leg.

I had a 15 minute meeting at a language school that my Aunt had given my contact details to and before I knew where I was I had been given various activities, several lesson plans and a variety of classes each week. These were to take place at a Montessori style school in Montmartre. The manner of teaching at the school, it seems, is rather laid back and it is acceptable for students to wander off by themselves and do something else if they are not interested in the current project. After four hours of teaching these children, some of whom it must be said were very calm and interested, I was hoarse from shouting, disappointed that I had had to shout (I always fancied myself as one of those teachers who simply had the power naturally) and full of new found respect for those poor student teachers we put through their paces when I was at school. The children left the language centre of their own accord at 13:00 (fingers crossed none of them got run over) and I spent the next half an hour cleaning up the mess before making my way slowly home. The first thing I did was to send an email to the language school informing them I would not be continuing with these classes but if they still needed help with corporate clients I would be more than happy to assist.

Despite this strange repetition of my Parisian routine I had two friends staying with me at the weekend and we managed to do a variety of things I had not yet accomplished myself. We found ourselves in the queue for the Catacombes at 15:00 on Saturday. The last entry is at 16:00 and we were the last ones to make it in before they cut the queue. Everyone ahead of us was in a great rush to make it down into the depths of the underground tunnels and we found ourselves completely alone wandering down the dark, dripping passages in complete silence. This certainly added atmosphere to the occasion and before long we found ourselves walking slightly faster than normal with visions of being locked in over night or something equally as terrifying.

The whole experience was extremely interesting and once we had completed the catacombs we made our way to the Grand Palais to the extensive Monet exhibition currently in place. This, too, proved fascinating and charted his whole life from early childhood in Le Havre to his final home in Giverny where one can find the famous water-lily pond.

The day was marred only by one occurrence and this took place whilst we were waiting to enter the Catacombes. The queue was formed just next to a little park comprised of several trees, a couple of benches and a wide, sweeping path that cut through the middle. Sitting on one of these benches was an elderly homeless lady in her late 50s or perhaps early 60s. She was dressed warmly in a thick padded jacket and was sitting, swigging occasionally from a can of beer. Presently, a homeless man dressed in jeans and wellington boots with a thick, grey beard approached her and began shouting at her. Things escalated and before long he had punched her in the face, hard, several times. The lady continued to sit benignly whilst the man continued to storm off and come back for another attack several minutes later. In between these assaults she would spit blood on to her palm and take another swig from her can. When the man returned for the final time he didn’t hold back and cracked her with the palm of his hand full force across the face. The sound of this slap echoed around the park. Presently, two policemen happened to be walking by and would have continued had they not been alerted to the situation by a passer-by who, by that point, was crouched next to the lady asking if she was alright. The Croix Rouge arrived soon after and we went into the Catacombes and didn’t see the conclusion.

Throughout this entire incident the whole queue was watching the events unfold with interest but at no point did anyone (myself included) make any effort to intervene. I felt terrible afterwards and recounted the story to a couple of friends who were quick to point out that it only takes one knife or one gun, used by such a man in a fit of rage, for things to end badly. Does this justify allowing oneself to be merely an observer? In a society where aggression and violence are rife how much must one be subjected to before they do the right thing? And what, precisely, is ‘the right thing’?

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