I’m at a loss and I don’t know where to begin.
Ironically, when I am at a loss for words, I ramble on longer because it takes me so long to find the words to make my point. So, be prepared for a long post…
I’m in Paris as I write this, but I’m not enjoying myself as much as the previous times I’ve been here. I’d be a jackass if I said I don’t love Paris. I do. This really is one of my favorite cities.
Somehow, though, this stay is difficult. It’s complex, but I’ll try and explain.
I’m fully cognizant it has much to do with returning here after this year’s trip to Uganda. I think that anything negative I say about being in Paris will come off as condescending to anyone that hasn’t been here … maybe even to those that have.
Maybe it’s because I was feeling ill the last two days in Uganda and I was getting cranky and a bit melancholy just before I left. This is so hard for me to explain without sounding snooty or arrogant, but if I am overly honest, I might come off as miserably depressed.
I’d like to think I’m none of those things.
However, traveling to the developing world always seems to make me somewhat despondent after I return. The few times I’ve been to eastern or southern Africa, or the Dominican Republic, for that matter, I’ve felt this way. This time, though, it seems more intense. Maybe because I haven’t really returned home.
I am fully aware the contrast between the slums in Africa and the affluence of Paris plays a huge part in how I feel right now.
I promised myself when I landed in Paris I wouldn’t have an agenda. I would simply check into my hotel and then wander the streets aimlessly. I’ve been here a half dozen times, now, I think, so it wasn’t like I had a checklist of things I wanted to see. I just wanted to relax and enjoy the city.
But contrasting the crumbling cement, earthen and grass homes in Uganda with the gold-leafed statues near the Invalides and its massive guided dome is … jarring.
Contrasting a person selling used plastic tubs out of a dirt floored corrugated steel shack against a person selling Berthillon ice cream on the streets of Île St Louis makes me feel like shit. It even felt wrong to enjoy the ice cream.
Acknowledging privilege makes me feel anything but superior.
I know I’ve had advantages and benefits from being born in the States. I knew someone in college that acted superior even after being served a meal. He jokingly and quietly said, “Servitude!” to a waitress after she walked away with the dirty plates. It was a pompous, haughty thing to say and I was taken aback. I understand why some people feel superior when they are privileged, but it has always made me feel somehow nauseous. But, admitting this probably makes me come off as patronizing.
I was one of the protestors during the Occupy Movement, and I have said plenty in regards to the responsibility of the 1% in the US. However, I also know I am one of the 1% when it comes to the global population. So are you. Check this site to verify that.
I am also aware that the wealth gap is much greater than people perceive it to be. There are tons of charts out there to verify that, but here is a recent one.
And, as Mia Farrow is quoted saying, with knowledge comes responsibility. Not a responsibility based on guilt because of that knowledge, but based purely on that new wisdom. Knowledge can be a burden. More so when it affects so many. Worse, when you understand the rights of so many are being egregiously violated. And, in Uganda, the problem is an epidemic.
I’m trying to avoid being political, but as Maddow once said, “…here’s the thing about rights – they’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.” The health of people are tied together like the health of the planet.
On a side note, we are working on a mini-documentary about music in Uganda. Music, like happiness or grief, is a universal thing. It is a language we can use to express a common humanity. Needs are also universal – health, food, air, security… I firmly believe this, and it is one of the reasons if the Supreme Court rules for corporations and against the poor on Monday, I will be enraged.
But back to knowledge and responsibility.
Unfortunately for me, I sometimes respond to knowledge and privilege with guilt. With privilege, like knowledge, comes a responsibility. I look back at the past 20 years and realize I’ve done too little with my responsibility, hence the guilt.
But, guilt is not a useful emotion and it is an even worse weapon. I hate feeling guilty and hate it more when people try and make others feel that way. I once heard a person imply that someone who was crippled was that was because he didn’t believe in God. If he believed enough, God would cure him. Needless to say I was unbelievably furious.
Unfortunately, however, guilt is precisely what I feel. At myself. At the circumstances that put me here. At the privilege I have been awarded…
Whether we are talking about France, Uganda, the United States or anywhere else, I know much of this has to do with inequalities in numerous forms: Financial, structural, governmental… Ultimately, maybe it isn’t the difference in geography that makes me feel this way, though, but the people.
Maybe it is simply because I was walking the streets of Paris by myself today. I know I have traveled extensively on my own in the past, and I am usually happy doing so. This time, though, sitting at a sidewalk café felt lonely.
I wanted to share the day with Beth, but she couldn’t be here.
I’m really at a loss.
But maybe I’ll figure things out when I really am back home.