Concrete Mattresses

August 2016

Writing is one thing, editing is something else, for the past month I’ve been trying to edit the thousands of words I’ve written on the trip so far, from stories on the road to the more personal aspects of humanity I prefer to regale about. I’m setting that aside for the moment to talk about something that has been present in nearly every city I’ve been to in one degree or another, yet came to a head today as I walked the streets of Paris with Lady Stardust. It’s something that we all love to never talk about, and being an Australian I know how easy it is to pretend it doesn’t exist and ship all evidence off-shore where it won’t interrupt Masterchef re-runs…

Paris is known for it’s beautifully crafted cityscape, it’s as though a collection of surrealists and poets came together to mould every perfectly crooked alleyway that lurked between the wide open streets that scatter through France’s capital. It’s quite easy to look upward and fall in love with the watercoloured rooftops and cobbled stone roads. It’s potent to gaze upon Notre Dame and the glass pyramid proudly basking outside the Louvre and feel a twinge of awe seep into the mind. At every corner there is something to fall in love with about the city of lights and love— Hemingway once called it a moveable feast, I’d call it a high school romance. The city is not to blame for this analogy, but the way the world is right now, it’s hard to think of something to justify humanity’s underbelly that lurks within collective naivety.

It happened only 8 hours ago, and swilling scotch has brought the image all too clearly in front of me. As Lady Stardust and I waltzed along Rue Rambuteau on the way back home I noticed a little girl playing in the middle of the path in front of us. In the past 3 months this was not an especially unique sight to behold, families were swarming the major cities like a zombie plague in the summer months— but she was different. She was no older than 6 or 7, gleefully playing through the crowds of people passing by who were barely glancing down from their phones to notice her. Her gleeful shrills echoed across the modern brickwork and as we began to get closer I noticed her shoes were several sizes too large. Her platted hair hung to her shoulders and she wore a pink jumper that was a little oversized. As we wormed our way through the crowd and got closer to the scene I noticed the heartbreaking detail that caused emotional whiplash.

As we slowed down, narrowly avoiding her as she danced to the tune in her head, kicking her overgrown shoes with the unbridled passion of a ballet dancer, we saw her family. Perched on a crusty, pre-owned mattress— laying dormant against an anonymous wall. Her Father was resting his head back against the brickwork, exhausted. His blistered, shaky hand was holding a cut open McDonalds cup up flaccidly, in case anyone bothered to look down and spare a few coins. Her Brother was napping in front of him, he was barely older than 10, with his head resting against his fathers lap. Her mother…well, she just stared blankly forward, her headscarf proudly basking in the swift breeze. She wasn’t staring with intent, looking through a window at a potential bargain across the road or a wonderful work of art (Louvre entry is pricey at best). No, she had the vacuous look of a mannequin in a boutique window, watching powerlessly as her daughter danced in bliss through the muddled crowd. Her feet were bare, bruised and blackened from the changes in scenery I’m sure occurred throughout the day. Her resignation to the sunset was worse than any heartbreak I could imagine.

We had seen Refugee families on the street beforehand on this trip, too many to count without needing a prozac. You could claim that maybe they were just locals, down on their luck and living rough because of a few bad decisions or a financial crisis. Yet the moment my Euro bounced into the empty cup, there was the unmistakable broken “Merci” piercing through the fathers cracked lips, the hesitance of pronunciation in his voice— that’s something only a second language can provide.

The same people I’ve written about on the tourist buses, stoically folding their hands as they stare carelessly out of clear windows onto the cultural landscapes that surround them with a frown that could’ve been purchased at check in… They haven’t earned true depression— I can’t think of anything harder than watching your daughter dance in your only pair of shoes the way that mother did. As we walked onward I could still hear the slapping of the mothers soles against the Parisian stone, and the ignorant chuckles of a child with no clue that this wasn’t a vacation, it’s survival.

Once the shine is off the apple it’s hard to ignore the examples of the what the world is capable of ignoring. As we turned back onto the main road near District 9 trying to rid ourselves of the confrontation with reality that was all too sobering I saw another example that ended any faith I had in greener pastures being a matter of place. As we passed a retro looking bar filled with people sipping wine and long drinks, laughing and exchanging longing stares with one another, I glanced across the road to find a family of 5. It was 7pm and it was bed time for the kids, all three of them. As the Father watched over leaning against a newspaper box, his wife cradled the youngest in her arms on yet another stained mattress— as her two other kids (none over 12 years old at most) began sliding under their thin blanket. Watching them huddle together to prepare for the icy night, as a family. It didn’t really steal away anyones thirst.

This sort of image is not unique to Paris, throughout Europe there’s been time after time of seeing families held hostage by the elements with no real hope for the dream of being part of a society that more and more seems to lean towards not wanting them. As I sit here now, hopelessly pounding away at the keyboard to tell these small tidbits, I’m reminded of the different worlds that  people exist in within this one, blissfully ignorant states of being that have allow acceptance of things we could change, but choose not to.

Once again it was in Berlin, and the original Jenkins was bitching about his clothes being lost at the airport. It was only 4 or 5 hours into being at Comebackpackers and we hadn’t established ourselves within the dynamic of the guests yet. It was hard to miss Jenkins though. From the hipster hair-style to his ironclad philosophy of himself and life that should be attained by all who listened to him, by choice or force. Jenkins was always going to make his presence known to all, it was ‘all ye know and all ye need to know’. As Lady Stardust and I were still glued mercilessly to news back home, huddled in the common room like the new kids at school— I could overhear him on the balcony screaming his tale of woe to whoever would listen out there with him, “I had to buy all new clothes man, it cost me more than 300 euros just to have a wardrobe for the week!”. His tone revealed that it wasn’t the money that seemed to irk him the most, it was the sheer inconvenience of having to do it. Having to re-buy all the brands that defined him as a person which was completely cotton deep. I shrugged it off at the time as just another wanker, but now I wish I could ask if his mothers shoes weren’t the right size for him.