My Taste of Homelessness

What travel taught me about humanity and humility.

When I tell you I spent a year studying abroad on the French Riviera, you might imagine a pretty sweet deal. Maybe you’ve seen those glamorous vintage tourism posters from the Gilded Age, and think it was all champagne, sun hats, art-nouveau architecture, bathing dresses and frolicking. You are not completely wrong, but I can write about that some other time. The French also brought me into a fleeting acquaintance with another existence, which most of us would prefer to avoid: homelessness.

It was June just after the financial crisis. Back in the States, foreclosure was looming large over my family home.  Ironically, southern France proved a much more economical place than Washington D.C. to live and study. I had just paid very dearly out of my pitiful student budget for a train ticket to Bordeaux, where my younger brother was working for the summer on a friend’s vineyard in exchange for a few euros, food, wine and the occasional use of an old car. I hadn’t seen him in six months and was giddy with anticipation. However, on the morning in question, no train showed up at our local station. Afraid of missing my high-speed connection, I splurged impossibly on a cab, which I shared with an irate Frenchwoman also bound for the Gare de Nice. I spent the hour-long ride calculating my new bank balance and mentally abbreviating the grocery list that would have to see me through the coming month: spinach, frozen hamburger, pasta, cheese, yogurt, canned garbanzo beans, canned tuna, eggs, bread, crackers, chocolate.

When we arrived at the Gare de Nice shortly after dawn, the employees of the national railroad union (or SNCF, as its French name is abbreviated) were en grêve — on strike. Pourquoi? I asked one of the young SNCF employees who was blocking our access to the platforms, but it seemed he didn’t know what they were striking for either. This ought not to have surprised me. Do you remember that heart-wrenching scene in Les Misérables, where the boy Gavroche climbs through the barricade in a courageous last mission? Well, as far as I can make out, the French mostly believe that they are Gavroche, with the exception of those who believe they are Napoleon Bonaparte. The revolution has never come to a conclusive end. It’s more of a lifestyle than a historical event. In fact, strikes and such protests are so sacred to the French that public employees, including the ladies and gentlemen of the SNCF, are legally guaranteed a certain number of days per annum designated for collective action. I’ve been told that they are paid for this time as well, so what other reason is really necessary? Vive la France, vive la révolution, vive la grêve!

Anyway, the immediate result was that I became stranded in a crowded, hot train station concourse. I had no idea of when I could next get on a train bound for Bordeaux, but since it might have been any moment, there was no point in leaving. Besides, I simply couldn’t afford any other transport. With my heavy suitcase in tow, I stepped outside to see what I could see. Nice, after all, is a lovely town. However, that part of Nice is NOT the one on the postcards. It’s rife with sex shops and litter. I retreated. Like many train stations, bus depots and other busy intersections of the so-called-civilized world, this one was host to plenty of “sans abri fixe,” or persons without permanent shelter, and that brings me to a confession.

I have often felt very uncomfortable around the homeless. I wondered what it was that got them into this situation. I shuddered to think. Sometimes homeless folks mutter or shout threatening things. I’ve been told they’re drunk or drugged. They frequently smell really bad. The homeless confront me with frightening realities, and leave me to feel guilty, ashamed of my home, my safety, even my good health; ashamed to enjoy all of these things with relatively little effort or gratitude.

That is, until that day when I was stranded. I can’t recall what insignificant miscellanea was in my cumbersome, forest green duffle bag, but I remember the illogical fear that I would be separated from it in the teeming crowd. The heat was nearly unbearable, and perspiration soon began to make a sticky scenario of my white linen shirtdress. I suppose I could have just rocked it, but I have never become quite Frenchified enough for that. Fortunately, I had additional clothes in my luggage.  Unfortunately, there was no privacy, French public restrooms being a pay-to-enter luxury in the best circumstances, and in this situation, forcibly occupied by the valiant defenders of labor rights.  After considerable lip-biting, foot-shifting, skirt-tugging indecision, something just had to be done. In the middle of the marble floor of the concourse with my luggage wedged between my feet, I managed to simultaneously shimmy and hop out of one outfit and into another with absolutely no grace, but some shred of decency. Imagine a plump flamingo trying to put on a jumpsuit, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how I looked. (I’ve since perfected this vagabond trick, and now flatter myself that most people don’t even notice it happening.)

When I couldn’t bear the claustrophobic space and irritable crowd of thwarted passengers any longer, I went outside to the short flight of steps which gave onto the street. The sun was scorching and all shade scarce, but I couldn’t venture far afield, since I had to hear the conductors in case the strike ended or some evacuation train of mercy was permitted to depart. There, I sat down on my suitcase, and soon slumped into a fitful slumber as my early morning and exhausting anxiety all caught up with me. It’s more than likely that I mumbled in my sleep, as my roommate had reported during stressful times. The sun was much lower when I awoke fully. A youngish woman with dreadlocks was sitting nearby and asked me for a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I offered her some of the water I was drinking. I thought briefly about asking her to pour it into her mouth, but looking awkwardly down at my hands I noticed that they were several shades darker than usual, almost as if I had been digging through a trashcan. Every miniscule crease was described in a greasy line. There were black crescents of filth under each fingernail; just air pollution making itself cozy. Was it my imagination, or could I actually smell myself? The previous night’s shower felt like a distant memory. I didn’t say anything as Mademoiselle guzzled out of our now-common water bottle.  Chic passersby looked down at us with obvious contempt. A cigarette didn’t really seem like such a bad idea after all.

Friends, neither pity nor admiration is called for here. Feel free to grimace or laugh or both. My little ordeal was brief, and I was basically safe. Before sundown, the great lethargic wheels of socialist bureaucracy in Paris had begun to grind reluctantly back into action. As the conductors’ cries heralded the TGV train to Bordeaux, the red tape was torn down with magnificent French panache, and I joined the eager throng of passengers on the platform returning to life as planned. In my case, that was a weekend at a modest little country chateau. I made merry with my brother and friends, consumed leisurely lunches in the shade, and rode a big bay horse up and down the rows of grapevines. I am no martyr, no victim, no saint.

My point is precisely this; I am no different in my person than the homeless, and I’m not actually so very far from them. There are moments when all that stands between my relative respectability and their social exclusion is an unpredictable infrastructure and a few hours at the mercy of the elements, even the famously clement weather of the south of France. Sometimes all that separates me from them is an illusion. We don’t know their stories.

The year I spent in France was a full one. I came to know many interesting people and saw beautiful places, in large part thanks to the SNCF’s extensive railroad network. I crossed the country on trains from Monaco to Nice to Paris, from Lyon to Bordeaux, but of all the vistas which that state-of-the-art iron kingdom opened to me, the most important sight was the filth under my own fingernails. It’s a vivid memory that comes back to me when some particularly unsavory piece of humanity makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s why I now find it simple to spare a dollar, or invite a needy stranger to lunch. It’s why I can happily share a bench with a homeless gentleman while I’m waiting for my train in Philadelphia. It’s why I do my best to meet their eyes, hear them and offer some time for a chat. Many such conversations end in a handshake and simple “God bless you,” which I rarely hear from more fortunate acquaintances. Then, I continue my day profoundly grateful for my home but also for the faith and goodwill of the poor.

When I tell you travel is important, it’s not just because the world is vast and full of awesome wonder, or because travel can renew our inner child. That’s all true, but something more crucial comes of travel: vulnerability. I wish you safe travels, but I certainly don’t wish upon you journeys that are merely comfortable and convenient. Instead I hope that at least once in your life, passersby might be forgiven for thinking you indigent. I hope that just once in your life, you feel stranded, disheveled, lost, alone, foreign, and maybe just a little homeless. I hope you come through it, and I hope your world grows more beautiful and your heart grows kinder as a result.

And then, I hope you get to enjoy some really good wine.

Chiara Cardone was born and raised in small-town Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, which she still calls home. She spent several years in Washington, DC, during which time her studies and career involved plenty of travel. Chiara collects simple pleasures, admires sharp wit, enjoys the outdoors and relishes good food. She makes a modest living as a part-time youth minister, part-time office administrator. However, her colorful life is made of adventure, sometimes planned but more often providential.

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