Paris: To be or not to be

The first time I saw J’EXISTE. in Paris was at Place de la République, at the November Paris attacks memorial. Since then, Paris has cleaned up Place de la République, moving mementos from the memorial to Musée Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to the history of Paris.

I decided to spend my first afternoon in Paris getting to Parc de Belleville to watch the sunset, and on the way, I would check out the street art and grafitti. As I cut across Place de la République towards rue de Belleville, I saw J’EXISTE. again, along with Invader. It was only at that moment that I realized that J’EXISTE was, truly for lack of a better word, a tagger, and not a « bumper sticker ».

To those of you who know Je existe, don’t scoff. Hear me out.  In the United States, it is really popular right now to put inspirational sayings on anything you can sell, like bumper stickers, cards, coffee mugs, notebooks, t-shirts, posters, etc. Most Americans will know what I am talking about. As I write this, trust me, I realize how ridiculous, absurd, and lame (even), that somehow I would think that the concept of a bumper sticker with some inspirational quote would make its way to Paris, most especially to one of the edgiest places in Paris for street art, but the concept of j’existe linguistically isn’t American either.

I only began putting this together after a conversation I had with the driver of an airport shuttle, whose name I sadly did not get. When I first met him, I saw was a man with a shaved head who had a huge tattoo on his right shoulder, wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, who was able to fish me out of at least 10-20 people. He identified me, called me by name, and upon knowing he had the right person, grabbed my suitcase and whisked me off towards the passenger van.

He started a polite and friendly conversation in English as we headed to the van, and as he escorted me to the door, he asked if I could sit up front, because his next pickup was two passengers, and in case they were a couple, he wanted them to be able to sit together. I was caught off guard and pleasantly surprised by his thoughtfulness. Anywhere in the world I’ve ever needed a ride from the airport– from taxis to car services to airport shuttles, I’ve never met anyone this mindful.

After the last two passengers got on board, and we hit the road to Paris, he looked at the city skyline and said if I put my sunglasses on, I would see how dirty the air was. He was right. I hadn’t noticed it on my last trip or even pondered it before that moment. He then commented that the air was really bad for him, and it made him cough.

Polite conversation continued and moved quickly from thoughts on wine to Paris, and as he drove further towards the city, he began pointing out historic hot spots along the way, like where the museum that had the airplane Lindbergh flew into Paris was, and one of his favorite churches, Saint Denis, which he highly recommended, because it was one of the oldest churches in the area. He caught himself getting excited then apologized for boring me, explaining that he was a former history teacher. I assured him I was not bored mentioning that I have been to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and hoped to make it to Sainte Chapelle and the Conciergerie that afternoon. When I told him that I marveled at Paris celebrating both the living and dead equally, he said in the best way he knew how that « The French never throw anything away.»

He spoke of being in Paris for a few months, because what he really did was volunteer for UNICEF and that he goes to places like Nepal and India to help people—without being paid and that his family and friends thought he was crazy.

Then before I knew what was happening, the Frenchman got philosophical on me. Just like that.

He told me he doesn’t own a cell phone, doesn’t have television, and everything he owns, he said, could be placed in the backpack I was carrying. He believed anything more, especially technology, was a distraction. He said technology distracts people from reading, being in touch with nature, learning, among other things. And although he questioned why people felt the need to own the latest gadgets, he didn’t judge, only saying « it was a different kind of existence. »  He believed technology created desire. And when a television set was brought into a tiny village in India where he was teaching, within a few weeks, the villagers were asking him how the people in the world they were watching were able to acquire such things—like cell phones.

He rubbed his head, turned to look at me, awkwardly smiled then said, « I’m an old man.»  I felt comfortable enough to ask him his age, to which he replied 50. I assured him that wasn’t old (after seeing Giorgio Moroder spinning at 76, I realize that « old » isn’t about an age.)

While we were driving, his company-issued cell phone started ringing. He looked at it, looked at me and shook his head.

He recollected the days of rotary phones and never feeling obligated to return a call.  He couldn’t wrap his head around why people couldn’t live without their technology and told me that where he practices meditation, there is no plumbing or electricity, and when people go there for a retreat, they usually don’t last more than two days. The thought made him chuckle, as he said again, that it was another kind of existence.

As we began to enter the city of Paris and were stopped at a light, he turned his head to look out the window and noticed an elderly woman holding a cup, asking for help.  He turned to get his wallet, but by the time he turned back to her, she had already walked off.  Under his breath he uttered his first « merde ».

By this time we were in the 14th arrondisement. He started coughing, and another merde came out. Because he mentioned that the smog made him cough, I asked if that’s what he was experiencing, and he said, « yes . »

The further we entered Paris, the more he coughed and muttered words in French. As we left the 14th to head to my drop off in the 3rd, he pointed out a few more things about Paris that were pre- and post-war, such as the red brick buildings in the 14th that were affordable living apartments that the government built to help people be able to afford to live in Paris.

As we got closer to my apartment, he showed me where Sainte Chapelle was, because my earlier mention of planning to visit.

We were finally in front of my apartment, so we said goodbye.

Later that afternoon as I headed towards Belleville our conversation would really hit me, triggered by seeing Je existe at Place De La République. It wasn’t until hearing the Frenchman talk about how he exists and how he sees other people and their existence, that I realized as I climbed up the rue de Belleville that to exist was to think, feel and know that you are alive.

And like the city of Paris enshrouded by smog slowly but surely killing its inhabitants, a world polluted by technology was slowly, but surely killing our souls and our spiritual existence.

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