August 7th, 2012:
Nobody acknowledges my departure, all seeming in a strange disconnected mood. The assistant manager just grunts in response to my goodbye. First thing this morning I strap my backpack on and depart the Paris thrift shop commune where I’ve been living since Thursday. That was the deal, this building is full. If I’m to stay with the organization longer then I’ll have to live at one of their other communities. The main office is open downtown today, where they’ll hopefully find a spot for me somewhere….who knows where.
I’m nearly two hours early, the office doesn’t open till 9:30. Nobody at the front desk speaks English but an Algerian in the waiting room is able to translate. A receptionist raises her eyebrows, pointing at a couch. I take her delivery of a hot coffee cup as a first hopeful sign. Had I not been in possession of a 2 Euro coin to pay for the long bus ride here this morning then I may have just started walking randomly east out of the city. Walking half the day to get here would have been tough to rationalize considering the “we’re full” attitudes I’ve received from everyone for the past days.
But certain other first impressions of this organization tell me to give it every possible chance. Although I know little to nothing of its history, something feels to be fundamentally different from other social organizations. Most of the people I’ve talked to seem to live here more for core philosophical reasons than for just food and a roof. This is not just a “shelter” but a society based on social movement.
It’s so different in fact that some aspects seem almost cultish, especially the group’s tendency to hang poster-sized photos of the founder all over the walls. But the more I read about this late founder, the more the photos seem justified. The world should never forget his lifelong dedication to powerfully simple social solutions. Posting his photo everywhere is one way to remind us.
The man was a priest and member of the French resistance during WWII. Elected to parliament after the war, he used that income to build a facility that served the needy in Paris. As described by a current member of the organization, the founder’s philosophy was, ‘help yourself by helping me help them’. With this simple idea he recruited more and more people to build the organization into the international movement that it now is. The main rule remains, everyone who lives here must work here.
Looking at the group’s facilities and literature, one would never know that the founder had a strongly religious background. There is only an emphasis on allowing individuals to express themselves, no “official” endorsement of any certain religion. Everyone can thus feel welcome. This founder was indeed a very smart man.
Halting the extinction of humanity requires that individuals begin working for the betterment of everyone in a resource-based economy, as opposed to working for money in a profit-based economy. Building a international network of thrift shop communes is a profound first step towards such a world. While these people may be small in number compared to the global population, the precedent they set is huge. Another seed has been planted.
It is a huge coincidence that I just happened to find this global group in the same Paris suburb where they were founded.
The office is about to close for lunch. I’ve been sitting on the couch for nearly three hours and nobody has spoken with me. I’m considering not returning in the afternoon. Maybe the sheer number of new needy people has completely overwhelmed the organization. Maybe there is so much help that they don’t need my help. No matter what my circumstances I don’t want to be somewhere that I’m not actually needed. I’d rather struggle on the side of the roads and in the woods rather than being somewhere taking up space needed by people more needy than me.
An English-speaking woman steps off the elevator, asking if I’m familiar with the organization.
“I’ve been living and working at the Neuilly Plaisance facility for four days, so I know some basics.”
“OK, the receptionist will call around to the facilities in France and look for a place to send you. It might take all afternoon, or maybe even till tomorrow.”
But the answer comes in just minutes, “A community in the north of France is awaiting your arrival. There is a train going there in one hour.”
“I don’t have any money for a train.”
“That is not a problem. The organization will pay for the ticket.”
The receptionist prints out a confirmation and the English speaking woman escorts me down the street to an electronic kiosk that prints out a ticket. She also gives me a subway ticket to make the connection at a downtown station. I so love the speed and simplicity with which these people carry out decisions, such a breath of fresh air compared to other social organizations. I’m sold more by the minute.
“You must run now because your train leaves soon.”
So I run, stopping in the station to use an 8 Euro food voucher that an employee of the agency gave me last Thursday. The train is of the bullet shape and I set a personal land speed record, passing freeway traffic at twice its speed. The velocity slows to a more ordinary pace an hour outside Paris. The train cars are sectioned with automatic sliding glass doors, the cloth seats wide and comfortable.
Three young English speaking kids sit in my section, playfully picking on each other and throwing around a 50 Euro bill. A kitten mews softly for two hours as I munch on potato chips and chocolate chip cookies. The scenery is all fields, forests and small towns under a beautiful summer day. Two roaming conductors never stop to check my ticket. Three men in black clothes occasionally pass, handcuffs on their belt straps. An inconspicuous person might be able to ride trains all over Europe without ever paying.
My destination is within 50 miles of Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. It’s beautiful countyside very similar to where I grew up in Southern Illinois USA. There’s nobody waiting for me at the station so I set out walking into the town, asking random pedestrians for directions while also searching for a wifi signal to check a map on my phone.
Everybody in France seems to know of the name of the organization I’m looking for but not a single person today knows where this particular facility is located. Nobody is speaking any English but it’s easy to tell from their expressions. They don’t know. It’s not until an hour later that an unlocked wifi signal comes into range. For 20 minutes I stand with my laptop set atop a trash can. Nobody answers a Skype call to the facility. The map says that it’s 14 kilometers away. I set the phone to display walking directions and head out of town.
At an intersection I make a sign reading “Emmaus” on the lid of a discarded cardboard box. A young girl walks up pointing at the sign, saying things I can only understand as a possible recommendation to make a new sign. I take the advice, now holding a sign with the name of a town.
Still nobody stops so I walk while continuing to display the sign. Two female college students pull over in a little old car at the edge of town. The driver is an electronic engineering student with basic English fluency. She doesn’t understand where I’m going till seeing the name of the agency on my phone. My French pronunciation apparently has much to be desired.
The girls turn onto a road in a cornfield that dead ends at an endless horizon of rolling hills covered in cow pastures. This is the place, easily recognizable from Google Streetview. It’s an old farm property that’s been converted, with the ancient stone barns now housing the thrift shop. Grazing livestock closely surrounds the perimeter.
The chef is leaning out a dining room window smoking a cigarette. I point at myself, “I am Garth Kiser”.
“Oh Gath!”, he says, pointing at a back door. There’s an absurdly shaggy big dog lounged out across the linoleum dining room floor. The chef gets a key, leading me up a dark and narrow curved staircase. There’s two single beds in my room, one of which is taken up by a big old smiling guy named Christian who’s watching the Olympics. The room is filled with tobacco smoke but there’s a big window slanted open at the top.
“Smoke?”, Christian asks with an extreme accent, one of the few English words he knows. I’ve arrived just in time for dinner- meat, meat and more meat. There’s about 20 men and one woman in the dining room now, all looking at me like I just got off a UFO that landed in the cow pasture. Somebody in the corner breaks the silence and the whole room breaks into hysterical laughter. The scene repeats several times over the next hour.
An English speaker named Raymond from Romania introduces himself, looking just like the video game character Luigi. One other person claims to speak English but doesn’t understand my simple three-word response. Absolutely everyone in the room lights up a cigarette at their tables immediately after dinner.
I walk the property alone at sunset. The living quarters are much never than the stone barns, but still old. A modest one-story office building appears to have been constructed only a few years ago. Some camping trailers sit between the buildings, electrical wires running into them. There’s about a dozen vehicles in the gravel driveway and lots, half of which appear to be immobilized. Massive parallel piles of burn-out furniture skeletons loom in the back, tons upon tons of scorched steel frames, the smell of smoke hanging strong.
Unsaleable items with recycling value are sorted into heaps taller than me. There’s a mound of battered lamps halfway up to the barn roof, a thousand miles of random electrical cords oozing next to it. A hundred dented refrigerators stand guard in extremely disorderly formations. There’s two TV’s for every refrigerator, many of the screens grinding face down in the gravel. The foundation of a lost building contains a million fragments of broken kitchenwares and ceramics. This is so much more my scene than Paris. Hillbillies with wifi, I just might love it here.