Monday, 5 May 2014

Live Below the Line 2014 - taking part from Paris!

My food for the next five days!

If there's one thing I've learnt since moving to Paris, it's that I am really REALLY lucky. 

Growing up in Australia, I had never really faced the experience of encountering homeless people, beggars or gypsies on a daily basis. There was the odd homeless person here and there in Adelaide, maybe one or two that I'd see but they were rare, and few and far between. 

The only time I really saw homeless people and beggars was when my parents took me to Vietnam and China. I remember being so young and so shocked at the typical scenes you'd see in Asia. People without limbs begging on the street. Children, adults, the elderly. 

Now I know that some of these beggars were run by syndicates and were part of a larger organisation but I also knew that others were the real deal. Plus, knowing that they were run by syndicates didn't really make me feel less shocked or less sad anyway.

Mum and Dad would give clothes and money and presents to the people in the villages we visited in Vietnam and China. We would pack our suitcases full of things to give away, often exceeding the luggage allowance and causing an embarrassing scene at Australian airports. Our actual luggage would be in our cabin luggage and our allowances were full of random things to give away in the villages, Australian powdered milk, Columbines, raisins. Things that were of 'high quality' from Australia. I would never ever see Mum and Dad go out or spend money on themselves, yet every now and then when there was a sale on at Woolies or Coles, they'd cart home random items in bulk - to give away to people in the villages. 

In the cities, when approached by children begging, Mum would speak to them and ask them where their parents were. She would tell the kids that at this age they should be in school, not begging on the streets. Then she would ask again where the parents were because she wanted to talk to them. Mum would give the kids food instead of money because she believed that giving money would only encourage more begging. 

She told the children that their parents had the responsibility to ensure that they received an education. I thought about all the things my parents had done and sacrificed in order for me to get an education and have the life I had in Australia. Then before leaving she'd tell the children that they needed to do what they could to get an education. I wondered if just one little kid would go home that day from his/her day of begging to tell his/her Mum/Dad/grown up/syndicate leader/branch manager that they wanted an education. I wondered.. 

Years later, as a teenager, I won a scholarship to go to Beijing and study briefly in 1998. During my time in Beijing, I learnt more about the big syndicates that organised beggars in the big cities like Beijing. It then became harder and harder for me to differentiate between who was real and who was 'less real'. But at the end of the day, they all seemed real. At the end of the day, none of those beggars, 'real' or 'less real' were hopping on a plane to go back to Australia like I was.
In 2012, I moved to Paris.

I had visited Paris many times before in my travels and when I was living in London a few years back. But Paris was different this time around when I wasn't just a visitor. As I started to settle into my daily routine, I began to notice that beggars and homeless people were a part of my daily life, ma vie quotidienne. On my 45 minute walk to my French lessons at La Sorbonne each morning, I would see 7 different homeless people/gypsies/beggars sitting in their designated "territories". There was the woman opposite the boulangerie, the other woman who lived in the phone box, the gypsy family of 3 who lived near the market, the man in the wheelchair in front of the stationery store and the man on the corner near the supermarket Franprix. One day when I noticed that one out of those 7 people wasn't in their normal spot, I started to get worried.

It especially broke my heart seeing the elderly begging. Where were their children I kept on thinking? Why weren't their children looking after them? Did they have children? After a while, I couldn't work out if they were homeless people or gypsies, as there was a huge gypsy population in Paris. Everyday, I would see women holding their babies in the cold, old grandpas and grandmas huddling over a subway vent, men rugged up in their sleeping bags in metro stations with a bottle of wine in hand to keep warm, men sitting on the ground with a sign saying "J'ai faim" - I'm hungry.

Sometimes I would see people begging that appeared "normal", wearing "normal" clothes, the only difference between them and other people I'd see on the metro was that they were holding a sign. Some were old, some were young, and some even looked like travellers. I became really confused. 

At the beginning when I had more savings, I would give a little money, or buy a croissant for them. But then things became hard for me. I was unable to work for 8 months while waiting for my visa. My pride and I were living closer to the 'poverty line' (in a first-world sense) than I had ever lived and I didn't want to ask for any help because I knew that I had the necessary skills to stretch my budget even further. During my London days, I would live near the poverty line, but that was in order to squeeze in more travels. It was a choice that I had consciously made, and there was always a trip to Lisbon or Oslo or Dubrovnik to compensate for my budget meals.

Last month I finally received my visa after 10 months of waiting for an answer. I am finally able to work again and feeling over the moon. I am finally able to loosen my purse strings a little without feeling guilty or wasteful. I am finally able to stop worrying so much about money.

Yet for over 1.2 billion people in this world, this is not the case. For them, extreme poverty is part of their daily life, their vie quotidienne. They don't have the luxury of feeling the way I am feeling now.

This is why I am taking up the Australian Live Below the Line Challenge on Monday the 5th of May, all the way from Paris. 

The challenge is quite simple: live on $2 AUD per day (the equivalent of the extreme poverty line classified by the World Bank, the amount used to cover not just food but in many cases, housing, education, medication as well) over 5 days to better understand what it is like and raise money and raise awareness among others at the same time.

I'm especially excited about this Australian initiative because Oaktree Foundation (Australia's largest youth-led organisation run entirely by volunteers) who have launched Live Below the Line will put over 90% of the proceeds towards programmes and education to empower those living in extreme poverty to reclaim and change their own circumstances and break their own cycle of poverty. Donations will go towards building schools, training teachers, purchasing textbooks and providing scholarships in East Timor, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea to achieve sustainable change, which will last long after the initial help is made. 

I'm a big believer in teaching someone how to fish instead of giving them a fish and I feel that through education, lives can be turned around and individuals, families and communities transformed. It's the ripple effect that gets paid forward in all different directions.

Since updating my Facebook status and announcing that I was getting behind this challenge, I have unexpectedly raised $599 in the first 36 hours (and my original target was only $100..!). I have put my budgeting skills to good use and maximised what I could purchase for 1.34€ per day - buying items in bulk to get a better price then weighing out how much I could budget into my allowance afterwards.

Here are some photos of what I'm going to get creative with over the next five days!  

3.22€ spent already, 3.48€ to go!

Getting in the veggies at 1.28€!

Breakfast sorted :)

You gotta have lentils and rice in any challenge like this!

Odds and ends - salt, oil, a chicken stock cube, tea bags and garlic

So over the next 5 days, I'm going to be blogging about this Live Below the Line Challenge from Paris. It's not directly related to Paris as such, but it is definitely related to my Parisian experience.

Being in Paris for the past (almost) two years has opened my eyes to what a real society looks like. Due to France's very 'social' system of subsidies and allowances, I was able to see people from all walks of life co-exist in Paris. In Australia, I would only see the upper half. In London, I saw a little more however in Paris I see everything. 

I see the full spectrum of life in Paris every day. I see the very well off, the rich and famous. I see the extravagant tourists, I see the backpackers. I see the bourgeois and the bobos (bohemian bourgeois). I see the hipsters, the struggling artists, the students. I see the middle class variances, the white collar workers, the blue collar workers. I see the not that well off, I see the struggling not that well off, I see the poor. I see the a lot of the poor. I see the beggars, the homeless people, the gypsies. 

In Paris, I see myself like I've never seen myself before.

Incredibly lucky.

PS If you'd like to donate here's my Live Below the Line profile to click on to throw a coin or two my way x

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