Trying Not To Be Grotesque

If I had a bucket list, “take Eurostar to Paris for a day” would definitely have been somewhere in the top ten.

So on Monday I took Eurostar to Paris for a day!

Sacre Couer as seen from the Eiffel Tower on Monday
Sacre Couer as seen from the Eiffel Tower on Monday

Every year one national staff member from each MSF program attends the Annual General Meeting in Paris, an incredible opportunity for anyone, let alone those from the poor world.  This year’s Cambodian delegate described it as “a dream come true”.  Turning up in Paris expecting this young woman to be overwhelmed and afraid, I found something else entirely.  Off the flight from Phnom Penh she took her suitcase on the city-bound train then navigated two Metro lines to reach her accommodation, assisted solely by directions someone had given her.  By the time I arrived, she had the Metro system completely sussed and had already seen many of the famous sights.  Full of beans, she informed me that she was ready to travel to the top of the Eiffel Tower!  A bit of an acrophobe, taking an elevator 280 metres into the skies above Paris was NOT on my bucket list, but I was glad (after the event), to have done it.  The views were breathtaking.  We queued for hours, but it was worth the effort, followed by lunch at a restaurant boat on the Seine, a riverside stroll and an hour-long river cruise past many famous and beautiful sights, before walking back to the Metro and heading home.

We passed the “Flame of Liberty”, a large golden replica of the flame carried by Lady Liberty in New York, which was donated to France as a symbol of Franco-American friendship in 1989 by a group of international donors.  This flame sits outside the tunnel entrance where Princess Diana was killed in 1997.  This is just one of many points of interest we saw.  Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower was a highlight.  So was Paris from a boat on the Seine.  The Louvre, Pont Neuf and many other bridges, Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay and so many other sights which sit in historic magnificence above this flowing turquoise waterway.  During lunch we had a chuckle about the African street sellers trying to look innocent as they stood around with mountains of glittering Eiffel Towers hanging off their arms, pretending not to be selling them as a security guard watched on closely, hoping to rid them from the tourist-packed embankment.  One approached us clandestinely to offer five gawdy keyrings for €1.  My typically Cambodian friend jumped at the offer and immediately bartered for an extra, walking away with eleven for the price of ten, at a third of the price she’d seen elsewhere.

Arriving at Gare du Nord with moments to spare, I was relieved the train was delayed until I learned the reason why.  A 32 year old woman was struck and killed on the line in Kent earlier in the day, about three hours after I’d passed through the area on the first morning train.  The only border control officers who ever show any interest in me are those at the British border, where I tend to get quizzed about the whys and wherefores of my nomadic life.  I can only guess that this is because Australians are more likely to enter/stay illegally in UK, than in any other country I’ve visited over the past six months.  Monday night was no different.  Stamped through with total disinterest at the French exit desk, I walked a few metres to the UK entry desk and was met with a barrage of questions about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, who I’m doing it with, how I got to be doing it in the first place!  Followed by the comment that “We hear about this long service leave you get in Australia!  Talk about lucky!”.  Yep!  Even luckier, that the world’s international borders are so open to me courtesy of the passport I happen to carry.

Yesterday somewhere near Gare du Nord, which is near Sacre Couer Cathedral in my photograph above, hundreds of migrants from Africa were evacuated from a tent city where many have been waiting for months to have their asylum applications processed.  Reports state that dozens of police arrived, barricaded the area, moved the migrants onto buses, before giving the go-ahead for the area to be bulldozed, clearing away the migrants’ tents.  How different my memory of Gare du Nord and Sacre Couer are, from those not lucky enough to carry a passport like mine.  My bucket list is filled with wishes of luxury and extravagance while so many simply want security and freedom.  This seems symbolic of the extreme imbalances which exist in our world, based purely on where you happen to be born.

Another symbolic example of this imbalance, is my latest First World Problem as it occurs simultaneously to a Third World Problem I am connected to.  For the next few weeks I will be based in London, seeing friends and doing some of the London things I have never done before – Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and other such splendours.  Also a trip to a festival in one of England’s northern cities with a friend, and a visit back to Brighton where I lived for three years as a student nurse in the 1990s.  Later this month Karen arrives from New York and we have a week in Provence together (my third trip to France this year!).  I’ll write more about that once it’s happened because an amazing coincidence happened during our Provence planning which illustrates the good fortune which happens when you are living an already fortunate life.  Once my week in Provence ends, I have to decide where to from there.  The options are many and only limited by my financial freedom, which is not as uncommitted as my time!  I may decide to revisit New York, return to Cambodia earlier than planned, or anywhere in between.

This year has been filled with so many amazing experiences.  Not only do I have to continually kick myself to check I’m not dreaming, but every time I catch a train or bus, am served by a waiter or barmaid, check in to an accommodation, buy something or walk past a street vendor or beggar, I feel acutely aware that I am engaging with people just like me, who do not have my stress-free, lady-who-lunches (albeit temporary) lifestyle.  The only constraints I am under come from my own conscience.  As I trip around pleasing myself from one day to the next, making plans as the fancy takes me, thoughts of just how privileged I am almost plague me.  I wonder if it is not, in some way, a bit grotesque?  Even more so when I am so connected to so much poverty and adversity, via Cambodia.  The other point I struggle with is that while this existence is enjoyable, it is not fulfilling in the way that living in Cambodia (or Alice Springs) has been.  Doing things only for myself is utterly amazing, but there is no sense of fulfillment.  Perhaps the biggest lesson of this year will be that travel, leisure and decadence are highly over-rated?  Which is in keeping with last year’s lesson – that helping others less fortunate than us is highly under-rated!

Meanwhile in Cambodia, an 18 month old baby who does not walk or talk, whose diagnosis, courtesy of the health system and it’s lacking resources, remains unknown, lies on a plastic mattress in an under-resourced, third world hospital bed, afflicted with fevers of unknown origin.  He is allegedly in “ICU”.  Which seems to mean “we can access some oxygen”, rather than the definition of ICU in my world, where expensive machines, state of the art medications and no-holds-barred care are an assumed right.  His mother could be me. She has the same qualifications as me, obtained in Cambodia rather than in the West, under much more hardship and sacrifice than I have ever faced.  The difference between us is purely the luck of where we were born.  Her baby may die.  Noone seems to know or be able to find out, what exactly his problem is.  He may have Cerebral Palsy but he may have a genetic disease because his mother had a brother and two nephews born with similar conditions, all of whom died before their second birthday.  She wrote to me the other day “I feel I will lose him soon because my brother died when he was 2”.  The doctors do not know what is wrong with her baby and are providing her with various unsatisfactory guesses. They do not have access to investigative tools which are available in the West and cannot offer much in the way of advice, care or treatment.  Recently at a local health centre he was turned away because “there is no point treating him, he is disabled”!!  She has asked for a salary advance in order to cover the cost of staying in a room near the hospital and is taking leave without pay to be near him.  Not only does she have a severely handicapped child, but her financial status is also severely handicapped, with $400 per month – now on hold – not enough to feed and nurture one sick child, let alone herself and the extended family who rely on her because of her “substantial” income.  She weighs 39kg and is unable to eat more than a few spoonfuls at a time, due to a combination of stress and prolonged starvation caused by her poverty.

I am no more worthy than my friend or her young son.  But because of my luck at birth, I am treated as more worthy.  In every avenue of life, particularly in our times of illness and need, those of us who have suffered the least, appear to be valued the most.  In my opinion, this value judgement should be turned on it’s head.  But I come from a country where news headlines such as that below, dominate and cause controversy, as people debate whether our country teeming with resources should “have” to help anyone less deserving than us, in our glorified privilege.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).  Australia's largest provider of aid, advocacy, legal and employment services to people seeking asylum.
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). Australia’s largest provider of aid, advocacy, legal and employment services to people seeking asylum.

5 thoughts on “Trying Not To Be Grotesque

  1. No matter where you go, No matter what you see, I tell you it ain’t so,
    Grotesque you’ll never be .


  2. Helen your blogs are so thought provoking and so well written .
    It took me back to our weekend in Paris. Rachel and I saw all those wonderful places
    You don’t deserve to feel any guilt about your special year,Enjoy every day.Hope to see you soon

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Hello Helen,
    I was shocked when I read your blog. Your style of writing is so thought provoking that I had to sit back for a while and get over the fact that there is so much happening in the world. You have brought me to realize the stark reality if the world. I would love to see more articles of you.”


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