It’s not really Paris, it’s an airport hotel on the outskirts of the city. Even Paris can be less than ordinary. In a few hours I’ll be winging my way to Phnom Penh. Thanks to the situation evolving with Paula, I finally picked Cambodia. It was an agonising decision thanks to the incredible experiences I’ve had over the past three months, but ultimately Cambodia always wins.
One of the most exciting things about returning to Cambodia, will be seeing little Dara again. His amputation stump should be well and truly healed and he will be getting around normally, something I have not seen in the year or so that I have known him. Going by previous experience, Chom will tell his Mum that I am back and he’ll suddenly appear in town, from the village. That is assuming that Mum and Dad are still working in town, which I haven’t been able to ascertain despite repeated queries. But I know how to locate him, so either way I will find them. It’ll be one of my first jobs when I get to town in the middle of next week.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in this second grade hotel watching YouTube videos of reality tv about wealthy people living dysfunctional lives (Millionaire Matchmaker, Judge Judy, Real Housewives of New York). There’s a seriously false belief floating around the wealthy world, that it’s because we are more functional than other countries or cultures, that we succeed economically. In my opinion this could not be further from the truth. You only need to see the current Australian government in action, to know this as a falsehood. They’re the epitome of being “disadvantaged by our own privilege”. So many of us live in “safe ignorance” because our only perception of the world comes from a position of assumptions based on the entitlement we were born into.
Being born into privilege does not make us more functional, superior, or more atuned to success, than those born into disadvantage. If I didn’t already recognise this fact, I’d have learned it during my time in Cambodia, where I worked with local staff who have double degrees, who are ambitious and caring, dignified and ethical. But they are working within a global system which naturally favours the entitled, putting them on the back foot immediately, swimming upstream against a fierce current that they cannot possibly catch up with, let alone beat. Some of the most educated and honourable people I know, live in poverty stricken circumstances. Some of the least educated and honourable, I watch on these programs featuring power and privilege.
For equity to prevail, the world needs to find a way to break this cycle. In my view, this is the biggest challenge we, as a global community, face. I for one, do not want to surrender the entitlements I was born with, in favour of those who don’t have what I have. I’m more than happy giving what I am willing to give. But more than I am willing to give? How do you enforce that on any one of the world’s privileged? Many of us choose to give nothing to anyone beyond our own family or community. This is evidenced by comments such as “charity begins at home”. I do not agree with this view. When “home” is already advantaged beyond anything most of the world could imagine, channelling advantage into advantage does nothing but perpetuate our own entitlement. We are global citizens and if charity begins at home, then home should be “the world”, not our entitled and wealthy countries and communities, where even the most disadvantaged have access to food, shelter and protective systems.
These systems are not perfect and need to remain under scrutiny. Our disadvantaged need and deserve preventive programs and assistance which should be held to certain standards. In Australia right now, we are seeing health professionals vigorously defend their professional standards as the government have introduced a law trying to prevent professionals working in immigration detention centres from reporting child abuse. These health professionals, who come under the laws of mandatory reporting everywhere else in Australia, have banded together and are fighting back with a vengeance – as they should. Imposition of third world standards on any first world community should always be opposed. The underlying assumption that we are not susceptible to the consequences of unscrupulous behaviour by our political leaders is a very dangerous stance and I stand with these health professionals in their fight for justice. I hope that this fight evolves to defend the broader human rights of innocent people being treated as a national security threat in order to promote a political ideology which relies on the community’s prejudice and fear against asylum seekers.
Moving on from those pontifications, here are my few final notes on France. Avignon is a large and very attractive town, considered the “capital of Provence”. The city centre is almost entirely enclosed behind a large stone Roman wall which encircles the city for 4.5km. Inside the wall are churches, market squares, ancient laneways, canals, a Jewish Quarter, tree-lined boulevards, outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants in a modern, thriving city. The highlight is probably Palais de Papes – Palace of the Popes, a massive Gothic palace built during the 1300s when a succession of nine popes resided in Avignon during unrest in Rome. Well preserved, it now houses a massive museum for visitors to learn about this intriguing piece of European history, and one of the open courtyards is used as a stage and auditorium. Views from the turrets across a large expanse of Avignon are stunning.
On the outskirts of Avignon lie many beautiful Provencal towns and villages, some of which I visited. Fields of lavender, wheat, vineyards, orchards and even seas of yellow sunflowers, show off the fertile lands of Provence. Regional farmhouses are large, old stone buildings known as “Mas Provencal” (houses of Provence) which have become coveted real estate, owned only by the very wealthy. Villages perched on steep hillsides, castles towering over them from above, peer over the colourful valleys below. For a nostalgic image of the lifestyle in such villages, I highly recommend The 100 Foot Journey, starring Helen Mirren, which I think I’ve mentioned in a previous blog. The French really do give an impression of joie de vivre, not only in films such as this, but to anyone lucky enough to visit their beautiful land.
Festival d’Avignon begins today and the preparations in the city I witnessed were a spectacle in and of themself. Hundreds of people carting shopping trolleys filled with cardboard posters made their way through the streets, filling walls and lamposts with advertisements for their performances. Rope and string were slung between buildings in alleyways for posters to hang from, fences were laden, men climbed onto the shoulders of their mates or climbed walls and lamposts, looking for the highest vantage point to display their posters. For the next three or four days the city will be alive with 1300 performances per day, in the many theatres and makeshift stages being erected around town. It would be worth visiting Avignon again, just to experience this festival.
My final trip on the TGV took me from Avignon TGV Station, to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Terminal 2, yesterday afternoon. We traveled more than 700km in just over 3 hours, showing the speed of these incredible trains. There are two stations in Avignon – the TGV (fast train) station is on the outskirts of town, while Avignon Central is on the southern tip of the walled city centre, a short walk to most of the city’s attractions. Booking my trip into Avignon from London I was unaware of this and purchased a ticket to “Avignon”, which involved getting off at Avignon TGV, waiting an hour and then taking the six minute journey to Avignon Central. Looking at the ticket, it was difficult to work this out, as it could have been interpreted that the train arrived at TGV and then carried on to Central, which the TGV does not do. Karen was on another train, arriving half an hour after me, and she had a taxi organised to take us to Vaison la Romaine, the beautiful old village where we stayed during my first week in Provence. I boarded the train to Avignon Central, but had a feeling something was wrong, jumping off at the last minute when she emailed me from her TGV to say the taxi would be waiting at TGV, not Central. This is a useful tip because if you book a train to “Avignon”, the assumption is you want to go to Avignon Central, which is not necessarily the case.
Train travel in France and probably throughout Europe is an experience to cherish. The guards in their blue uniforms, caps with a red stripe, shirts with a white and blue stripe, are friendly and efficient. The stations are also efficient. Avignon TGV Station is not particularly big but many trains pass through there, and you have to trust what they tell you. For example, the announcement that my Brussells-bound train would arrive at Platform 4 caused me some confusion when a Paris-bound train pulled in moments before I was due to board. Allocated to Coach 8 of my train, the screen showed me that I should wait at Door W. The first train pulled in on the platform at Door A, and there was no coach outside Door W. When my train pulled in, it stopped exactly where it should have, with Coach 8 outside the door I’d obediently waited at. Don’t feel anxious – follow instructions and what they tell you is going to happen, will happen.
On board, the luggage compartments get very full and if you are boarding further along the train’s journey then space will be even more limited. But people are friendly and tolerant and nothing seemed to stress anyone out, whether it was cases being piled on top of each other, men offering to lift heavy cases overhead for other passengers, and sitting in the wrong seat because I couldn’t find where the seat numbers were displayed (between the back of the seats, as it turned out).
As the French countryside whizzes past your window, golden fields of wheat and sunflowers intersperse with hillsides striped with grapevines, turrets and spires of churches and castles, gullies of trees hiding blue-green streams and rivers. It’s all very magical and whimsical and I hope I can remember it for a long time to come. I’ll miss seeing men in blue and white striped t-shirts and berets carrying wicker baskets through the weekly markets, chatting with cheese and tapenade vendors offering tastings, sitting in cliffside terrace garden cafes underneath castles and so many other things. I’ll miss hearing the “mish wash doosh luar” sounds of French language and guessing whether to reply with oui or non, practising the accent of my bonjour and au revoir, the friendliness and the beauty of this utterly lovely country. Alas, this Francophile has to rush to get to the airport and depart for another country, which is much-loved for such different reasons.