Guest post by Nhan
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt since moving to Paris, it’s that I am pretty lucky. Growing up in Australia, I had never really faced the experience of encountering homeless people, beggars or gypsies on a regular basis. There was the odd homeless person here and there but they were rare, and few and far between.
When I first moved to Paris and was settling into my new routine, the first thing I noticed was how beggars and homeless people were now suddenly a part of my daily life, ma vie quotidienne. On my 45 minute walk to French lessons at La Sorbonne each morning, I would see 7 different yet very familiar faces, each sitting at their designated ‘territories’. There was the young woman who sat opposite the entrance of my local boulangerie, the older woman who lived in the phone box with all her plastic bags, the gypsy family who lived on a mattress near the Bastille markets, the man in the wheelchair in front of the stationery store and lastly the older man who lived on the corner of the Franprix. One morning I got to class and only remembered counting 6 instead of the usual 7 familiar faces. I immediately started to feel anxious.
On the flipside, sometimes I would see people begging who appeared ‘normal’, wearing ‘normal’ clothes and ‘normal’ shoes, except they held signs about being hungry and presented little speeches on the metro asking for a coin or two. Some were old, some were young, and some even looked like travellers. I was really confused. Were they ‘real’ homeless people? Or were they ‘less’ real? Surely no one would choose to beg would they? Were they part of a begging syndicate and didn’t have that choice? Or were they homeless but simply had access to basic facilities to look less ‘stereotypically homeless’? I began to appreciate that poverty was a very complex social issue in Paris.
Fast forward to 2014 and I had just spent the previous 8 months of my life waiting for my titre de séjour. Without the right to work, I was whittling away my life savings and the ‘poorest’ (in a purely first world sense) I had ever been in my life, aged 31. My friends back in Australia were buying houses, starting their own businesses, entering business partnerships, getting married, having babies you know – real financially stable grown up stuff. Meanwhile, I was on the other side of the world skipping lunch to save a few euro and wondering how much the woman begging opposite my local boulangerie actually took in each day.
The day finally came when I was summoned to receive my precious little laminated titre de séjour. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first held that little piece of plastic in my hand. I started to cry. I was finally able to work again. My circumstances were about to change and I could start loosening those purse strings a little without feeling guilty or wasteful. It was such a liberating feeling knowing that better days were just around the corner.
Yet for over 1.2 billion people in this world, this is not the case. For them, extreme poverty (the real sense not my first world sense) is part of their daily life, their vie quotidienne. These people don’t have the luxury of feeling the way I felt that day, no matter how many months they wait. For their situations to change, something fundamental was going to have to be addressed.
And so, this was one of the reasons I decided to take up the annual Australian Live Below the Line Challenge the following month, all the way from Paris. The challenge was quite simple: live on $2 AUD per day, (the equivalent of the extreme poverty line classified by the World Bank – $2 AUD, $1.50 USD, £1 GBP) for 5 days in order to better understand how over 1.2 billion people in this world live. At the same time, have a go at raising awareness about this current situation and also raise some money to go towards sustainable change for those in need.
This amazing initiative started in the backyard of a Melbourne share house one afternoon between two friends, Rich Fleming and Nick Allardice. Together with the Global Poverty Project and the Oaktree Foundation, Rich and Nick rolled out the first LBTL Challenge in 2010 in Australia. By 2014, it had spread to the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Colombia. The Global Poverty Project is an international education and advocacy group working to inspire everyday people like me and you to become tomorrow’s leaders in the global movement to end world poverty. The Oaktree Foundation is Australia’s first and largest youth-led organisation run entirely by volunteers under 26. They currently run the LBTL Challenge in Australia where over 90% of all proceeds raised is put towards programmes and education to empower those living in extreme poverty in order to reclaim their lives and change their own circumstances. Donations go towards building schools, training teachers, purchasing textbooks and providing scholarships in East Timor, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea to achieve real, sustainable change. Change in the lives of the younger generations that will last long after the initial aid has been and gone. Change that will empower those involved to help lift their country out of extreme poverty.
I’m a big believer in teaching someone how to fish instead of simply giving them a fish and I genuinely feel that through education, lives can be turned around. And it’s not just the lives of the individuals but also their families and their communities. It’s a ripple effect of positive change that can be paid forward in an infinite number of directions for the years to come.
So after deciding to take on this challenge, I found out that it actually didn’t exist in France. All I could do at the time after contacting the Global Poverty Project was convert the $2 AUD to its equivalent of 1.34€ and take up the challenge on my own from Paris. I registered through the Australian website then put my budgeting skills to good use, maximising what I could purchase for 1.34€ per day. I spent less than 6.70€ for 5 days’ worth of food, even rationing out money for essentials like oil and salt and splurging on 2 stock cubes to plan out each meal for the challenge..!
Now, I would be lying if I said those 5 days were a breeze. I went from feeling highly motivated and buzzing to feeling cranky and ‘hangry’ in a matter of 36 hours. At some times, I would be able to distract myself and temporarily forget my hunger. At other times, I would catch myself blatantly staring at a tourist biting into their mouth-watering strawberry tart. This was not an easy challenge to take up in Paris I can tell you that! Mid-week, I was feeling noticeably flat and low on energy. The headaches everyone was talking about had kicked in on the morning of Day Four and to be honest I didn’t know if that was due to my low blood sugar levels or the sight of yet another serve of lentils. But I was determined to get to the end. I had used all my available avenues on social media to promote and raise awareness about my campaign. My blog My Love for Paris, my blog’s Instagram account and Facebook page, my personal Facebook page etc. Family, friends, fellow participants, blog readers and anonymous supporters were sending through their beautiful encouragement non-stop. My pride and I were determined not to let anyone down by caving in and this got me over the line at midnight on Day Five.
When the campaign finally closed, I surprisingly found myself sitting at, number 15, in Australia..! Out of the 11 527 Australians who took part in the challenge in 2014, I was placed 15th. My family, friends, anonymous donors and I had collectively raised a grand total of $2715 AUD – an amount that completely blew my initial goal of $100 out of the water! An amount that in the right context, was really able to change some lives.
But it wasn’t just those in need that were benefitting from the campaign. One of the most beautiful things about the challenge was receiving messages from long lost friends, acquaintances and anonymous donors writing to me telling me how much seeing my challenge had changed their perspective on life.
Now in hindsight I look back rather fondly at those eight long months where I was the ‘poorest’ I had ever been as it changed my perspective on life. It seems like the less I had, the more I was actually able to see, especially in Paris. I was able to witness the full spectrum of life and its disparity with such clarity during those eight months. I saw the very well off, the elite, the rich and famous. I saw the extravagant tourists, the modest saved-up travellers, the backpackers on a budget. I saw the bourgeois and the bobos and the hipsters. I saw the struggling artists, the students, the unemployed graduates. I saw the varying shades of the middle class, the white collar workers, the blue collar workers and everyone in between.
I saw the not that well off. I saw the struggling. I saw the poor. I saw a lot of the poor.
In Paris, I was also able to see myself like I had never seen myself before.
Not just pretty lucky anymore but actually, unbelievably lucky.
To find out more about the Live Below the Line Challenge, visit www.livebelowtheline.com. From there, you’ll be able to click onto the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or Colombia link to register. Dates for Australia (4th May – 8th May) and the US, UK and Canada (27th April – 1st May) have been set for 2015, however you can always nominate another 5 day period in May to take up the challenge as donations don’t close until the 30th June 2015. Don’t forget to ‘like’ their Facebook page in the country of your choice in order to keep up to date with their chosen charities, final dates and other news. Lastly, make sure you check out and use the #livebelowtheline hashtag to document your challenge, connect with other participants from around the world and make some noise to raise awareness about this amazing initiative.
Nhan runs her blog My Love for Paris www.myloveforparis.blogspot.com and also writes for a couple of other online publications. She loves to dip into the world of freelance writing and photography whilst teaching English in the City of Light. She’s also a travel addict, lover of food and a classic generation Y millennial, choosing to quit her secure job as an Australian pharmacist on more than one occasion to set off and see the world. She moved to London at a 25 and then to Paris at 30 where she plans to stay put, for the time being at least.