The other day, a busy and rainy Sunday afternoon, as Gui and I were leaving McDonald's to get on with the day, a young boy stopped me and asked me if I had a euro. We were still inside the McDonald's when the boy approached me, and I had to ask him to repeat himself because I wasn't really sure what he said the first time. When I understood that he was asking me for a euro, I told him, "no," continued walking out of the restaurant and then proceeded to feel like the scum of the earth.
Being asked for money from strangers has just become part of my daily life as a Parisian city-dweller. I come across homeless people on a regular basis, and I've managed to grow a thick skin of indifference, knowing that my usually overly-emotional self is just not suited for denying a beggar some change. But, it wasn't until I firmly and quickly rejected this child's bid for a bite to eat that I realized how cold and callous I'd actually become. I walked by the McDonald's again a few minutes later and saw the boy sitting at a booth eating a burger. I wanted to cry.
A friend of mine makes it a point to give food and not money to beggars he encounters on the streets and in the tunnels of Paris, and I generally agree with that approach. But, rarely do I find myself with an extra piece of fruit or bag of chips in my handbag, and sometimes it's just not all that practical for me. And, I realize the trouble with handing out cash to people when they ask for it; that there's an organized ring of criminals who make people beg and take their money, but how am I supposed to pick and choose who I help and who I don't help?
I understand now that I should have asked the boy what he wanted to eat, bought him his Happy Meal and made his day instead of flatly rejecting him a slice of happiness that I could so easily have provided. But what if someone older had approached me instead? I might have felt less guilty knowing I'd said no to an adult and not a child, but is that morally OK?
There are a lot of things that I have changed about myself to adapt to living here, but I refuse to let my moral compass be one of them. Of course nobody has asked me to change, to become a different person or to conform to the norms of my new social setting; any changes I've made about my personality or my habits have solely been self-imposed. But, I'm realizing the high price my need to "fit-in" has cost me, and I don't plan to continue paying it.
If I can spare some change to make someone happy or buy a cheeseburger to feed a hungry boy, there's no reason I shouldn't. I won't be able to feed the world or make everyone happy, but at least my humanity will remain intact, and really that's the only thing that fits in everywhere.