Christina: Near city limits

March 27, 2010

Near Montpellier city limits, there is a white wall that looks out towards the sea. At night street punks ride their skateboards along the wall’s edge, hipster girls lean against the stone and flick delicate ash from their cigarettes, and college students congregate close by while singing American songs with heavy French accents. On the wall it is written in English:

“This is not art.”

Where the wall forms a corner is a man, a dog, and a brown cardboard sign. The man holds out a used paper cup, jingles the coins inside, and says to the people passing by: “Madame, monsieur, s’il vous plait…”

I always wonder how long he can shake that almost-empty cup, how long he can hold out his arm, turn his head to follow the people walking away, how long he can hear “no” before he stops asking. When I crawl into bed hours later I wonder: is he still there, next to that white wall, jingling that cup? It’s the wrong thing to wonder.

Near Montpellier’s train station, there is a garden where fathers and sons play soccer after school, where tired mothers soothe crying babies, where newly arrived travelers stop to take their first views of the city. In the garden, the gypsy boys hold out dirty hands and beg for money. The coins I have to offer aren’t enough, so I ask them about school, about their families, about where they live. It’s the wrong thing to ask, because even with my limited French, I understand more than I want to.

In Montpellier, there are old churches and antique bridges, crumbling avenues and steel monuments prone for worship. We forget the hands that laid the brick a thousand years ago, label this place sacred, and put it on a map. We guard the past while the present withers beneath our feet.

When I fall asleep at the end of the day, the man and his dog are still next to the white wall that is not art. Behind him are the ancient buildings that we will continue to call beautiful long after he stops asking for money.


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