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Author: Seth Kaplan


Life Lessons, Travel, and Play in the City of Light: Seth Kaplan ’15 at Les Trophees Solidaires

Feb 08, 2016

My official job here in Paris, France, the supposed reason for which I am here, or perhaps rather, the official excuse I can give for spending 3 months in the City of Light, is as an intern at a tiny non-profit in the domain of solidarity headquartered in Paris’ 20th arrondissement at the residence of the vice president, Marthe Lemelle. I do my work upstairs in a loft turned into a makeshift office complete with desks piled high with papers and laptops, some of Marthe’s clothing overflow, and a window which overlooks a grade school, noisy even during these summer days. Down the narrow spiral staircase is Marthe’s living/kitchen/dining room where she, the other intern Julian and I eat lunch (occasionally with 4 or 5 of Marthe’s fashion photography colleagues if she is in the middle of a shoot). Needless to say, the seriousness with which I took the phrase business casual when describing the required dress on my internship contract (I shopped at a thrift store with my parents for new nice pants, borrowed dress shirts from my friend John, and only packed 4 or 5 of my ripped and cut t-shirts) was incredibly unwarranted. I dressed up my first day, and then progressively down over the course of the first week. By Friday I was wearing leggings and dresses (tucked messily in to my pants so as not to cause even more alarm than my fashion choices were already inciting).

Trophées Solidaires (Solidarity Trophies) is an offshoot of a larger organization called Demain Nos Enfants (Tomorrow Our Children), and its main project consists of a biannual competition (that’s once every two years, not twice every one) wherein prize money is awarded to aide various student projects in the domain of solidarity. I don’t know whether we of the United States use the word solidarity in quite the same way as the French use solidarité, but here it connotes a certain brand of NGO-style social justice that often takes place overseas, feels “social entrepreneur-y”, and employs more traditional business models and methods in order to enact change (as opposed to protest-based activism, community organizing, etc…). Where do I fit into this matrix of a labyrinth of a diadem of a puzzle? I don’t do it very well, I admit, but mostly through translating (French to English), editing video, and the usual social networking/basic website management. It is not the most compelling work I’ve ever done. What’s more, I only worked at TS for about 3.5 weeks before my boss went on vacation.

You see, August in France is time off, congé. If you have the means, you take a vacation. My boss Marthe evidently had the means, and so, I too was forced to occupy myself for the month of August without the comfortable routine of 8 hour days at TS. And so I’ve spent the past three weeks traveling around the south of France. Paris to Emmaüs Lescar Pau, Emmaüs to a tiny country town called Loze about 100 km north of Toulouse, Loze back to Emmaüs via a night in Toulouse, Emmaüs to Bayonne and then quickly to Biarritz, Biarritz through Bordeaux, Agen and Auch to Lycée St. Christophe in Masseube, Masseube via Auch for a night in a hotel in Agen, and finally a ride-share from Agen back to Paris.

You might ask, “What purpose did this time serve? What did I learn? How did it connect with my work in France, my education at Antioch College, and my life as a whole, if indeed it did any of these things at all”? I would respond that yes, it did those things, and I’ll attempt to untangle some of the knotted hunches and bunches of intuition and connection I’ve noticed pickling up my spine and into my hairybellum these past few weeks.

When I returned to Paris late this past Sunday evening, I can hardly describe the combination of elation and sigh-inducing familiarity, joy and fatigue that I felt. It was like coming home and leaving it at the same time. Paris felt different, my apartment felt different, and seeing as I don’t think they changed in any obvious manner, I realized that it was I, who had changed. Though it lasted only 3 weeks, my voyage in the south cut my time here into Paris before and Paris after in a very significant way.

Why? How? I think first and foremost, because I experienced a wide variety of communities in those three weeks. I camped out on the sloping property of a young French bride, I was lodging-less for a night in Biarritz and slept hidden behind a wall near the beach and the casino, noisy (the “California of Paris”) tourists shouting and breaking bottles till 5 am, I was housed in an old train car turned into bedrooms on Emmaüs Lescar Pau’s Camp Jeune campus, in a dorm room at lycée St. Christophe, in a stranger’s ex-wife’s old room, in a hotel, and in a hostel. Each of these lodgings implied one or many communities, and they differed widely. The way I traveled also implies community—sometimes by ride-share (and they were all different), sometimes by train, sometimes by bus.

The main thing i’ve come to suspect during my travels is that relationships between people based on and governed by capital and the social contracts of capitalism are easier, and thus often more desirable than those existing in other modes. And this is a shame—but let me make myself more clear, first.

Ride-share skirts the line between collectivism and capitalism, but is, of course, at the end of the day and voyage, capitalistic. So too is a night in a hotel or hostel and so too are trains and buses. Opposed to this are alternative modes of living—Emmaüs, a wedding, and a summer camp. Now of course, all three of these things exist within a larger framework of capital, yet the day-to-day functioning of these institutions and communities is modeled around different relationships than those produced solely by the flow of capital. I found that when money was involved, during bus and train rides, at the hotel, the hostel, when eating dinner out, shopping, etc… I felt more comfortable with myself because I was owed things in return for my money. It was almost less important what I looked like, how I smelled, whether I was nice or mean or flatulent or crapulent because when money is involved, it is about the money. That is kind of comforting in a way, because it means that when all humans are reduced to numbers, other kinds of judgments fall to the wayside. Now, obviously that is not true, there are still judgments, still racisms, sexisms, homophobias, transphobias, and all these things affect too. Being though, as I am, a white mostly straight cis male with money, my capitalistic interactions are unencumbered by most factors outside of the actual quantity of money I have.

I can contrast this with Emmaüs. A brief history from the little I know. A Catholic priest, Abbé Pierre started the first Emmaüs community in 1949. He was vehemently opposed to homelessness and the community was a place where all who were homeless or unable to find work or otherwise at the fringes of society were welcome to come live and work. Since then, the organization has started many alternative communities across France, England and Spain. Emmaüs Lescar Pau specifically has a hundred-something compagnons (those who live there all year round) and its major operation consists of sorting and recycling everything from yard waste to scrap metal to furniture to books to every piece of junk plastic object you can think of. People are welcomed “unconditionally” on the condition that they follow the rules of Emmaüs and work 40 hours a week to maintain the recycling facilities (there may be exceptions to these rules, I don’t know the constitution of Emmaüs Lescar Pau very well). I lived there, in total for about 7 days as a volunteer in their youth program. This entailed living in community with other youth, working 8 hours a day, eating meals together, sharing one bathroom and generally not having a lot of personal time or space.

At Emmaüs money is not an issue and so everything else immediately becomes much more of one. When I am out in the hard capitalistic consumerist world, I can define myself against everything that I see. I can take part in a system while knowing I am disgusted by it. When I am in environments that are themselves ostensibly against larger cultural norms, I can no longer define myself against my immediate surroundings. Thus, I lose a sense of who I am at the same time as I can no longer have the personal freedoms afforded to those with currency in a capitalistic world. If you have the money, you can buy yourself dinner, alone, talk to no one, and go to your hotel room unbothered. Living collectively, like we were kind of doing at Emmaüs, these comforts are for the most part unavailable. You have to get along with others or your life will be hell. It may not say much good about me, but I found myself wishing for the simple relations based on dollars and euros at the hardest and most claustrophobic moments of my time at Emmaüs.

Just because one is in a somewhat socialistic environment doesn’t mean there aren’t worries, problems and unwanted social dynamics, and my time at Emmaüs was replete with all of the above. It is odd that such things plague me more often in those kinds of settings than when I live in an apartment in the 16th arrondissement of Paris alone and work and take the metro and judge everyone around me because I don’t have to live, work, eat, brush my teeth and sleep with them.

(Another interesting thing is that certain connections seem only to be possibly fostered by capitalism. For instance, Pierre and Fleure, the two young French students who drove me from Agen back to Paris would never have welcomed me into their car if not for the legitimacy provided by BlaBlaCar and the 50€ I paid. Was it the most meaningful and important connection of my time here in France? Not at all. But, it was a connection, and one that probably would not have happened if not for capital.)

Examples of projects that were financed through Les Trophées Solidaires at this summer’s Salon des Solidarités (a big fair for all organizations and actors of solidarity):
•a playground in Morocco
•waste management in Coyah, Guinea
•Interns without Borders
•construction of a school and the providing of solar-powered lamps in Burkina Faso.
(Read all about it at

At TS I continue my trajectory of working sans pay, or at least sans direct remuneration for the hours I spend working. Once again I am living off of a stipend. This means that my work, its quality and its quantity are not of such grand importance to my employer, and that the experience is more about my learning, my leaps and bounds of growth as a person in the world. While I don’t think I am going to learn anything about “true” work environments or professionalism, I think TS does offer opportunities for reflection—reflection on the state of the world, on the state of activism, on modes of activism and their advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons, boons and bad elements. These are things I hope to continue to do over the next and last few weeks of my work here in Paris, France. Don’t worry, I’ll hold you to the juice every step of the way!*
“to hold to the juice”, in French, tenir au jus, is an informal way of saying, “keep you posted”