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Jan. 18, 2021 | Monday
Editorials and Opinions
A heart-warming Christmas story from the streets of Paris
Nichola and Lucky on the street in Paris. (Lezlie Wade photo)

Especially during the holidays, when you have the opportunity to help someone in need, take it

 

Lezlie Wade

Special to The Lake Report/Niagara Now

A few Christmases ago, when in Paris, I happened to become friends with a homeless gentleman who frequented the corner at the end of my street.

He sat upon a shocking pink suitcase with his little dog, Lucky, curled up at his feet and wished everyone who passed by a heartfelt “bonne journee.”

He never asked for money. Not once. He never scorned those who scoffed or, worse. judged. He simply smiled and greeted every passerby with a sincere greeting of goodwill.  

I’d been warned repeatedly about beggars in Paris. “Charlatans,” people said. “They’ll take everything you own if you let them.” So, when I first encountered Nichola, I hurried by, shunning eye contact and willing myself NOT to look at the dog.  

I can turn a blind eye like the rest of us to things too uncomfortable to deal with and reasoned that since this was my first visit to Europe, I deserved a break from routine considerations. But no matter how much I wished I could ignore them, they were always there, as constant as the Eiffel Tower.

After a few days, it became impossible, and frankly tiresome, avoiding him. On the fourth night of my stay, I happened to be returning from a concert at the Chapel in Versailles. Intoxicated by the music of Faure, I was in a particularly good mood when I noticed Nichola and Lucky asleep on the street.

It was cold that night and a light, wet snow had fallen, so they were huddled on a grate for warmth upon the wet pavement. My heart cracked. I made my way to the apartment I was staying in around the corner on Duvivier and laying on my bed, stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. I had no idea how I could help or what comfort I could offer, but pretending they didn’t exist was now impossible. 

If you learn one thing in Paris it’s about man’s inhumanity to man. Art galleries, of which there are a plethora, boast painting after painting of retribution, judgment, mercy, benevolence, and grace. Who knows more about these things than artists? The lesson from nearly every painting is how downtrodden the poor are, how much God loves the unfortunate, and the cautionary tale of revolt.

No matter where I went, or what I saw, it was always Nichola and the dog. Van Gogh stared at me from his self-portrait and whispered, “What are you going to do about Nichola and the dog?” The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault became a depiction of the homeless people piled on a barge with nowhere to go.  

Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait with a dog was none other than Nichola himself with Lucky tucked into his side. And no, it wasn’t lost on me that Nichola (namesake of Christmas) was sleeping on St. Dominque Street. Dominique – the patron saint of astronomers, a man who selected the worst accommodations and the meanest clothes, and never allowed himself the luxury of a bed. What was the universe trying to tell me? 

The following morning, I had breakfast with Nichola and Lucky. I brought croissants, dog food and coffee, and for an hour I sat cross-legged on the sidewalk as we made our first attempt to converse. My French is, très mauvais, which didn’t matter as I soon discovered that Nicholas's native tongue was Romani.

With the help of a translation app, I learned that Romania and Bulgaria, where the majority of Roma originate, became full members of the European Union in 2007. But “transitional arrangements” in their accession to the EU meant that citizens of these former communist bloc states did not enjoy complete freedom of employment in France until Dec. 31, 2013.

Even then only certain Roma are able to be hired for certain work. He showed me a photograph of his daughter in Czechoslovakia and gleaned that I was in theatre visiting Paris on a bursary I’d won from the Stratford Festival. Breakfast over, I waved goodbye and headed to D’Orsay, or Versailles, or the Louvre, but I always came back to Nichola and Lucky for dinner between 5:30 and 6.

On nights when the weather was bad, I gave him money for a shelter or would return home to find that he’d already earned enough for a bed somewhere. Those nights I slept better than others. Nights when I knew he wasn’t on the street, I imagined (probably somewhat naively) that he and the dog were at least safe. 

It occurred to me that it was possible I was being bamboozled. It’s conceivable that my friend had a stash of money somewhere, coaxed from emotional tourists like me. Truth be told, nothing would have pleased me more than to find out that Nichola had a fine apartment in a good arrondissement and dined well with Lucky curled up on Egyptian cotton sheets.

If I was being fleeced then so be it. Anyone who begs deserves money, as far as I’m concerned. It’s demoralizing, tedious, work brought to light even more so during the holiday season when as Dickens points out in "A Christmas Carol," “… want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.”

So, rather than eat at the most expensive restaurants, I ate at moderately fine establishments and saved the difference for Nichola. I bought day-old croissants and gave the difference I saved to Nichola. And when my departure date drew near I bought him a care package of food, blankets, socks, dog food and treats. 

My last night in Paris, I made my way in the dark to Notre Dame and listened to a Christmas concert in an overflowing cathedral filled to the brim with parents and children. How fortunate for me that I was able to experience the cathedral before the fire. Even an atheist would be hard-pressed to admit that there wasn’t something spiritual about that space.

And sitting there among the Parisians I felt a kind of peace. “What will happen to Nichola?” I asked the rafters and what came back was the sound of children singing: 

Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o'er the plains

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains

Gloria, in Excelsis Deo

Gloria, in Excelsis Deo

As I was walked home after the concert I happened by the famous bookstore: Shakespeare & Co. and was stopped in my tracks by the store’s motto, "Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise."

The next morning, before I left for the airport, I gave Nichola enough money to return to his daughter and said a tearful farewell.

I mention this, dear reader, not to draw any attention to me whatsoever. It’s our job to help our fellow man … at least Charles Dickens thought so when he penned, “At this festive time of the year … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at present.”

Three months later, I received a letter from Czechoslovakia. Enclosed was a thank you and photos of Lucky, Nichola and his daughter in the backyard of a home set against the hills. 

If I can help someone, then so can you.

* Lezlie Wade lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake. She is a director, writer and lyricist, and works with the Stratford Festival. She also is associated with Virgil's Yellow Door Theatre. lezliefwade.com

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