Making change in Paris
The utility of buying a croissant for realizing harsh truths
The morning after Bastille Day, the French national holiday, found me walking down the Rue Rambuteau in Paris. I was on the way to a boulangerie that boasted of having the best baguette in the city.
Two centuries ago, this neatly paved avenue was a narrow, winding path of cobblestone. It was on this road that the resurrection detailed by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables took place, and a coffee shop now stood at the ancient site of the barricade.
The streets were empty save for some early rising pedestrians, as well as a dozen homeless denizens who didn’t have the option to leave. As the cafes opened shop, they too brought out cardboard signs that described their plights and pleaded for relief from them.
I had acquired a baguette and a croissant, and as I walked back to the metro station, I pondered.
The cost of my pistachio- and almond-crusted, raspberry jam-stuffed croissant was around 3.50 euros. A baguette, enough for two people's breakfasts, would have been around 1.50 euros. Instead of gorging on an (admittedly delicious) pastry, I could have provided at least four people with breakfast and have enough money left over to buy some jam or fruit.
So why didn't I?
My train ticket to and from Paris cost 120 euros total. That's twelve moderately cheap shirts, or a month's worth of food. Isn't feeding or clothing someone more important than my desire to gawk at the grandeur of the French monarchy of old?
It would have been so easy to give every single beggar I saw at least a 2 euro coin. That probably would have added up an average of 15 people and 30 euros a day, depending on how often I used the metro that day and how long I spent on the streets instead of in museums. The total for those four days I spent in Paris would be about 120 euros. For the price of just the travel portion of my vacation, I could have provided an upwards of 60 people with breakfast.
So why didn't I?
The research project that I worked on during my internship in France has, in the (very) long run, revolutionary implications for disease detection. The nano-resonator based mass spectrometer my team was developing, capable of analyzing neutral particles such as viral capsids, could (maybe, perhaps, eventually) save thousands of lives. But for all the hours that I worked on my small piece of the project, what if I had instead directly went out and helped the sans-abris, the homeless — cooked for them, gave them a place to sleep — anything?
My answer to this, as it is for far too many things in life, is je ne sais pas. I don’t know. Perhaps it was inertia, discomfort, the bystander effect — any range of things that shame me to admit. All I can do is do better. So far this semester I’ve started a UROP investigating viral transmission, but I know a world of doing good still awaits.
The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program is MIT’s flagship international education program. If you can see yourself joining a team of BMW engineers in Munich, teaching technology entrepreneurship in South Africa, testing solar panels in Israel, or tackling a research problem at the Curie Institute in Paris, then you’re ready to join MISTI. Learn more at misti.mit.edu.