A CHRISTMAS STORY
Updated: Aug 10
A few Christmases ago, when in Paris, I became 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 journée." 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, avoiding him became impossible and frankly tiresome. I began to observe how kind he seemed. Children, in particular, loved Lucky and were always feeding him from the small market on the corner. 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 damp 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 Roma 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 mean that citizens of these former communist bloc states did not enjoy complete freedom of employment in France until December 31, 2013. Even then, only certain Roma can be hired for specific work. He showed me a photograph of his daughter in Czechoslovakia, and he 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. Still, I always returned to Nichola and Lucky for dinner between 5:30 – 6:00. On nights when the weather was terrible, 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 not a noble profession. It's not gratifying. It's demoralizing, tedious work brought to light even more so during the holiday season.
What is it about Christmas that always brings us back to the issue of money? We spend so much on the creature comforts of the season, investing in commercialism and forgetting that the whole Christmas story revolves around a couple about to give birth with no roof over their head. And how often do we watch A Christmas Carol forever reminded that Ebenezer Scrooge's relationship with money makes him as hollow as the apartments he keeps: void of life and colour. The first time I saw A Christmas Carol, I was terrified. (I'm referring in particular to the black-and-white Alistair Sim version) Marley's ghost, in particular, haunted not only Scrooge but me for days afterward. I half expected to see the shimmering outline of some long-lost relative at the end of my bed reprimanding me for stealing cookies or stepping on flowers. In my childlike brain, Marley and Santa Claus merged into some kind of spectre sent to judge whether I'd been good.
I was forever trying to figure out how good was good? How bad was bad? If found wanting, would I be sentenced to walk the earth with the chains I'd forged? Even as a child, I imagined the cord was extensive. I marvelled at Charles Dicken's imagination. I didn't believe Ebenezer Scrooge was real. No one, I reasoned, was that stingy or that greedy, but over time I've met a lot of Scrooges, and I'll bet you have too. We use money to ascertain a person's value and to hold sway over others. It's the most mysterious entity because it's only valuable if we think it is. I learned this lesson long ago when studying in New York. I happened to hand a Canadian quarter to a subway attendant who shoved it back at me, saying, "I can't take your funny money." Perfectly good in one place and absolutely worthless somewhere else.
It's embarrassing asking for money when you need it and difficult for people being asked. I know a lot about this awkward relationship with money. For a time, my father was a bank manager, and we simply did not discuss finances. Not ever. To borrow even a few hundred dollars was unheard of. Worse, in my family, you were shamed for asking. And if anyone took pity on you with a few bucks here or there, it was always accompanied by the directive, "… don't tell your mother, or brother, or stepmother." It was even worse being in the arts, a profession that carried the stigma of irresponsibility. The only exception I knew of was my Nana on my Mother's side, who loved nothing more than to give people things. I inherited this one trait from her. Money has never been something I hoarded (probably to my demise). Instead, I've seen it as simply an opportunity to help. In Paris, I became the newly converted Ebenezer Scrooge. Instead of eating at the most expensive restaurant, I ate at moderately fine establishments, saving 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.
On my last night in Paris, I met a friend for a quick coffee and found myself getting emotional as I talked about the street beggars. In getting to know Nichola, I realized that so much of my life was about luck. I live in a town where it's not unheard of for people to have more than one home, and there was my friend living on the streets. Our lives are so vastly different, our circumstances so varied simply for the fact of our birth. There but for the grace of God…
When my friend and I parted, 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 all there to sing Sancte Maria and Joy to the World. How fortunate for me that I was able to experience Notre Dame before the fire. Even an atheist would be hard-pressed to admit that there wasn't something spiritual about that cathedral. And sitting there amongst 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 walking 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."
That night I wrote a letter to Nichola and left him enough money for him and his dog to return to his daughter. I sealed the envelope and, in the morning before I left for the airport, I gave it to him.
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. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts."
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.
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a new year filled with laughter and love.