Crossing the border

My first morning in Luz I fell into conversation with a local Frenchman. A middle-aged guy of small stature and a bit of weight on him, and eyes that were curiously darty and yet slow about it. He spoke to me in English the whole time, I think because partway through he forgot I could speak French. In general I find it best to run with however people want to communicate.

At first the topic of conversation was standard local-to-tourist fare. I mentioned that I was going to Biarritz after Luz, and so he proceeded to give me a rundown of all the lovely towns in that area and was clearly enthusiastic about its beauty. Then he informed me of Irun, a Spanish border town that French people abscond to for cheap shopping. Goods are taxed much less strongly in Spain than in France he told me. Well no, he actually exclaimed that it was tax-free and subsequently had his overexcitedness corrected by someone else who was nearby.

I found that an interesting fact and image and told him so. He nodded his head… and then continued with the not-so-secret secrets by telling me that French men go to Irun for the “clubs”. The “special clubs”. I wasn´t tout a fait clear about his meaning straightaway, I mean I had a sense but thought maybe he was talking about your comparatively more innocuous nightclub, after all if there´s less tax maybe drinks are cheaper? Maybe the nightlife is simply more hoppin´ a few steps over the border? My uncertainty didn´t linger for long however as he deftly explained that in France it is illegal to have brothels even though it is legal for prostitutes to streetwalk. (Personal opinion – This so stupid. Chalk up another point for France for taking care of women´s interests, sheesh. Seriously, if you want prostitution then you should take care of your women. That is all.)

Amused by this tidbit of information coming seemingly from nowhere, I smiled and laughingly said that I probably wouldn´t be interested in checking them out. He agreed, no, no, not for you.

Now, I had thought that the way I had just said that would have signalled to him that I wasn´t much more interested in the subject. I thought I was hinting that I didn´t really know what more to say or how it held any relevance to me, unlike our previous discussion on nice towns in the Basque country. But he either isn´t very good with nuances or he didn´t care. It was probably both. He elaborated.

The prostitutes who work in Irun are from Colombia, nice young girls. They usually have children and their whole lives are back there. They work for three weeks at a time in a town, essentially ensuring a rotation of different and yet predictably nubile bodies for the brothel; and a tour of Spain for the workers. In one sense you could think that it makes things at least a little more interesting for them, and that if they have a bad time in a particular town they know that they can eventually leave it behind. In another, you could get the feeling that they´re being moved around to new stomping grounds like cattle. At any rate they do this because they have no choice, it´s apparently a condition of their work permit.

Nice, nice young girls, he said. It´s like Thailand, he said, which he has visited once and where a random new friend bought him a young girl for a month. But it´s a special relationship between the rich and the poor. He never used to understand this, 20 years ago when he was a young man and first started going to Irun. He had even asked a few of them to marry him. But it´s too difficult for them, he said. Too difficult because their whole lives are in Colombia, too difficult because they can´t easily free themselves from their owners. It´s too difficult to get away from the work, the work that they must do because they are the poor and he the rich. It´s a special relationship, he said, gazing off somewhere behind me and nodding. A special relationship.

The conversation ended a short while later when someone else joined in and started talking about things to do around Luz.

It´s instances like these that make me feel a pseudo-hatred for travelling. I am a proud feminist. A proud advocate for freedom, choice and opportunity for all people. It really disgusts and outrages me that there are so many places where women and young girls are forced, or tricked, into letting people exploit their only real property, their bodies. “It´s the oldest profession in the world!!” is the catchphrase of many who don´t want to think any more about it. But should I really have to accept that because I was freakishly lucky for the family and time that I was born into, that I get to have an education so that I can at least try for a profession of my own choosing? That I was lucky so only I get to benefit? Maybe it is simply the case the the world sucks. It´s just unfair. But I refuse to believe that humans cannot change a human world. And we seem to be becoming more and more aware that socioeconomic injustices aren´t necessarily due to inherent imbalances in natural resources or in the will of a region´s people to have a better life.  I rant because I can´t quite help it and because it´s the best way to show how strongly I feel about this.

So the pseudo-hatred for travelling is because it allows me to meet and listen to people like him, consumers and propagaters of a machine that degrades human life… and find that I can´t hate him. I hate that even with all my various fortunes and abilities, there are men who will look at me with certain automatic associations and beliefs simply because I am female, of ¨colour¨, and young. (This French guy had been looking at me out of the corner of his eye before he talked to me, and I have been hinted to before… I won´t elaborate but there is a definite difference between this sort of proposition or suggestion from a man and a regular pick-up.)I hate that I hate this even though I don´t even have the worst of it. And yet I still can´t hate him.

There is such a strong need for resolution for conflicts surrounding a belief like this. I´ve tried to think on it a bit… and I realise that I can´t blame him because I don´t think he has any other opportunity to meet women and “feel loved” otherwise. His loneliness was incredibly palpable. But his loneliness wasn´t piteous or tragic, it was merely a simple fact of life for him. I know it sounds like an excuse but he was an awkward man, not attractive in any sense, and was either simple-minded or merely not well-educated. I don´t blame him for wanting to feel something more than what he has. I wouldn´t want what he has, anymore than I would want what the Colombian girls have. I think I also can´t blame him because I believe he really could have married one of these girls and settled down to a life where he took care of them.

The hardest part for me was figuring out how I could not blame him when the simple fact is that he is a consumer of the flesh trade, the flesh trade that in particular gains from women not having opportunities. I have arrived at a partial explanation only. That he has figured out that it´s the rich vs the poor, but hasn´t thought any further about how it´s not simply another job among other crappy ones available to poor girls, that it might be the only option they are told about or that they have even been forced into it. And of course will not have seen beyond himself to see that our own attitudes and actions do in fact shape the lives of others, even if these others are somewhere far away.

But I don´t know. Maybe I´m just excusing him because I didn´t think he was very smart. And maybe he´s smarter than I think. Maybe I´m doing it because I feel sorry for him. And maybe he was trying to get me to feel sorry for him. He did offer to be my chauffeur a little later on. But yeah. Travelling can be a bitch with how it not merely imperceptibly widens the walls of your mind but how it becomes an almighty wrench that pries and pushes it open.

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One thought on “Crossing the border

  1. Tolerance can be very difficult but easier than forgiveness, which is still beyond me. I think we work hard to think out mitigating circumstances for other people because we know that intolerance meakes the world a worse place. We also know that we can’t change the way people think and behave if we can’t find common ground with them.

    I know that you always give new people a fair chance because there is good in most people and given the right circumstances, they will be good, because doing the right thing can make them feel good too.

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