Years before protest entered the millennial lexicon in the United States, I remember witnessing worker protests in Paris like a novelty. I was twenty-two and taking a post-college backpacking excursion through Spain, France and Germany. I was sleeping on the couch of an actor I found on AirBnB named Brice. Brice smoked cigarettes constantly, and spent the days and evenings lamenting his separation from a lover he simultaneously adored and hated with a vehement passion. I had no agenda for this trip except that I wanted to see the sculptures of Camille Claudel at the Musee Rodin. Every day, I aimlessly walked the streets, then I’d pick up a bottle of red wine, a baguette, and some cheese: like a stereotypical American trying to feel French. I don’t know what I loved more: Paris or the idea of me being in Paris. Like most privileged American students, I wanted to see myself as global. Cultured.
On most afternoons in Paris, there was some kind marking and loud yelling echoing from distant streets. I would approach the noise like a cautious magnet, and watch the kids and teenagers proudly join the ranks, chanting with recreational rage. I had never seen the likes of it at home, and I wouldn't until Occupy Wall Street and then Black Lives Matters. One night, upon returning to Brice with my wine and bread, I was pleasantly surprised to find the tiny flat filled with four other beautiful gay guys. Henrique was from Brazil, Hector from Belgium. Joseph and his boyfriend Alberto were both French and lived in the flat across the hall. All night we drank wine and smoked cigarettes and talked about the political movements churning about the city, the nation, the globe. Everybody agreed that a new age of discontent was upon us. Brice would occasionally check out, staring blankly at his phone hoping for a text from his ominously missing love.
"All this politics. Nobody ever will be happy," he dramatically and sardonically droned.
"It's the people who ignore the problems who will be surprised when it all falls apart," Hector said, as a response to Brice, but without looking at him.
They had a passion and conviction that I didn’t, at the time, observe in my American friends, who were usually talking about what TV show they were watching, album they were listening to, who was falling in love or breaking up with who. When Americans talked about politics at home, there was always a vapid emptiness to it, an resignation that wasn't even aware of itself. Obama was a symbolic gesture to our collective conscious as far as identity politics was concerned, but when it came to policy...we never talked openly about wealth extraction or wealth inequality, and the lack of comprehension and even vocabulary in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse was sinisterly present as adults depressingly coped and young people shrugged away the deeper implications. American politics were still mocked; late-night-talk-show-humor the most sophisticated of coping mechanisms for the glaring powerlessness of the general working population in the new world order. I couldn’t help but feel, as I hung out with Brice and the boys, that it seemed as if their lives were more real to them than their peers across the ocean. Discontentedness was more free than obliviousness.