Today I fell in love, not with a person or even a place but a painting. As soon as I walked into the room I was in love. I still can’t quite pinpoint what it was about this piece that attracted me to it but I couldn’t take my eyes off it the whole time I was in that room. “The Floor Scrapers” was the name of the piece. It is by Gustave Caillebotte. When you walk in the room it is the centerpiece and is just so beautiful and powerful but it is also simple. I think this is part of why I like it so much. There is nothing in the painting to make it stand out. No bright colours or anything crazy happening in the painting. It is just three men scraping the floor of a dance studio. Caillebotte liked to portray reality. While so many other artists were busy distracting people from reality and the hardships of life, Caillebotte was pushing it in their faces. He depicts the working class, the hard work and strain that these people felt on a daily basis. He shows that life is not easy. You can see the exhaustion in the muscles of the men and the way they are bent over. The light is just barely peeking in the room and reflecting off the floor boards. I don’t think it was any one aspect of the painting that made me love it so much but rather the detail and the emotion that this artist was able to portray.
I’m standing there, in the trenches at Vimy, in the place that many have stood before me, fighting. I close my eyes and try to put myself in their shoes but it’s hard. I try to block out the sound of people talking and laughing and the birds singing all around me. I really try to imagine it from where they were. It’s hard to picture myself in their place; I’m not a soldier, but neither were they really. They were boys, many of them younger than me. They would be standing there with water up to their knees and bugs and rats running all around them. The sound of birds and people would be replaced with gunshots and bombs going off all around them, the sounds of people yelling, and screaming in pain. The enemy is a stone’s throw away and could kill them at any moment. You can never get any sleep no matter how hard you try and the realization that you never will again. Even when you get home the nightmares will keep you awake or you’ll jump at the sound of a car backfiring or hearing some kids playing video games will take you right back to that trench. I open my eyes and it all goes away. I’m still there in the trench but it is far different. I’m there with my friends talking, there’s grass and trees and flowers and birds singing and flying above. I open my eyes and I know I never have to do that, I never have to experience what they went through. There is a peace and calmness in knowing that but at the same time I am saddened by the realization that while I never have to go through that, they can never get out of it. Even after they are back home and safe they are haunted by it day and night and I realize how lucky I really am.
There are two sides to everything, two extremes to every situation. Coming to the Philippines was a great example of that. Before coming here we talked about how there is not much of a middle class in the Philippines. It is one extreme or the other. Rich or poor.
Driving through the Philippines, on the way to Laoag city, we would pass slum communities where houses were made out of plywood and tin roofs. In the middle of the slums there were huge beautiful palaces. They seemed so out of place. It made me realize just how huge the difference between the rich and the poor really was. I was able to see first hand how closely related the rich and the poor were as well. It is heartbreaking to see how some people can own such huge houses and live in such luxury while in their back yard there are people living in huts with no money at all.
Our home stay in Laoag was another example. I stayed with the vice president of North Western University. They had an amazing house. Complete with a spiral staircase, and a bathroom in every room. The kitchen was huge, and there was a beautiful balcony that overlooked the university. There were only three people living in this mansion. These people were rich even by American standards. While we were living in luxury there where others whose home stays didn’t even have running water, some where families slept on the floor. Some had huge extended families all living in the same tiny house.
Laoag had this mix of rich and poor everywhere you went but nothing compares to what I saw when we got to Manila. Driving through town, my heart broke for the people on the street and the state they live in. As we drove we saw families whose whole life was in bags and scattered along the side of the road. They slept on pavement and begged for money during the day. Every time we passed a person living on the street it made me sick to my stomach. No one should have to live like this. Street children are common here. They walk around trying to get money any way they can, even by stealing and pick pocketing.
I felt even worst when we got to where we were having a museum tour. This was in the rich part of Manila. There were rich people everywhere you looked, Filipinos, Americans, and many others. There were highend restaurants and brand name stores like Hugo Boss, Gucci, Mark Jacobs, etc. I couldn’t believe these lush gardens and beautiful patios were here. There were no street people anywhere. Only the rich. I couldn’t believe this place was here when such a sort distance away there are families with no money for food or money to put a roof of any kind over their heads. The people in this district walked around with not a care in the world, completely oblivious to what is happening in their city.
The Philippines is an amazing place but there is such heartbreak everywhere you look. I could not believe the contrast between the rich and the poor. I had read, and people had told me about it. But it is so different when you see it for yourself, when it is you that a street woman holding a baby is crying out to for help, and, when you live in the huge beautiful houses surrounded by the poor. It is different when you see first hand the smiles as well as the sad faces of the street children just trying to survive, when you see for yourself the two extremes.