Assad Abderemane - Spending Money on Experiences After Growing Up Poor
A year before I was born, my mom left the Comoro Islands — an archipelago north-west of Madagascar — and half of my family behind to start a better life in France. My early childhood memories are hazy, but I know we lived at the bottom of the pyramid and had to rely on charities to get the bare minimum — accommodation and food.
Growing up poor, I realized money could solely be spent in three ways:
Accommodation and food. The bare minimum for us to survive, and the thing I was trained to be the most content with.
Comfort. A privilege that could go from a new TV, a video-game console or a bigger fridge, all the way to new bedsheets, a sneaky snack at bedtime or a memory card for a PlayStation 2 that I still don’t know how my mom acquired.
Experiences. Abstract. Intangible. A waste of money. From traveling the world to going to the cinema, spending money on things you couldn’t keep or hold felt pointless.
As a penniless first-generation immigrant, I convinced myself that the value of money lied in the stuff we could buy. Poverty crippled me with tunnel vision that allowed my brain only two options — survival and maybe some other stuff. Eventually, the more stuff we had, the happier we were.
My partner and I took the train to Paris to watch Florence and the Machine perform their second to last show of the “High As Hope” tour in Europe. Barefoot in her pale pink lingerie gown, lead singer Florence Welch walks, spins and leaps across the stage with a fierceness matching that of a spirit possession.
People call her many names, but the one I like the most is ‘kindred spirit’ because it implies that the way she connects with her audience is universal and, at the same time, unique from person to person. I see the same kind of seemingly impossible dichotomy when she talks to her audience — her soft voice clashes with her formidable vocal range, as she goes from vehemently singing about toxic masculinity to timidly twiddling her fingers when she tells us to hold the hand of someone we don’t know and say we love them.
All over the place, a concert with her on stage is a ride I wish was endless.
I met my Slovak partner in a French café where she hosted conversations in English with people from all over Europe. Like me, she didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. Unlike me, she traveled a whole lot.
We bonded over our lack of money, and she assured me that she used every means imaginable to travel at the cheapest price for the best experience — from exchange programs to working abroad to voluntary service to sharing a room with an indecent amount of roommates, she did it all. Still, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that an impoverished person could afford to spend any amount of money on something she didn’t necessarily need to live at the moment. Why spend time and money on something you might only get once? The subscription to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities was simply overpriced.
My partner cries in the middle of Florence’s first song. Her tears join the corners of her smile and I think, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.”
The relationship my partner has with music is one of a kind. A former flute player in an orchestra, she performed in countless recitals and rapidly became a highly praised musical talent. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that she cries whenever she is deeply moved by music, it’s an expectation. What came as a surprise — which, in hindsight, shouldn’t have — was her passion for attending live performances. She lives and breathes music festivals, and she’d go to many more concerts if she had the means.
I didn’t understand it. My very cynical mindset around this issue was simple: if you can listen to their songs on Spotify, maybe don’t blow over 200 bucks on train tickets and concert tickets to listen to the same songs.
But Florence and the Machine is her favorite band. And I love her. So I did all of that.
Halfway through “Dog Days Are Over”, Florence warns that she’s about to ask us to do something very scary and vulnerable. “Put your phone away,” she says playfully.
I would normally roll my eyes at this, but already enamored by her music and ethereal persona, I smile the smile where you exhale out your nose in understanding and watch as glowing lights dim out in dozens of people’s hands that were filming her performance. She says if we still see someone with their phone out, we need to kindly ask them to put their phone away, “we’re trying to have an experience”.
For the duration of one song, raw and unrecorded, we live in a pocket universe that is just us and experience something so special I don’t want to give it away. This moment is only ours. This moment is mine. And by the end of the song, I realize that this moment has a worth that transcends the realm of stuff.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” my mom tells my 9-year-old sister when she asks her if they could go to a concert, too. Money comes in different forms, and the ones in her possession can’t pay for a concert. They can pay for hundreds of euros’ worth of grocery shopping to feed a family of four while calmly overlooking the bank account overdraft around halfway through the month. They can pay for rent only affordable thanks to government financial aids. Yet here I am, telling her about my concert.
Three generations in the same room, this situation spurs a conversation about the fleeting aspect of money. My mom reminds me of times where I’d overhear a conversation where she’d mention having a certain amount of money and I would shout, “100 euros?! Mom! You’re so rich!”
We laugh thinking about it now. She tells me she knows I must have another outlook on money now since I moved out over a year ago. I tell her that 100 euros can leave my pocket so quickly I never have time to appreciate the fruits of my labor as a student working 15 to 24h/week shifts. She smiles the smile where you exhale out of your nose in understanding.
“Hey,” my sister interjects from the stool in the corner of the room, “I know I can’t use it but mama says I have 1,000 euros in my bank account. Now that is a lot!” My mom and I look and smile at her the same way she would more than a decade ago at this kind of statement — with love, kindness, and hope that she’ll live better than we do now.
“Funny that she briefly sang about toxic masculinity earlier,” I almost say out loud as my eyes well up with tears when I realize it’s the last song of the show. A moment’s impermanence was always my reason for not spending money on experiences, and here I am, almost crying at a moment’s impermanence. But I feel no sadness — at least not just sadness.
Then the concert really ends, and my partner and I leave only to get attacked by men with the official “High As Hope” tour poster the moment we step out of the arena. “2 euros! 2 euros for a poster! You don’t wanna miss it! Buy it for the memories!”
We stay at a restaurant near the arena to wait for the bus that will drive us back home, and we can still see men walking around with their posters, hunting for awed concert-goers. I realize that we really did live in a pocket universe, because outside of it, daily lives were still unfolding, with a handful of people bracing themselves to profit off of the ones who could afford to press pause on their daily lives. (And yes, we bought the poster. It was 2 euros.)
People say when you make love for the first time, you feel like everyone is staring at you. When you smoke weed and come back to your parents’, you can’t shake off the idea that they must know you’re high. So when I’m back in my hometown the day after the concert, I unconsciously expect everyone to notice I’ve changed.
“No one can see me,” I childishly mumble beside my partner in the dairy aisle of the shop that’s a minute away from our place. She smiles the smile where you exhale out of your nose in understanding. She tells me it feels nice to finally share this feeling with me. And then we take the same bottle of milk we take every time we go grocery shopping.
Hundreds of people pass us by every day, I wonder how many of them had a life-changing experience the day before? I write this in my notebook the night after the concert. In “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”, John Koenig coins the word ‘sonder’ — the full realization that each random passerby is living a life just as vivid and complex as your own, and in which you might only appear once, just like they often do in your life. Crossing the path of a stranger in the street, this is who I am — an extra.
Even now, the intimate and cherished thought of the experience I lived in this pocket universe clashes with my apparent need for everyone to know that it exists and that it changed me.
“My mom must think I live a lavish lifestyle now,” I think on my way to class as I listen to “Only If For A Night”. She started her life in Paris with nothing and raised me with a little bit more, and two decades later, I go back there to enjoy a concert. The guilt associated with spending money on things I don’t need at the moment sometimes resurfaces when I think about my mom, but here the feeling is different.
My bank account is in overdraft at the end of the month — something I only managed to reach once, which I freaked out about until I received my paycheck a week later. This time, the sight of my bank account triggers the memory of the experience I lived — happiness becomes the narrative behind the overdraft, not struggle. The thought helps my guilt take a backseat. More importantly, it’s comforting to think that my mom would give me this smile — the same one she and I gave my sister — exactly so that, one day, I could tell her I’m living a slightly better life. The narrative I get to build isn’t that of struggle, but that of happiness.
But when all is said and done, I can’t fully romanticize this lifestyle yet. I still give immeasurable value to the stuff I buy. I obsessively check my bank account multiple times a day — even when I haven’t spent money on anything — just to make sure money is still there. After eating fast food, I sometimes catch myself thinking, “Yep, I really put three hours of work into this, huh?” And when my account is in overdraft, I spiral and find myself thinking the stupidest things — “If I hadn’t bought this video game with the 30 euros my aunt gave me for my birthday when I turned 10, I wouldn’t be here right now.” It’s funny, it’s stupid, but I know a lot of poor people relate to this kind of thought. Growing up in poverty often means opening a door to close another one and inevitably regretting it further down the line.
However, though poverty crippled me with tunnel vision regarding how I spend my money, I now allow myself to contemplate the peripheral, and it doesn’t look so abstract and intangible anymore.
In bed with my partner, playing a game of Scrabble as we listen to Florence, daily life intertwines with the exceptional, and in my heart I know I will never tie regret to the experience I shared with her.
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