Every day is a holiday
"God bless international capitalism," Justin Appler says blithely as we enter a Five Guys. He has to use the washroom so I pretend I'm waiting in line with the intent of purchasing some fries.
"My one point of vanity in this life is my vagabondness," Justin tells me as we stroll towards Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. "My point of humility is the French."
Justin cannot speak much French but he is adept at adding franchement, en fait, and ça marche to his English phrases. "When I first met you," he laughs, "You were rattling off French and I was like, 'Honey, I'm drunk and I don't speak French.'"
Justin is 24 years old. He holds a bachelor's in History (with minors in Political Science and Philosophy) and a master's in Political Science from the University of Windsor. We studied at Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 within a year of each other.
It's ten after six and we are sitting in Place des Vosges eating choux from Popelini and drinking gin. Abba's Winner Takes it All is playing. Then Free Man in Paris by Joni Mitchell. Then Help Me. "Joni Mitchell — bien sûr! Canadian girl!" Justin remarks gleefully.
You love your lovin' but not like you love your freedom, Joni sings.
"I know some people," Justin says, "And all they want is their piece of the pie. I don't want that. I just want to be free. I want freedom and I want to offer it to other people. Most people believe that if everyone else gets their share, they won't have enough."
Justin is giving me a massage after we did some yoga. Yes, this man has such an effervescent personality he inspired me, Rachel Stadder, to do yoga. "You are really tense, Rach. For someone who doesn't stress a lot. Your downward dog was abysmal. It's because you can't extend your back properly."
Je devrais aller faire une radio, I muse. I recently fell down a wooden spiral staircase exiting an apartment on rue des Gravilliers.
A girl comes over to bum a cigarette from Justin. "At some point on this trip, I realized I'm just a dirtbag," he says matter-of-factly. "Like all extroverts, eventually, I will burn out." He changes the song to L'Accordéoniste by Edith Piaf because we both revel in its gloomy introduction.
Justin expresses gratitude for everything, whether it's a glass of Bordeaux at Le Pain Quotidien or a roll of toilet paper he received from a passing stranger in a ditch near Pembroke, Ontario. He makes everyone around him feel accepted. Here's what I learned from being in his spectacular presence this week.
RS: How did the environment you grew up in influence you?
JA: I grew up in an Evangelical Christian household, very much educated in the ways of Christian charity (and a strong focus on the gospel of Jesus). However, I also grew up in a homophobic household and henceforth lived in the closet for 21 years. I only lived in the closet willingly for several months because I was so deluded I convinced myself I wasn't gay even though I clearly was… I was just horribly deluded because of my upbringing.
RS: What do you wish you were exposed to at a younger age?
JA: I wish I were exposed to the goodness of homosexuals, that gay people weren't inherently evil. My parents never straight up said gay people were evil but, all the places they brought me, that's the story they told. At my summer camp, people would make really horrible jokes. Once I did meet gay people, friends who had come out to me, I was a horrible friend to them. And I regret that more than anything. Not being able to be there for them because of my lack of education. I was taught, "Someone's gay, that's their personal journey with God, and that's for them to figure out by themselves." And that's so against the gospel; it teaches radical community being there for each other. But that's not the story I was told.
RS: What would you have told your younger self?
JA: To never be afraid of anything because in my life, whenever I chose not to be afraid, things worked out. Even when they didn't work out, well, I was hopeful.
RS: Do you still believe there's a god?
JA: At the end of the day, I still believe there's a god. Whether God is real or not, it simply doesn't matter. I firmly believe in everything in the gospel of Christ. Everything outside of that, I still have to make a decision about because I threw it all out the window.
RS: How have the teachings of Jesus influenced you? The separation of the goats from the sheep and all that?
JA: When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me water? When I was sick, did you console me? When I was in prison, did you visit me? That phrase. Every time I see someone in need, I want to do something because I think that's what we're here for. When Mary Magdalene washes Jesus' feet, his disciples are like, Why are you letting her touch you? And he's like, Hey, she's just as good as you. Everyone is just good as everyone. Whether you're a prostitute, whether you're hemorrhaging or you're sick, you're just as good. Just because you're alive.
RS: And that's really where your spirituality lies.
JA: I walk past homeless people every day and I don't do a fucking thing. Sometimes I stop and talk but most of the time I'm looking out for number one. And it's finding that balance between taking care of yourself and doing what is possible to be better people.
RS: I think you do a lot more than anyone I know.
JA: The truth is, I'm not Jesus. I can't throw myself up on a cross.
RS: You believe Christians think about death more than anyone else?
JA: Very death-oriented. What if your friend dies and they didn't know Jesus?
RS: Because you were from a hardcore Evangelical environment, right?
JA: We're always thinking about when we're going to die and if you're going to heaven. I might be wrong on this but I remember hearing that our church was spreading the word of God to the entire world to bring the second coming of Jesus faster. So basically to bring of all our deaths faster and make the kingdom of heaven come to us. I think about this spirit inside me who has existed before me and is gonna exist after me and I wonder, What vessel will I be in? What dimension?
RS: You really like the song "I'm Sorry" by John Denver.
JA: High like an eagle, deep in despair. I was definitely a bird at one point, I dream of flying all the time. I figure, Rachel, you could have maybe been Simone de Beauvoir a hundred years ago.
RS: Merci bien ! You told me you when you walk through Paris you always feel like you're accomplishing something.
JA: Exactly. I do feel like when I walk through Paris I'm accomplishing something. Maybe I've walked these streets before. Also space trips me out. When I think about space… how are we hanging through the universe? How does it just keep going? Is there life on Mars? David Bowie! When I think about space and the potential of life after death, my brain just goes [beeping sounds].
RS: You can only indulge for about an hour or so.
JA: Pondering over what comes next, while potentially necessary for the psyche… you really have to be here now, solving the problem in front of you.
RS: Speaking of problems… What was the deal with the dreaded internship?
JA: When I was working the internship that I really hated, I tried quitting but then the university made me afraid. It was a disaster, I had a mental breakdown. If I would have quit when I had the courage, I could have done so much! But sometimes I'm a bit of a fatalist or a stoic and i think that's the way it had to happen. I took this internship because they promised me they were going to train me to do government work in a municipality, which really excited me at the time. After about a month I realized they weren't training me for anything. They just wanted me to do the work. I learned that I could work about 4 hours a week and no one really noticed. I confessed to doing no work because I was guilty as hell. I learned that there's very little justice in government.
RS: They just don't care.
JA: I learned that in Windsor-Essex country, our politicians don't care about public transportation, they don't care about the environment. And if they do, they're not doing a single thing about it. I was supposed to work on this project to help get a bus line from West Windsor to Tecumseh. The project got dropped because Tecumseh realized Windsor just wanted their transit funding and they didn't want to give it up. Municipalities don't want to work together. Everyone wants all the power, all the funding, and it's pathetic. That was just what I saw. I'm sure there's a lot of people in that building who have a lot of passion but I saw a lot of selfishness, I saw a lot of spitefulness and negativity. I saw myself get exploited by my internship. They promised to train me. I don't feel bad about [not working] for a minute anymore. However, I should have quit.
RS: You strive to be an autobiographical artist.
JA: Right now, I'm in the process of turning my life into a piece of artwork through travelling the world and writing down what I find; similar to Maya Angelou, even though my life has had not even close to the equivalent of pain that her life has had. My life is filled with privilege … But I am trying to write the story of my life as a piece of poetry and philosophy essentially.
RS: And every day is a holiday.
JA: The main premise of the book is that through discovering the unknown territory in the world, you'll begin to discover the unknown territory in yourself if you choose to be mindful. Coupling an outward journey with an inward journey and finding a way to make every day a holiday by appreciating everything, big and small.
RS: *laughs* I love it! You practice yoga almost every day.
JA: Out of the mind, into the body. I'm the kind of person whose mind works about a mile a minute and I used to think that was an amazing strength but I realized that it's important to slow my mind down. Thinking that you can think your way through everything in life is a huge mistake.
RS: What else do you enjoy daily?
JA: One thing I really enjoy is having a cappuccino in the morning. I very much enjoy chain-smoking, even though I'm trying to quit. I enjoy eating out despite the constraints of my budget. I try to read every day. Mostly philosophy, psychological endeavours. Right now I'm reading The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. And right now I'm eating a poached egg! [Note: we are in Season Paris.]
RS: It looks delicious. Favourite websites?
JA: I read The Guardian every day. Democracy Now is the only newscast I can trust. Amy Goodman is the host. I listen to her every morning on Democracy Now: The War and Peace Report with Amy Goodman. She is an award-winning journalist who has been arrested a few times. She tells the global news story better than anyone in my opinion!
RS: How do you balance writing with la vie quotidienne?
JA: When I'm travelling, often I just want to see things… I don't want to sit down and write. I never think I'm in a rush for anything because it's the story of my life (you have to live your life in order to write it). I'm caught in this constant paradox of living vs. writing (or having to live while you're writing).
RS: What has your family taught you?
JA: My mother taught me to cook. I'm a really excellent cook. My parents taught me to never take out a debt you cannot pay quickly. Always spend less than you make and try to save every dollar you can because you never know when you're going to need it. They also taught me to travel - it's greater to see the world than to own it.
RS: How have you sacrificed things?
JA: If you want to travel, number one, be ready to sacrifice everything about your material existence while you're living at home, even with your parents if possible. Get that extra job, sell your car, don't buy a new phone.
RS: What about clothes?
JA: When I think about the clothes I'm wearing, most of my clothes are from China. I've stopped buying clothes all together because of that but moving forward I'm absolutely clueless. How am I gonna be the change I want to see in the world? When I was saving for this trip, over a year and a half, I only bought three pieces of clothing: a pair of yoga shirts, a pair of pants for my new job, and a shirt for my new job. You can easily waste about 80 dollars a week shopping. A lot of people do.
RS: Any other advice for the North Americans?
JA: Choose to go away for more than a month. Six months to a year - the best bang for your buck. Go to South America, go to Asia. Europe is great but you're going to go broke. Don't imagine you're going to spend six months travelling around Western Europe. You can survive in Guatemala for less than 1000 CAD per month. It's so beautiful there, the people are amazing, and you can really find that simple life everyone is talking about. Pick a fresh avocado off the tree for that toast.
RS: When was the last time you were frustrated on this trip?
JA: Missing the bus to the opera. I allowed so much animosity to grow between me and friends. Then I said, Justin, you're just mad at yourself. You've been on this trip for weeks and weeks and weeks… you're gonna be late sometimes. It was an hour and a half interpretative dance and every fifteen minutes or so a woman would come out and sing a song in German.
RS: What city, though?
JA: Lisbon. It only cost five euros!
RS: What are your favourite places?
JA: No matter where I go in the world, my favourite places to occupy are public libraries and the metro. I love the city and I love nature, I just hate everything in between. I hate the suburbs. Seeing Machu Picchu was one of the highlights of my trip, being up there in the Andes mountains, looking out at it all. I haven't had a phone since Peru. I have a tablet, but after a day or two, I figure out the transit system.
RS: And Mexico city metro is your favourite?
JA: Mexico City metro is the cheapest metro I've ever ridden. super efficient. Occupying public transit and giving up Uber is the best thing you'll ever do.
RS: Let's talk about the gig economy.
JA: In theory, the gig economy is kinda nice - people can just make extra money on a simpler basis but what I hate about it is that it prevents unionization, it prevents proper contracts. Real contractors have bargaining power; in the gig economy, these contractors have no bargaining power because all they're selling is a job that "anyone can do," so they have no abilities to negotiate. It keeps people separated. When you're working a full time job even if it's a quote unquote low-skill job, you see people every day, you have community. The gig economy has no room for a community.
RS: Where do you find community?
JA: Even though I had a bit of religious trauma in my life, I do think churches have something special in the way they take care of each other. I find community at a good music show, at a rave. I find community on the internet dating app Grindr. I do find community in all kinds of places for sure!
RS: Your favourite concert?
JA: Alexisonfire in Toronto. My shoes got ripped apart that night. It was a wild show. If I listened to their album now, I probably wouldn't like it, but in that moment, there was so much… The fans there, they knew it was everything. And the band was giving everything. The security guards just kept pouring water on everyone. The whole night, you had ten of these burly guys giving water to everyone coming up to the stage. Crowdsurfing was this really amazing experience.
RS: How do you use Grindr?
JA: I've met a lot of amazing guys who have become longtime friends. I met two guys in Portugal on Grindr, we went out for a drink, and, when I came to Paris, we went out to dinner together. And when i come back to Paris, we'll probably stay together. I do find that, even though the gay community can be an unforgiving place if you're not beautiful and young, there still are a lot of amazing people. You can forge friendship! I don't even have sex with most of the people I meet on Grindr.
RS: Who are your friends?
JA: I do prefer women and gay people. My friend Corey, for example, whom I've been travelling with, we've been friends for 12 years. We actually met in grade 7 when my whole world rejected me because they figured out i was gay a decade before i did. Even though I was a social outcast. I like to be with people who reach out, the people who aren't scared to help that crying girl in the bathroom.
RS: You like people who cross the threshold.
JA: I always write, be bold before you're too old. Because when you're young you have the chance to create this amazing person who can be there for people. i don't like people who think they have it together all the time and think that the sun shines out of their ass. I like people who know their flaws and love themselves despite it. We are imperfect as humans — we decay, we die, we lie, we steal, we cheat. I like people who accept that, still love themselves, and still try to be better.
RS: You said the scariest thing you've ever done was coming out?
JA: The month I realized I was gay and subsequently decided to come out... I was so fearful letting those words slip out of my mouth, I was so anxious. I always say it was like falling backwards and I was just spinning out of control but the minute that those words came out, it was instant peace, instant satisfaction. I was coming out twice a day every day for four or five months. Overall, the responses were so positive.
RS: What do you do when people don't like you?
JA: Sometimes I agonize over it; really, I do. Other times I couldn't care less. It just depends how insecure I feel that day.
RS: Tell me about your summer camp work experience.
JA: I worked with the most vulnerable children. I got to hold a lot of babies. Something about holding babies and working with children... Every time I see any person, I can imagine them as that sweet little helpless baby. That's kinda who we are as humans. Even as adults. When I see a person, in the street, I think that person was a baby. That person had a mother. And now they're there without any support. And that really breaks my heart because I couldn't imagine any of the babies I've held (which were all from relatively wealthy families, mind you) being on the street.
RS: How did you become aware of the true nature of capitalism?
JA: Capitalism has affected me because my family is pretty wealthy. All of my material needs have been met for the rest of my life. I always thought capitalism was freedom when it is in many ways slavery. When I went to university, I thought of capitalism in the context of the world; I realized how unjust it was! I definitely allow myself to suffer often thinking about it. Feeling really powerless to change. But that's when I turn to history to remember everything changes.
RS: What did your labour justice courses teach you?
JA: We'll talk about workers like they don't deserve anything. They're just "lucky to have a job." And that is the mentality I hate. North Americans go, me, I deserve that certain wage. But they, they are just lucky to have a job. We're all standing on someone else's shoulders and it's really hard to get down.
RS: The labour struggle we're seeing is very old.
JA: We've made some really interesting changes in the past 600 years of human employed history. You went from feudalism where literally everyone was owned by the nobility to the industrial revolution where a lot of people found wage labour to be worse than feudalism. Then you see the turn of the century, you see modernity. We could in fact be going somewhere new. Feudalism ended so capitalism could begin and capitalism has been raging pretty hard for, depending on how long you look at it, 400 years. Periodization is a hard thing in history.
RS: Maybe a new world order is on its way.
JA: Part of me is excited and part of me's scared as hell.
RS: Favourite philosopher(s)?
JA: Cliché - Plato.
RS: You're leaving me with a copy of Materialist Ethics and Life-Value by Jeff Noonan. Thank you for that.
JA: I really liked a lot of the stuff Dr. Noonan made us read that he wrote. I never properly read Foucault but I've read all about his life and excerpts of his work and he's one of my favourites. With Plato, I learned that "What is a just society?" is the ultimate question. Relationships, the organization of society, the economy. Justice is connected to everything.
RS: Are you going into the legal profession?
JA: I think about it all the time. Right now I just want to write, do yoga, maybe become a dancer? Move to Europe to work for a year and find a year to really finish this book and then take the next step.
RS: Favourite moment in University?
JA: My favourite moment was when I got my first midterm back in my first semester of university. I was nervous because I was always a poor student in high school. "What if university is like high school all over again and I barely make it through?" And on my first midterm, I got an A minus.
My teachers told me, "You know, Justin, maybe you shouldn't go to university. You're not that strong of a writer. If you want to do it, you can do it, we believe you can, but if you don't really want it, don't go." And those words really echoed: "If you don't want it bad enough, it's a mistake." They kind of left the door halfway open for me. "Don't just slide through, you have to be strong."
Getting that first A minus on the midterm was a breakthrough for me and I realized I could do it. Highlight number two was when Dr. Pender told me in graduate school, "You sure as hell can write."
RS: So you went to UWindsor but you grew up in Lasalle.
JA: Lasalle is a really beautiful town. It has the most forested area out of any area in Essex County, with the exception of Point Pelee National Park. They did put a bus stop in front of my house recently, and I was just like, "God are you real? Is there a bus stop in front of my house? I couldn't believe my eyes."
RS: Hahaha I love that. Driving is a chore.
JA: I like to imagine a world where there are no cars all the time. We're in Paris, we've been on the metro six times already. You've got a few minute ride? Write a few paragraphs.
RS: I like your watch, by the way.
JA: Thanks, I got it in Budapest. The dates don't work but the time does.
RS: How do you feel about the results of the Ontario election?
JA: I didn't have a lot of faith in young people getting out to vote. I could see that those fifty years and older decided the election. Even though millennials are the largest cohort, we did not exercise our right to vote. I find it upsetting that I was unable to vote due to a mishap with my absentee ballot.
RS: The absentee voting process could be improved.
JA: I should have applied earlier.
RS: I mean, me too, but there should be a way we could vote online or something.
JA: The truth is, Doug Ford is not going to affect me. I have no debts and enough money to reasonably live without working for another 6-8 months. I just feel really bad for all the folks who rely on social services. I don't have to go back to Canada. I have an advanced graduate degree. The folks who live on the margins, they're going to be devastated. It really sucks that they're going to have a harder time.
RS: I agree. Don't get me started on how much I can't stand Doug Ford. Any final philosophical comments?
JA: Philosophy taught me that everyone has something to say and it's up to you to decide what's valid. There's a thousand ways to think about the world but at the end of the day we're all thinking about it. We're always gonna be asking the same questions. There's no method to finding truth. You can only grasp that truth through art forms. That's what art is about. Trying to express some kind of truth.
RS: Existential dread is a part of living and art is just a way of trying to understand.
JA: You're never going to understand but there is this beauty in trying. You can never end understand everything and that's okay - it's about the journey, not the destination.
RS: Every day is a holiday.
JA: Every day is a holiday. There are no destinations. There's only the journey. There's stops along the way but no destination besides death.
RS: Perfect place to end this interview!
JA: One thing we have in common is that we believe in the extraordinary. We're in Paris. To morbidity!
We clink our glasses together.