Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, is sometimes said to have created the concept of the self-made man. In his Autobiography, he describes his way from a poor, unknown son of a candle-maker to a very successful business man and highly acknowledged member of American society.
Mr. Franklin once wrote: “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.”
Ten years ago I had the good fortune to meet one of those that move. This is the story.
The first time I visited Paris was in 2004. I had been granted a scholarship to spend a year in France studying law under the auspices of the Erasmus Programme. So I packed my bags and took a flight to Charles de Gaulle airport in early September. It was hot and humid that day. I arrived sweating and dragging my old twenty-kilo suitcase to the five-square meter room in the student hall “Les Chênes d’Or”.
The University was located in Cergy-Pontoise, twenty kilometers away from Paris. It was one of a handful of institutions founded in the 1970s in the outskirts of France’s capital. Some say to bring college education closer to the newly established immigrant communities. Others say as a prophylactic measure after the May 1968 events.
The city of Cergy grew from a tiny fluvial port to merge with the historical town of Pontoise during the same period. The 70s functional architecture had not aged very well and the whole downtown area had somewhat of a deprived feeling, its labyrinthine walking pathways spread over avenues with empty sidewalks.
At dusk, groups of teenagers hanged out in public parks, listening to hip-hop and raï. Life seemed tough for these youngsters; it was difficult to get a good job coming from Cergy.
A Star is born
I met Miguel Ferrer a couple of days after my arrival. Our first encounter is still vivid in my memory: a tall, high-spirited young man coming down the hallway “¿Qué pasa chico?” he said, with a cheerful smile on his face.
Miguel was born in 1978 in Callosa del Segura, a small town in the southeasternmost point of Spain. He had gone through pains in his life. His mother passed away when he was a teenager and he had since been struggling with work and studies. But all this I knew much later.
At the time we were enjoying our newfound freedom. The Erasmus study abroad experience was a fresh start for most of us. We left behind our dull routines to experiment with life. Some of the experiences were good, some less so, but all of them were useful. They provided a colorful scenario for our coming of age and Cergy soon became our playground.
Miguel made a big name among the student community in a snapshot. He used to take any newcomer under his wing, offering shelter, food, guidance and a good laugh. He threw improvised parties where anyone could show up uninvited – he would get mad when we knocked at his door, simply saying “Why the hell do you knock? Come straight in!” –
He cheered and greeted everyone; he made as many friends among the exchange students as among the locals. At one point he was even elected representative of the student body in the residence.
He was charismatic, he was generous, he was talkative and fun and a little crazy too.
Miguel was a star.
During that year, students from over twenty nationalities gathered together at school. Most of us keep fond memories of that time, when we were young and innocent and full of life. Nevertheless, it was just a gap year; we all went back to our ordinary lives the moment we stepped out of the return flight. That is, all but Miguel.
I have never quite understood what brought Miguel to stay in France after our academic period was over. Maybe he was hiding from painful memories, or maybe he had something to prove to himself. In either case, the path he chose was certainly not the easiest.
He found a job replacing a waiter in a pizza chain restaurant in Paris. Working conditions were tough, and commuting two hours a day didn’t help. With rudimentary French and robust discipline, he kept the job and progressed in the difficult and ingrate milieu of the Parisian hospitality industry.
Famously, he would wander around in Paris at night between late evening and early morning shifts, not sleeping at all, just to make sure that he would make it on time to work. He was large on dedication and short on complaints, and so he got more than his share of cover-ups and extra work when colleagues did not show up.
More than a year had passed when I heard back from Miguel through a mutual friend. He had changed homes three or four times. “One day” he said “I showed up in his latest known address.” “I found Miguel in wretched conditions, weakened and sick with high fever. I told him we should go and see a doctor”
Miguel was diagnosed with “purpura”, an autoimmune condition likely triggered by high levels of stress.
He had kept working through pain, hiding his condition, refusing any help.
After having taken his body and spirit to the limit, Miguel stepped back. He flew to his hometown in Spain, where the milder climate and better living conditions helped him fully recover from illness.
He had won the fight. He had proved his worth. Now it was time to settle down, wasn’t it?
Just one year later, Miguel announced that he was flying back to Paris. And so everyone thought he had lost his mind.
After all, why did he reject a comfortable life under the Mediterranean sun? Why was he willing to risk everything for an uncertain outcome? Why was he different from the rest of us?
The truth is that he was a mirror that reflected back our own deformed images. Because he was brave, we were cowards, because he was pure, we were unworthy, because he was generous and kind, we were mean.
Miguel went back to the same pizza restaurant where it had all begun in 2004, only he was a smarter and hardened person this time. He progressively polished his French, improved his skills and developed his network.
Miguel knew instinctively that the world is full of opportunities and that when you embrace human experience with open arms, sooner or later it will embrace back.
In times of economic crisis, corrupt politics and unprecedented inequalities, many of us are afraid of the future. This may lead us to give up our dreams, or worse, to hand them over to populist leaders, rejecting all that is different and new.
Every time I feel such temptation, I think of our times in Cergy, when we were fresh and poor and happy. I think of those evenings in our five-square meter rooms, nationalists and socialists, blacks and whites piled up in front of a computer watching a movie or a soccer game.
I think of Miguel and how he gave a helping hand to all, expecting nothing in return.
The next time I met Miguel was in 2010. I had just moved to Paris in search of a new life, and as usual he was the angel on my shoulder. He offered shelter and advice, and most of all he believed in me through difficult times. I will be forever grateful to him.
Today Miguel has climbed up the ladder and has become the team supervisor for catering at a top-end restaurant multinational headquartered in Paris. He is highly regarded in his job and life smiles at him.
He has met his soul mate in Mathilde, a young economist from Western France who is, like him, an immigrant to Paris. They are the perfect couple; she brings realism and practicality to quixotic Miguel, without ever compromising his idealism and freedom of spirit.
After a few years living together, they bought a flat just outside of Paris and decided to tie the knot. I was one of the lucky attendants to the wedding, which took place in a magnificent Chateau south of Nantes. We drank and ate and sang and danced, in that order. It was a lot of fun.
After only two years of formal education, Benjamin Franklin went on to become a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, diplomat and one of the greatest figures in American and World History.
In his time, the Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the United States. New inventions quickly made men rich and famous, and factories sprung from the ground, seemingly overnight. For a young man who was willing to work hard and get ahead, the world seemed to offer innumerable opportunities.
Born in aging Europe, struggling through the worst economic crisis since 1929, Miguel did not have such luck. He nevertheless made the best of himself with the tools that life gave him. His life is a lesson of courage and dignity facing adversity, and I am sure that the future will bring him the recognition that he deserves.
For all this, Miguel Ferrer is at least as important to my own little private history as Benjamin Franklin is to United States history.