I always need to remind myself that my opinion is often worthless to others. Or at least my enthusiasms are. You learn this firsthand with visitors.
I’ve only had a couple of visits from New York friends in the years since I’ve lived for months at a time in Paris. Recently, three good friends spent a week at a hotel near me, and I was reminded repeatedly how separately we each experience a place – or, more important, how we want to experience it. I realized too that, since I’m no longer a visitor to Paris but a resident, albeit a recurring temporary one, my priorities are not the same as those of people who are here to relax. What we each want out of a place differs too.
These friends already know Paris well. But it was the first time the three of them were all here at the same time as me. They could see where I live, and they could meet a few of my French friends. I had hoped to show them a bit of “my” Paris, which I did – but I was also reminded that for the most part my Paris is only interesting to me.
Still, seeing where I live helped my New York friends place me, and meeting a few of my Parisian friends at their home for dinner gave them a sense of my social circle here. I thought it would be nice if they saw this apartment (it’s not my apartment – it belongs to my friends Bob and Loraine, who are generous in loaning me their place in Paris), and that they spend a few hours with some of the people I’ve befriended here. But I also questioned myself about what I wanted to get out of my friends seeing where I live and whom I know. Was it as worth it to them as it was to me? In a way, I was trying to control my own narrative for them, as if I had any power over their interpretations of my life here.
This is natural, of course. We want to share what has impressed us with others. But we can’t do more than that. No one can have the same sensation as someone else. And at some point we have to let go of our wishes for what others should do or see. At least, we can’t be too insistent about wishing that others see something that belongs to us as a particular memory of place, that they have the same feelings as we did on first encountering a neighborhood, on recognizing a shaft of sunlight at a certain time of day on a certain street. I also became aware that I could only suggest so much to my friends before my enthusiasm turned irritating.
My friends were staying by the Parc Monceau in my neighborhood. I urged them more than once to see the park, since it means something to me. But a recommendation is okay, as long as it’s not repeated. Then it becomes harassment. I probably asked my friends one too many times about visiting the Park Monceau, because even by the end of the second day of their stay, after wondering aloud once again if they’d set foot in the park, one of my friends said, with mock annoyance, “What is it about this park you keep going on about?” And I knew I should have simply let them do whatever they wanted, without my calling attention to their not doing what I had suggested. No one wants to be hassled by an overenthusiastic semi-local about what must or must not be done or seen. At the same time, little is as isolating as realizing that your opinion on something you hold dear carries absolutely no weight with someone else. This is one of those necessary, continuing lessons in humility: Just as you have no control of the results after taking an action, you have no say in whether anyone pays attention to what you think.
Still, we eventually walked through the park together, and they themselves later explored it on their own. Which, I saw, was rather the point: most of us want to discover places for ourselves. In that way, we make them ours. And so they made the park theirs, in a way that was different than mine.
As much as my friends’ visit to Paris was an opportunity to see me while they were traveling, since I spend so much time here, it was much more an opportunity for them to experience the Paris that they wanted to see. I felt once or twice somewhat out of sync with these friends I’ve known for so long and so well in New York. Here in Paris, I was the local, and they were the visitors, and our roles were not the same as back home. They were on vacation, and I was working. And their perspectives on Paris were, in a way, closed off from me. With them as visitors, I was not part of the group in the way I might be in New York, where we’re all locals.
And yet at the same time I was indeed welcomed to share in their tourist experience. They were extraordinarily generous with me, arranging for me to accompany them on museum visits and inviting me to join them as their guest for dinner. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the sense – and I know this is a false impression – that I was something of an encumbrance to their fuller enjoyment of the city, that I needed to be included because I was there, like a relative you feel obliged to call upon. This reflects more my own sense of dislocation than anything else, since I am oversensitive to nuances I perceive to create barriers between me and other people. It’s my own self-belittling myopia.
It also reflects my growing awareness of the limitations of influence, which is a good thing. To share “my” Paris isn’t actually to share as much as to demand that someone feel about it exactly as I do. My friends didn’t come to Paris to share my Paris with me – but to share their experiences of Paris with me at the same time as me. We had our own Paris together. It was those moments together that counted for us all. I was honored that they wanted to be here when I was here, and I was saddened when they left. I had almost overlooked the joy of discovering aspects of Paris together with people I care deeply about, for all my naive anxiety about whether they would experience something exactly as I had.