Benoît didn’t know quite what to make of me.
I met him and his wife at their home in Colombes, a chic suburb of Paris. My friends Benjamin and Michele had invited me to join them there for lunch.
“You don’t drink at all?” Benoît asked me, with mild surprise, when Michele told him that the two of us would only take water. “No,” I said.
“Not even wine?” I’d heard this question before in France – for many French, wine isn’t alcohol, it’s food. “Not even wine,” I said, leaving it at that.
As we settled around the table of their lovely garden for before-lunch snacks (radishes, cashews), Benoît poured glasses of Lillet, the wine-based apéritif, for the other guests, and asked me if I’d like to try some. I declined. He asked me again, as if he hadn’t heard me five minutes earlier, “You don’t drink? At all?”
“Not for a while,” I said.
“For your health?”
“I drank too much and I stopped,” I said, polite but firm. “End of story.” I hoped that this wasn’t going to become an issue. Then I realized that Benoît wasn’t interested in my past as such, but was intrigued by what he saw as my obstinate abstinence. I wondered how much he got around.
Over lunch (a mixed grill of shrimp, sardines, salmon, with a side of tabbouleh), he asked me what I did for a living. I said that while I had worked for years as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, I now mainly worked as a ghostwriter for entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
He asked, “You write on the economy?”
I explained that in the U.S., there’s a big market for business books that explain certain methods for success. They’re not books on the economy as much as business-inspirational ones that provide steps for showing people how to become more successful.
Benoît asked, “Did you have training to write on the economy?”
I repeated that I didn’t write on the economy, but on personal growth and business (among other things), and that when I was a reporter I mainly wrote on the arts. But also that my training had given me tools to help shape the stories that these businesspeople wanted to tell.
“That’s a funny kind of profession,” he said, not quite comprehending what I had been saying.
I fell back by saying something that usually ends arguments for the uncomprehending: “It’s an American thing,” I said.
At one point before this, I had quietly asked my friend Benjamin what Benoît did for a living. He told me that, in fact, Benoît had decided to quit working, that he hadn’t worked in an office (or actually earned money) for something like 15 years and that he was now, effectively, retired. Benoît , who was somewhere between 55 and 60 years old, oversaw the household (one daughter remained at home, while the two others were grown and lived in Paris). His wife was the principal, in fact, the only, breadwinner.
This explained a certain aimlessness that I sensed in Benoît , though my friend Benjamin told me that it had been a choice of Benoît’s to live, in Benjamin’s words, on the margins of society. Which is not really marginal if your spouse earns enough to keep the family in clover, as it were. Some people are able to retire from the workaday world, if they have the means of someone else’s work to enable their philosophical inquiries and a life of contemplation, or however they choose to occupy their time while someone else does the heavy lifting. Benoît seemed happy enough, I suppose, but I also sensed in him a certain indeterminate restlessness.
I was reminded of Montaigne’s well-known and always-pertinent observation, “La plus grande chose du monde c’est de savoir être à soi,” the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself. That is, to own who you are and what you are. I couldn’t speak for him, of course, but I don’t believe that Benoît yet belonged to himself. That didn’t stop him from deciding how others should seem to be, according to his way of thinking, or according to my interpretation of his way of thinking through my interaction with him.
What also struck me was how little Benoît seemed actually to understand what I was saying when we chatted (I wouldn’t call it a conversation, since his engagement in the moment was tenuous – he was doubtless reflecting on a better world somewhere without me in view). Benoît posed polite questions, but didn’t really expect an answer of any substance from me, and I found myself stopping short of providing him the kinds of answers I myself would have liked to hear from others. I had the feeling that he wasn’t interested in finding out about me as much as he was puzzled by how I didn’t seem to align with whatever idea he had of what kind of person an American like me would be, living in Paris, speaking French, working on his own and, most important, not drinking. I probably didn’t conform to whatever he had expected, if he’d even had any idea of that beforehand.
I myself had no expectations of him or his wife, and during my sunny afternoon chez eux in this comfortable suburb, other than to have a pleasant time and enjoy a barbecue à la française. I tried to figure out Benoît’s point of view not only regarding me but things in general. To cite Montaigne again (and why not, since he’s wiser than anyone): “I am as ready as you please to acquit another man from sharing my conditions and principles. I consider him simply in himself, without relation to others.”
I do my best to consider people for themselves rather than in relation to others. But I do tend make generalizations, as many of us do, about where I am, whom I meet, the nature of the French, or of Americans, or of Parisians, or of New Yorkers. At the same time I try to move beyond the uninformed vague to the slightly more informed specific, to check myself for my own cultural bias, which is undoubtedly hard to escape. I cannot see through the eyes of someone from another culture, although now, knowing French, I have more of an idea of how you can view the world through a Francophone lens. Still, I am aware of the considerable limits of my comprehension regarding other people, places and customs, and I cannot assume anything about them without finding myself wide of the mark.
The thing is, I want to try to understand, or to comprehend someone else by being mindful of my own presuppositions and looking for a clearer picture of another person, if that’s even possible. I certainly didn’t expect to befriend my lunchtime hosts. But because I was seated next to Benoît, I wanted to go beyond my initial and certainly imperfect impressions and establish a connection. In speaking with Benoît, I found him to be friendly, quiet, solicitous and just a little distracted, slightly out of sync with what was going on around him.
I recently met someone else who had also retired to the “margins of society,” someone who lived, in the words of my friend Jean, as a rentier, on the income from the rental apartments he had inherited from his late parents. He lived simply, but he didn’t actually do anything (although it’s safe to say that many people in so-called regular jobs don’t actually do anything either). Over dinner, this rentier, Guillaume, asked me my advice for how to go about writing a novel. I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. For one thing, writing is more a need to express yourself than a passing fancy or something to occupy your time. For another, it actually takes commitment, which didn’t seem to me to be something that Guillaume was, well, committed to doing.
But that wasn’t for me to say. I told him you could acquire tools to help you figure out what you needed to do to polish a novel, but you had to devote yourself to it, learn from experience and forge ahead. At that he shrugged in a particular gallic way, implying either that it wasn’t worth pursuing or that if he decided that this wasn’t going to be too taxing he’d at least try it. In either event, I inferred, it was something that he wanted to explore.
Because I have the good fortune to earn an income as a writer who can live between New York and Paris, and who isn’t tied down by having to show up at an office (though I show up at my desk every day), I was intrigued at meeting two people who, each in his own fashion, found a way to disengage from the world. I don’t want to live on the margins of society, relatively speaking, but to be part of it, as much as anyone really can escape the carapace of his own perception. And I know that I need to guard against falling into aimlessness. If we don’t have structure in our lives, we need to create it. I don’t want to marginalize myself, no matter where I live.