In France, people don’t ask you what you do for a living. At least not right away. And if they inquire, it’s often in the form a half-apologetic question, along the lines of, “If you don’t mind my asking…” But the timing has to be right, and you can’t be too pushy about it.
Here, what you do can seem to be less important than who you are. At least for that moment. At least in conversation. At least for polite chitchat with someone you’ve just met. This is either a way to avoid probing too deeply into one’s private life, or to ensure that things remain on the surface if you’re only going to spend a few minutes in someone’s company. Or perhaps the French don’t necessarily define themselves or others by their jobs – but by their manner.
Employment is essential, of course. It’s just not discussed under most circumstances. I have a general sense of what my French friends do, but beyond that I’ve learned not to inquire into the details of their work. What you do is important for yourself. Less so for others, unless it has a direct impact on their lives.
But even in France, I’ve come to see that certain people want to make sure you know who they are, or who they want you to believe they are. I visited my friend Philippe the other day, at his maison de repos, or convalescent home, in Sceaux, just outside of Paris, where he’s spending time in between debilitating treatments for a serious illness.
He generally eats at the restaurant where the residents take their meals. He told me that earlier in the week one of the servers informed his table, “Je ne suis pas le serveur, je suis un aide-soignant.” The man wanted to make it very clear that while he might be filling in at the restaurant during the summer vacation period, he was actually a nurse’s aid.
One of Philippe’s table mates, a woman with advanced cancer who is far beyond the point of suffering fools, told him, “Je sais très bien qui vous êtes.” At which point the reluctant server and proud aide-soignant became solicitous of her. But only of her. Only of the person who called him out on his pretensions, which appeared especially ridiculous in a place where everyone the man was serving had already become equal thanks to the irrefutable awareness of numbing pain and numbered days.
The residents of this maison de repos know who everyone is. Their current reality has given them an uncompromising clarity. They’ve been taken out of the environment that properly belongs to them – their homes, their family, their work – and been granted a greater acuity of mind in a strange new place. Although the residents were aware that the aide-soignant was doing someone else’s job, and that he wanted to let them know it, he was simply doing what we all do: seeking to matter in the eyes of others. We position ourselves to avoid being thought insignificant. We fear admitting that we are indeed insignificant, but self-preservation (or lingering hope) makes us convince ourselves otherwise.
Philippe recounted this incident with a soft wonder at the maneuvering that people do to assure even the sick and suffering of their place in the order of things. Philippe is that rare man who knows and accepts who he is, and he doesn’t feel the need to make sure that others know it too.
Part of his job with the government – I do know a bit of what he actually does for a living – involves rendering the dense bureaucratic language of official documents into readable, understandable, non-bureaucratic French. He is practiced at seeing beyond obfuscation and turning verbal mush into something that’s closer to what’s trying to be said. Basically, Philippe’s job is to translate bullshit. And he knows it when he sees it.
And yet bullshit is what many people want, or at least what they expect. Philippe told me that the staff at the rest home are surprised that he doesn’t conform to their experience of other rest-home residents. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t become frantic when discussing his treatment options. He doesn’t let on whether he’s miserable. He doesn’t appear to be hopeless about his still-uncertain future.
“I think they’d prefer it if I showed self-pity,” Philippe told me. But he isn’t that kind of man. His sense of himself, which shows in his calm demeanor, confuses people who expect maudlin drama rather than stoic resolve. And self-possession can also throw people off balance, since so many of us are weighing options about believing our own lies or only reluctantly admitting that we’re disappointed in who we’ve become.
One of the first things that struck me, when I began to spend time in France, was how at ease the French seemed to be in their own skin. I’ve come to know that this was a reflection of my own ignorance of how people in another culture carry themselves. I mistook carefree swagger for a show of confidence rather than for a mask of hidden fear. As I became more acquainted with the French, and with French comportment, I realized that most people, whether in Paris or New York, struggle with who they are. Maybe my toggling between two big cities has allowed me to recognize in others my own failure at self-acceptance.
And yet I’m grateful that in France I don’t carry with me the baggage of my uninspiring employment history. People I’ve met and befriended in France know that I earn a living as a writer. They don’t care that I’m a writer who is, to put it mildly, unknown. For the French, being a writer is honorable in itself, regardless of acclaim, or lack of it. For the same reason, it doesn’t really matter to them that I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, since what’s considered to be prestigious in the U.S. doesn’t usually count for much in another culture.
This imposed humility is refreshing. There’s no need to say I used to be someone (which would be untrue, anyway), when that someone is no one for most of the world. When you’re taken out of context, you can’t rely on value by association. You’re on your own.
Still, people are people, and we want to be recognized for what we do, at some level. And like that aide-soignant, we categorize ourselves and others. We create a hierarchy of placements. And as someone who has, in a sense, displaced himself, I have several categorizations that allow people in France to place me without having to dig too deeply: being American, being a New Yorker, being a writer and, perhaps most pertinent here, being someone who loves France and has learned French. That carries far more weight than being known as a man who used to be a minor reporter at a major newspaper. I’m glad of that. I don’t have to worry that I don’t measure up.
I learned long ago that I wasn’t my job, however. It mattered to me at one time that I had become a reporter at a respected newspaper, but then it began to matter less. I hadn’t grown blasé, but I had grown more aware of the limitations of job-defining self-worth. In fact, becoming a reporter convinced me that I was something of a fraud after finally obtaining a job I’d sought but at which I learned I was nothing more than ordinary. Years later as I contemplated taking a buyout, when the situation for reporters at the Journal had become tenuous for the umpteenth time, I wondered whether I was actually as worthless as the position seemed to have become, and also whether I had wasted a part of myself in letting an institution determine my value. I also wonder now whether, in a way, I had sought the validation of being recognized for a title that really didn’t mean much in the end, just as the aide-soignant at the maison de repos had wanted to be acknowledged. I had, in fact, wanted that very same thing. And then I learned that what I had wanted didn’t matter, because its merit depended on something I couldn’t control: someone else’s opinion or personality or business plan.
In any event, whatever I used to be isn’t that relevant in France. This hasn’t stopped me from continuing to examine how I can define myself, to myself. I still don’t know. And I wonder sometimes if self-acceptance depends on your definition of who you are, or even if it’s just another form of delusion.
Not everyone is like that, of course. Philippe, for instance. He has a way of seeming solid despite everything that has befallen him in the past year. I only saw his stoicism slip twice, and only recently. Once was when he recalled, suddenly tearing up – entirely surprised by the effect this was having on him – that many of the people with whom he works told him, when they learned he was taking a medical leave, how essential he was to them, not simply as a co-worker, but as a man of honor and compassion who enriched their lives. This in a country of civil servants who, for the most part, spend their entire careers looking ahead to retirement. For all of his modesty and his offhand insights into self-perpetuating human folly, Philippe underestimates the effect he has on people around him. We all do that, though for most of us this is manifest in our remaining unaware of how foolish we are. But Philippe doesn’t comprehend how cherished he is.
The other time his stoicism slipped was near the end of our lunch last week. He was growing tired, which happens these days. Then, for a few seconds a void appeared in his eyes. He gazed toward something unfathomable: perhaps the cruel reality of the coming days that would involve the unavoidable suffering of aggressive treatment. No one wants that. Philippe didn’t shy from it, but even as he was ready to confront it, his spirit seemed to sink. Not for long, though. “Allez,” he said, refocusing. “On rentre,” and we headed back to his room.
He doesn’t know when he’ll return to work, but that’s irrelevant for now. Philippe doesn’t need to define himself at this point by what he does. Not that he ever really did. Anyway, he’s already proved who he is.