Owning Yourself in France

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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.

Ideas in Action in France

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A polling station in Saint-Lizier, in southwestern France.  (Photos by J. Lajournade.)

“I like the idea of it, though,” my friend Bertrand said not too long ago.

He was responding to my offhand observation that the Centre Pompidou was ugly. Its inside-out factory look, now looking tired and dirty, was probably quite the thing 40 years ago. Today, not so much. Sure the collection is great, but the building is hideous. That didn’t matter to my friend. What the building meant to him signified something beyond what the Centre Pompidou actually is to me, a culturally significant eyesore.

In France, the idea of the thing is as important as or more important than the thing itself.

Take voting. I know quite a few people who, after reflecting on the choice of candidates, decided in these recent legislative elections, to “voter blanc,” to vote white, or to cast a blank ballot. “I couldn’t support either of the candidates,” my friend Jean told me. “But I wanted to make sure that I exercised my right to vote.” So he inserted a blank sheet into the blue envelope when he cast his ballot. Neither candidate got his vote. But he expressed his lack of interest in those candidates, while showing support for the system, by choosing not to choose.

This attitude puzzles me. But for the French voting “blanc” isn’t throwing away a vote.  It’s an action that carries weight. Even if that weight isn’t felt by the choice of a representative, but in the non-choice of two.

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Considering that your opinion has a palpable heft is a French trait. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone generally believes that his or her opinion is worth hearing. This is evident even on nationally televised talk shows, where people do just that: talk. The people they’re talking to might not listen, but they’re at least given the floor to say what they want. Invited experts – I’ve come to recognize the usual suspects – discuss a topic of the day, from various angles, and at length. This can come across as a lot of navel-gazing – and a lot of it certainly is – but it’s also refreshing to see people actually try to grapple with a subject than to shout bullet points at each other.

This also means that talking can replace actually doing things. Or that you “do” things by expressing your idea of them, as if thinking replaces action. Voting blank is an action, certainly – an idea in action – but what happens when some idiot is elected instead of someone disagreeable but less awful? You’d think that the people who didn’t vote (abstention levels have been high in the recent legislative elections) or who voted blank to protest the uninspiring candidates, would hardly be in a position to complain once the idiot was in office, thanks to their non-vote. This wouldn’t stop them. Complaining is another national trait. It’s more important to prove a point than to prevent a dope from holding office. An idea that you hold is more powerful than a person holding office.

I admire the love of ideas in France, especially the expressing of them. People take opinions seriously. And yet, sharply differing opinions aren’t grounds for banishment from your social circle. They’re opportunities for heated talk. I used to step in and ask friends in Paris to calm down if their discussions grew too animated and, to my eyes, angry. “We’re just talking,” they would say, looking at me like indulgent parents. I grew up not saying much at the dinner table, for fear of engaging too much with my father in one of his “moods,” and so never really grew comfortable with the lively interchange of points of view over a meal. And certainly not the French version, which to American eyes appears vicious, when it’s actually just passionate.

I might disagree with my friend Bertrand about the architecture of the Centre Pompidou, but I’m not likely to argue with him over his opinion of a building I find ugly and he finds interesting (or at least the idea of it interesting). As a pacifist who grew up wanting to avoid personal conflict, I wasn’t practiced in the art of expressing ideas. Nor did I believe my opinions really amounted to anything, especially if they drew attention to me. The French are different from how I was raised: they own their thoughts, and they’re proud to share them. And when a Frenchman says he voted blank to express his opinion about the sub-par candidates running for local or national office, his action might not have prevented someone ill-qualified from being elected, or it might have led to someone monstrous holding power. But that isn’t the point. The point is his opinion, not their being elected. And his opinion carries more weight than their candidacy.

Avoiding the Obvious in Paris

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Another angle on the Louvre.

“So what does your typical Parisian day consist of?”

A cultured, soignée older woman asked me this at a wedding reception the other evening when she heard that I spend several months a year in Paris. “I live in Paris,” I said, “as I do in New York. Except that in Paris I work in English and live in French.” It’s the same but different. I do my work, I go about my day. And I try to be aware. I’ve grown accustomed to living there, but even as it’s familiar it’s still foreign. As it should be.

I don’t take for granted my acquaintance with the French language or culture, even though I now speak French pretty well, and today I know a lot more than I used to about French cultural references. But like a lot of people who plant themselves for months at a time in a city, I can sometimes take Paris itself for granted, if I let myself fall prey to the indifference of what becomes commonplace or even for thinking that the commonplace is without value. A reason for my living in Paris as well as New York is to undermine any over-familiarity I have with places. It’s easy to ignore what I have around me if that’s all I see or do, or if I’m too busy simply going through a routine to be aware that time moves on regardless of my nonchalance about the life I choose to ignore. We all need shaking up.

I don’t want to close myself off from experiences, not even from banalities such as shopping for food or taking a different route home from the bus stop. These are, in a way, more important than the postcard views you see and snap. Paris wouldn’t be Paris without its monuments. But neither would it be Paris for me without my noticing the angle of the waxing moon just as the clouds part over the pavilion at the entrance to the Parc Monceau. Or the ornate door knocker in the shape of a bear on a private residence on the little Rue Fortuny. Or the hopeful vendor at the entrance to the Courcelles metro station trying to make a few euros by selling end-of-day fruit, with his bananas and strawberries and occasional avocados aligned on an overturned carton. Or the apéros of radishes and grape tomatoes before a slightly unorganized dinner at my friend Philippe’s. Or the folded morning newspapers atop the comptoir quickly skimmed over a gulped café at the tiny restaurant across from the gym on the Rue Médéric. Or the oblivious hotel-school students at the end of my street chattering at rickety sidewalk tables under shimmering wreaths of cigarette smoke. These are as important to me as the celebrated sights and sounds, and inestimable in their fleeting sublimity or their stubborn ordinariness.

My staying in France isn’t to tick off boxes of things seen, but to make sense of things that are normal but different. I’m not quite sure how “making sense” translates into understanding or wisdom unless it’s to become aware of the textures of everyday life with an accent and to keep that awareness to myself. I don’t simply want to see, but to absorb, if that’s possible. I have a fear of making my life small. Perhaps noticing what’s around you is a way of expanding your vision, even within the confines of your daily goings and comings, no matter where you are. It’s not that I notice with the eye of a visual artist – I tend to half-see something and then turn it over in my mind and wonder what it was and why I noticed it. But I am also glad to know that I’ve “done” Paris in a way that most visitors do. But in returning again and again, and making Paris part of my everyday, I still want to be alive to the surprises that catch me in my peripheral vision. I don’t want to end up as someone who labors only to fill his memory and who leaves his understanding and his conscience empty, to paraphrase Montaigne.

Granted, most people visiting a city that thrives on tourism as Paris does don’t have the time to wander about looking for ways to appreciate anything beyond the unusual. Many people need the structure of organizing their hours to see what everyone else says they should see in order to arrive at a certain personal fulfillment in having done and looked at what’s expected of them when they travel. Or they need the comfort of returning to what they already saw, to reinforce an idea of what they had once loved long ago.

The woman seated next to me at that dinner had lived in Paris during a college year abroad at the Sorbonne, back in the 1950s. On the rare occasions when she visits Paris these days, she generally sticks to what she knows – the 5th arrondissement around the Sorbonne, or well-trafficked parts of Saint-German-des-Près in the 6th arrondissement. “I’m comfortable there,” she said. “It’s where I first stayed.” She has her Paris, and that’s what she wants when she’s there. She certainly doesn’t want my Paris.

I don’t blame her: for many Americans, that area of Paris is the Paris they want to know, or their particular spot is the one they first came upon. They cling to the memory of first encounters, except for those moments when they look for selfie ops at the foot of the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, or by the Eiffel Tower, or during a pause in traffic on the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe. That’s always going to be the case.

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My first encounter with Paris, when I began to spend more time here, was on a dingy street in the 14th arrondissement that held for me the glimmering poetry of an unattainable paradise. It was homely and unprepossessing, redolent of diesel fumes and stale tobacco, and it was nothing I had known before. It spoke to me as profoundly as if I’d witnessed the unearthing of an undiscovered Praxiteles rescued from the broken shards of time. I had become alive to the ordinary in a foreign land and it made life seem more real.

Not everything leads to a personal epiphany, but being open to a twitch of wonder because I take notice of something I hadn’t seen before allows me the humility of discovery. I’m happy to glance at the Venus de Milo or the Winged Victory when I’m at the Louvre, but because I don’t have to plan my day around marking off the hits of its collection, I have the freedom to wander, or to choose to seek the under-photographed, the galleries less taken, the objects that you pass by en route to something selfie-worthy. Or simply to chance upon something that makes you stop and consider, that gives an insignificant moment a purpose.

Who’s to say that how I look at the world of the Paris I have come to know is any better than how someone reacts to Paris who’s only seen it for a week or two? We most of us want to look beyond what we know (or at least many of us do), either because we want to know more than we already believe we know or we don’t know exactly what we know. France has shown me how much I don’t know, but that’s the point.

The Recollections of Paris

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“We wanted to create a store that reminded us of what you would find in New York,” the shop owner told me.

I had actually stepped into this little boutique on the Rue Boulard in the 14th arrondissement because it had seemed to me to be typically Parisian, with its artful disarray of bric-a-brac – glasses, vases, plates, old ashtrays, tarnished silverware. I didn’t recall ever seeing a Manhattan store window quite like this one, although I’m less observant than I probably should be. Or at least I’m slow to interpret what it is I do observe.

The recollection of place, or the evocation of a visit or voyage, is more important for the person who recollects or evokes than for the person who sees what’s evoked. You never really get what’s meant by what you see, or what others want you to see. It was enough for this boutique owner to think that she had created something that resembled what she’d seen in New York for it to be so for her. It certainly wasn’t for me to tell her otherwise – her impressions and memories weren’t mine. And of course I didn’t tell her that I had entered her store because I’d wanted to purchase a little something that would remind me of Paris.

So I picked up the dark green vase. It didn’t immediately say Paris, whatever that might have meant to me at the time. But I liked it. And since the boutique was in Paris, the street was in Paris, the neighborhood was in Paris, by default I made this vase a memory of Paris. And because I’d bought it when I’d first started spending a few months a year in Paris, it would remind me later in New York of what I’d initially had the courage to do: to live where I was not known.

I make myself at home in Paris, while New York is my actual home. I never feel that I really belong anywhere I find myself, so I return as much as I can to France. Being from somewhere else there suits me, as it has suited countless others before me. Perhaps I feel at home in Paris since, as a foreigner, not fitting in fits me, even in a city that has now become familiar. Of course, when I first decided to live for part of the year in France, I had wanted to expand my horizons and learn another language and to steep myself in a culture I had longed to comprehend. But I had probably also wanted to start again.

So I live in another place to see what’s possible, or to tell myself that my life still has possibilities. And to erase what has disappointed me in myself back home. We always ask ourselves that, of course – why haven’t we done enough? – probably even those of us who’ve achieved more than I could ever hope to. The trick is not to become entangled in that questioning of our purpose or of our worth, as much as I myself grapple with the twisted self recrimination of my considerable under-achievements. In any event, as Montaigne wrote, the life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own. An emperor’s or an ordinary man’s is still a life that’s subject to all human accidents. “Let us only listen,” he wrote. “We tell ourselves all we most need.”

Perhaps I want to listen to myself in another language, and hear what others evoke in their language of the places they see, because I don’t exactly know what I need or perhaps because I wish to ignore it. I now speak the language, but a lot still escapes me in French. I can thus misinterpret what I’m saying, or what others say, and forgive myself for not yet having understood, which is another way of saying that I am still always searching, even if I’m never getting what it is that I think I want. Even if I’ll never know what that is.

But what about New York did this boutique owner want to capture? I’ll never know, but it probably doesn’t matter. She probably couldn’t have explained it to herself, let alone to me.

When I stepped into her store that sunny afternoon in May several years ago, my French wasn’t really good enough to shape the question. I did have enough French at my shaky command to let her know that I was a New Yorker – this isn’t too difficult to say – and she’d brightened at that, as if I’d had about me something that’d she taken with her from her trip abroad, some sense of discovery.

Perhaps all it took was my mentioning where I came from to bring her back to when she had experienced something new and memorable there, even if I was nothing like her memory, but was simply someone who had been an un-encountered part of her New York experience – that great swell of people whom she sensed but didn’t meet – and who had entered her store to trigger in her that remembrance of place, of time, of herself at another point in life.

I had been an unremarkable customer off the street who, on speaking, had become a different kind of person to her, one who had brought with him another world, a world of promise. Even the most ordinary of us can sometimes elicit the memory of bliss in someone else.

A Sense of the Past in Paris

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Sacré-Cœur from the Renoir Garden at the Museum of Montmartre. 

My friend Olivier likes to collect English-language phrases or expressions, although his English is often rather approximate. A few weeks ago he asked me the term in English for someone with newly acquired wealth who’s a bit ostentatious about it. “Nouveau riche,” I said. “We use the French.” But, I added, we sometimes refer to a certain discreet family wealth as “old money.”

“It can’t be very old in America,” Olivier said. I told him that money was money, old or new, if it did what you needed it to do. But that didn’t matter to him. His attitude is like that of many French: it’s important to know the provenance of your life, and if your family has generations of history with which you’re familiar, then your life and perhaps even your money have more relative value.

Olivier’s attitude is similar to that of a not-inconsiderable number of French, in that he wants to trace his family far, far back into the past, and would love more than anything to prove a connection to Charlemagne or even Clovis, the first king of the Franks. Lineage still means something for many people here, even if that lineage can be irrelevant to how you conduct your life in the present. But in France, who you were counts a lot for who you are. A “de” affixed to a surname still connotes a noble family, which can add luster to your résumé, especially in a country that despite its vaunted “liberté, égalité, fraternité” still harbors a deep respect for those accidents of birth that provide social standing and an aristocratic stature, however faded.

Even Parisians from elsewhere – and many Parisians are from somewhere else – are proud to let you know what region of France defined them. If you’re foreign-born you’ll always be a foreigner, and your sense of your own place – that is, your sense of how where you were raised affected who you became – is of less importance to the French because you weren’t born in France. The French aren’t any more or less xenophobic than are people of most nations – but in France defining yourself by your past or your family’s past is also a way of excluding those whose past isn’t as well-documented as your own.

Still, as interesting as it is to know where you came from genealogically speaking, it’s also  fascinating to see how the places where you live arose. Often from the pasts of others. And like your birth, you have no control over that past, even if you’d like to embellish it to favor yourself.

I thought about this the other evening when a group of us were celebrating the birthday of our friend Raoul. Raoul has a beautiful apartment in Montmartre on the chic Avenue Junot (where quite a few artists, singers and movie folk have homes – in French terms, very new money). From his living room, you can see the Sacré-Cœur, and from his dining room, the Eiffel Tower. The apartment where he lives – and which he inherited from a cousin – is in a building that was constructed in the 1920s, which is virtually yesterday in French terms. Definitely not old money.

Our friend Annie-Claude organized a soirée culturelle at the Musée de Montmartre, a five-minute walk from chez Raoul. The museum is dedicated to the history and spirit of this part of Paris, and it has old posters, paintings, an artist’s workshop and even an example of a typical zinc bar of the pre-war era that had been saved from being melted down for armaments during World War II by being hidden in a basement. We wandered around the museum with a sense of wonder at what we didn’t know about the neighborhood where several of us present have actually lived for decades. Raoul and company, like many Parisians, had rarely visited this cultural center, taking for granted an acquaintance with their neighborhood from what friends and family passed along to them.

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La Butte Montmartre et l’emplacement de l’avenue Junot, by Alfred Renaudin.

We came across a painting of the construction of Avenue Junot, at the turn of the 20th century, La butte Montmartre et l’emplacement de l’avenue Junot, a 1910 work by Alfred Renaudin, a little-known local artist. Everyone hovered around the painting, as if to touch the past just out of reach, evidence of the present being up the road but remnants of the past here before us in oil. The apartment building where Annie-Claude lives, just down the block from Raoul, was clearly visible on the upper left of the canvas. Raoul’s apartment was absent – it wouldn’t be built for another fifteen years or so. The region had been home to farmland and vignobles, and Montmartre was for a long while a quartier in progress. The world changes around you, even if you think you give yourself a sense of solidity by sticking to a story of how ancient your family is or where you’re from. We all do this, of course – but this tends to be more codified in France, since history is woven into lineage.

Still, it’s good to be reminded that things weren’t always there, regardless of how far back you believe your family line stretches. Someone is always new somewhere, even if someone else can still claim superiority because of supposed connections. Because we want to matter in the present, and because most of us struggle to be relevant even to ourselves, we look for ways to assert our worth and create histories to back that up. So we give credit to a past we don’t really know, we take pride in relatives we will never meet, we savor qualities we ascribe to those known unknowns. We’re all descendants of someone, and most of those someones are forgotten. Still, believing in those forebears is interesting if ultimately, irrelevant, unless you think that you are somehow better than those around you because you affixed a name to an abstraction from another age.

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An artist’s atelier at the Museum of Montmartre. 

I was thrilled to see that painting of an era just before my friend’s apartment was built, to consider a contemporary view of a dissolved past. I had a real connection with that painting, because it represented a tangible act of capturing a moment in time. It’s a neighborhood I know, and an artist caught something of life, or at least of place, for people he would never meet. The painting made me think less of descendants and ancestors than of the changes that occur around us while we aren’t actually looking at what we have, or when we aren’t trying to fashion a history to prove to ourselves that we matter.

 

A French Political Rally

I don’t know much about French politics, but I’ve come to recognize French politicians.

And recent affairs on the political scene here in France are a welcome relief, for a little while at least, from the horrific political sideshow acts in the U.S.

France is in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and while you can see in its unfolding some American inspiration, for want of a better word, in the use of social media among French politicians and a lengthening of the campaign season – it’s nothing like the grueling torture of an American presidential election.

The stakes are high in France, as they were in the U.S., as voters worry about their financial future and their personal safety, as people are being asked to choose between openness and closed-mindedness, between welcome and xenophobia, between voting “for,” in the words of the Parti Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, and voting against – that is, voting for those who are anti-everything, such as the far-right Marine Le Pen. Between choosing hope or hate. Unfortunately, with the rightward swing in national attitudes everywhere, hate plays far better than hope among people who prefer to blame others for what they believe is wrong with the way their lives have turned out.

The recent elections in the U.S. have added further urgency to the French political campaign – everyone fears the worst, and many on the other side of hate are doing what they can to elect someone who may be actually prevent France from closing itself off from the world, like its ally across the Atlantic seems to be doing.

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The U.S. is a big country, and everything related to a political campaign is bigger – especially involving money. But political commercials are unknown in France, which is a relief. Still, you can get your fill of politics on the many national talk shows devoted to the day’s events in France and I’ve come to recognize the usual guests who appear on these shows, too: journalists, political scientists (though I rather prefer the French word politologues) and academics who offer their conservative or liberal points of view.

Being French, they don’t simply toss out rehearsed one-liners – though they make their positions clear immediately – but they tend to talk and talk and talk around and about and up and down a topic or question, and they do what the French do best: enjoy hearing themselves speak. I enjoy hearing them speak too – I’ve become more French in that I am now more inclined to find entertainment value in listening to talking heads blow hot air at each other over the day’s news. This is probably because the French experts – unlike many of their American counterparts – actually know how to express themselves.

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As in the U.S., money has played a large part in the French campaign here, too – but unlike the enormous sums tossed around in an American election, the money that’s coloring this election is a misuse of public funds. The sums are significant – at least to the average French person who works for a living – a few hundred thousand euros in total – but money in France is different from money in the U.S. It’s respected, but not the summum bonum of a fruitful life for the French as it is for many Americans.

Still, money taints, whether euros or dollars. The Republican candidate François Fillon, who at best resembles an undertaker who hasn’t yet mastered the skill of faking empathy, has been accused of misusing funds to employ his wife Penelope in nonexistent jobs, to the tune of about €500,000 over the course of a decade, as well as his children (he employed one of his children for legal work as a lawyer, before she actually became a lawyer).

Fillon also more recently accepted gifts of custom-made suits, worth about €50,000, from a well-connected lawyer friend. In response to a question about whether it was appropriate to accept a gift from someone who might want to demand some sort of favor in return, Fillon said, “Et alors?” Meaning – “So?” This definitely didn’t play well with most people.

“They’re not even the best custom-made suits,” sniffed my friend Dominique, who’s left-leaning generally and definitely voting left in this election. Still, her point was that if you’re going to let yourself be corrupted by the finer things, at least let the bribe be worth your selling your soul. The larger concern is that Fillon sees nothing wrong in accepting gifts, or of using public funds to employ a member of the family (this latter is legal, if unpopular). This is troubling for many French voters, who are appalled at how out of touch Fillon is with the current distaste for the abuse of privilege, he the descendant of a stoneworker who has given himself the airs of a put-upon bourgeois.

“The real problem,” said Jean-Luc Melanchon, a far-left candidate who speaks very well but can be something of a self-righteous scold, “is that he doesn’t see that this is a problem.”

Marine Le Pen, herself an odious, smug xenophobe with the mocking sneer of someone who thinks everyone is beneath contempt (especially foreigners, and most especially Muslims), has also been accused of misappropriating public funds. But like her patron saint, the current lamentable holder of the American presidency, she accuses the legal system, rather than herself, of being corrupt.

To an American, such French political scandals are diverting, especially compared to the governmental horrors unfolding at home. But you can also find enthusiasm and actual joy in some French political events. Earlier this week, I went with a friend to a big “meeting” – the French use the English word for a political rally – of the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, at Bercy, a huge arena in the 12th arrondissement.

Hamon, who is trailing in the polls, behind the youthful Emmanuel Macron, the ex-finance minister and former banker who is expected to win in the second round of elections (he may very well become president), the detestable Marine Le Pen, and even the beleaguered François Fillon, has been unable to rally his party around his candidacy. He beat former prime minister Manuel Valls in the primary, but Valls has not given Hamon his support (he seems to be figuring out his next steps, regardless of who wins the election). The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon has drawn away to himself a fair share of Socialist Part voters. Melanchon trails the other candidates in the polls – and he pretty much splits the left-wing vote with Hamon. But at the packed Benoît Hamon rally – or meeting – the mood was triumphant, hopeful, spirited.

Three French pop and rock groups played before the candidate arrived – Les Yeux Noirs, Debout sur le Zinc and General Elektriks – and they were surprisingly good, even for an American dubious of how entertainment is used at most political gatherings. Hamon also attracted some big names behind him, who spoke to the crowd about why they support him and his candidacy. These included the economist Thomas Piketty (author of the bestselling Capitalism in the 21st Century), the mayor of Paris, Annie Hidalgo, and the widely admired (though reviled on the right) Christiane Taubira, former Minister of Justice under François Hollande.

Hamon, who in public debates tends to be more soft-spoken than the righteous Melanchon and the strident Le Pen (though he’s more energetic than the morose Fillon), was evidently touched by the stirring show of support in the arena, which was filled with many young as well as older voters, and where many of those present waved flags for the Socialist Party, the European Union or the green party.

Hamon’s appeals for inclusion appeal to a wide swath of the population (even if Le Pen’s message of exclusion has fervent support as well). Hamon spoke with force and clarity. He urged voters to be engaged rather than to retreat into themselves, to be present for the world rather than to isolate themselves from it, to be part of a dialogue for positive change.

It was a real message of hope. But who knows if hope will sell come the elections in a few weeks? Hope certainly didn’t work in the U.S. last November (though resistance might be effective in the coming months, and Americans seem to have learned some of the finer points of mass demonstrations from the French). But although hatred may win an election, it’s become obvious that it cannot govern a country.

The French are about to choose, as Benoît Hamon said at one point during his roughly 90-minute speech, not only what kind of country they want, but what kind of people they wish to be. I am not French, but on this afternoon I found myself fervently pro-Hamon, and I want to be part of the country he wishes to lead.

A Visit to Caen

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With my friend Vin before the Hotel de Ville in Caen.

When I visited my old high-school friend Vin in Caen last week – my first time in that city – I became the tourist, even though I spend several months a year in France. You can always learn something about someplace.

Every March for the past few years Vin has been teaching for two or three weeks in Caen, in the Calvados region of northwestern France (it’s part of Normandy). We passed an afternoon together, and he helped me discover his personal Caen. Spending even a little bit of time in one spot makes it in some way your own. And most people want to share with others.

Still, nothing distinguishes individual personalities more than how someone shows you around. (Or how you react to what you’re shown.)

Vin is far more volubly enthusiastic than I am and he, as a professor, is used to holding forth on a topic. I’m more reserved, even if my enthusiasm is genuine, and I’m more accustomed to keeping my observations to myself. For Vin, speaking is a way of observing, or of considering what he sees while, for me, speech, as opposed to commentary, can be an afterthought to reflection, at least when I’m taking in something new.

When friends have visited me in Paris – which hasn’t happened too often (when I first started living in France, and was learning French, I discouraged visits during the months of my first stay, under the incorrect assumption that spending a little time with an Anglophone friend or relative would somehow impede my progress in French) – I generally walk around the neighborhood pointing out this and that, but I’m reluctant to fall into the attitude of a know-it-all (realizing that I actually know very little about most things).

This might be a result of my experiences with some of the people with whom I became acquainted in my first year in France. I remember, about a month after my arrival in Paris, walking around the 13th arrondissement with Jim, an expat whom I used to know, before a party to which I’d been invited. Jim expounded on everything from bus routes to local butchers, in a manner I found intriguing if a bit off-putting: he was both knowledgeable about certain points of quotidian French life and ignorant of the impression he made as a self-important pedant to a relative newcomer to the country where he had lived for a decade.

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The cloister of the Men’s Abbey at Caen.

I fear slipping into a similar bordering-on-unpleasant explanatory mode when I’m describing to a visitor what I find interesting in a Parisian neighborhood, though I make a point of trying to learn for myself the history of the buildings, parks, streets and homes wherever I live, even if I’m only there for just for a few weeks.

I know that most people won’t share my enthusiasm for having uncovered trivia about a certain area I like – most people are only enthusiastic about what they discover on their own – so I tend to keep this sometimes-useless knowledge to myself, unless it involves something vaguely notorious, such as knowing the house where a celebrated 19th-century courtesan lived. To wit: Caroline “La Belle” Otero – dancer, actress, lover of kings, breaker of hearts, causer of suicides – inhabited a charming Mediterranean-style house on the Rue Fortuny, around the corner from the apartment where I stay in the 17th arrondissement. Knowing this makes the still-pretty house just slightly more significant, since what was once the residence of a self-made woman who lived large and died quite old is now home to a small financial-services firm that’s of interest only to those who make heaps of money there. Its past lends piquancy to its present.

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The cloister at the Men’s Abbey at Caen.

Despite my own reluctance to shower trivia upon the occasional visitor who asks my opinion of my neighborhood, when I visited Vin in Caen I was eager to hear his impressions of a city he likes, one he’s had the good fortune to return to over the course of several years. His daughter Elizabeth was also visiting him at the same time – though for a longer stay than my afternoon – and so Vin’s natural dynamic professorial enthusiasm was further heightened with a strong dose of fatherly pedagogy. He was delighted to tell both of us what he knew, in the refreshing, garrulous manner of someone who loves discovery and who takes great joy in your discovering something with him.

We met at the Église Saint-Pierre and wandered off to lunch, then hit the Hotel de Ville, with its beautiful Abbaye-aux-Hommes and its church of Saint-Étienne where William the Conqueror is buried. Vin described various historical details that I never would have found out during a self-conducted tour of my own, and provided a brief commentary on some unusual liturgical features in the stained glass and among the stations of the cross.

Afterward, we saw the chateau of Caen and took in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has a marvelous Perugino that would likely be passed over by swarming tourists if it were at the Louvre but that in a regional museum is given pride of place, while visitors have the chance to look at a masterwork in peace.

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From the ramparts of the Chateau of Caen.

Along the way, between church and chateau, Vin provided us with some tidbits of Caen’s history, and his association with the university where he teaches. He showed me the rare medieval houses that somehow withstood wartime bombardment, and drew my notice toward the unassuming (or, more plainly, dull-looking) modernist apartment building where he had temporary quarters. I also learned, for instance, that a damaged part of the chateau (most of Caen was obliterated during World War II) was probably caused by a grudge-holding English soldier who dropped a bomb into one of the towers to avenge the Norman Conquest of 1066. That’ll show them.

This is, of course, the kind of enjoyable if apocryphal detail that a professor slips into a discourse in order to pique the lagging interest of overtired students and, of course, I fell for it. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter here: your takeaway of a place is often a result of the lore rather than the facts (see: La Belle Otero).

And the person who gives you the commentary of a place can be as important as the place itself. A difference between how my friend Vin described where we where, and how my former acquaintance Jim recounted some facts about Parisian life, was attitude. One wanted to share his knowledge, while the other wanted to impress you with his. I learned from both the professor and the pedant, but I appreciate more the professorial enthusiasm than the pedantic snobbery. Even if I don’t quite know how my enthusiasms will land the next time I recount to a friend something of interest about where I live, I’ll try to share rather than to show off.