In and Out of Language in France

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The other night at dinner, I asked a friend to repeat something he’d just said.

“He was speaking too fast for you maybe,” said my friend Anne. “We speak fast. Especially in Paris.”

My friend didn’t speak too fast. I simply didn’t catch some of the references he’d made. It’s like that sometimes when you’re with people who’ve grown up in another culture than yours. You can follow the meaning of the words, but you need the context to comprehend the point of the story.

“We do speak fast,” Anne repeated, as if to reassure herself of her statement.

That’s true, but everyone speaks quickly in his native language. The way she said it though, it was if this were a point of pride. As if it were important to talk so quickly that someone who’s good in the language but isn’t a native speaker might have trouble keeping up.

Language is about communication, of course. But for someone speaking a language not his own, you can occasionally find yourself part of a petty power game of who knows what and who doesn’t, of who gets the meaning and who’s left on the outside. I don’t think Anne was playing a game; she’s too warm and generous. I do think, however, that she was simply reveling in her love of her own language, as the French do, wishing to demonstrate how superior it is to other languages. (Linguists insist that all languages are equal – but to the French all other languages but French are equal to one another.)

As proud as they are of French, the French do love to incorporate English phrases or words into conversation. Anne herself does this in her charming fashion, such as when she once welcomed me on my return to Paris after a few months home in New York with a hug, saying “Welcome in Paris.”

I thanked her, but I couldn’t resist adding, “To. Welcome to Paris.”

“To?”

I explained that the French preposition “à” did not mean “to” in English here, and I left it at that. Maybe I was making up for the constant language correction I receive, though more likely I was doing as the French do, that is, immediately correcting something that sounds wrong, only this time in English.

I don’t know how or why certain English phrases resonate with the French. French everyday speech has a lot of English already, of course, taken mainly from business. Marketing, design, coach, job, are all common in French now, to name just four out of hundreds of borrowed English words and phrases.

I hear certain other phrases often. One is “Let’s go.” It’s used in place of any one of several widely spoken French forms, so I don’t really see why “let’s go” has crept into use. Still, it’s amusing to hear it à la française, with the “o” in “go” pronounced as “goh.”

Another one is the odd, “The place to be.” This isn’t really said with any sort of regularity in English, but it’s become a phrase that’s trotted out in France when you refer to a certain event or place that’s the talk of the town.

A friend of mine actually used it the other day, referring to a coming dinner, and she gave me a sly look as she said it. I don’t know quite what she meant by that look, especially since what she said was, “It’s the place to be, n’est-ce pas?” I could only smile in response.

My French friends love to use English phrases around me, and why not? English of all sorts bombards them from everywhere, and to speak English is to have an international outlook. To speak English well, however, is a stretch for many people here, since most foreign speakers of English speak at best a form of rudimentary English that might be called international demotic. (At the same time, I’m usually pleasantly shocked to hear an American speaking French with any degree of fluency.)

Because English is the language of international communication, and because that international communication is usually spoken by people who know just enough to get by, the complexity and grandeur of English, its wealth of expression, vocabulary and nuance, are generally lost on most non-native English speakers. (Unfortunately, today these riches are also lost on a good many native English speakers.)

The subtle complexity of most languages is lost on people who didn’t grow up speaking them. I’ll never be 100% fluent in French, since I didn’t grow up speaking the language, but I get by pretty well, and I’ve come to understand a fair share of argotic expressions and slang, which is as important as knowing the vocabulary of literature. When I watch certain French TV series, I write down expressions or words that I don’t know, to remember them. Not that I’m likely to use them, but I want to be aware of them – you never know when certain terms will pop up in conversation.

Despite its borrowings from English (to the regret of French-language purists), the French still often refer to “la richesse de la langue française,” after someone puns or jokes or makes note of a grammatical rule, as if French is the only language in the world in which you find wordplay, subtlety of expression, and an ability to express the profoundest thought.

I realize this comes from an innate French sense of cultural superiority, which can be tied to a fear of losing relevance. It’s also easy to believe here, since France is a country where ideas are paramount. It’s so much easier to have faith in an idea rather than confront a reality at odds with that idea.

At the same time, I admire a country where language is so important. Native English speakers take English for granted. The French don’t take their language for granted; they nurture it. They even try to control it – France is, after all, a country where it’s important to follow rules – but language cannot be controlled, even by the fussy linguistic solons of the Académie Française. They recently decried the feminization of the language, saying it poses a mortal danger to the French language. They were protesting recent tendencies to refer to groups of people by both genders instead of the neutral or masculine one, for example writing out the word for students as “étudiant.e.s” or “étudiant-e-s.” This is supposed to allow for a diversity of genders, with words that were usually masculine or  neutral now also taking feminine forms to be inclusive. It’s clunky, and no one knows if it will hold, but it has alarmed the language alarmists.

More broadly, and celebratory, there’s a widely noted international week of the French language every year. That’s when you’re likely to come across hopeful articles that declare that French will soon become one of the most-spoken languages in the world, surpassing at least the 10 or so other languages that more people currently speak.

Whether that happens won’t change the French attitude toward French as spoken by people not born in France. My friends will often ask me if I know the meaning of a certain phrase, and then go on to explain it to me. I don’t mind. It keeps me on my toes, which is what I want. In any event, I’ll always be a person whose comprehension in French will always be just slightly below full, no matter how good my French gets. That doesn’t stop me from appreciating and enjoying the language. I’m at home in French, as much as a foreigner can be, and I’ll always be someone who occasionally needs context explained. People may speak quickly, but I can usually follow what’s being said, and most people in France want you to understand what they’re saying, even if they also feel you’ll never truly understand it, not being French and all.

The French attitude toward French is decidedly nationalistic, even beyond pride in the mother tongue. Bookstores assign different sections to French-language works that are written by French-speaking authors outside of France (they’re placed in a Francophone Siberia). As if to say that, while it’s wonderful that these writers are expressing themselves in French, it’s equally important to make sure that everyone realizes they’re still not actually French, regardless of their use of a language possessing such “richesse.” Colonialism is still alive, at least concerning la richesse de la langue française.

Friends Visiting in Paris

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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.

A Nurse’s Aid at the Restaurant

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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.

Who You Are in France

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I was left holding the cocotte.

Karine had returned to me the cast-iron Dutch oven that she and her boyfriend Paul-Guillaume had kept at their little storage unit outside of Paris. I’d bought this Le Creuset cocotte a while back when I’d invited them over to dinner, at the borrowed apartment where I’d been living in the 14th arrondissement. On my returning to New York that year, they had agreed to keep for me a bagful of clothes, books and this cocotte. It had stayed with them since then. Until that day in February, when they decided that my stuff, and I, were no longer worth holding onto.

A couple of years earlier, I would see Karine for coffee after my classes. She lived on the Rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement, about 10 minutes from the Alliance Française on Boulevard Raspail. She had suggested a series of French-language chats, on the understanding that at some point I’d return the favor in English.

I’d met Karine at a housewarming party about a month after my arrival in Paris, during my first extended stay. Her boyfriend Jean-Michel is a real estate agent who had found this place for my friend Daniel, the one French person I happened to know at that point.

I was eager to widen my circle of French acquaintances, and to improve my still-rudimentary French, and when I met Karine I was delighted to use this opportunity to get better at speaking. So we sat for an hour a few times a week at Le Rousseau, a little brasserie near her apartment.

She would explain various idiomatic expressions to me. She would offer me new phrases. She would provide lists of films I should see – French classics not well-known outside of France – carefully marking the titles in her large script (I noticed that even in France some people dotted their i’s with little hearts). She would correct the faulty French in my emails, changing the font to pink for emphasis. She would show which expressions or adjectives applied to persons, things, places or events. I’d once mentioned in an email that an evening had been ravishing but, she informed me in her horrified response – she had changed the pink font to red to indicate her alarm – that in French the word ravissant can only describe people.

Karine could be polite to the point of panic, as if a false step of any sort were, to her, unpardonable. In fact, she said “pardon” frequently, almost in place of “s’il vous plait” or “je vous en prie.” I noticed that her boyfriend Jean-Michel did this too, trained by Karine in aggressive self-effacement. I wondered what she told herself she was doing wrong when she said, “Merci, pardon,” or “Je vous en prie, pardon,” pardon, pardon, pardon like a mea culpa after the merest exchange.

Little by little I found myself on my guard with her. I couldn’t quite put a finger on what made me uneasy, or why I wanted to keep her at a slight remove. At the time I believed it was simply my inadequate ability to translate.

I overlooked barely disguised short-temperedness and half-hidden self-involvement because of my own awkwardness in France, and in French. I wondered if this relation, such as it was, was purely transactional. I began to question my honesty in meeting with someone who left me ill at ease even as she helped me. And I noticed that I’d begun adding “pardon” to innocuous phrases.

Still, I continued to see Karine and her terrorized boyfriend socially, but as my own circle of friends in Paris grew, our chats fell away and I saw her less. I was glad of the growing distance.

In fact, I don’t believe I ever really liked Karine. But it was she who dropped me.

She had spent the previous Christmas season in New York, a long-held wish of hers to do as I had done: to plunge into another culture. I was able to provide her with English-language conversation in New York, as she had done for me in Paris. But I couldn’t give her the fairytale skyscraper Manhattan fantasy that she had so yearned for. In fact, the dowdier apartment I’d arranged for her at a fraction of the cost of the expensive East Side aerie she’d rented and cancelled, was far below what she felt that someone of her taste and sensitivity demanded. Her anger and disappointment colored her entire New York experience. And me with it. She believed I didn’t understand her artistic nature.

Karine had come to New York to bathe herself in English, but beneath that was something grander, and also something un peu triste. She wanted to see if she might finally break through as an actress. On Broadway.

Karine earned a living as a production secretary for films but at heart, she said, she was a comedienne. She hadn’t appeared in many roles, but had had a few wordless walk-ons and had acted in an 8-minute film as a mute captive of some sort. And she had met a New York actor on a film set who said he might be able to help her. But her lack of success in cracking open any doors in New York (and very few in Paris) might have contributed to her dissatisfaction there and, by extension, to her disenchantment with me, while her inability to make a career out of what she truly believed herself to be, undoubtedly added to the bitterness shimmering behind the pink-colored fonts of her email corrections.

I could certainly sympathize with her, up to a point – many of us endure the disillusion of realizing that we aren’t what we hoped, or that we haven’t chosen wisely, or that our talents don’t live up to our expectations. Many of use our experiences to move beyond the sad awareness of our own limitations. How galling it must have been for Karine to book accommodations or to handle transportation for film stars, knowing that she herself would never be accorded similar courtesies, that she herself would remain behind the scenes. How frustrating for her that the chances of succeeding at what she had so longed for were increasingly distant and probably unrealizable.

But all of us, none more than I, have had to live with our irrelevance. How you move through that, how you come to terms with what you wanted for yourself and what you became means the difference between lasting bitterness and a continuing realistic hope for personal change, regardless.

I hadn’t come to France imagining I’d become a famous writer. In immersing myself in the French language and culture, I didn’t expect I would emerge as someone I had not yet become: celebrated. I had chosen to live in France because I wanted to get beyond where I was. I hadn’t achieved anything notable in my career, but I had sought nevertheless to deepen my experiences so that, despite my continuing and doubtless lasting insignificance, I could still push against the limits of what I knew, and who I was, and even live a fuller life after having failed again and again, and again.

I’ve come to see that for me, success comes in moments of quiet recognition rather than public acclamation, in knowing that while most doors remain closed to me, I can at least open myself onto the world in another fashion. I can grow and learn and fail and still be myself, without the chafing sense that I am useless. It isn’t true. Obscurity isn’t a value. And I don’t have to ask “pardon” for simply living out of the limelight.

But I wondered whether Karine had examined who she truly was, or where she should be, or if she would continue calling herself an actress while doing something else entirely. I wondered whether her disappointments would continue to shape how she dealt with others. Behind the relentless “pardons” was a kind of fierce imprecation: Notice me for who I believe I am.

I see these things in her now, after no longer seeing her, because I have learned in France a different way of seeing myself. I’m still not celebrated, but I’m something else: someone who, for the most part, no longer pretends. Perhaps that’s a form of success, realizing that you might be worthy in yourself rather than for how you expect the world to regard you. Such things never align anyway, but we can waste our lives worrying about them. It wasn’t Karine’s own angry and diminished sense of herself that made me question spending time with her – it was how she conducted herself as a result of those lingering disappointments that gave me pause. For her part, she might have had similar notions about me. Or she had simply grown to dislike me. She despised easily.

I saw even less of Karine after her Manhattan misadventures and my own return to Paris. This happens. People drift. I was rather relieved that I wouldn’t have to carry on with what passed for friendship with her. And my stuff in storage had completely slipped my mind.

But on a February morning a couple of weeks after returning from New York, and after calling me to let me know they’d be showing up, Karine and Jean-Michel drove to my neighborhood and delivered my half-forgotten horde.

Bon courage, Robert,” she said, after handing me my cast-iron casserole, and as Jean-Michel lay the overstuffed canvas duffel at my feet, on the sidewalk before the apartment house.

I thanked them for holding onto my things for so long. I didn’t mention my relief at this end to whatever it was that our acquaintance had become. No one had to explain this. We stood there for a moment.

Bonne journée,” Karine said finally, turning to leave. “Merci. Pardon.”

They got into Jean-Michel’s little Renault, and I watched it putter off. I lugged everything up to the apartment.

I placed the cast-iron cocotte on the stove. Perhaps I’d make something special for dinner that night. Maybe lamb. Un gigot d’agneau aux haricots blancs.

I remembered that Karine hated lamb.

 

 

 

Francis at the Laundromat

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Last week I saw Francis for the first time in many months. He was sitting at the rear of the laverie on the Rue Cardinet around the corner from where I stay.

Francis was glowing, but that could be because he was clean-shaven and hatless. His pink skull gleamed. His red cheeks shone. When I’d first seen him a few years ago he was bearded and hatted, muffled in hair and cloth.

“Bonjour, Francis,” I said.

“Bonjour,” he mumbled in his ruined voice, his eyes recognizing me. He tilted his head as if surprised that he could still speak.

A moment later, while I was loading sheets into a washer, Francis shuffled out onto the Rue Cardinet. I smiled at him there on my return home, and wished him a good day as he perched against a store window. He nodded but didn’t really see me this time. He was already lost in thought.

I wondered where he’d been. Perhaps hospitalized. Or in a temporary lodging. I didn’t ask. Our relationship, such as it is, hasn’t reached a point where we share much. I don’t know Francis. Not really. Just to say bonjour. But he was back. And I was actually relieved to see him again.

I certainly don’t know him as well as the office workers had appeared to, people who would actually chat with him and offer him cigarettes. Just as he has become part of the fabric of the neighborhood where I live when I’m in Paris, Francis had been woven into the texture of their workdays.

That was before their building was closed for renovation. Now it’s mainly shopkeepers who speak to him. Or the femmes de ménage. Or the street-cleaners. Or the vigipirates, the French military patrols who drop in on the neighborhood from time to time to survey possible terrorist targets, such as the synagogue on the Rue Léon Cogniet, opposite the apartment where I stay.

Francis has a tent pitched near the steps to the lobby of the now-renovated and still-empty building, on the other side of the street from the laverie. He lives between that tent and the laundromat, and passes his days sitting on the steps of the wine merchant’s next door or at the kitchen design center on the corner that faces a busy restaurant, La Fille du Boucher – the butcher’s daughter. He’s often lost in a reverie or a haze, or caught in a fugue of some sort beyond me.

Francis doesn’t beg. He doesn’t ask for anything, really. Except perhaps for connection. That is, that you let him be, but that you also acknowledge him. He never spoke this aloud, of course – but I noticed that once as I walked by him without a word, he said to me, “Bonjour, monsieur.” A gentle reprimand, almost.

“Oh,” I said, mortified. “Bonjour. Bonne journée.”

Francis is politer than I am.

I’m not aware if the office workers who spoke to him had actually known him beyond the vague pleasantries that count for conversation among cigarette smokers. But they engaged with him. He counted for something. He was human. I don’t know, either, if these Parisian office workers had more of a personal touch with the clochards du quartier than I do – I’m awkward enough with people who don’t live on the street. But their behavior toward him made Francis more real to me – and they also showed an enviable ease with a troubled person, an ease that made me question my own behavior toward those who are different, who are challenged, who force upon me a grittier image of a postcard city.

I only know his name because I had heard one of those office workers call him Francis. I remembered this because it humanized him, ultimately. I can easily dehumanize others if I’m not aware of my offhand callousness.

And now I can think of Francis as Francis, then, rather than as a him.

I still don’t know Francis. Not really. I don’t know if this is even possible. But I see him. And I no longer avoid him, which is something. I meet his cloudy blue eyes when I greet him. Perhaps a bonjour actually means more than hello. A nanosecond of connection is still a connection, after all. Perhaps a fleeting exchange allows me to make up for my continual failings.

Last winter, as a sudden cold descended at dusk on a balmy January day, I passed by as three people from a Parisian homeless outreach organization chatted with Francis, his head poking from his tent. I heard them asking him if he wanted shelter for the evening, or to see a doctor, or to receive a sandwich. Or, I said to myself, if he preferred red or white. I immediately regretted my unkind thought, as if the indignity of someone fending off the cruel night were suitable for my pathetic mockery.

I had come to Paris to become larger than myself, but Francis made me realize how small I still can be – regardless of the language I’ve learned speak, regardless of the culture that has enriched me – if I’m not aware of a tendency to compartmentalize the sufferings of others, or of believing that I am not myself a hairsbreadth away from whatever situation that led to Francis’s living as he does. Even within the limits of what is possible for him, he has choices, and they’re not mine to scorn.

Once Francis helped me by giving me his pocket change, when the machine to run the washers only took coins instead of bills. I gave him a ten-euro note, and he gave me in return whatever he had, which was probably far less than that, but so what? He didn’t count it, and I certainly wasn’t going to. Shortly after this, holding up the stub of a cigarette, he asked, “Ça vous dérange?” – or did I mind if he smoked?

I shook my head “no” politely. Far be it from me to be bothered by the smoking of someone who lives on the street, and who never really bothers anyone. In any event, he smiled at me then, as if he could read my mind, and meeting my eye with a sly regard, he went out again onto the Rue Cardinet. I’d been found out. I’m always found out.

Being courteous to Francis doesn’t make me a better person. It was Francis’s courtesy after all that had shown me the limits of my compassion. Thanks to knowing French I can make out what Francis says through the garbled wreckage of his voice, when he chooses to utter whatever it is he has to say, and I can understand what others say to him. I can even reply in turn, if I break free of my own fearful hesitation about connecting with another.

I have to guard against my predisposition, in English or in French, in New York or in Paris, to belittle or to sweep aside the kind of person I may become myself, if I’m not careful, if I’m not lucky. If I remain locked within my limited perception. How much do I hold myself back from experience because I might actually have to become open to an interaction? How much do I retreat from the vital moment because of a momentary discomfort at someone’s otherness? How much do I still deny myself because of fear? I have been bold enough to take a great leap into the unknown in acquiring a new language in a new country, but I still retreat from the face-to-face, the eye-to-eye, the heart-to-heart, the actual day-to-day exchanges that define what it is to be alive, to become a participant rather than a spectator, to be rather than to seem.

Years after building a temporary but lasting life in Paris, I’ve created another home there, I’ve profited from immersing myself in another culture, in absorbing another way of life, of befriending many people. I’ve changed my point of view. I can express myself with subtlety in a language I didn’t grow up speaking. My French has become very good. But I hold myself back in other ways. It was Francis who taught me that while my knowledge has broadened and my experience widened, my humanity is still lacking.

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.