Jean de La Bruyère, the 17th-century French philosopher and moralist, was also, naturally, a sort of cynic. “Il faut avoir trente ans pour songer à sa fortune,” he wrote. “Elle n’est pas faite à cinquante; l’on bâtit dans la vieillesse et l’on meurt quand on est aux peintres et aux vitriers.”
Or, “A man is thirty years old before he thinks of making his fortune, but it’s not completed at fifty; he begins to build in his old age, and dies by the time his house is in a condition to be painted and glazed.”
La Bruyère, however, was dead at 50.
I was in my 50s when I began to live in France.
I had no plans, and certainly hadn’t made a fortune up to then. My goal wasn’t to crack the code of living in France or of French society, unlike many Americans whose memoirs track the progress of their entrée into the closed circles of the rich and famous, as if name-dropping makes you as important or interesting as those you’ve striven to encounter.
I wanted to meet noteworthy people, certainly, whether or not they were celebrated. I wasn’t simply interested in learning where to find the perfect sole meunière, or to tell visitors what boulangerie had the finest baguette in town (and I’ve yet to meet the desperate tourist who goes out of his way to find one, though I’m sure they exist). Such knowledge – personal, up for dispute, quickly out of date and immediately forgotten – comes in handy when you think you can impress the yokels back home.
That wasn’t my goal, at least I thought it wasn’t, but I didn’t know what my goal was in heading to France, other than to change where I was without falling into a routine in another culture. I wanted to maintain a tourist’s wonder without being a tourist. In a way I wanted to impress the yokels back home but not turn into what I feared becoming: someone with knowledge and without humility, the know-it-all who protects what has become his city from the possessiveness of others who experience it with something like the same fervor.
When I decided to immerse myself in French culture I was perhaps at a crossroads in life. But I’d always been at a crossroads or on the cusp of something that would lead me to being on the cusp of something else. I lived the eternal dissatisfaction of an uncertain mind (which is perhaps why La Bruyère appeals to me).
I was certainly not alone in looking elsewhere for a sense of direction. Although I realized that I was not the first to choose Paris as a way of discovering more of the world, and oneself, I quickly met a few Frenchmen who’d chosen New York to shake themselves up.
On Easter Monday evening, after my first weekend in Paris, I treated myself to dinner at Le Zeyer, a busy brasserie on the crossroads near the Alésia metro, the metro stop right after Mouton-Duvernet, the one closest to my apartment at the time.
Franck, my waiter, had lived in New York for nine years, and spoke excellent English. He indulged my desire to practice French, even though he could see from the phrasebooks I tried not to glance at that I was a newcomer both to Paris and to French.
Like many Europeans, he got a head start on English by watching American movies, listening to American pop, and sitting in front of the television absorbing American series. English is easier that way, he said to me: It’s the language of the world, culturally and business-wise, and so everyone gets it.
He found English difficult enough to become comfortable with but, with the pride of a someone who believes that his language is the only one capable of subtlety, wit or profundity, he told me that French is on the whole much more difficult to master.
But his life in New York – where he’d also worked as a waiter – helped him in his profession back in France, where English – despite its lack of said subtlety, etc. – was essential for advancement. He liked what he did, which included waiting on Americans and others who weren’t fortunate enough to have been born speaking French. Franck did the work so we Americans wouldn’t have to when ordering food abroad.
I explained, in my hesitant way, that I wanted to know more about his country, his language and his – meaning his and his countrymen’s – way of life. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t know at the time what I really wanted other than to change. But I’d found that this was often enough to make people look at me twice.
“You know,” he said, “you’re an American. You don’t have to be here.” At which he took my order for rognons de veau – veal kidneys – which I’d decided to try for the first time ever (and my pronunciation of which Franck corrected in the kindest way possible).
Other people had said the same thing to me there, even after just a few days in Paris, as if being a New Yorker gave you license to stagnate in imperious provincialism.
Perhaps that was my goal, although I hadn’t yet articulated it. Doing the work myself so others wouldn’t have to do it for me.