Some things I learned in my first few months in France:
- Hair salons are as numerous in Paris as are nail salons in Manhattan.
- The average Parisian supermarket likely has a better cheese selection than a cheese store in New York.
- Even if four national holidays fall within the month of your month-long course at Alliance Française, you have to pay for class on those days regardless of whether they’re cancelled four times.
- Parisian women wear a lot less makeup than New York women.
- The French are all members of the clean-plate club. You need to show up to meals hungry.
- I had a hitherto-unrecognized ability to learn another language quickly.
- They like American accents in France. (This truly shocked me.)
The biggest though, was this: My making a life for myself in France – or a life divided between Paris and New York – interested no one but myself.
And I wondered if I had hoped to make myself more interesting to others by making more of myself.
Trollope once wrote, “We take unconsciously the opinion of others. A woman is handsome because the world says so. Music is charming to us because it charms others. We drink our wines with other men’s palates and look at our pictures with other men’s eyes.”
I sometimes realized that I was assessing myself and what I had set out to accomplish in broadening my horizons through the eyes of others, as if my goals were finer or more valid or even worthwhile because friends might either appreciate them or, better, envy them.
The truth is, most people you know don’t really care about the path of your life unless it affects the path of theirs. Just as people in recovery learn to keep the particulars of their recovery to themselves (at that point no one wants to know what you’re doing as long as they don’t have to worry about you), so are the folks back home happy you’re doing what you do, but only up to a point. My friends in the U.S. were thrilled in a distracted way at my being in Paris but uninterested in the specifics of what I was learning about myself as a stranger abroad.
In a way, living overseas gives you a sense of what it will be like when you’re dead. Life goes on without you. Problems are local.
And triumphs – however important to you personally – are best kept private. You want to share of yourself with your friends, but only insofar as you assure someone else on the other side of the Atlantic that whatever little goal you’ve achieved pales before the daily life struggles of the person with whom you’re speaking.
What I had done, or had begun to do, was to make my life local at home in two cities that are countries apart. It was an international local, but it didn’t extend beyond the person living it (or even to the person hearing about it).
In effect, ma vie quotidienne, as with everyone’s daily life, was of tantamount importance to no one else. The learning, the little epiphanies of grammatical usage or cultural awareness or culinary discovery, only applied to me. Who cared that the modest pasta store on the Rue Daguerre made intensely flavorful and delicate ravioli if another person wasn’t at some point going either to buy them for himself or be invited to eat them with you? What did it matter that every neighborhood had little furniture-restoration shops that catered to generations of French who’ve inherited rickety heirlooms, if your own wobbly furniture was back in the States?
My appreciation of Paris, my growing ease among Parisians, might have been admired by people back home who had a vague dream of learning French or living in France but who were at the same time preoccupied with the ebbs and flows of their own lives. That admiration, however genuine, was, I realized, a secondhand reality. Or at least an actuality that appealed really only to the person experiencing it. It was like swooning over the splendor of a lustrous full moon next to someone who only checked the sky for rain.
But I also knew that regardless of whether or not I could share with anyone what I learned, or try to impart any experience I felt to another person, at least I myself was becoming more than who and what I had been. And in a way, that was the only thing that counted.