I told myself that I was in France, learning French, to expand my horizons. But it was more a matter of forcing myself to change.
At my class at Alliance Française in Paris, most of the other students had chosen to learn French because of work in France, either their spouse’s or their own. A few, such as a young woman from Iran, were hoping to relocate to France.
Even though I wasn’t relocating to France – I was on the way to becoming more of a semi-regular resident of Paris – I didn’t want to live among certain kinds of people I’d observed there, those who stuck to their native tongue while a culture rich with allusion bustled around them unobserved, barely understood, often barely tolerated.
Around that time, a French acquaintance had asked me why I was studying French so assiduously. “You don’t have to speak French, you know,” he said to me. “You can get by in English.”
But getting by meant closing myself off. Getting by meant missing out. Getting by meant half-measures. Getting by meant giving up.
One morning at the gym as I was lying on a mat between sets of sit-ups, a man who’d been exercising next to me asked a question in very hesitant French. He pointed to the Giants logo on the blue t-shirt I was wearing and said, “Êtes… êtes-vous… vous… êtes… fan?” He indicated again the logo on my shirt.
“The Giants?” I said. “Oui.”
Hearing my American-English pronunciation of the team name, rather than “les Jay-ahn,” which I’d heard French people say, his face brightened.
“You speak English?”
I nodded and he continued, relieved, as if he’d discovered a long-lost friend. This is common among lonely tourists who fall with messianic fervor upon compatriots they’d pass unnoticed at home, just because these folks abroad speak the same language as they. But this guy, it turned out, was a resident of Paris.
He’d actually bought an apartment not far from the gym. And he’d been living there for years.
He said the same sort of thing to me as my French acquaintance, when I asked the man why he didn’t bother to learn the language of the country he was living in. “You can get by fine without it,” he said. “And everyone wants to practice English.”
If that were true, he’d have addressed me in English rather than in that terrified snippet of French with which he’d first approached me.
I asked him why he’d chosen to live in Paris. “For something new,” he said. “For a change.”
So he’d wanted a change of scene, which had amounted perhaps simply to a change of scenery. If the people he met, or with whom he managed to strike up an acquaintance, only spoke to him in English, then change for him was more geographical than cultural, at least from my perspective.
Yes, he was in a foreign city, but the foreignness would always be that uninhabited foreignness, a life at a slight distance from living, because he could always find someone to guide him without his engaging in the day-to-day difficulties of making himself understood or of understanding. The real-estate agent who’d found him the apartment, the banker and the lawyer who’d helped him close the deal, and even the people who’d sold him the place, all spoke English.
“Not great English,” he told me, “but enough to get by.”
I couldn’t question his wish to live wherever he wanted to live – he obviously had the financial means to divide his time between Paris and Los Angeles, as I’d discovered after we’d chatted for a bit. But I was puzzled about why he’d spent money on an apartment in Paris and not taken greater advantage of the country or the city where he had found himself.
My puzzlement was also perhaps mixed with a pang of envy that he could actually afford his own place there, where I most certainly could not (I swapped or borrowed apartments). I didn’t question his motives further, however.
He then told me he was a documentary producer, making a film about the life of Michel Petrucciani, the French jazz pianist who’d been afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, which had severely stunted his growth. Despite that tremendous handicap (and the constant pain he endured), Petrucciani had managed to become a great musician. He had never settled for simply getting by, unlike my new pal, the producer of the documentary about him.
The producer – I now thought of him as that – then asked me why I was living in France and even bothering to learn French.
And I found that I couldn’t answer him as I had others who’d asked me a similar question – to expand my cultural horizons – because I realized it was more than that. Or that giving him an answer along the lines of what I’d said many times before wasn’t sufficient to me at that point. The documentary producer might have been content with my telling him what had become for me an almost automatic response – I could have gotten by with it – but it suddenly seemed to me a bit pat, despite its being true enough.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I want more of myself.”
At that he looked at me with as much bewilderment as he had when trying to ask me in French whether I were a Giants fan.
I didn’t have an apartment in the Marais. I didn’t work in film. I didn’t do anything that I considered particularly glamorous. I was barely earning a living as a writer, yet I was also somehow living abroad to become…I didn’t know what. Still, I had a sense that I was in a way like those among us who, as Winston Churchill had remarked, shown the capacity, “to exercise conscious control of our own destiny.” (Though I’d never have expressed it in quite that way.)
But there it was. I didn’t want to get by.