An Ugly American in French Class

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Another American in Paris happened to be taking the same classes as I. For three different sessions at Alliance Française.

Andrew was usually first to respond to a question, but never wanted to make a presentation, as others of us were asked to do. He preferred not to participate at all if he had to be on his own. He would rather rebut than stand vulnerable before the class. He tried to keep an empty seat on either side of him when possible (it became easier as time went on, since the other students sought to avoid him).

He refused to speak to the other Americans in the room. Or the other Anglophones. Even in French. He wanted nothing to taint the flavor of his newly acquired language.

His French was pretty good, but no better than mine, who actually engaged with other students and even spoke English with some of them.

I tried once to speak to Andrew during one of the breaks – la pause-café – that came about 90 minutes into the class, but he brushed me aside, stalking away as I offered a friendly greeting. At lunch I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of him leaning on one of the walls in a little-trafficked passage between the main building on the Boulevard Raspail and the ancillary one on the Rue de Fleurus. He’d be alone, munching on a torn baguette, brooding. I learned not to say hello. The response would have been the same as if I’d had actually tried to engage him: disdainful silence. Or a blunt refusal to recognize the presence of someone else.

He lived in Paris, near Odéon, he said during one class – in response to a teacher’s direct question – and he was a writer. He was vague when the teacher asked him what he wrote. “Projects,” he said. His manner of speaking was usually brusque, as if even to have to utter the language that he was learning was an affront to its purity as it was pronounced in his mind.

On another occasion, in another course in which we were all supposed to introduce ourselves, as one did at the beginning of every brief little term, he admitted that he was from California. (I don’t know if this was true, but no one could escape divulging something about himself, even if that something were made up.) He said that he’d left California, and even the United States, because the people there were unfriendly.

“How many people live in California?” the professor asked him.

“Thirty eight million,” he said.

“Quand même,” the teacher said. Meaning, perhaps, as I interpreted it, “In a state with 38 million people you couldn’t make any friends?”

He was belligerent and patronizing with those who weren’t French, and proudly – if pride were one of his traits – referred once to his circle of intellectual Parisian friends, those with whom he’d dine at the brasserie “que je fréquente,” he said. It came out like “que! je! fréquente!” as if to emphasize his being somewhere other than where he found himself among us pathetic others. It was hard to believe that he frequented any public space, let alone a restaurant, let alone in the company of people he’d refer to as friends, but that didn’t matter.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed his animosity. Even the professors did – he was asked once by a professor to stop butting in when another student was trying to answer an exercise. The professor told him that the other person had paid the same tuition as he and had the same right to learn as Andrew. At that gentle reprimand Andrew stormed out of class.

“No one puts Baby in a corner,” I said to myself.

When I meet or encounter such people, I not only wonder about the paths that have led to their behavior, or the unhappiness or anger that emanates from them like some toxic scent, but whether I conduct myself with the same unthinking incivility bordering on contempt. After all, I too was a writer living in Paris. Andrew and I were about the same age. I too was learning another language. And if I wasn’t exactly frequenting brasseries with intellectual Parisians, I was at least making friends and spending time with them, blundering through French but acquiring a feel for the shapes of its sentences.

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Like Andrew, I avoided as much as I could falling among those living in a purely Anglophone ghetto, as so many English-speaking residents of Paris tend to do, seeking the familiar over the challenging. And like Andrew, I had interrupted the responses of other students, especially during my earliest courses, thinking I knew everything (or impatient with those having a more difficult time than I in acquiring the rudiments of French).

Unlike Andrew, however, I was trying to make myself larger. I hadn’t abandoned New York, and Paris wasn’t a substitute life for the city of my birth, but had become another part of a life that I wanted to be fuller.

I still carry with me the sense, five years later, of meeting this Andrew – if by meeting I can mean sitting in the same class as he, since he wouldn’t deign to acknowledge that another American was participating in the course – and I still marvel at the pain of discovering how people come to hurt each other, or treat each other with such oblivious loathing. I don’t know if it’s because it was easier to be contemptuous of your fellow citizens abroad, or if Andrew’s personal unhappiness had hardened into generalized hatred, but the effect was the same: detestation. It’s always a shock to feel the disgust of another person toward oneself for no other reason than for being oneself, or perhaps even for being someone who reminds the other person of what he left behind or what he no longer wanted.

It’s a valuable shock, though, since I go on to question my own comportment, my motivations, and whether I’m acting as I should wish to be treated. It isn’t what others think of me that’s important but how I think of myself in relation to how I’ve behaved around others that means the difference between growth and stagnation, or between admitting someone into your life, even tangentially, and standing alone in a dank passageway gnawing on a baguette and despising the unfeeling universe.

Andrew was eventually asked not to return to Alliance Française. (A teacher I knew there told me that it had been suggested to him that he’d learned enough and could continue with French on his own – probably among his circle of intellectual friends at the brasserie he frequented near Odéon.)

Andrew had apparently alienated enough teachers and staff so that even at Alliance Française, where you pay for class time even for holidays that fall during a workweek, the administration had decided that his tuition money wasn’t worth the growing complaints of the students he’d insulted, students who actually lived in the world rather than apart from it, and for whom French wasn’t an escape but an opening, a different perspective that might change what life can offer rather than reaffirm everything that goes wrong in it.

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