Keeping Your Own Counsel in Paris

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Residents of a city where you have begun to live don’t want your opinion on the obvious that they might have overlooked – they want a reaffirmation of what they already believe.

The worst, perhaps, of being a relative newcomer to a country whose natives you befriend, is that so much of your continuing welcome may depend on commending their city, their country, their monuments. You come to praise Paris, not to bury it. The French themselves do the interment. An American is asked to express an opinion that offers perhaps a glint of personal hesitation, but little more. No one wants to be told what he fears is true, or what he ignores in favor of going about his daily tasks without bothering to notice something troubling.

Very few people have the artist’s gift of saying the simple things that clever people don’t say – but very few people want to hear the simple things that they’ve failed to notice even if they’re said simply.

When I told someone that I found the Centre Georges Pompidou ugly – or at least, not particularly welcoming – he argued that he found it interesting because it made a statement about ordinary architecture, what with its exposed skeleton of brightly colored tubes, like a factory turned inside-out. I got that, and even though the building has great views of Paris from the escalators that take you up to the world-class collection of art, I just have never warmed to it on seeing it from the outside looking in. That the building spoke to my friend was enough for him to disregard my opinion, since I was, after all, relatively new to his city and I was never witness to the sordid neighborhood that the museum replaced. The neighborhood can still be somewhat sordid, though now you might say it has a more contemporary performance-art feel, with the hordes of ferocious youth who swarm the area, pretending to be taking surveys of some sort while picking your pocket as you’re distracted into signing a sheet of paper.

Until I’d lived in Paris for longer than a few months, my opinions were considered to be no more important than what you’d see in a little-consulted guidebook, those of a visitor who could only see the surface but whose surface opinion was all that was wanted. No one wants his opinion to be considered negligible, but I had to steel myself to the realization that my true opinion didn’t interest the people whom I encountered, or that my honest opinion was considered negligible because I wasn’t one of them. I was like an outsider expressing doubts about the quality of a successful novel to a gathering of literary agents whose only criteria for a book’s worth are its sales. Paris is a museum city, but I learned not to discuss its street life, or some of its more recent architectural misfires, because that implied that I misunderstood something essential, something that visitors cannot recognize.

I doubt whether people see their own cities with the devastating clearness that a newcomer who’s a non-tourist sometimes sees them. You notice where you live, and you admire or dislike it in equal measure, perhaps, and hope to remember to marvel at the ordinary that makes life livable there, but it might take someone dropped in from elsewhere to grasp the unusual, however pleasant or unpleasant, to appreciate or recoil from a particular pungent strangeness that the ordinary citizens refuse to see.

I lived at the time on the Rue Saint-Martin, a stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou, and would enter the building often, looking for wi-fi when I wasn’t looking at art, or I’d pass it as I headed somewhere else, never failing to glance over the expanse of cobblestones that led down to the museum entrance. I might have been alone in finding the wide scallop-shaped plaza inhospitable – other people didn’t seem to mind sitting on its urine-scented stones. Perhaps I envied them the ease with which they conversed with each other, or what seemed to me the pleasure they took in each other’s company regardless of the squalid perfume of their surroundings. Or I imagined their delight at being in Paris disregarding a sensory affront in favor of an illusion that eventually counted for them as the true experience.

I don’t know if I was suspicious of what I saw, or perhaps I can’t give it a name. The truth is that I have an internal, automatic scale of values, which decides what I had better do with my time – which usually doesn’t involve sitting chatting on the pavement before an uncongenial museum – which dictates that this amount of time should be spent on this particular task. How I came by this code of values, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the legacy of puritan ancestors. Perhaps I suspect the pleasure of others slightly because they ignore what I think they should see. Perhaps in the same way I suspected the artistic value of a building that strikes me as existing only for what it says than for how it operates for the people who use it, or perhaps that sort of visual effrontery was intended, and my desire for something I wanted to be more humanistic, if a building can have that attribute, is just naïveté, or even philistinism in the face of an architect’s statement, whose subtle articulation escapes me.

The thing is, I was certainly alive to the beauties of the city, for Paris is indeed beautiful, but I didn’t want merely to wax enthusiastic over its museum-like structures. Such praise is dull because you describe surfaces and no one can share your enthusiasms, since they’re mere words rather than sensation. I prefer to observe what people say and do and eat and behave or how I respond to those things, rather than to offer an opinion on a view that could be the equivalent of an oral postcard.

I was looking for ways to center myself in relation to people whose behaviors I still couldn’t fathom, even tourists on a plaza who were as unconscious of my gaze as I was of their pleasure. I was looking for a way to capture what I experienced without falling prey to cynicism or hostage to guilelessness. I had removed myself from where I’d lived all my life to become more myself, and yet I held myself back at that time from expressing what I thought for fear of offending people who would consider my opinion uncomprehending or merely rude.

So I didn’t voice those things. I learned to offer a certain anodyne enthusiasm for what I saw, rather than be rebuffed for what I was believed not to understand. Only now can I speak as a Parisian, or perhaps sometimes even complain as one, though I’d rather not, since that is more French than I’ve been willing to become. Someone once said to me, as I mentioned a graffiti on a building wall, that I had begun to criticize the city where I’d chosen to live part of the year. I said that noticing wasn’t criticizing, and that not noticing would make me unworthy of appreciating what the graffiti might have effaced, or even maybe the graffiti itself.

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