Deciding to Be Known in France

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At what point do you decide that you want to live your life small? That you prefer to keep whatever it is you do unknown or known or just barely known to a handful of people, if that?

I myself am not a publicity seeker, nor am I ambitious for fame. I do want to be successful in whatever endeavor I undertake, and I don’t shy from the spotlight, if ever a spotlight shines in my general direction, which is rare. And if my name is dropped somewhere, well, whatever. One of the reasons for my building a life in Paris – as well as keeping my life in New York – is to live larger than I had. That doesn’t mean looking for attention but being open to the possibility of accepting and maybe profiting from things beyond my control. Making my private life less private, in a way. Letting others know me. Or allowing myself to be known by others, without trying to control the story. At the same time, I think there’s a certain French way of thinking about private life that’s different from an American attitude regarding this. Many French just don’t want anyone to know anything about them other than what’s required for employment, banking or healthcare.

In the nine months since I’ve been writing these posts about ma vie parisienne, I’ve had a few friends here in France whom I’d mentioned in one piece or another ask that their names be removed, or that their photo be taken down. On one occasion I referred in passing to two friends (acquaintances, really) as a couple, which caused no end of vexation for them. I had assumed, without really thinking about it, that since they were always together and had been for well over a decade, that they were, you know, together. But apparently it wasn’t official. Or public. Or, at least it wasn’t fodder, however inadvertent, for a casual reference in a non-commercial blog post. It wasn’t even the point of the post, but the damage was done as far as they were concerned. I had betrayed their sense of propriety.

On another occasion, I’d related an incident involving the use of verb forms in French, and how tricky a subject this can be, especially in the use of second-person singular or plural, a problem that doesn’t exist in English (it can be a problem in French since it involves either distancing or not, depending on the situation, as well as long-established customs of politesse). In English, you is you no matter whom the you you address may be. The English language doesn’t have to deal with this particular French verbal land mine. Nor must Anglophones handle the offense taken or forgiven that such linguistic hierarchies involve.

After the blog appeared, I received a call from one of the parties involved in the little contretemps who said that even though I hadn’t used his name (and even though the other friend involved didn’t even recall the incident when I later asked him about it) that he had recognized himself in the story, and that he preferred that I never make reference to him in any way in any of my blogs. And although he doesn’t read much English, and is unlikely to notice this sort of thing otherwise (he only saw this post because I’d mentioned to him that I’d begun writing about my life in France), he was serious in asking that he be forgotten, in terms of his relation to the life I live here and of people like him whom I meet. And, by extension, of what I recount. “I don’t want to be known,” he said to me.

Another time, after describing the civil-marriage ceremony of two friends, and posting a picture I’d taken of the event that showed the couple, one of these friends asked that I remove the photo, since his partner prefers to remain “un homme de l’ombre,” or a man of the shadows, someone who works behind the scenes. I took the photo down, of course – I don’t want to offend people who are friends (or anyone, really).

But at what point is how I talk about my life governed by the wishes of people whom I meet or whom I befriend? An interaction with me is an interaction I own, isn’t it? They own their version of what occurred and I, mine. But in France, or for the French, telling a third-party, or even the small public that follows the quiet adventures of a foreigner seeking to expand his life, can be tantamount to a betrayal of trust.

I’m shaped by my own culture, and I have found that in being myself as an American abroad, I need to treat lightly sometimes. I need to think of how other people abroad have been shaped by a culture that’s different from mine. But does that culture – that one that isn’t mine – involve being resolutely private? You can’t control what others think of you, you can only control how you react to what others do to you. For me, writing, sometimes in an oblique way, about my experiences, especially now that my life involves so much that is new to me, is how I understand what I’ve seen, whom I’ve met, what I’ve gotten wrong (I get a lot wrong, apparently). It seems that it’s very un-French thing, at least among the people I’ve met, to speak of your friends in even a semi-public way. There’s the risk of losing that distancing that so many people here still wish to cultivate.

I can understand that some people don’t want their photos to be published. I know quite a few Parisians who have a horror – and not without some reason – of social media, although this can be generational. A French television news report the other night told of the growing popularity of Snapchat among people under 35. But for others, photos perhaps are even more suspect than mentioning a name, since these images reinforce the primitive being’s inchoate sensation of having a piece of one’s soul taken and captured on film. My friend Pierre hates having his picture taken generally, and mocks me for my willingness to strike a friendly pose whenever anyone suggests stopping for a photo. “You’re American,” he said to me once after I willingly stopped for some snapshots with friends, as he avoided the glare of the lens. “It’s nothing for you to smile for the camera.”

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