Bonbons and Uncertainty in Paris

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I wonder if I like living in France because I’m accepted for who I am rather than for what I do. But then I wonder if I’m accepted for what I represent as well as for who I might be. Or if I’m here because I don’t have to wonder about not living up to whatever potential I may have squandered or never achieved. You never know.

In France, I’m the American. I’m the writer. I’m me. In New York, I’m the guy who used to work for the Wall Street Journal and who now earns a living by doing something related to writing but exactly what, no one’s really sure. I’m not on the radar as I used to be when I was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. I’m less easily categorized now. In New York, and maybe elsewhere in the United States, you’re often confused with what you do, which can seem more important than the person behind the work. And once you no longer do that, well, you’re hard to pin down, and easier to dismiss.

In New York, I’m part of an enjoyable reading group that’s made up of editors, writers and literary agents. It’s a lively and certainly sophisticated bunch of accomplished people, but I notice that a certain taxonomy of importance and even of worth maintains, especially regarding writers: the agents are only interested in you insofar as you’re capable of making them money. The editors are interested in you only insofar as you’re capable of making them money. The other writers are interested in you only insofar as you’re not competing with them for the scant money to be had in publishing. No one, it seems is interested in you simply for yourself, other than out of merest civility. But that could just be this particular fungal phylum in a certain rank of New York life.

It isn’t any easier, however, to earn a living as a writer in France than it is in the U.S. (though in France you have to worry less about certain costs, such as health insurance). But to be a writer in France is something that’s worthwhile in itself as a profession. To write is meaningful. It doesn’t matter, at least not as much as elsewhere, whether your manuscript has been optioned by a film producer.

As everywhere, the French media is grappling with how people consume information. Online, French journals, like American ones, aren’t immune to clickbait stories. And the same stupid stories seem to attract the same ridiculous amount of attention. Still, in a country where it seems that everyone has written a book (certainly every French politician seems to have), literacy itself and reading simply for understanding another point of view are prized. So is being a writer, even an unknown one like me. That I’m little known isn’t exactly a fault here. In New York, it can be seen as a character flaw.

But then, because I’m an American abroad, and because American culture and whatever passes for essential in the hotbed of Manhattan are only partially comprehended or generally ignored an ocean’s distance away, my relative anonymity isn’t an issue in Paris regarding whether I’m worth knowing or not. The onus is on me to be kind or to be genuine to others, and not on proving that I’ve done something in particular to gain notice. In the past (and even now), like an idiot I’ve tried befriending my fellow New Yorkers in the hope of simply getting to know a person better, not realizing that I wasn’t important enough to get past the Cerberus of disdain blocking the relatively unsuccessful from entry.

I do make a living by my pen, as it were, and that’s enough in France for me to be considered someone who’s actually accomplished something with his life or who continues to do something with it. Fame in France is, in a way, secondary, to being able to express yourself. Perhaps I tell myself that I’m more at ease here because I don’t have to live in the self-negation that comes from comparing my life and career to those with more money, fame or whatever criteria I’ve used to belittle who I am. I can certainly fall victim to the taxonomy of self-worthlessness as much as any New Yorker.

Meanwhile, as I write this, yet another horrific terrorist attack is disrupting the lives of millions of Europeans. France and Belgium and neighboring countries are on high alert for further murderous assaults. On my street, the “vigipirates,” that is, the armed military, are standing guard in front of the quiet synagogue across from my apartment, as they are before the discreet Hebrew school around the corner, and at certain other places that are at risk for targeted hatred.

Elsewhere, on the Rue de Courcelles, on the Avenue de Wagram and on just about every other boulevard or little byway in the neighborhood, chocolate Easter bunnies and birds and eggs and other delectable confections fill the windows of pastry and candy shops.  At the marché, mounds of ivory-colored March asparagus gleam under the blue midday sun and early strawberries glimmer in their little boxes, savory promises of a generous spring despite a lingering wintry discontent.

I’m grateful to be here, whether I’m celebrated or not, despite a general unrest, despite, or perhaps because of, a lingering disquiet. The world is a terrible place, but the flashes of fleeting beauty that come my way make up for my own uncertainty about who I am or what I do or what I’ve done or where I’m going.

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