Looking into French Backyards

IMG_6363.JPGParc Monceau is a few minutes from the borrowed apartment where I live in the 17th arrondissement, but it doesn’t pull me toward it for its breath of nature amid the fumes of Paris, or for its statues of notables or its architectural oddities.

I’m more intrigued by the buildings that ring it, the hôtels particuliers that have become, most of them, lawyers’ offices or foundation headquarters or small museums. I’m captivated by the Haussmannian apartments on its northern face that have been handed down for generations, and that never seem to be occupied for more than a few weeks at a time. I can sometimes see, on looking up while crossing the Boulevard de Courcelles, a glowing angle of shimmering sunlight through one particular corner window and I wonder who lives there, who works there, who takes for granted that view onto the regulated alleys of plane trees, onto the neat beds of flowers. I wonder who can look down or across and catch a glimpse of the 7 a.m. joggers, the 9 a.m. nannies, the 10 a.m. retirees or the noontime picnickers who tread the gravel paths, or who rest on the bird-splotched benches or who sprawl on the cultivated patches of lawn.

I rarely take the park for itself – a sort of folly, a sort of refuge, a sort of pause in a vexing day. It’s a park that remains urban, one that never lets me forget where I am, in the middle of a murmuring city, surrounded by prosperity, on the edge of someone else’s accomplishments. I take it for what it isn’t, that is, what it isn’t for me. I’ve walked through the Park Monceau to see it, of course, to inhabit it in stolen moments, but I visit it out of duty, because it’s there, and because I’m told I’m lucky to be living in this particular part of this arrondissement, where the 17th meets the 8th, where the bourgeois meet the nouveau riche, where the lucky freeloaders like me can savor at a tantalizing nearness the perfumed currency of other people’s easy luxury.

But the immediacy of my experience is always suffused with the forethought of regret. It’s as if I cannot enjoy the being there for itself, without wishing I might live it as someone other than who I am.

But then, I came to France to be myself as someone other than who I was. To learn a language that now feels familiar – but that will always be distant; to imbibe a culture where I will forever be foreign, and to live always on the outside of even any mundane adventure that I have here, because I continue somehow to believe that the authenticity of my sensations is invalid since I merely borrow time and place. As if my experience cannot be palpable because of how little I’m worth, or how little I’ve paid to be where I stay. Or of what I have learned without appreciating that for itself. I continue to dream of the lives within the apartments of elegant neighborhoods, of the homes and unsullied routines of people who might be me, but for their being anyone other than that. This, of course, makes them desirable, until I know who they are.

But then, I’m not alone in such thoughts.

Two French friends of mine, former neighbors, ex-voisins du palier, are soon moving to Dublin for her work. “It will be nicer for the children to live in Ireland for a few years,” one said to me, as the couple’s two-year-old scampered around their airy living room, which looks out onto the Avenue de Wagram. “To live away from here. To be somewhere different. We want to give them more opportunity. We want something better than what they can have in Paris.” They’re a young professional couple, well-heeled already and still open to change – unlike many French – and eager to live elsewhere for the chance to continue to learn. As I believed I had done myself, in my way, in creating a life in France.

“I know their type,” my friend Raoul once said to me after he’d met them: “Bobos.” That is, the privileged bohemian bourgeois who feel entitled to everything that’s been handed to them. But she’s a lawyer, I said, and he’s in software. They work for what they have.

Raoul brushed this away. He himself had been an oil-company executive. He had inherited a fabulous apartment on the chic Avenue Junot in Montmartre. His dining-room window frames the Eiffel Tower. His living room terrace takes in the church of the Sacré Cœur and the motionless blades of the Moulin de la Galette – those coveted views of a sought-after Paris, those clichés of far-away ardor. His family had bequeathed him three houses on four acres overlooking the Garonne River, just outside of Toulouse, and he’d also inherited two apartment buildings in the city. He was privileged by being an only child.

But for him it’s not the same as what my ex-neighbors have. He considers himself to be a man of the land and a son of the country, while others – it’s always others – have had things handed to them, without the anchoring reality of whatever it is that constitutes an acceptable patrimony to someone who prefers to believe that others are as dismissive of him as he is of them. I see in him the tortured path of my own self disdain, but rather than my pining for the lives I cannot have because of who I am, he scorns those who may perhaps have created more opportunity than he, because he has become someone who has had to accept what he was given, rather than forge a way ahead for himself.

Perhaps that’s what I’m like too. Though I still believe I’m something of a sham, a cross between an obtuse know-it-all and a petty cultural charlatan whose ignorance lies beneath a cracked veneer of optimistic curiosity. But then perhaps I’ve also become more French for all of that – for examining yearning with the cynicism of the ready-to-be disappointed, despite the continuing wonder I take in the everyday world, and the privilege I’m grateful for when I’m actually present for what I see, when I chose to look away from what I cannot be, or have, to accept what I have grown into despite myself.

The other day I walked again through Parc Monceau, on my way elsewhere. I came upon a little plaque that marks the spot where in 1797 the daring adventurer André-Jacques Garnerin carried out the world’s first parachute descent. The plaque is placed along an allée that fronts a block of apartments and private homes. It’s perched before the hedge-covered fence of a plutocrat’s backyard. You can barely make out his humble outdoor table and chairs arranged in a white plastic semicircle half-hidden behind the memorial to former greatness. I wonder what they think of Garnerin, or if they even do, or if it matters what they think, since this park is everyone’s. Even mine. In any event, they only see the back of the plaque, if they notice it at all.

Myself, I’ve accomplished nothing that will be remembered with a plaque of any sort. But I do at least understand what it means to take a leap. This actually matters, in the way such things do when you realize that, regardless of your fame or exploits, you will at some point look beyond a fence into a world you cannot have. This matters when I chose to ignore the contempt with which I sometimes contemplate the unobtainable riches in Paris or New York that are nevertheless open to me no matter how much or how little I pay for where I stay or what I do, or for how I managed to be where I am, in the face of my reluctance to be one with who I happen to be at that moment. This matters regardless of what I tell myself I should have been. It’s only a park after all. And I’m only a visitor.

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