Beyond Complacency in Paris

img_8145We are never at home, we are always beyond. When I’m in New York, I think of when I’ll be again in Paris. And in Paris, I think of the end of my stay and when I can return. I’m at ease in both New York, where I was born and spent the greater part of my life, and in Paris, where I’ve built a new life that seems, always, somehow ineluctable. I know now that this is who I’ve come to be: someone who creates stability in a state of temporary living. When I move about, I transport myself by anticipation of another place that has become comfortable, yet that remains strange and ultimately unknowable.

When I first began to live in France a few years ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I simply wanted to change what I had been doing, in order to see beyond what I had gotten used to. Not that I’d done much, but no matter. And this isn’t to say that I didn’t take pleasure in the everyday – life is poor if you can’t appreciate the living for what it is, an accumulation of rare moments of breathless wonder mixed with long minutes of unconscious breathing. I take as much pleasure from a cloudless sky over Riverside as I do a moonrise over Parc Monceau, and as much interest in the subtle changes to my neighborhood in New York as in those several arrondissements where I’ve stayed in Paris.

I need to shake things up. Still, I hadn’t determined when I first decided to spend a few months in Paris that I would be coming back again and again, that it would become my other destination, that I would call certain neighborhoods mine with as much propriety as if I’d grown up there. I had no expectations, certainly. I wanted to experience another country not as a visitor, that is, not as someone passing through, but as a resident, even if a temporary one. But I cannot be overconfident of what I am there, as much as I come to understand, or believe I comprehend with a certain amount of hesitation, my corner of France.

At first, I didn’t know what it was I wanted to accomplish in Paris, if indeed accomplishment had even been on my mind. What I wanted, or perhaps more accurately, what I seemed to think I had been yearning toward, was the possibility that I would become alive to differences, to other ways of seeing, to a further knowledge of culture and custom. More particularly, to other ways of living, to another way of looking at life.

The other night someone asked me what preparations I had taken to get ready to embark on my Parisian adventure, beyond deciding to undertake it in the first place. My friend had asked me that first – why I had decided to do what I did – but I couldn’t provide an answer other than to say that I didn’t want to stagnate in big-city provincialism. To prepare for my first trip, I’d obtained my Irish citizenship and Irish passport, thinking it would be easier to move about that way. I spent a few hours working with a French tutor to brush up on my ancient high school French. And I slogged through a couple of useless levels of Rosetta Stone. That was about it.

The more important preparation wasn’t language learning or even dual citizenship. It was realizing how little I knew about the world and being okay with this realization. In fact, this actually makes me happy, even as it always surprises me. Like a lot of people who’ve grown up in New York, I can certainly be an arrogant know-it-all. At the same time, I know that I cannot become too complacent about anything, at least in good conscience (complacency is a failure of perspective, in any event), since I’m always coming up against what I don’t know (even if in the past that didn’t stop me from pretending that I had the answer to everything). Which I why I think I continue to go back to Paris, because I’m always new there, and always newer when I return to New York. A little wiser, but still always humbled by how much I have yet to learn. This humility is a good thing, a form of kindness for, rather than a scorning at, my limitations, which somehow opens me up to change, and helps me forgive a life of squandered opportunities.

I have also come to understand that I know very little about how others actually live, and that I want to discover this, not to pry, but to understand the choices others make. This isn’t a cultural position as much as it is a moral one. It’s too easy to become used to my own way of doing things, or to my own limited perspective. When I let possibility replace preconceptions, when I allow myself to be wrong, I no longer risk looking at the world through dismissive eyes. The realization that other people are as fully human as myself is one that in the grappling everyday I tend to push aside in favor of being judgmental. This is why I am so often now both here and there, to be more than I am at any one place.

Shortly after I first started living part-time in France, I became acquainted with a couple of Americans who lived there, Bob and Jerry. Bob spoke adequate French (better than I did at the time), and Jerry didn’t speak at all (he wasn’t too talkative in his native language either). Once a Parisian asked him a simple question about how to find the metro, and I saw Jerry’s face freeze in panic. He couldn’t respond  – either through not wanting to be wrong or by having refused to learn the language of the country where he lived. I knew that I didn’t want to be like that. I could understand Jerry’s anxiety about mortification through ignorance – though the Parisian then switched to English – but I didn’t want to be trapped in that carapace of fear. I not only wanted to live in the language of the country where I chose to stay but, perhaps, more important, I didn’t want to isolate myself from the simple interactions that, whether they’re profound or quotidien, help define where we are, who we are and, in a way, what we remember, even if many of the acts themselves are unmemorable.

Perhaps that’s another reason I split my time between New York and Paris – to force myself out of solitude and into engagement, and to allow curiosity to become second nature.

One thought on “Beyond Complacency in Paris

  1. spot on Bob. I find that to be true no matter where i go. The dilemma for me is returning over and over again to a place that once was new and now becomes comfortable versus visiting an entirely new and unknown place.


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