After several years of splitting my time between New York and Paris, I’ve found that beyond acquiring another language, which is a feat in itself, I’ve learned to stop myself from generalizing, or even assuming that I know what I’m talking about.
It’s easy to become a shallow windbag if you’ve spent a few weeks living abroad, because you can pass off glancing familiarity as expertise to people who haven’t been where you are. Not that anyone really bothers about what you know. This has been a big revelation for me, who can be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to self-knowledge: Few people, if any, care about your experience. Unless that experience involves them directly. Or unless it creates in them the desire to experience something themselves. But it doesn’t usually involve you.
For a brief few moments when I first began this continuing adventure in Paris, I thought that my growing superficial knowledge of French cultural touchstones would do more than allow me to comprehend various conversational allusions so that I could participate in discussions or understand headlines or references in articles. I believed that it would ennoble me somehow in the eyes of others, as if I had any control over that. But no one cares what I know, unless somebody happens to share the same appreciation for a cultural benchmark as I do. But such yardsticks are only interesting, really, to those who acquire them. And only if they help you know more about the world where you live. That is, if you choose to. It all depends on what you’ve decided actually matters to you.
Earlier today, strolling around the Rue Lepic near the Moulin de la Galette, I came across a group of visitors who were staring up at a marble plaque affixed to a high wall that indicated that the performer Dalida had lived in that house beyond the wall. Dalida, who committed suicide about 30 years ago, was a beloved singer in Europe and elsewhere in the world, though pretty much unknown in the United States. She’s become the subject of further recent news because of a film bio that opened last week in France. I myself became acquainted with her career only after I started living here part-time a few years ago, but I can do no more than appreciate at a remove her life, her death, her singing, and the tragedies that beset her – certainly not with the same passive fervor of the people who lingered beneath the plaque, for whom Dalida’s songs and Dalida herself surely meant something more than the name of a popular performer of another era. I know who she was, but who she was and where she lived mean little to me.
Living abroad for a few months a year opens me up to new discoveries and to possibilities, certainly, and my research into the culture here helps me place certain things in context, even if what I know has little resonance beyond that. But to think that way is to question the very worth of knowledge, and I don’t want to do that, though I admit that I sometimes substitute a facility with retaining facts for actual insights into human nature.
Still, I was more taken today upon seeing again the tomb of the director Marcel Carné, in the little cemetery of Saint-Vincent, near the Lamarck-Caulaincourt metro station in the 18th arrondissement. Perhaps this was because I was acquainted more with Carné’s work, such as his great film Les Enfants du Paradis, which concerns the nature of art, foolish love and your perception of your place in the world, than with the music of Dalida. Or perhaps this was because I chose to find it romantic that Carné’s onetime partner, an actor named Roland Lesaffre, was buried beside him.
I ascribed a resonance to Carné, to his tomb and to his place in the little-visited cemetery, because of what many of his films have meant to me, while at the same time I passed without much regard the group of folks who looked up longingly at where Dalida had lived. Dalida’s life, her music, her death, were so much more to them than I could possibly comprehend. I could imagine their passion for her, but I couldn’t substitute my awareness of that with anything more than a respect for something that others felt that I did not. But that doesn’t matter: they couldn’t know what I felt, or have the same experiences I had of seeing Carné’s films, or of coming upon his grave in a lonely little cemetery on a chilly gray midwinter afternoon, a grave on which a few other visitors had placed used metro tickets, alongside a small plaque that read, à mon ami. I don’t know why, but those few tickets, similar to those I’ve seen placed on other tombstones in other French cemeteries, made me think, in a cheaper way than do Carné’s films, of the nature of longing and the impossibility of knowing someone else. But then, I read all of that into a few morsels of trash on a quiet grave. So what do I know?
Living abroad shows me the limits of my knowledge, of course. I actually do know more about certain things today than I did a few years ago, when I began to create a part-time life in Paris. I came to France because I’m ignorant of so much and I wanted to be less provincial, and because I’m curious, and because even though my experiences abroad are only mine, they count for something if they lead me to change, to become less judgmental, more open to the outside, more aware in general of the varieties of human experience. Such experiences at least provide me with a sense of who I am, as fluid as that knowledge or sense might be, and a sense of what I learn as well, when I take steps to experience life from another culture’s reference points.
And if I recount my experiences or even the silly little things I come across, it’s to show that a middle-aged man of no great accomplishment can actually achieve something, even if it’s just a hint at self-awareness. And also that the random facts acquired in a foreign city count for much, even if for now they’re manifest only in the realization that I still want to know more about the everyday wonders of the wider world, because although these might matter only to me, my knowing them will affect how I matter to myself.