My friend Olivier likes to collect English-language phrases or expressions, although his English is often rather approximate. A few weeks ago he asked me the term in English for someone with newly acquired wealth who’s a bit ostentatious about it. “Nouveau riche,” I said. “We use the French.” But, I added, we sometimes refer to a certain discreet family wealth as “old money.”
“It can’t be very old in America,” Olivier said. I told him that money was money, old or new, if it did what you needed it to do. But that didn’t matter to him. His attitude is like that of many French: it’s important to know the provenance of your life, and if your family has generations of history with which you’re familiar, then your life and perhaps even your money have more relative value.
Olivier’s attitude is similar to that of a not-inconsiderable number of French, in that he wants to trace his family far, far back into the past, and would love more than anything to prove a connection to Charlemagne or even Clovis, the first king of the Franks. Lineage still means something for many people here, even if that lineage can be irrelevant to how you conduct your life in the present. But in France, who you were counts a lot for who you are. A “de” affixed to a surname still connotes a noble family, which can add luster to your résumé, especially in a country that despite its vaunted “liberté, égalité, fraternité” still harbors a deep respect for those accidents of birth that provide social standing and an aristocratic stature, however faded.
Even Parisians from elsewhere – and many Parisians are from somewhere else – are proud to let you know what region of France defined them. If you’re foreign-born you’ll always be a foreigner, and your sense of your own place – that is, your sense of how where you were raised affected who you became – is of less importance to the French because you weren’t born in France. The French aren’t any more or less xenophobic than are people of most nations – but in France defining yourself by your past or your family’s past is also a way of excluding those whose past isn’t as well-documented as your own.
Still, as interesting as it is to know where you came from genealogically speaking, it’s also fascinating to see how the places where you live arose. Often from the pasts of others. And like your birth, you have no control over that past, even if you’d like to embellish it to favor yourself.
I thought about this the other evening when a group of us were celebrating the birthday of our friend Raoul. Raoul has a beautiful apartment in Montmartre on the chic Avenue Junot (where quite a few artists, singers and movie folk have homes – in French terms, very new money). From his living room, you can see the Sacré-Cœur, and from his dining room, the Eiffel Tower. The apartment where he lives – and which he inherited from a cousin – is in a building that was constructed in the 1920s, which is virtually yesterday in French terms. Definitely not old money.
Our friend Annie-Claude organized a soirée culturelle at the Musée de Montmartre, a five-minute walk from chez Raoul. The museum is dedicated to the history and spirit of this part of Paris, and it has old posters, paintings, an artist’s workshop and even an example of a typical zinc bar of the pre-war era that had been saved from being melted down for armaments during World War II by being hidden in a basement. We wandered around the museum with a sense of wonder at what we didn’t know about the neighborhood where several of us present have actually lived for decades. Raoul and company, like many Parisians, had rarely visited this cultural center, taking for granted an acquaintance with their neighborhood from what friends and family passed along to them.
We came across a painting of the construction of Avenue Junot, at the turn of the 20th century, La butte Montmartre et l’emplacement de l’avenue Junot, a 1910 work by Alfred Renaudin, a little-known local artist. Everyone hovered around the painting, as if to touch the past just out of reach, evidence of the present being up the road but remnants of the past here before us in oil. The apartment building where Annie-Claude lives, just down the block from Raoul, was clearly visible on the upper left of the canvas. Raoul’s apartment was absent – it wouldn’t be built for another fifteen years or so. The region had been home to farmland and vignobles, and Montmartre was for a long while a quartier in progress. The world changes around you, even if you think you give yourself a sense of solidity by sticking to a story of how ancient your family is or where you’re from. We all do this, of course – but this tends to be more codified in France, since history is woven into lineage.
Still, it’s good to be reminded that things weren’t always there, regardless of how far back you believe your family line stretches. Someone is always new somewhere, even if someone else can still claim superiority because of supposed connections. Because we want to matter in the present, and because most of us struggle to be relevant even to ourselves, we look for ways to assert our worth and create histories to back that up. So we give credit to a past we don’t really know, we take pride in relatives we will never meet, we savor qualities we ascribe to those known unknowns. We’re all descendants of someone, and most of those someones are forgotten. Still, believing in those forebears is interesting if ultimately, irrelevant, unless you think that you are somehow better than those around you because you affixed a name to an abstraction from another age.
I was thrilled to see that painting of an era just before my friend’s apartment was built, to consider a contemporary view of a dissolved past. I had a real connection with that painting, because it represented a tangible act of capturing a moment in time. It’s a neighborhood I know, and an artist caught something of life, or at least of place, for people he would never meet. The painting made me think less of descendants and ancestors than of the changes that occur around us while we aren’t actually looking at what we have, or when we aren’t trying to fashion a history to prove to ourselves that we matter.