Who You Are in France


I was left holding the cocotte.

Karine had returned to me the cast-iron Dutch oven that she and her boyfriend Paul-Guillaume had kept at their little storage unit outside of Paris. I’d bought this Le Creuset cocotte a while back when I’d invited them over to dinner, at the borrowed apartment where I’d been living in the 14th arrondissement. On my returning to New York that year, they had agreed to keep for me a bagful of clothes, books and this cocotte. It had stayed with them since then. Until that day in February, when they decided that my stuff, and I, were no longer worth holding onto.

A couple of years earlier, I would see Karine for coffee after my classes. She lived on the Rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondissement, about 10 minutes from the Alliance Française on Boulevard Raspail. She had suggested a series of French-language chats, on the understanding that at some point I’d return the favor in English.

I’d met Karine at a housewarming party about a month after my arrival in Paris, during my first extended stay. Her boyfriend Jean-Michel is a real estate agent who had found this place for my friend Daniel, the one French person I happened to know at that point.

I was eager to widen my circle of French acquaintances, and to improve my still-rudimentary French, and when I met Karine I was delighted to use this opportunity to get better at speaking. So we sat for an hour a few times a week at Le Rousseau, a little brasserie near her apartment.

She would explain various idiomatic expressions to me. She would offer me new phrases. She would provide lists of films I should see – French classics not well-known outside of France – carefully marking the titles in her large script (I noticed that even in France some people dotted their i’s with little hearts). She would correct the faulty French in my emails, changing the font to pink for emphasis. She would show which expressions or adjectives applied to persons, things, places or events. I’d once mentioned in an email that an evening had been ravishing but, she informed me in her horrified response – she had changed the pink font to red to indicate her alarm – that in French the word ravissant can only describe people.

Karine could be polite to the point of panic, as if a false step of any sort were, to her, unpardonable. In fact, she said “pardon” frequently, almost in place of “s’il vous plait” or “je vous en prie.” I noticed that her boyfriend Jean-Michel did this too, trained by Karine in aggressive self-effacement. I wondered what she told herself she was doing wrong when she said, “Merci, pardon,” or “Je vous en prie, pardon,” pardon, pardon, pardon like a mea culpa after the merest exchange.

Little by little I found myself on my guard with her. I couldn’t quite put a finger on what made me uneasy, or why I wanted to keep her at a slight remove. At the time I believed it was simply my inadequate ability to translate.

I overlooked barely disguised short-temperedness and half-hidden self-involvement because of my own awkwardness in France, and in French. I wondered if this relation, such as it was, was purely transactional. I began to question my honesty in meeting with someone who left me ill at ease even as she helped me. And I noticed that I’d begun adding “pardon” to innocuous phrases.

Still, I continued to see Karine and her terrorized boyfriend socially, but as my own circle of friends in Paris grew, our chats fell away and I saw her less. I was glad of the growing distance.

In fact, I don’t believe I ever really liked Karine. But it was she who dropped me.

She had spent the previous Christmas season in New York, a long-held wish of hers to do as I had done: to plunge into another culture. I was able to provide her with English-language conversation in New York, as she had done for me in Paris. But I couldn’t give her the fairytale skyscraper Manhattan fantasy that she had so yearned for. In fact, the dowdier apartment I’d arranged for her at a fraction of the cost of the expensive East Side aerie she’d rented and cancelled, was far below what she felt that someone of her taste and sensitivity demanded. Her anger and disappointment colored her entire New York experience. And me with it. She believed I didn’t understand her artistic nature.

Karine had come to New York to bathe herself in English, but beneath that was something grander, and also something un peu triste. She wanted to see if she might finally break through as an actress. On Broadway.

Karine earned a living as a production secretary for films but at heart, she said, she was a comedienne. She hadn’t appeared in many roles, but had had a few wordless walk-ons and had acted in an 8-minute film as a mute captive of some sort. And she had met a New York actor on a film set who said he might be able to help her. But her lack of success in cracking open any doors in New York (and very few in Paris) might have contributed to her dissatisfaction there and, by extension, to her disenchantment with me, while her inability to make a career out of what she truly believed herself to be, undoubtedly added to the bitterness shimmering behind the pink-colored fonts of her email corrections.

I could certainly sympathize with her, up to a point – many of us endure the disillusion of realizing that we aren’t what we hoped, or that we haven’t chosen wisely, or that our talents don’t live up to our expectations. Many of use our experiences to move beyond the sad awareness of our own limitations. How galling it must have been for Karine to book accommodations or to handle transportation for film stars, knowing that she herself would never be accorded similar courtesies, that she herself would remain behind the scenes. How frustrating for her that the chances of succeeding at what she had so longed for were increasingly distant and probably unrealizable.

But all of us, none more than I, have had to live with our irrelevance. How you move through that, how you come to terms with what you wanted for yourself and what you became means the difference between lasting bitterness and a continuing realistic hope for personal change, regardless.

I hadn’t come to France imagining I’d become a famous writer. In immersing myself in the French language and culture, I didn’t expect I would emerge as someone I had not yet become: celebrated. I had chosen to live in France because I wanted to get beyond where I was. I hadn’t achieved anything notable in my career, but I had sought nevertheless to deepen my experiences so that, despite my continuing and doubtless lasting insignificance, I could still push against the limits of what I knew, and who I was, and even live a fuller life after having failed again and again, and again.

I’ve come to see that for me, success comes in moments of quiet recognition rather than public acclamation, in knowing that while most doors remain closed to me, I can at least open myself onto the world in another fashion. I can grow and learn and fail and still be myself, without the chafing sense that I am useless. It isn’t true. Obscurity isn’t a value. And I don’t have to ask “pardon” for simply living out of the limelight.

But I wondered whether Karine had examined who she truly was, or where she should be, or if she would continue calling herself an actress while doing something else entirely. I wondered whether her disappointments would continue to shape how she dealt with others. Behind the relentless “pardons” was a kind of fierce imprecation: Notice me for who I believe I am.

I see these things in her now, after no longer seeing her, because I have learned in France a different way of seeing myself. I’m still not celebrated, but I’m something else: someone who, for the most part, no longer pretends. Perhaps that’s a form of success, realizing that you might be worthy in yourself rather than for how you expect the world to regard you. Such things never align anyway, but we can waste our lives worrying about them. It wasn’t Karine’s own angry and diminished sense of herself that made me question spending time with her – it was how she conducted herself as a result of those lingering disappointments that gave me pause. For her part, she might have had similar notions about me. Or she had simply grown to dislike me. She despised easily.

I saw even less of Karine after her Manhattan misadventures and my own return to Paris. This happens. People drift. I was rather relieved that I wouldn’t have to carry on with what passed for friendship with her. And my stuff in storage had completely slipped my mind.

But on a February morning a couple of weeks after returning from New York, and after calling me to let me know they’d be showing up, Karine and Jean-Michel drove to my neighborhood and delivered my half-forgotten horde.

Bon courage, Robert,” she said, after handing me my cast-iron casserole, and as Jean-Michel lay the overstuffed canvas duffel at my feet, on the sidewalk before the apartment house.

I thanked them for holding onto my things for so long. I didn’t mention my relief at this end to whatever it was that our acquaintance had become. No one had to explain this. We stood there for a moment.

Bonne journée,” Karine said finally, turning to leave. “Merci. Pardon.”

They got into Jean-Michel’s little Renault, and I watched it putter off. I lugged everything up to the apartment.

I placed the cast-iron cocotte on the stove. Perhaps I’d make something special for dinner that night. Maybe lamb. Un gigot d’agneau aux haricots blancs.

I remembered that Karine hated lamb.




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