Anyone who visits France or who spends time here regularly has faced strikes. It’s a fact of French life: at one point or another, your train will be cancelled or your flight delayed or your museum closed because a union has called a work stoppage of some sort.
The most recent strike, which began December 5, is slowly winding down after many weeks. The strikers – mainly railway workers – have been protesting proposed changes to the retirement system. What’s surprising isn’t the protests. People are uneasy that the government wants to replace the current system of 42 separate pension plans. These are confusing and they can differ according to profession, with railway workers getting a particularly generous retirement, which can include free bus and rail transportation for life and the possibility of retiring in one’s 50s. The different plans are considered inequitable. That’s a given. But what’s surprising is that so many people of different professions (including lawyers and ballet dancers) have protested while not a single one of them has seen any details of the proposed changes. The details will not be made public until later in the month. So, people are objecting to the idea of change rather than what the change may actually be.
This is very French. The French love to theorize and speculate – philosophy is an essential part of French high school education – and the idea of something can be more powerful than the reality. In fact, some people accept a dubious reality because the idea behind it is so powerful, such as the badly aging Pompidou Center. Sure, the idea of making the outside of a museum look like the inside of a factory probably seemed cool in the 1970s. But over four decades later, the museum, rather than gleaming as Europe’s greatest repository of modern art, resembles a dirty abandoned mill that hasn’t yet been reclaimed and restored by a new generation that has come to its senses. Still, as a French friend of mine said when I mentioned how unattractive and uninviting the Pompidou was, “But it is such a very good idea for a museum.”
For many French, pension reform is a very, very bad idea. It doesn’t matter, actually, that no details of the plan have been revealed. The plan, whatever it is, can only be detrimental to a hard-fought French way of life. And yes, the protests, as many have noted, are decidedly class-driven. As elsewhere, people in France are fed up with brazen income inequality. Many young and not-so-young French have seen the financial and social advancement that benefitted their parents fade away in the face of dehumanizing globalization. Many others feel hopeless at the continuing erosion of services outside big cities, such as weaker public transportation or less-available medical care.
I understand this. What’s a little harder to understand is why the French consider President Emmanuel Macron to be the cause of all current unhappiness. The abiding hatred that many French have for him is puzzling to me. It’s true that Macron can seem lofty and distant, blithely professorial rather than warmly collegial, more at home reciting facts than connecting with people – a particular know-it-all French trait that the French tolerate in each other or when talking to foreigners but don’t seem to like in their elected officials. But have the French seen what’s been going on overseas? They envision a more restricted retirement funding diminishing their future way of life, while an American wonders why they’re always so upset, given that they already have excellent free healthcare, free education and five weeks of annual vacation guaranteed by law, among other things most Americans can only dream of.
It’s true that Macron tends to ignore quotidian concerns as he addresses larger issues – such as how the government will pay for the retirement of future generations given how expensive the various pension plans are. But he doesn’t speak, at least in the minds of many French, to what’s going on for people in how they go about their days: having enough money to live on now and when they’re older. The French are theoretical, but even their tolerance for abstract ideas has its limits when it comes to paying the monthly bills.
The strikes have been inconvenient for many, including me, but I am nevertheless impressed by this fervent French commitment to protest. It’s true that Parisians have naturally grown tired of the strike after a month and a half, but they understand the importance of expressing oneself this way. I sometimes value myself so little that I see something noble in this innate French sense of self-worth. It says something about how much the French think of themselves that people will take to the streets to assert their own value even before they’re aware of what exactly will hurt them.
At a pause during a dîner d’adieu at Raoul’s apartment a couple of months ago, on the chic Avenue Junot in Montmartre, I stepped out from his living room onto the balcony, to catch a final glimpse of the Moulin de la Galette and the domes of the church of the Sacré-Cœur. I had just taken a last look at the perfectly framed Eiffel Tower through Raoul’s dining-room window. I was saying goodbye to a home I would never see again.
Raoul had sold his apartment, which he had inherited from a cousin twenty-five years earlier, to live full-time in the house where he grew up in Blagnac just outside of Toulouse, on the banks of the Garonne River. Like many French, Raoul feels a stronger pull for the terroir of his youth than for the city of his adulthood.
I myself have never felt grounded to a particular place. I am often an outsider in my own life. Although I am at home in both Paris and New York, I am still rootless and roaming. My personal relations are part-time and sometimes at a distance. My visits to my family are rare, fleeting and without engagement. I am not really a part of anywhere. I chose this. I didn’t let this happen by accident. I wanted to expand my horizons by creating a life in France, but I realize now that I probably also wanted to enable a rootless one. I possess little except evanescent experiences and then sometimes reluctantly. I deny myself ownership of what I see, feel and do, since I often consider that I’m not worth the effort to create anything lasting, be it a home, a relationship, or a career.
At the same time, I cherish those chances to live beyond who I am, to be present in the rare moments of belonging that I have found in the homes of friends in New York and Paris, who live as I wish I could, but never will, who are grounded and secure in themselves, who have built lives that matter. I have not yet learned what Montaigne called the most certain sign of wisdom, to know how to belong to oneself. I do care what I am to myself, as Montaigne advised, but only so much.
Several years ago, I spent six weeks in Raoul’s apartment, while he spent six weeks in mine in New York. I made myself at home chez lui, inviting French friends up to see the kind of apartment, with the kind of views, that impress even seen-it-all Parisians. Despite its cramped kitchen and wonky plumbing, Raoul’s was my ideal of a Parisian home: carved molding on the walls and ceiling, marble fireplaces and mirrors in every room, long windows that diffused the city’s shifting northern light onto the old parquet and worn furniture. It informed my sense of what it was to live abroad, to be part of another city. To have a different sort of life, a little like the one I have created in borrowing other people’s homes.
That apartment is now part of my past – it is part of the past of all of Raoul’s friends – some of whom have become mine too. We dined there in groups or simply en famille, as Raoul would say, with him and his companion Philippe. Birthdays, New Year’s Eve, Bastille Day to watch the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower. Over the years Raoul has even hosted several dinners for me before I’d return to New York – a dîner d’au revoir, or see you again, rather than, as the other day, a dîner d’adieu, or farewell.
So, I bade farewell to his home, which is now another Parisian memory in a city that lives on remembrances of things past.
I’m sure I’ll see Raoul in Blagnac. His house there, old-fashioned and sturdy, bears the weight of another time, the traditions of another place, the security of attachment born of property and inheritance. I like it there.
But because it isn’t a home that might remind me of something I would wish to have, were I someone who I am not, it has never stirred in me the temporary reverie of belonging that I felt in his Parisian apartment, which now also belongs to another time, but one that at least, for a few faded moments, was also mine.
This will be the first summer when I don’t send my sister Liz a postcard from Paris.
People don’t really write postcards these days, preferring to share digital snapshots, but Liz wasn’t on social media and my sister Deb often reminded me that it would make Liz happy if I remembered her this way. So, each time I arrived in France over the last several years I would find for Liz an image of the Eiffel Tower or a Parisian street scene, offering her a faint, idealized idea of what I might see as I went about my day, far from her in New York.
When I saw Liz at family functions, she thanked me for thinking of her from abroad. We didn’t really engage with each other outside of Christmas or the occasional birthday or graduation cookout. She didn’t get out much, her manic depression having shrunk her world to a small unlovely apartment in Queens. In a way, I was the wider world for her. In a way, she was the world I might have been reduced to if I had not escaped the demons of my own addictions or if I, like she, had succumbed to mental illness.
“What’s new in Paris?” Liz would ask whenever we’d meet, as if she’d been there before and was checking up on familiar sights. What she was really asking, of course, was that I help broaden her perspective by telling her about the France I’ve come to know and the French I’ve met and befriended and fallen in love with. I kept my answers vague and short. I’m not a natural raconteur. I’m private with my family, even with my friends, and I tend to play down events in my life. I’m not sure if this is because I undervalue my listener, or myself, or my own experiences. With Liz, I let my brief postcards do the talking. That is, I said little beyond the surface.
But I did send her postcards, at least. In France, I also send thank-you notes, to people who’ve hosted me for dinner. My friend Gilles, who’s a bit old-fashioned, refers to these only half-joking as my lettres de château, the formal letters you’d write to your hosts after spending some time as a guest at their home. In any event, thank-you notes of any sort, like postcards, are rarely written and sent today.
They’ve been important for me, however. Committing even the most anodyne phrases to paper is a sign of respect for people who’ve taken the time to make you welcome. In writing these cards, I also practice my written French, without having to reveal anything of myself other than that I enjoyed dinner (though I also send notes even if dinner wasn’t all that good). These letters have proved successful and my French friends appreciate them. My friend Odette and her husband Renaud have hosted me for dozens of dinners at their apartment, and Odette tells me that she keeps my thank-you cards as a way of noting my progress in a language I’ve only come to learn in recent years. “You’ve even developed your own style in French,” she said, “like a true writer.”
I usually say nothing in these notes, but I nevertheless manage to say it elegantly which, in France, can actually carry more weight than deep pensées about the state of the world.
My sister Liz sent me a thank-you note in April. I was able to attend her 60th birthday, which my six other sisters had organized, since I was just back in New York after two months in Paris. I sat next to Liz at dinner and, as usual, revealed little about what I had done between January and March, except to mention some places I’d visited and the week I spent seeing my boyfriend in southwest France. Never enough, but more than I usually allow myself to share.
“I was so glad you could make it for my birthday,” Liz wrote in her large, childish script. “Thank you being there to celebrate with me.” I didn’t know that her simple words of thanks would be her last to me, and my family hadn’t expected her to die last month – of causes we believe were related to her manic-depression too-long untreated. But at the time, I sensed on reading her card that she wasn’t merely writing empty phrases, a practice I had perfected. She really had been happy I was there. And I am grateful that I had a chance to see her shortly before she left this world.
Even if I’d known how little actual time remained for Liz, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming with her about what I’ve learned and loved in my recent years in France. Probably not. I keep such things too close to me. It’s easier to communicate by postcard or thank-you note than by revealing who I really am. I think Liz knew that. She was my sister, after all. I did not know the extent of the suffering she’d endured these last 25 years, nor did she share with me the state of her troubled mind. But she knew I thought of her when I sent her postcards. This wasn’t much, but it was as much of me as I was able to share. I hope she thought that was enough.
At a little open-air market in Foix, a small city in Ariège in the mid-Pyrenees region of southwestern France, I came upon a cheese stand selling local products. I’ve become fond of the area’s bethmale, a firm and tangy cow cheese, and its cousin toudeille, which can be made from cow, sheep or goat milk, or a combination. I picked up a bit of each from the seller. Then, tasting a delicious sample from a heavy wheel of cheese that the fromager was displaying on the counter, I bought a little bit of that too. I asked the vendor its name.
“There’s no name for it,” he said. “It’s simply a cheese from the Pyrenees.”
France has hundreds of cheeses, many named for their regions – the bethmale comes from a valley of that name where the cheese was first produced – and I was a little surprised that France, land of relentless categorization and insistent codification, allowed such a fine-flavored cheese to remain nameless. But some things, such as handmade local products sold locally by locals to locals – and to the occasional visitor – apparently fall outside the purview of the entrenched French bureaucratic mindset.
If I wanted more of that cheese the next time I visited my friend Jean in Foix, I’d have to be there on that same market day and find that same stand and hope that the same fromager would have that same anonymous cheese. But since cheese is a living thing it’s also ephemeral, and the cheese would not be exactly the same as the one I tasted. Besides, the cheesemaker’s supply depends on what is available to him and what he chooses to create. So, even if I wanted to find that cheese again, I’d have to rely on chance rather than count on certainty. I have come to expect certainty when I’m in France, because the French do so many things a certain way, though apparently with some exceptions, such as the making and naming of regional artisanal cheese.
I didn’t come to France to find certainty, however, but to be unsettled, or to find a place where being unsettled seemed more normal than it did at home in New York. I have a tendency to forge habits – a necessity when you work for yourself – that can become routine and that can insulate me from discovering what’s beyond my immediate view. This happens even in Paris, where so much remains unknown to me, even if so much is now comforting and familiar, though still beguiling. Although I finally feel that I belong, in a city where I will still always be a foreigner, I sometimes take for granted my growing familiarity with French culture, which can lead to complacency. So, even the trivial act of tasting a new and unnamed cheese created in me a slight and momentary sense of imbalance that not everything can be labeled. I’d had to appreciate a specific taste without knowing the name of what I’d tasted beyond the generic, and had to savor the moment, knowing that it would probably never be repeated. I was looking for a sure thing, but I had to accept uncertainty.
I’ve always lived in uncertainty, for my future, for my work, for who I am, for who I want to be and for what I’m worth. This is perhaps why the routines I create to establish order in my day often lead me to relying on habit that maintains stasis rather than using it as a springboard for leaping into the unknown. I remind myself that I must push myself to change, because I know that it’s too easy to become used to what I have, even if it’s not what I want. This is why I first began to build a recurring temporary life in Paris, so that I would have a series of set dates when I would have to move from one place to another. This would necessitate some sort of disorder in me, and I’d be shaken out of whatever everyday isolation I’d fallen into, an inadvertent apartness that I somehow cultivate, because I am by nature someone who prefers to be alone, as much as I long to connect. Perhaps my solitude is a way of remaining unknown, and perhaps unnamed, somehow there and somehow elusive, like that cheese I’d bought.
I was in Foix again a few weeks after I’d sampled that unnamed cheese, and I saw the same cheesemaker. I didn’t notice if he was displaying a wheel of cheese that might be similar to what I’d tasted before, because I was rushing to catch a train. But I overheard a group of English tourists being led through the market, who were marveling at the varieties of mainly local cheeses on display on that and other stands. “There are so many cheeses,” gushed one woman to the guide, “how can you remember them all?”
“Impossible,” she said, her French pronunciation making it seem both a fact and a challenge. “But you should try them.”
The trying, I thought, is the answer: I never know what I have when I have it, since it’s always later when I appreciate the time, the place, the food, the people, because I belittle the validity of my responses to whatever it is I encounter. That’s why I must try again and again, not simply to recreate an evanescent experience, though that will remain a frustrating constant in my character, but to thwart the self-abnegation that holds me back from appreciating the fullness of life.
And all that from a slice of cheese.
When I first served some new French friends blanquette de veau, a classic French dish, a few months after I arrived in Paris, I was told that my version wasn’t really French, as tasty as it was, because it differed from the classic preparation that millions of French grew up eating. I realized that certain French classics must be prepared in a particular way in order to be worthy of the classic name. And if you’re an American serving French food to the French, you’ve got to be careful of doing anything that strays from the standard recipe.
So, I began to call any vaguely French dishes that I served something else. If I prepared a slightly different version of blanquette de veau that included peas or fennel – something green that wouldn’t appear in a classic version of the dish – I’d call it simply a veal stew. My French friends would then be able to enjoy what I’d cooked without the cognitive dissonance of eating one thing while knowing in their hearts that it was not exactly the name by which they’d known blanquette de veau all their lives.
The French can be literal-minded when it comes to cooking. Maybe because France is a nation of bureaucrats, and the French live in a society in which you are expected to follow certain customs, such as saying “Bonjour” when you enter a store or an elevator, the French are easily thrown by change. Since the French long ago codified their cuisine, any deviation from the way dishes have been prepared for generations may lead to suspicion. Especially if it’s not a French person who’s deviating from the culinary norm.
I once watched an episode of a competition show, La Meilleure Boulangerie de France, or the best bakery in France, that illustrated this in a different setting. One of the judges, an unimaginative stickler named Bruno Cormerais, who himself won a national award for his baking prowess, goes strictly by the book of accepted baking practices. Part of the competition involves making the pastry or bread most popular with customers. One baker in the south of France, an American who runs the bakery with her French husband, served the judges her brownies. The jingoistic judge criticized her choice, saying that while her brownies were good she should have demonstrated her baking skills with something more typical, regardless that her customers asked for her brownies all the time. The poor baker’s crime in this competition had been to offer something non-French at a French bakery.
The other night, I offered my guests a chicken that I’d braised with tomatoes, leeks, mushrooms, carrots and some leftover white wine. I’d mentioned to them that it was a very sort-of poule au pot, simply because it was a chicken I’d cooked in a pot but, unlike a poule au pot, it didn’t have potatoes or turnips or an onion studded with a couple of cloves. Sure enough, one of my guests said, on seeing the final dish, “When you told me it was poule au pot, I was confused.” I said that I’d never claimed it was an actual poule au pot, but something I’d come up with for a dinner à la bonne franquette, an expression the French use to mean a meal that is simple, unfussy and sometimes improvised. But even the passing reference to a poule au pot was enough to cause my friend Raoul’s bureaucratic brain to buckle slightly under the weight of unmet expectations when the poule wasn’t made au pot in the way it usually is.
Perhaps a French person cooking something similar to what I’d served wouldn’t have thought to mention the term poule au pot, since he or she would have known it was nothing like that dish, and instead simply called it tonight’s chicken. If he were planning to serve a poule au pot, he’d have made a poule au pot. I guess I want more wiggle room in using the names of French dishes. But then, that’s probably because I sometimes want them to be something other than they are.
Of course, I know that I do the same thing when I see French versions of American food in Paris. So, perhaps, I’m as literal-minded as I claim the French are.
There’s a very successful chain called O’Tacos here, whose tacos, if you could call them that, look and taste nothing like what you’d get at a taco truck in the U.S. (for example, the “taco” sauces you can choose from include harissa, mayonnaise and something called samurai). The frozen-food chain Picard held a recent monthlong celebration of American food, selling French versions of mac-and-cheese, pulled barbecued pork, bacon cheeseburgers, and even a birthday layer cake, among other dishes. Picard’s American food didn’t seem, to judge from the packaging, quite like the real thing you get in the States. I tried the mac-and-cheese – which the box claimed to be the best, authentic version of mac-and-cheese – just to see how closely it resembled one of the many versions you can get anywhere in America. While it was serviceable, it just didn’t taste like real mac-and-cheese.
Maybe if Picard had given it another name such as gratin des macaronis à l’américaine, I myself would have expected less of it and been willing to enjoy it more. A simple name change can make all the difference.
It’s always a winter of discontent in France. This winter might seem more discontented than others, but that’s because the discontentment has been publicized. The movement of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, just had its 10th weekend of protests, with no end in sight, and night after night you hear or see arguments, polemics, and discussion after discussion on television, radio and social media, about what it all means, where it’s all headed, what the gilets jaunes really want, what the consequences will be for the government of President Emmanuel Macron and when and if it will ever end.
Each Saturday since mid-November, thousands of people have demonstrated in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and other cities, and have occupied roundabouts and toll stops throughout France, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently, to protest their unhappiness with how their lives are unfolding, and their powerlessness to do any better against “the system.” What began as a criticism against a gasoline tax has morphed into a semi-organized ad hoc movement of generalized grievance, a cry against helplessness in the face of government indifference and of a society that pays more attention to the privileged than to the people beyond the “périphérique, that is, anyone who doesn’t live within the confines of the road that encircles the nation’s capital or, by extension, anyone who isn’t well-connected.
While it’s been tempting for me as an American to wonder at the misery of people living in a society with free medical care and education – despite the relatively high taxes that support these social services – and to compare it with the situation in the United States under a mean-spirited government reeking of corruption, greed and incompetence, I realize that politics is local and the two situations are not the same, even though discontentment is widespread in both countries. The French aren’t living in the United States, and they have their own concerns about social mobility, the cost of living and their place in the world. In regions far from Paris, people also have a growing sense that they are being left to fend for themselves. As much as the French like to complain about their government, they are accustomed to a bureaucracy that provides them with much in their lives. And while many French depend on these services, many are also increasingly under the impression that the haves are paying far less in taxes than the have-nots. Inequality – along with the social unrest that erupts from it – is really at the heart of the gilets jaunes movement.
Something more is at stake here too, though. Many demonstrators among the gilets jaunes – putting aside attempts by far-right and far-left groups to coopt the movement for their own anarchical, xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic ends – are frustrated because they feel they are shouting into the wind. The movement has grown, and has had legs, because people are tired of being ignored.
As Alain Bauer, a guest on the topical talk show C Dans l’Air said recently, “We have a long history of regular clashes between a state that only begins to listen when it’s facing radicalized opposition, and an opposition that says, ‘If you’re not radicalized no one listens to you.’” In other words, the French realize that sometimes it takes a revolution to change the way things are done.
In response to this countrywide despondence, the government has launched a series of public discussions, called le grand débat, where people can meet at their city or town halls, and discuss the issues of the day – or what’s bugging them. One held last week in Brittany, where President Macron spoke with some 700 mayors of towns in the region, lasted for seven hours, during which he responded to all the questions that the mayors proposed – many of the mayors reading from lists of questions or problems that their electors had written. The grand débat will go on for another two months.
Before the start of the grand débat, people had the opportunity to write in cahiers de doléances, or notebooks of grievances, to express their anger or anything else on their mind, so that it might be aired as a topic of discussion. This is a practice that dates to the 14th century. It was a register in which assemblies noted wishes, requests and complaints that were later addressed to the state by the local representatives. It was most famously used in 1789 to reflect the demands of the French at a time of significant unrest, when Louis XVI, unaware of what people actually wanted – in the timeless, clueless way of so many sovereigns – sought their opinions in writing. Some historians have seen parallels between what was written in these registers during the French Revolution and what people are writing in today’s cahiers de doléances, particularly regarding taxation and “a wish to be heard at the highest level,” said Michel Starter, director of the departmental archives in Aisne, France, speaking during a television segment about the registers.
Some of those who wish to be heard, particularly among the gilets jaunes, say they want to be heard personally. I just saw a television clip of someone wearing a yellow vest, speaking at a town assembly, who said that while he was all for the mayors acting on behalf of their citizens, he really wanted someone to listen to him himself. He was less interested in representative government than in direct access to people in power. I don’t know if this will ever be possible, or what this will mean going forward for either the gilets jaunes movement or for the evolution of France’s democratic system, but it speaks to people’s sense of isolation both from power and from something perhaps even more powerful: actually being heard.
Even in France, where people love to talk and, above all, to complain – in what other country would you find a public register of grievances? – I’m not sure if anyone actually hears what another person really has to say. One of the things I have found in the work I’ve done as a writing coach is how rarely people feel that they are heard in life, that they are paid attention to, that their thoughts are validated by someone taking them, and what they have to say, seriously.
Multiply that by several hundred thousand souls, and you have a sense of why the gilets jaunes movement has such staying power.
A few weeks ago, as I walked down the rue Fortuny, which I often take on the way to or from my gym or the Malesherbes metro station, I saw that the door was open at of one of the many private houses that still line this street in the 17th arrondissement.
I had often wondered what the interior of this particular hôtel particulier might look like. The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol had lived there for about 17 years, which I had learned from the eye-level plaque beside the house’s bright red door.
The Rue Fortuny seems to have had more than its fair share of famous inhabitants, in a city dense with them. The actress Sarah Bernhardt had a home on this street. The writer Edmond Rostand wrote his most famous and enduring play Cyrano de Bergerac at a house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony. A Mediterranean-looking hôtel belonging to the 19th century’s most notorious courtesan, known as La Belle Otero, still stands a few yards down the block (it’s now home to a financial services firm). The home and atelier of the renowned pâtissierPierre Hermé – who reinvented the macaron about a decade ago – sit across from where Marcel Pagnol once lived.
Under the diaphanous blue light of this Parisian summer morning an older man, the house’s owner perhaps, was chatting with a woman whose little dog sniffed, with the amiable curiosity of certain little dogs, the dust that was floating in dog-level puffs around the owner’s broom, now paused while he and the woman exchanged pleasantries. Passing them, I glanced inside the house to see gray stone stairs leading up to a shallow landing where a small table stood under a portrait-sized mirror.
I had the impression that the man’s house – the Pagnol house I think of it – doesn’t get much light, since the sun streams down the Rue Fortuny just a few hours a day. This notion could have also been a twinge of my green-eyed hope that not everything should or could be perfect in such a beautiful house on such a beautiful street. I don’t know what I expected to find on looking in. I was grateful simply to see the ordinary stairs and table and mirror. You’re not often given the chance to glimpse the interiors of the homes of the celebrated.
Marcel Pagnol isn’t known to most Americans. Nor, perhaps, are the majority of the writers and artists whose names grace the streets, squares and boulevards of Paris. But that doesn’t matter. Fame, and even posterity, can be surprisingly local. Pagnol’s career took off in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the popular and critical success of his plays and his films, especially what’s known as the Marius trilogy, which explores the lives of ordinary folks in and around Marseille. Pagnol’s films were precursors of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. They often used natural light, real rather than studio locations, and portrayed the overlooked working-class with respect and humanity, taking care to emphasize and embrace the often-mocked accents of the region, making us aware that these people’s lives had value.
Pagnol died in 1974 and his former house on the Rue Fortuny has undoubtedly passed through several hands since 1950, when he moved out of it. In briefly looking through its open door I’d had the merest peek at someone’s else’s life, a life not Pagnol’s, I know. I had probably expected to inhale the still-lingering wisps of a long-departed spirit whose talent was far greater than mine.
I see these houses with a mixture of longing and resignation, for other lives, different eras, ones where I might myself have mattered more than I do, or created more than I have, or imprinted myself on the public imagination more than I am ever likely to.
I occasionally watch a popular French television documentary series, Secrets d’Histoire, or Secrets of History, which claims to uncover the hidden truths of certain epochs. Mainly it’s a chance for experts with uptight accents to provide speculative insights into the motivations of the high and mighty of another age, as if they knew them personally. They speak with confidential certainty of the Vicomte de Rien and the Comtesse de Machin while reenactments of certain historic incidents, or photos of lavish interiors, cue the viewer in on a vanished world. It’s ridiculous, of course, a supersized and overenthusiastic diorama, but I like to think I learn a little bit about these ghastly French monarchs and courtiers and swindlers.
My friend Jean hates Secrets d’Histoire – since it’s all about the aristocrats and not the people whose lives they ignored. He prefers to think of the numbers who lived faithfully a hidden life and who rest in unvisited tombs. I know what he means – because I am among that number. But we can’t help favoring the famous over the forgotten.
In Paris, however, where history is within reach of even your unintended touch, I sometimes feel during my walks that although my accomplishments are far more narrow than the breadth of even that one word, the plaques or signs that tell me who had profited enough from life to be remembered give me hope. That even I, in all my self-abnegation, might not be entirely erased by time. I don’t expect a plaque. I don’t expect anything, actually, since you can never control how others think or feel or write about you. This isn’t about being remembered, or not entirely. It’s about creating myself through writing, through acknowledging what I often don’t – my fears and my feeble sense of self, to craft something lasting out of the ephemeral me. It isn’t about being known so much to others, as being worthy to myself. Perhaps I see these homes of writers and artists as opportunities to think not just of who I might have been, but who these people were, and why it is important to remember how others have made life even more interesting because of how they saw it.
Some of the people I’ve encountered in Paris and elsewhere in France, have asked me not to name them in my writing. One, whom I’d simply described as “a friend,” had seen himself in the few phrases of an article I’d written about a dinner he had taken part in. “I want to remain unknown,” he said, since even thinking that he had recognized himself in print was too much exposure.
Another who works at the French Senate, and whose marriage I had attended and written about, told me he prefers to be “un homme de l’ombre,” a man of the shadows, or someone who works behind the scenes. And yet another told me that even though no one probably ever reads what I write, he still didn’t want even those pathetic few who did to have any knowledge of who he was. Today I have no knowledge of him, since we’ve lost contact.
But it strikes me as odd – or perhaps I don’t understand the profound craving for anonymity among certain others – that you would want to efface yourself from the world, even as you take part in it, when the world will not remember you for long regardless.
I realize that most people will be forgotten. Most of us will rest in unvisited tombs. But many of us, or at least me, will attempt to leave a mark, however slight.
I once visited the Villa Arnaga, the summer home of Edmond Rostand, in Cambo-les-Bains, in France’s Basque country. Rostand became not only wildly famous after the success of Cyrano de Bergerac, but quite rich. The sumptuous house he built on his earnings is filled with photos of then-famous friends and visitors, most now forgotten. There’s no guarantee that your proximity to fame will lead to your being remembered. Or even how you’re remembered. Rostand was remembered; his friends, not so much. But did they even think about it? Did they care if they were photographed for a fickle posterity? Did they wish to stay unknown beside the literary star in their midst? Did they prefer to be des hommes de l’ombre?
In Paris, the plaque on the wall of the house where Rostand wrote his most famous play sits so high above eye level that you have to strain to read it. As if someone wanted to let pedestrians know that renown such as Rostand’s was unattainable to them. It certainly is unlikely for me – but that is more because my modest work is unacknowledged. I don’t choose to be unknown. I just am.
But living for a few months a year in a city that has chosen to remember those whom others may go on to forget isn’t so bad. Even the accomplished among us may be swept aside by the cruel indifference of time. All I can do is accept that I am nothing, at least in the grand sweep of things.
This makes me realize that my efforts to make sense of the small wonders of the everyday – a curious little dog lapping the motes of dust around his head, the half-open door of a lovely house I shall never enter, the way the plaques and street signs of the celebrated and even the forgotten incite in me an urge to be more than who I am – are worthy in themselves. They may help me to remember that despite my own self-sabotage, despite my dismissal of my gifts, such as they are, despite my regrets at having squandered so much of my life because I feared to change – I may find some joy in knowing that while I myself have not amounted to much, I can accept and even cherish what others have done.
If I chance to come across again the owner of the Pagnol house on the Rue Fortuny, perhaps I’ll stop to say hello, and let him know how much I admire the writer who once lived there. Or maybe I’ll just compliment him on his house. He may find it odd that a stranger speaking French with an American accent might even know who Pagnol was, but then he might also be delighted to meet a stranger who has surprised him by acknowledging that someone else’s life, even one from long ago, still matters.
The French are easy to cook for. They arrive ravenous (people don’t generally eat between meals in France) and they are happy to eat whatever you serve.
Most Americans are idiosyncratic about food. Most French are not. (Though one friend of mine, who hails from Normandy, confesses that he hates camembert, which is in the firmament among the stars of Normandy’s culinary heritage. There’s always someone.)
I have sometimes wondered if Americans are afraid of food, or simply choose to be fussy about it because they can afford to picky when so much is available to them. Maybe the French are less fussy because their collective memory involves so much privation – including two devastating wars in the last century when millions went hungry. So, in France dining remains less of a quick fuel stop than a cherished part of the day that you linger over. Or dining rather than feeding is simply a matter of national character, at least in how the French approach food.
The French are interested in other cuisines, though. Once my friend Pierre asked me to make something American for him and a few other friends. This was a rather broad request. American cuisine can mean so many things, at least to an American. It ranges from Italian-American to Southwest, to Southern, to the Mediterranean- or Asian-inspired cuisine of California and the Pacific Northwest, to Amish cooking or New England fare or the influences of so many Latin countries that you see in cooking from Florida to Arizona and even to Illinois.
Of course, for the French, American cuisine, such as it is, reflects the American national food character, which usually means hamburgers. Just as Americans picture France as a land of scrawny beret-wearing smokers carrying baguettes, the French see Americans as a nation of fat gun-toting philistines gobbling cheeseburgers. But I wasn’t going to make hamburgers for my guests. Besides, I feel that hamburgers are things you eat at restaurants, which are better equipped to handle the splatters from grilling the burgers and from making the proper French fries to go along with them. So, I decided to serve my friends meatloaf.
This wasn’t as easy as getting a meatloaf mix at the supermarket, since meatloaf mix is something unheard of in France. As is meatloaf – though the French do have an idea of what a pain de viande is, since variations of meatloaf (not to mention pâtés and terrines and such) have surely been served in France and pretty much everywhere ground meat is available. Another little quandary was the ground beef itself. I’ve found that ground beef in France can be grainy when cooked. I can’t quite figure out why. It’s probably the particular cuts they use, though I still haven’t figured out how French cuts differ from American ones. I haven’t had an opportunity yet to befriend a butcher savvy to the different approaches in butchering in the two countries who could explain it all to me.
Many meatloaf recipes call for proportions of half ground beef, one-quarter each of ground veal and ground pork. At my neighborhood Monoprix supermarket, I asked the butcher to grind a half-kilo (roughly a pound) of beef (bœuf haché or steak haché). Ground pork is less readily available in French supermarkets, and you can find ground veal shaped into patties and sold in little packages in the refrigerated meat aisle, but I didn’t want something that had been prepacked at a factory. Luckily, most butchers in France offer a seasoned mixture of ground pork and veal for stuffing vegetables – it’s usually displayed next to samples of stuffed tomatoes for sale in the butcher case. So, I got a quarter-kilo of that (about a half pound). And there was my meatloaf mix à la française.
Rather than use packaged bread crumbs, I decided to bind the meatloaf with a panade, which is a mixture of bread soaked in milk. I never remember the science of why exactly this keeps meat tender – something to do with how the milk and the bread when mashed together in this way prevent certain protein strands in the meat from seizing up when cooked. Whatever – a panade has the ability to offset the potential graininess in French beef and provide it with a more pleasant texture.
I made my meatloaf in the usual meatloaf way, with parsley, garlic, onion, a little Worcestershire sauce, an egg, salt and pepper. I’m not fond of sweetish glazes on meatloaves, so I made a variation of Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce recipe – good canned tomatoes, half an onion and a few tablespoons of butter simmered together for half an hour – to serve alongside it. The meatloaf baked nicely and was just finishing up, browned and aromatic, when my guests arrived for their apéro.
For potatoes I made a gratin dauphinois, which is really just a dish of scalloped potatoes with a French name. I also made green beans – the skinny French kind, which I told myself worked as an American vegetable since you can get them in New York too.
There were six of us at dinner. And the meatloaf disappeared. As did the sauce – which I have a feeling my guests preferred to the pain de viande. (Who wouldn’t? It’s sensational.) Pierre told me that his mother prepared something like the meatloaf I had so carefully sourced and fixed for them, though hers was made with what was left over and chopped up and fashioned into a mound from a weekend pot au feu, a boiled-beef-and-vegetable dish, and served like penance for days after Sunday dinner. It didn’t sound at all like my meatloaf, and I didn’t know if this comparison was meant as a compliment.
Still, my French friends did get to taste a very small sample of what might be considered American food, and they liked it. They’re generally more impressed, however, when I make Italian food, since the proper cooking and saucing of pasta eludes most French. A meatloaf isn’t all that different from certain ground-meat dishes with which the French are already familiar. But for some reason, making sure the pasta is al dente is beyond the majority of home cooks. But they would say the same about anyone outside of France trying to make a proper French baguette. And they’d be right.
“You can now go back to pretending to be Parisian,” this woman I’d just met said to me as we settled up the bill for coffee at a little café adjacent to the Musée du Luxembourg. Dana was the friend of a friend, and she was in France for a brief teaching assignment.
She was, in fact, an art teacher. I had been given passes to the museum, so it seemed as good a place as any to meet up.
A friend of mine in California had suggested that we get together while this friend of his was in France, so we’d arranged a date. I’d described myself to her beforehand so I might be easy to recognize, as did she. Dana didn’t match her description nor, apparently, did I. It had taken us a few moments to connect as we each stood on the sidewalk outside the museum.
I’d told her I didn’t look French (which I don’t), even though I was wearing the usual French-type scarf. Dana said she had been told that she, in fact, did look French (which she doesn’t). She said she didn’t think I was the right person since to her I seemed Parisian. I only figured it was she who was waiting for me because she had the slightly puzzled air of someone who wonders if she had the time wrong. Anyway, we finally introduced ourselves and visited the museum, then chatted over coffee.
I filled her in on my background and my life in France as we took in the exhibition, and she told me about her work as an artist and teacher, and this chance to teach at an art school just outside of Paris. She had some insightful things to say about the paintings of Tintoretto, and I was glad to be able to see some of his works through her expert eyes.
But her way of seeing me took me slightly aback just before we headed our separate ways, she to visit the Catacombes in the 14th arrondissement, me back to work in the 17th. I later asked myself how I might be pretending to be other than I am. Perhaps the only sort-of French thing about me was my wearing that scarf, like most people in Paris when the weather turns slightly cool (it was unseasonably frisky that day). And perhaps that I speak French pretty well. But the thing is, I never feel that I’m actually French on any level. I feel Parisian, certainly, as a lifelong urbanite who now calls both New York and Paris home. But I don’t presume to be the product of French culture, even as I’ve studied it and tried to comprehend a French point of view.
But that’s only my perspective. I can’t control how others think about me. Dana’s comment about my pretending to be French struck me as odd, and even a little hostile in an offhand way, coming as it did after a conversation in which I made a point of saying how being in France allowed me to gain a different sort of understanding on how I see the world, and how I regard myself. So, I learned for the umpteenth time that I cannot see myself through someone else’s eyes. Maybe she saw in me someone with pretentions to cultural sophistication, someone given to correcting the way Americans pronounce French words. I am often guilty of that irritating habit, certainly – and I did correct her pronunciation of the city of Lille where she was going to visit a French friend who lives there. (I have a feeling her French friend probably later corrected her pronunciation as well.)
At the same time, I probably do adopt certain habits and acquire certain French traits or tics by spending so much time in Paris. Like scarf-wearing. Or cheese-eating. Or pronunciation-correcting. Despite maintaining a ridiculous American optimism (slightly battered recently, but still there nevertheless), which is at odds with a general French attitude of blasé, smoke-infused pessimism.
Even though I’m always an outsider in France, I don’t feel an outsider in Paris. I felt at home in Paris even before I could speak French. At the same time, I have probably worked to fit in. I don’t want to be seen as the non-French-speaking American. I want to be someone who fits in despite not fitting in. Is that pretending of some sort? It could be. Perhaps I’m pretending to be something I’m not, although I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m pretending to be. I wonder too sometimes if I like living in France because there I don’t have to face my failures in quite the same way, even if they accompany me everywhere. But that’s avoidance, not pretending.
I think one of the reasons I have wanted to create another life in Paris, a parallel life to mine in New York, is because I have always longed to be more than I was. At the same time, I’ve always feared that I’d be found out to be a fraud of some sort. So it was probably inevitable that at some point someone would say I’m pretending to be something or someone when all I’m doing is trying to be a better me.