Days Off in France


I’ve learned quite a bit from the French through splitting my time between New York and Paris, but I still cannot come close to mastering that particular French way of knowing how to relax. Perhaps I’m too American to understand the benefits of downtime. The French take downtime quite seriously.

Today is a national holiday in France – the first of May, which is devoted to workers (and to the struggle to create an eight-hour workday). The first of May is actually celebrated around the world – just about everywhere, it seems, but in the U.S. And it kicks off a month in France with four national holidays that also lead to four days off, if the calendar aligns with certain dates and these days don’t fall on weekends. In addition to the first of May, there’s May 8, which marks the end of World War II in France; May 10, the Feast of the Ascension, and May 21, Pentecost Monday (Pentecost is celebrated the seventh Sunday after Easter). That’s two public holidays and two religious ones. For a country that calls itself laic, France manages to celebrate all of the major Christian holidays with days off. And why not? Any excuse not to work.

This year, two of these May holidays fall during a workweek – Tuesday, May 8 and Thursday May 10. In general if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, many people do what’s known as “faire le pont,” that is, make a bridge, and take an additional day off to create a longer weekend.

If it’s a year in which all four of these May holidays happen to fall during the workweek, you’ll see opinion articles in French newspapers that, in a feeble way, lament this abundance of days off. Such a profusion of national holidays could affect the economy, they argue. And it could be worse this year, with the continuing railway workers’ strike causing inconvenience for people who are “making a bridge” and trying to find some time for themselves away from the obligations of the office. But these articles aren’t entirely serious. No one would willingly give up a day off, including concerned French newspaper reporters who like to raise questions that don’t require answers.

When I was taking French classes at the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail during my first few months in Paris, I was irritated to find that I had to pay for an entire month of study in which four of the 20 days I was being charged for were going to be holidays. I had to pay for classes that were not going to be held. But that’s the way things are done: you are responsible for the days off of others.

Well, good for them. People deserve a little rest. And yet I myself can’t seem to enjoy days off. Perhaps it’s because I’m self-employed and always concerned about whether I’m actually working hard enough to support myself, or perhaps it’s because I don’t feel I’m worth a little relaxation. Or perhaps it’s just a too-ingrained sense that time not spent knocking yourself out is time wasted.

The French know better. Nothing is worth knocking yourself out over. Unless it’s an argument over an idea, and better if dinner is involved. But as for days off, those were each hard won, and that leisure will be honored.

Striking in France


Just about everyone I know in France has been affected by the current rail strike. They’ve rearranged schedules, exchanged tickets, changed travel plans, dealt with interminable lines and navigated harried crowds. They have little sympathy with the strikers – but at the same time they support them, or at least their right to strike. It’s a very French attitude: admire the idea and complain about the reality.

But strikes in France are an ingrained part of life. Strikes are written into the constitution as a fundamental right. Strikes also arrive with startling regularity – usually as soon as the word “reform” is uttered by the government. There is indeed a “gréviculture française,” that is, a culture of strikes that’s particular to the French.

The current railway strike – by the SNCF, the public train company – was organized to protest changes that the government plans for rail workers (known as cheminots). These changes would affect new hires (existing staff would be unaffected for the most part), but they include changing the railway workers’ coveted early retirement (as early as 52), extra vacation days, and free travel for family members. The unions fear that these reforms will lead to others that will be more burdensome, such as being fired summarily (it’s very hard to fire someone in France). The government argues that the SNCF is drowning in €46.6 billion in debt and needs reform. The SNCF currently runs trains at a cost that’s 30% higher than its European neighbors.

The strike, which is to run until the end of June, every two days out of five, is not only a test for the government – especially President Emmanuel Macron’s resolve to see the strike through to the end, and not give in – but also for the unions, in particular the CGT. The CGT is one of the main national unions. It has seen its membership drop and wants to show that it can still maintain its hold on keeping things as they were.

Keeping things as they were is a powerful idea in France, land of patrimony, long tradition, complex and unwritten social cues and doing things a certain way simply because they’re done a certain way. Such as being free to exercise your right to strike regardless of how someone else is affected by it.

The current railway strikers have not mentioned the terrible disruption these strikes have on the lives of millions of people who need to travel by rail to work (and who aren’t protected by union agreements). The inconveniencing of other people is nothing next to the idea of protesting a reform that might change at some point how you work. I find myself siding with the inconvenienced here, since although the railway workers have a point – hard-won rights, once ceded, are impossible to get back – the majority of the population is being held hostage by the egos of many union leaders who are more used to inconveniencing than the other way around.

Strikes, walkouts, demonstrations, work slowdowns are so much a part of French life that I wonder if in the end they have any effect at all. If so many people express displeasure so often, can anything be done to appease anyone? Or is that even the point? Strikes can be as effective as shouting into the wind, but sometimes that’s all you’ve got. And sometimes they can actually work. Years ago I took part in a brief reporter’s strike at the Wall Street Journal, despite my fear that we striking reporters could be replaced (the Journal, like most newspapers, considers reporters expendable, like cheap furniture). But the strike had its effect, and we were given a modest raise in pay. We were still expendable, but for a brief period we were also slightly better remunerated.

Twenty-five years ago, a nationwide strike brought France to a standstill, and prevented reforms to, among other things, the railway workers’ contracts. But that was then: life is more precarious for workers everywhere now, even those who are protected by longstanding accords. I don’t know if these striking railway workers will be able to prevent the changes that will likely become law. But for now, they’re doing what they can: disrupt.

I’m not yet at the point where I shrug my shoulders at the latest strike by whatever group has decided it’s had enough of whatever it is that’s causing them misery. That is, I’m not French. But like my French friends I too have arranged my schedule to accommodate the availability of trains. The SNCF has provided a calendar for the days of the strike, so you can plan accordingly. At least in this regard the strikers are thinking of others.

A Time for Cherries in the 13th


I spent a week recently cat-sitting for friends in an area of the 13th arrondissement known as La Butte-aux-Cailles. The name can mean quail hill, but it’s also a part of Paris that belonged to a landowner named Pierre Caille in the 16th century. More people think of it as the plural than the singular, of the birds rather than the person who owned the land. So quail hill it is.

What it is, quail hill, is a small neighborhood within a neighborhood that conveys more than the geographical space it makes up. It’s an idea of a neighborhood. That idea is one of resistance – the spirit of 1968, the spirit of the Commune of 1870. And the spirit of letting your hair down – to judge by the large number of people smoking in clusters as night falls outside dingy bars on the Rue de La Butte-aux-Cailles.

But that doesn’t make it any more special than a lot of other streets or neighborhoods of Paris or anywhere where people get together, smoke on the street and make a little noise. What La Butte-aux-Cailles has is a determined hipness. The area reminds me a little of parts of New York’s Lower East Side. The difference is that much of the iconography in the Butte-aux-Cailles references old left-wing revolutionaries, where the Lower East Side today evokes in a only the most glancing way a tenement history.

It comes down to the same thing, however: an evocation that’s a nod to a past rather than an actual engagement with it. It’s as if the neighborhood of La Butte-aux-Cailles were wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt, or a Chairman Mao cap. Though here the shirt would probably have an image of Léo Ferré, a noted anarchist songwriter whose image appears on walls here and there in the neighborhood. But this is normal, isn’t it? Using symbols as fleeting reminders of something we may only half remember, or half know, to center us somehow or to add color to how we choose to remember our experience?

La Butte-aux-Cailles maintains a village atmosphere of low-rise houses and apartment buildings. Graffiti is tolerated, even encouraged – such as one street mural showing Tintin, clad in a rose-colored jacket, in a near embrace with Captain Haddock, another character from the Tintin graphic novels. It doesn’t make for a typically Parisian street scene, but its appeal comes from its not jibing with the proscribed French sense of order.


The Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles where it crosses the rue des Cinq Diamants is where the area has its heart: old buildings, narrow streets and arty boutiques alongside popular drinking spots, upscale restaurants and chic patisseries. I’d stayed in the neighborhood once before several years ago, when these same friends whose cats I was minding were vacationing.  I’d flown into Paris to attend a wedding.

I was glad to be back to rediscover it. I was also glad to see another arrondissement than the ones where I spend most of my days now. Back when I began spending a few months a year in Paris, I would swap apartments, which allowed me to discover various parts of the city. Luckily, I’m less of a vagabond now. For the last few years, I’ve been staying for a month or two at a time at the apartment of my friends Bob and Loraine, so I’ve in a way become a part of the 17th arrondissement. Still, I was happy to reacquaint myself with another area that I generally just walk through to and from the metro, rather than inhabit.

The character of this part of the 13th is quite different from the 17th arrondissement. The 13th feels more youthful, but also more pointedly aware of itself than the area around Parc Monceau, at least to me. La Butte-aux-Cailles is proud of its symbols, just as the area around Parc Monceau seems proud of its beaux-arts buildings and its wide avenues that could have served as models for a Caillebotte street scene. But those are just my impressions – others might see faux-hipster dilapidation and bourgeois complacency. I was structuring my memories differently.


On my first night in the funkier Butte-aux-Cailles I ate dinner at an unprepossessing restaurant called Le Temps de Cerises, which gives you an idea of how the locals cling to ideas of the past. A similar restaurant in some American city might call itself Yankee Doodle (or perhaps Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death).

“Le Temps des cerises” is a song that was popular during the Commune of 1870-71. The title, the time of the cherries (or cherry time), written just before the Paris Commune, became widely sung during the Commune after new verses were added. It’s about what life is like after a revolution changes everything.

The Paris Commune was a brief violent period when a socialist-revolutionary government led Paris after the collapse of the Second French Empire and the defeat of Napoleon III, and during the war with Prussia. It involved many violent clashes, much destruction of property and loss of life.

The restaurant named Le Temps des cerises, however, was peaceful, if animated. In walking past it I’d noticed that the daily specials included paupiettes de dinde, or turkey bundles (a paupiette is a little package of thin cutlets of meat with a filling of vegetables). So, I thought I’d give the place a try. It had a well-worn look bordering on shabby, but it also had a lot of people at crowded tables who seemed to be enjoying themselves under the scribbled slogans of earlier revolutionary times, and the faded photos of lefty singer-songwriters.

The servers at the restaurant seemed as they’d recently been or would soon be homeless, or at least former roadies who never quite kicked the heroin habit. They had the air of people who’ve lived tough, eventful lives and were nonplussed by whatever fickle demands a restaurant client might have. They were efficient, pleasant if not quite warm, but the paupiettes de dinde were actually quite good. In any event, as I dined I created a mental sketch of their career trajectories that ended with them working here.


I realized, however, as I watched them at their work, that I was ascribing to them something symbolic without knowing a thing about them except their appearance and manner of interacting with the clientele.

Because I was sitting in a restaurant whose name evoked a terrible time in French history, I assumed the servers were socially engaged revolutionary types rather than experienced waiters who might be too busy earning a living to devote time to upending the government. But what did I know? Maybe they were part-time anarchists. They for their part could have considered me as just another American with a passable French accent who was passing through this part of town absorbing the atmosphere of another age. Which isn’t too far from the truth, but which isn’t the whole story either. Though if they thought of me at all, beyond someone who’d ordered the daily special, their assessment would probably have been more accurate than the stories I was telling myself about them.

But then none of us ever has the whole story, so we make up what we want. Which may be why symbols are so important in places like La Butte-aux-Cailles, or elsewhere.


For example, there’s a bust of the singer Dalida in Montmartre in the 18th arrondissement, where she lived. The statue is well-polished from the hands of countless admirers caressing her bronze bosom, as if by doing so they remind themselves of a particular moment in life when her songs meant something special. Her symbolic presence is real enough.

The same might be true in La Butte-aux-Cailles. No one is still around from when the Paris Commune raged, but France still has a sense that change can only come from revolution. You’re not likely to revolt over the plat du jour at a homey restaurant with grizzled waiters, but on seeing on its walls the slogans of a revolutionary age, you may be reminded that little remains the same over time, and that nothing is ever exactly what it seems.

Baguettes and Basics


For a small dinner the other night I asked my friend Olivier to bring two baguettes from the boulangerie that faces his building, on the Boulevard de Charonne in the 20th arrondissement. The baguettes from this boulangerie are among the best I’ve had in Paris, which is saying something, since it’s pretty easy to find a good baguette pretty much everywhere in France.

Everyone here has opinions on baguettes, and if someone’s brought a particularly good one, you mention it. If it’s an ordinary baguette, you don’t. The difference between extraordinary and ordinary is in the texture – or crumb – and the crust. Simply by dining at friends’ homes, I’ve tasted a lot of very good and a few passable baguettes. I’ve gotten used to having baguettes of a certain quality. (And in New York I find myself being “that person” who, thanks to spending time abroad, offers decided and unasked-for opinions on the quality of the baguettes you can find in Manhattan.)

When people order a baguette at boulangeries here, they specify whether it should be “bien cuit” or “pas trop cuit,” which mainly refers to how dark or crisp the crust should be. I prefer “très bien cuit,” with a very dark crust, but I know people who ask for softer baguettes because they feel that these will last longer, and that the bread for their morning “tartine” or buttered baguette – which is usually what’s left of the baguette from the night before – won’t go stale as quickly as a baguette with a darker crust.

People also buy baguettes at different times of the day, close to meal times, to ensure that they’re getting the ones freshest from the oven. Baguettes are serious business in France.

You can order a regular baguette or “une baguette de tradition.” The difference between them is that that a regular baguette can contain certain additives – such as ascorbic acid – while by law the “baguette de tradition” can only be made with wheat flour, water, yeast, leaving and salt, although very small percentages of other flours, such as wheat malt flour or soy flour, are permitted. I prefer the baguettes de tradition – I find they have more flavor.

Sundays, most boulangeries are open just until about 1 p.m., so you usually find a queue for bread as the morning wears on – since people are pressed to buy their baguettes for lunch, dinner and perhaps the next morning’s breakfast.

I’m lucky enough in this part of the 17th arrondissement to have three boulangerie-patisseries close by (a boulangerie offers mainly bread, sandwiches, and some pastries, while a patisserie specializes in desserts, though it can offer sandwiches and bread too).


The corner bakery is Le P’tit qu’a le Pain (the name comes from a hoary joke about a dwarf). It’s a simple spot, with piles of long standard baguettes, sturdy rustic-looking baguettes de tradition, and a small variety of specialty breads. Les Enfants Gâtés (or the spoiled children), across the Rue Cardinet from this boulangerie, does sell bread, but specializes in desserts. Down the block on the rue Cardinet is La Boulangerie du Parc Monceau, which is a combination boulangerie-patisserie that offers a variety of tartes and gateaux but also good breads and sandwiches, and caters to the office crowd.

The baguettes are different at each spot. I sometimes prefer those at La Boulangerie du Parc Monceau to those from Le P’tit qu’a le Pain, but they’re both good. The baguettes at Les Enfants Gâtés don’t seem to be baked on premises – I’ve seen a delivery truck unloading baguettes there from the patisserie’s other location, in Levallois, just outside Paris. I can actually tell the difference between one baked on site and one brought from elsewhere.

This matters because bread makes up so much of the daily life of France. It’s still an everyday essential that’s more than something to eat, withstanding faddism and changing tastes (and even if gluten-free bread is available at most boulangeries). Baguettes are part of what you look for here, what you expect to see as an element of a meal or a gathering. Bread isn’t taken for granted. Bread isn’t frowned upon as a dietary no-no. A meal isn’t the same without a baguette. The basics still count for a lot.

In and Out of Language in France


The other night at dinner, I asked a friend to repeat something he’d just said.

“He was speaking too fast for you maybe,” said my friend Anne. “We speak fast. Especially in Paris.”

My friend didn’t speak too fast. I simply didn’t catch some of the references he’d made. It’s like that sometimes when you’re with people who’ve grown up in another culture than yours. You can follow the meaning of the words, but you need the context to comprehend the point of the story.

“We do speak fast,” Anne repeated, as if to reassure herself of her statement.

That’s true, but everyone speaks quickly in his native language. The way she said it though, it was if this were a point of pride. As if it were important to talk so quickly that someone who’s good in the language but isn’t a native speaker might have trouble keeping up.

Language is about communication, of course. But for someone speaking a language not his own, you can occasionally find yourself part of a petty power game of who knows what and who doesn’t, of who gets the meaning and who’s left on the outside. I don’t think Anne was playing a game; she’s too warm and generous. I do think, however, that she was simply reveling in her love of her own language, as the French do, wishing to demonstrate how superior it is to other languages. (Linguists insist that all languages are equal – but to the French all other languages but French are equal to one another.)

As proud as they are of French, the French do love to incorporate English phrases or words into conversation. Anne herself does this in her charming fashion, such as when she once welcomed me on my return to Paris after a few months home in New York with a hug, saying “Welcome in Paris.”

I thanked her, but I couldn’t resist adding, “To. Welcome to Paris.”


I explained that the French preposition “à” did not mean “to” in English here, and I left it at that. Maybe I was making up for the constant language correction I receive, though more likely I was doing as the French do, that is, immediately correcting something that sounds wrong, only this time in English.

I don’t know how or why certain English phrases resonate with the French. French everyday speech has a lot of English already, of course, taken mainly from business. Marketing, design, coach, job, are all common in French now, to name just four out of hundreds of borrowed English words and phrases.

I hear certain other phrases often. One is “Let’s go.” It’s used in place of any one of several widely spoken French forms, so I don’t really see why “let’s go” has crept into use. Still, it’s amusing to hear it à la française, with the “o” in “go” pronounced as “goh.”

Another one is the odd, “The place to be.” This isn’t really said with any sort of regularity in English, but it’s become a phrase that’s trotted out in France when you refer to a certain event or place that’s the talk of the town.

A friend of mine actually used it the other day, referring to a coming dinner, and she gave me a sly look as she said it. I don’t know quite what she meant by that look, especially since what she said was, “It’s the place to be, n’est-ce pas?” I could only smile in response.

My French friends love to use English phrases around me, and why not? English of all sorts bombards them from everywhere, and to speak English is to have an international outlook. To speak English well, however, is a stretch for many people here, since most foreign speakers of English speak at best a form of rudimentary English that might be called international demotic. (At the same time, I’m usually pleasantly shocked to hear an American speaking French with any degree of fluency.)

Because English is the language of international communication, and because that international communication is usually spoken by people who know just enough to get by, the complexity and grandeur of English, its wealth of expression, vocabulary and nuance, are generally lost on most non-native English speakers. (Unfortunately, today these riches are also lost on a good many native English speakers.)

The subtle complexity of most languages is lost on people who didn’t grow up speaking them. I’ll never be 100% fluent in French, since I didn’t grow up speaking the language, but I get by pretty well, and I’ve come to understand a fair share of argotic expressions and slang, which is as important as knowing the vocabulary of literature. When I watch certain French TV series, I write down expressions or words that I don’t know, to remember them. Not that I’m likely to use them, but I want to be aware of them – you never know when certain terms will pop up in conversation.

Despite its borrowings from English (to the regret of French-language purists), the French still often refer to “la richesse de la langue française,” after someone puns or jokes or makes note of a grammatical rule, as if French is the only language in the world in which you find wordplay, subtlety of expression, and an ability to express the profoundest thought.

I realize this comes from an innate French sense of cultural superiority, which can be tied to a fear of losing relevance. It’s also easy to believe here, since France is a country where ideas are paramount. It’s so much easier to have faith in an idea rather than confront a reality at odds with that idea.

At the same time, I admire a country where language is so important. Native English speakers take English for granted. The French don’t take their language for granted; they nurture it. They even try to control it – France is, after all, a country where it’s important to follow rules – but language cannot be controlled, even by the fussy linguistic solons of the Académie Française. They recently decried the feminization of the language, saying it poses a mortal danger to the French language. They were protesting recent tendencies to refer to groups of people by both genders instead of the neutral or masculine one, for example writing out the word for students as “étudiant.e.s” or “étudiant-e-s.” This is supposed to allow for a diversity of genders, with words that were usually masculine or  neutral now also taking feminine forms to be inclusive. It’s clunky, and no one knows if it will hold, but it has alarmed the language alarmists.

More broadly, and celebratory, there’s a widely noted international week of the French language every year. That’s when you’re likely to come across hopeful articles that declare that French will soon become one of the most-spoken languages in the world, surpassing at least the 10 or so other languages that more people currently speak.

Whether that happens won’t change the French attitude toward French as spoken by people not born in France. My friends will often ask me if I know the meaning of a certain phrase, and then go on to explain it to me. I don’t mind. It keeps me on my toes, which is what I want. In any event, I’ll always be a person whose comprehension in French will always be just slightly below full, no matter how good my French gets. That doesn’t stop me from appreciating and enjoying the language. I’m at home in French, as much as a foreigner can be, and I’ll always be someone who occasionally needs context explained. People may speak quickly, but I can usually follow what’s being said, and most people in France want you to understand what they’re saying, even if they also feel you’ll never truly understand it, not being French and all.

The French attitude toward French is decidedly nationalistic, even beyond pride in the mother tongue. Bookstores assign different sections to French-language works that are written by French-speaking authors outside of France (they’re placed in a Francophone Siberia). As if to say that, while it’s wonderful that these writers are expressing themselves in French, it’s equally important to make sure that everyone realizes they’re still not actually French, regardless of their use of a language possessing such “richesse.” Colonialism is still alive, at least concerning la richesse de la langue française.

Friends Visiting in Paris


I always need to remind myself that my opinion is often worthless to others. Or at least my enthusiasms are. You learn this firsthand with visitors.

I’ve only had a couple of visits from New York friends in the years since I’ve lived for months at a time in Paris. Recently, three good friends spent a week at a hotel near me, and I was reminded repeatedly how separately we each experience a place – or, more important, how we want to experience it. I realized too that, since I’m no longer a visitor to Paris but a resident, albeit a recurring temporary one, my priorities are not the same as those of people who are here to relax. What we each want out of a place differs too.

These friends already know Paris well. But it was the first time the three of them were all here at the same time as me. They could see where I live, and they could meet a few of my French friends. I had hoped to show them a bit of “my” Paris, which I did – but I was also reminded that for the most part my Paris is only interesting to me.

Still, seeing where I live helped my New York friends place me, and meeting a few of my Parisian friends at their home for dinner gave them a sense of my social circle here. I thought it would be nice if they saw this apartment (it’s not my apartment – it belongs to my friends Bob and Loraine, who are generous in loaning me their place in Paris), and that they spend a few hours with some of the people I’ve befriended here. But I also questioned myself about what I wanted to get out of my friends seeing where I live and whom I know. Was it as worth it to them as it was to me? In a way, I was trying to control my own narrative for them, as if I had any power over their interpretations of my life here.

This is natural, of course. We want to share what has impressed us with others. But we can’t do more than that. No one can have the same sensation as someone else. And at some point we have to let go of our wishes for what others should do or see. At least, we can’t be too insistent about wishing that others see something that belongs to us as a particular memory of place, that they have the same feelings as we did on first encountering a neighborhood, on recognizing a shaft of sunlight at a certain time of day on a certain street. I also became aware that I could only suggest so much to my friends before my enthusiasm turned irritating.

My friends were staying by the Parc Monceau in my neighborhood. I urged them more than once to see the park, since it means something to me. But a recommendation is okay, as long as it’s not repeated. Then it becomes harassment. I probably asked my friends one too many times about visiting the Park Monceau, because even by the end of the second day of their stay, after wondering aloud once again if they’d set foot in the park, one of my friends said, with mock annoyance, “What is it about this park you keep going on about?” And I knew I should have simply let them do whatever they wanted, without my calling attention to their not doing what I had suggested. No one wants to be hassled by an overenthusiastic semi-local about what must or must not be done or seen. At the same time, little is as isolating as realizing that your opinion on something you hold dear carries absolutely no weight with someone else. This is one of those necessary, continuing lessons in humility: Just as you have no control of the results after taking an action, you have no say in whether anyone pays attention to what you think.

Still, we eventually walked through the park together, and they themselves later explored it on their own. Which, I saw, was rather the point: most of us want to discover places for ourselves. In that way, we make them ours. And so they made the park theirs, in a way that was different than mine.

As much as my friends’ visit to Paris was an opportunity to see me while they were traveling, since I spend so much time here, it was much more an opportunity for them to experience the Paris that they wanted to see. I felt once or twice somewhat out of sync with these friends I’ve known for so long and so well in New York. Here in Paris, I was the local, and they were the visitors, and our roles were not the same as back home. They were on vacation, and I was working. And their perspectives on Paris were, in a way, closed off from me. With them as visitors, I was not part of the group in the way I might be in New York, where we’re all locals.

And yet at the same time I was indeed welcomed to share in their tourist experience. They were extraordinarily generous with me, arranging for me to accompany them on museum visits and inviting me to join them as their guest for dinner. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the sense – and I know this is a false impression – that I was something of an encumbrance to their fuller enjoyment of the city, that I needed to be included because I was there, like a relative you feel obliged to call upon. This reflects more my own sense of dislocation than anything else, since I am oversensitive to nuances I perceive to create barriers between me and other people. It’s my own self-belittling myopia.

It also reflects my growing awareness of the limitations of influence, which is a good thing. To share “my” Paris isn’t actually to share as much as to demand that someone feel about it exactly as I do. My friends didn’t come to Paris to share my Paris with me – but to share their experiences of Paris with me at the same time as me. We had our own Paris together. It was those moments together that counted for us all. I was honored that they wanted to be here when I was here, and I was saddened when they left. I had almost overlooked the joy of discovering aspects of Paris together with people I care deeply about, for all my naive anxiety about whether they would experience something exactly as I had.

A Nurse’s Aid at the Restaurant


In France, people don’t ask you what you do for a living. At least not right away. And if they inquire, it’s often in the form a half-apologetic question, along the lines of, “If you don’t mind my asking…” But the timing has to be right, and you can’t be too pushy about it.

Here, what you do can seem to be less important than who you are. At least for that moment. At least in conversation. At least for polite chitchat with someone you’ve just met. This is either a way to avoid probing too deeply into one’s private life, or to ensure that things remain on the surface if you’re only going to spend a few minutes in someone’s company. Or perhaps the French don’t necessarily define themselves or others by their jobs – but by their manner.

Employment is essential, of course. It’s just not discussed under most circumstances. I have a general sense of what my French friends do, but beyond that I’ve learned not to  inquire into the details of their work. What you do is important for yourself. Less so for others, unless it has a direct impact on their lives.

But even in France, I’ve come to see that certain people want to make sure you know who they are, or who they want you to believe they are. I visited my friend Philippe the other day, at his maison de repos, or convalescent home, in Sceaux, just outside of Paris, where he’s spending time in between debilitating treatments for a serious illness.

He generally eats at the restaurant where the residents take their meals. He told me that earlier in the week one of the servers informed his table, “Je ne suis pas le serveur, je suis un aide-soignant.” The man wanted to make it very clear that while he might be filling in at the restaurant during the summer vacation period, he was actually a nurse’s aid.

One of Philippe’s table mates, a woman with advanced cancer who is far beyond the point of suffering fools, told him, “Je sais très bien qui vous êtes.” At which point the reluctant server and proud aide-soignant became solicitous of her. But only of her. Only of the person who called him out on his pretensions, which appeared especially ridiculous in a place where everyone the man was serving had already become equal thanks to the irrefutable awareness of numbing pain and numbered days.

The residents of this maison de repos know who everyone is. Their current reality has given them an uncompromising clarity. They’ve been taken out of the environment that properly belongs to them – their homes, their family, their work – and been granted a greater acuity of mind in a strange new place. Although the residents were aware that the aide-soignant was doing someone else’s job, and that he wanted to let them know it, he was simply doing what we all do: seeking to matter in the eyes of others. We position ourselves to avoid being thought insignificant. We fear admitting that we are indeed insignificant, but self-preservation (or lingering hope) makes us convince ourselves otherwise.

Philippe recounted this incident with a soft wonder at the maneuvering that people do to assure even the sick and suffering of their place in the order of things. Philippe is that rare man who knows and accepts who he is, and he doesn’t feel the need to make sure that others know it too.

Part of his job with the government – I do know a bit of what he actually does for a living – involves rendering the dense bureaucratic language of official documents into readable, understandable, non-bureaucratic French. He is practiced at seeing beyond obfuscation and turning verbal mush into something that’s closer to what’s trying to be said. Basically, Philippe’s job is to translate bullshit. And he knows it when he sees it.

And yet bullshit is what many people want, or at least what they expect. Philippe told me that the staff at the rest home are surprised that he doesn’t conform to their experience of other rest-home residents. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t become frantic when discussing his treatment options. He doesn’t let on whether he’s miserable. He doesn’t appear to be hopeless about his still-uncertain future.

“I think they’d prefer it if I showed self-pity,” Philippe told me. But he isn’t that kind of man. His sense of himself, which shows in his calm demeanor, confuses people who expect maudlin drama rather than stoic resolve. And self-possession can also throw people off balance, since so many of us are weighing options about believing our own lies or only reluctantly admitting that we’re disappointed in who we’ve become.

One of the first things that struck me, when I began to spend time in France, was how at ease the French seemed to be in their own skin. I’ve come to know that this was a reflection of my own ignorance of how people in another culture carry themselves. I mistook carefree swagger for a show of confidence rather than for a mask of hidden fear. As I became more acquainted with the French, and with French comportment, I realized that most people, whether in Paris or New York, struggle with who they are. Maybe my toggling between two big cities has allowed me to recognize in others my own failure at self-acceptance.

And yet I’m grateful that in France I don’t carry with me the baggage of my uninspiring employment history. People I’ve met and befriended in France know that I earn a living as a writer. They don’t care that I’m a writer who is, to put it mildly, unknown. For the French, being a writer is honorable in itself, regardless of acclaim, or lack of it. For the same reason, it doesn’t really matter to them that I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, since what’s considered to be prestigious in the U.S. doesn’t usually count for much in another culture.

This imposed humility is refreshing. There’s no need to say I used to be someone (which would be untrue, anyway), when that someone is no one for most of the world. When you’re taken out of context, you can’t rely on value by association. You’re on your own.

Still, people are people, and we want to be recognized for what we do, at some level. And like that aide-soignant, we categorize ourselves and others. We create a hierarchy of placements. And as someone who has, in a sense, displaced himself, I have several categorizations that allow people in France to place me without having to dig too deeply: being American, being a New Yorker, being a writer and, perhaps most pertinent here, being someone who loves France and has learned French. That carries far more weight than being known as a man who used to be a minor reporter at a major newspaper. I’m glad of that. I don’t have to worry that I don’t measure up.

I learned long ago that I wasn’t my job, however. It mattered to me at one time that I had become a reporter at a respected newspaper, but then it began to matter less. I hadn’t grown blasé, but I had grown more aware of the limitations of job-defining self-worth. In fact, becoming a reporter convinced me that I was something of a fraud after finally obtaining a job I’d sought but at which I learned I was nothing more than ordinary. Years later as I contemplated taking a buyout, when the situation for reporters at the Journal had become tenuous for the umpteenth time, I wondered whether I was actually as worthless as the position seemed to have become, and also whether I had wasted a part of myself in letting an institution determine my value. I also wonder now whether, in a way, I had sought the validation of being recognized for a title that really didn’t mean much in the end, just as the aide-soignant at the maison de repos had wanted to be acknowledged. I had, in fact, wanted that very same thing. And then I learned that what I had wanted didn’t matter, because its merit depended on something I couldn’t control: someone else’s opinion or personality or business plan.

In any event, whatever I used to be isn’t that relevant in France. This hasn’t stopped me from continuing to examine how I can define myself, to myself. I still don’t know. And I wonder sometimes if self-acceptance depends on your definition of who you are, or even if it’s just another form of delusion.

Not everyone is like that, of course. Philippe, for instance. He has a way of seeming solid despite everything that has befallen him in the past year. I only saw his stoicism slip twice, and only recently. Once was when he recalled, suddenly tearing up – entirely surprised by the effect this was having on him – that many of the people with whom he works told him, when they learned he was taking a medical leave, how essential he was to them, not simply as a co-worker, but as a man of honor and compassion who enriched their lives. This in a country of civil servants who, for the most part, spend their entire careers looking ahead to retirement. For all of his modesty and his offhand insights into self-perpetuating human folly, Philippe underestimates the effect he has on people around him. We all do that, though for most of us this is manifest in our remaining unaware of how foolish we are. But Philippe doesn’t comprehend how cherished he is.

The other time his stoicism slipped was near the end of our lunch last week. He was growing tired, which happens these days. Then, for a few seconds a void appeared in his eyes. He gazed toward something unfathomable: perhaps the cruel reality of the coming days that would involve the unavoidable suffering of aggressive treatment. No one wants that. Philippe didn’t shy from it, but even as he was ready to confront it, his spirit seemed to sink. Not for long, though. “Allez,” he said, refocusing. “On rentre,” and we headed back to his room.

He doesn’t know when he’ll return to work, but that’s irrelevant for now. Philippe doesn’t need to define himself at this point by what he does. Not that he ever really did. Anyway, he’s already proved who he is.