Feeding the French a Bit of America

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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.

Pretending in France

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“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.

Days Off in France

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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.

A Time for Cherries in the 13th

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

In and Out of Language in France

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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.”

“To?”

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.

A Nurse’s Aid at the Restaurant

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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.

Owning Yourself in France

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Benoît didn’t know quite what to make of me.

I met him and his wife at their home in Colombes, a chic suburb of Paris. My friends Benjamin and Michele had invited me to join them there for lunch.

“You don’t drink at all?” Benoît asked me, with mild surprise, when Michele told him that the two of us would only take water. “No,” I said.

“Not even wine?” I’d heard this question before in France – for many French, wine isn’t alcohol, it’s food. “Not even wine,” I said, leaving it at that.

As we settled around the table of their lovely garden for before-lunch snacks (radishes, cashews), Benoît poured glasses of Lillet, the wine-based apéritif, for the other guests, and asked me if I’d like to try some. I declined. He asked me again, as if he hadn’t heard me five minutes earlier, “You don’t drink? At all?”

“Not for a while,” I said.

“For your health?”

“I drank too much and I stopped,” I said, polite but firm. “End of story.” I hoped that this wasn’t going to become an issue. Then I realized that Benoît wasn’t interested in my past as such, but was intrigued by what he saw as my obstinate abstinence. I wondered how much he got around.

Over lunch (a mixed grill of shrimp, sardines, salmon, with a side of tabbouleh), he asked me what I did for a living. I said that while I had worked for years as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, I now mainly worked as a ghostwriter for entrepreneurs and businesspeople.

He asked, “You write on the economy?”

I explained that in the U.S., there’s a big market for business books that explain certain methods for success. They’re not books on the economy as much as business-inspirational ones that provide steps for showing people how to become more successful.

Benoît asked, “Did you have training to write on the economy?”

I repeated that I didn’t write on the economy, but on personal growth and business (among other things), and that when I was a reporter I mainly wrote on the arts. But also that my training had given me tools to help shape the stories that these businesspeople wanted to tell.

“That’s a funny kind of profession,” he said, not quite comprehending what I had been saying.

I fell back by saying something that usually ends arguments for the uncomprehending: “It’s an American thing,” I said.

At one point before this, I had quietly asked my friend Benjamin what Benoît did for a living. He told me that, in fact, Benoît had decided to quit working, that he hadn’t worked in an office (or actually earned money) for something like 15 years and that he was now, effectively, retired. Benoît , who was somewhere between 55 and 60 years old, oversaw the household (one daughter remained at home, while the two others were grown and lived in Paris). His wife was the principal, in fact, the only, breadwinner.

This explained a certain aimlessness that I sensed in Benoît , though my friend Benjamin told me that it had been a choice of Benoît’s to live, in Benjamin’s words, on the margins of society. Which is not really marginal if your spouse earns enough to keep the family in clover, as it were. Some people are able to retire from the workaday world, if they have the means of someone else’s work to enable their philosophical inquiries and a life of contemplation, or however they choose to occupy their time while someone else does the heavy lifting. Benoît seemed happy enough, I suppose, but I also sensed in him a certain indeterminate restlessness.

I was reminded of Montaigne’s well-known and always-pertinent observation, “La plus grande chose du monde c’est de savoir être à soi,” the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself. That is, to own who you are and what you are. I couldn’t speak for him, of course, but I don’t believe that Benoît yet belonged to himself. That didn’t stop him from deciding how others should seem to be, according to his way of thinking, or according to my interpretation of his way of thinking through my interaction with him.

What also struck me was how little Benoît seemed actually to understand what I was saying when we chatted (I wouldn’t call it a conversation, since his engagement in the moment was tenuous – he was doubtless reflecting on a better world somewhere without me in view). Benoît posed polite questions, but didn’t really expect an answer of any substance from me, and I found myself stopping short of providing him the kinds of answers I myself would have liked to hear from others. I had the feeling that he wasn’t interested in finding out about me as much as he was puzzled by how I didn’t seem to align with whatever idea he had of what kind of person an American like me would be, living in Paris, speaking French, working on his own and, most important, not drinking.  I probably didn’t conform to whatever he had expected, if he’d even had any idea of that beforehand.

I myself had no expectations of him or his wife, and during my sunny afternoon chez eux in this comfortable suburb, other than to have a pleasant time and enjoy a barbecue à la française. I tried to figure out Benoît’s point of view not only regarding me but things in general. To cite Montaigne again (and why not, since he’s wiser than anyone): “I am as ready as you please to acquit another man from sharing my conditions and principles. I consider him simply in himself, without relation to others.”

I do my best to consider people for themselves rather than in relation to others. But I do tend make generalizations, as many of us do, about where I am, whom I meet, the nature of the French, or of Americans, or of Parisians, or of New Yorkers. At the same time I try to move beyond the uninformed vague to the slightly more informed specific, to check myself for my own cultural bias, which is undoubtedly hard to escape. I cannot see through the eyes of someone from another culture, although now, knowing French, I have more of an idea of how you can view the world through a Francophone lens. Still, I am aware of the considerable limits of my comprehension regarding other people, places and customs, and I cannot assume anything about them without finding myself wide of the mark.

The thing is, I want to try to understand, or to comprehend someone else by being mindful of my own presuppositions and looking for a clearer picture of another person, if that’s even possible. I certainly didn’t expect to befriend my lunchtime hosts. But because I was seated next to Benoît, I wanted to go beyond my initial and certainly imperfect impressions and establish a connection. In speaking with Benoît, I found him to be friendly, quiet, solicitous and just a little distracted, slightly out of sync with what was going on around him.

I recently met someone else who had also retired to the “margins of society,” someone who lived, in the words of my friend Jean, as a rentier, on the income from the rental apartments he had inherited from his late parents. He lived simply, but he didn’t actually do anything (although it’s safe to say that many people in so-called regular jobs don’t actually do anything either). Over dinner, this rentier, Guillaume, asked me my advice for how to go about writing a novel. I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. For one thing, writing is more a need to express yourself than a passing fancy or something to occupy your time. For another, it actually takes commitment, which didn’t seem to me to be something that Guillaume was, well, committed to doing.

But that wasn’t for me to say. I told him you could acquire tools to help you figure out what you needed to do to polish a novel, but you had to devote yourself to it, learn from experience and forge ahead. At that he shrugged in a particular gallic way, implying either that it wasn’t worth pursuing or that if he decided that this wasn’t going to be too taxing he’d at least try it. In either event, I inferred, it was something that he wanted to explore.

Because I have the good fortune to earn an income as a writer who can live between New York and Paris, and who isn’t tied down by having to show up at an office (though I show up at my desk every day), I was intrigued at meeting two people who, each in his own fashion, found a way to disengage from the world. I don’t want to live on the margins of society, relatively speaking, but to be part of it, as much as anyone really can escape the carapace of his own perception. And I know that I need to guard against falling into aimlessness. If we don’t have structure in our lives, we need to create it. I don’t want to marginalize myself, no matter where I live.

Ideas in Action in France

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A polling station in Saint-Lizier, in southwestern France.  (Photos by J. Lajournade.)

“I like the idea of it, though,” my friend Bertrand said not too long ago.

He was responding to my offhand observation that the Centre Pompidou was ugly. Its inside-out factory look, now looking tired and dirty, was probably quite the thing 40 years ago. Today, not so much. Sure the collection is great, but the building is hideous. That didn’t matter to my friend. What the building meant to him signified something beyond what the Centre Pompidou actually is to me, a culturally significant eyesore.

In France, the idea of the thing is as important as or more important than the thing itself.

Take voting. I know quite a few people who, after reflecting on the choice of candidates, decided in these recent legislative elections, to “voter blanc,” to vote white, or to cast a blank ballot. “I couldn’t support either of the candidates,” my friend Jean told me. “But I wanted to make sure that I exercised my right to vote.” So he inserted a blank sheet into the blue envelope when he cast his ballot. Neither candidate got his vote. But he expressed his lack of interest in those candidates, while showing support for the system, by choosing not to choose.

This attitude puzzles me. But for the French voting “blanc” isn’t throwing away a vote.  It’s an action that carries weight. Even if that weight isn’t felt by the choice of a representative, but in the non-choice of two.

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Considering that your opinion has a palpable heft is a French trait. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone generally believes that his or her opinion is worth hearing. This is evident even on nationally televised talk shows, where people do just that: talk. The people they’re talking to might not listen, but they’re at least given the floor to say what they want. Invited experts – I’ve come to recognize the usual suspects – discuss a topic of the day, from various angles, and at length. This can come across as a lot of navel-gazing – and a lot of it certainly is – but it’s also refreshing to see people actually try to grapple with a subject than to shout bullet points at each other.

This also means that talking can replace actually doing things. Or that you “do” things by expressing your idea of them, as if thinking replaces action. Voting blank is an action, certainly – an idea in action – but what happens when some idiot is elected instead of someone disagreeable but less awful? You’d think that the people who didn’t vote (abstention levels have been high in the recent legislative elections) or who voted blank to protest the uninspiring candidates, would hardly be in a position to complain once the idiot was in office, thanks to their non-vote. This wouldn’t stop them. Complaining is another national trait. It’s more important to prove a point than to prevent a dope from holding office. An idea that you hold is more powerful than a person holding office.

I admire the love of ideas in France, especially the expressing of them. People take opinions seriously. And yet, sharply differing opinions aren’t grounds for banishment from your social circle. They’re opportunities for heated talk. I used to step in and ask friends in Paris to calm down if their discussions grew too animated and, to my eyes, angry. “We’re just talking,” they would say, looking at me like indulgent parents. I grew up not saying much at the dinner table, for fear of engaging too much with my father in one of his “moods,” and so never really grew comfortable with the lively interchange of points of view over a meal. And certainly not the French version, which to American eyes appears vicious, when it’s actually just passionate.

I might disagree with my friend Bertrand about the architecture of the Centre Pompidou, but I’m not likely to argue with him over his opinion of a building I find ugly and he finds interesting (or at least the idea of it interesting). As a pacifist who grew up wanting to avoid personal conflict, I wasn’t practiced in the art of expressing ideas. Nor did I believe my opinions really amounted to anything, especially if they drew attention to me. The French are different from how I was raised: they own their thoughts, and they’re proud to share them. And when a Frenchman says he voted blank to express his opinion about the sub-par candidates running for local or national office, his action might not have prevented someone ill-qualified from being elected, or it might have led to someone monstrous holding power. But that isn’t the point. The point is his opinion, not their being elected. And his opinion carries more weight than their candidacy.

A French Political Rally

I don’t know much about French politics, but I’ve come to recognize French politicians.

And recent affairs on the political scene here in France are a welcome relief, for a little while at least, from the horrific political sideshow acts in the U.S.

France is in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and while you can see in its unfolding some American inspiration, for want of a better word, in the use of social media among French politicians and a lengthening of the campaign season – it’s nothing like the grueling torture of an American presidential election.

The stakes are high in France, as they were in the U.S., as voters worry about their financial future and their personal safety, as people are being asked to choose between openness and closed-mindedness, between welcome and xenophobia, between voting “for,” in the words of the Parti Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, and voting against – that is, voting for those who are anti-everything, such as the far-right Marine Le Pen. Between choosing hope or hate. Unfortunately, with the rightward swing in national attitudes everywhere, hate plays far better than hope among people who prefer to blame others for what they believe is wrong with the way their lives have turned out.

The recent elections in the U.S. have added further urgency to the French political campaign – everyone fears the worst, and many on the other side of hate are doing what they can to elect someone who may be actually prevent France from closing itself off from the world, like its ally across the Atlantic seems to be doing.

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The U.S. is a big country, and everything related to a political campaign is bigger – especially involving money. But political commercials are unknown in France, which is a relief. Still, you can get your fill of politics on the many national talk shows devoted to the day’s events in France and I’ve come to recognize the usual guests who appear on these shows, too: journalists, political scientists (though I rather prefer the French word politologues) and academics who offer their conservative or liberal points of view.

Being French, they don’t simply toss out rehearsed one-liners – though they make their positions clear immediately – but they tend to talk and talk and talk around and about and up and down a topic or question, and they do what the French do best: enjoy hearing themselves speak. I enjoy hearing them speak too – I’ve become more French in that I am now more inclined to find entertainment value in listening to talking heads blow hot air at each other over the day’s news. This is probably because the French experts – unlike many of their American counterparts – actually know how to express themselves.

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As in the U.S., money has played a large part in the French campaign here, too – but unlike the enormous sums tossed around in an American election, the money that’s coloring this election is a misuse of public funds. The sums are significant – at least to the average French person who works for a living – a few hundred thousand euros in total – but money in France is different from money in the U.S. It’s respected, but not the summum bonum of a fruitful life for the French as it is for many Americans.

Still, money taints, whether euros or dollars. The Republican candidate François Fillon, who at best resembles an undertaker who hasn’t yet mastered the skill of faking empathy, has been accused of misusing funds to employ his wife Penelope in nonexistent jobs, to the tune of about €500,000 over the course of a decade, as well as his children (he employed one of his children for legal work as a lawyer, before she actually became a lawyer).

Fillon also more recently accepted gifts of custom-made suits, worth about €50,000, from a well-connected lawyer friend. In response to a question about whether it was appropriate to accept a gift from someone who might want to demand some sort of favor in return, Fillon said, “Et alors?” Meaning – “So?” This definitely didn’t play well with most people.

“They’re not even the best custom-made suits,” sniffed my friend Dominique, who’s left-leaning generally and definitely voting left in this election. Still, her point was that if you’re going to let yourself be corrupted by the finer things, at least let the bribe be worth your selling your soul. The larger concern is that Fillon sees nothing wrong in accepting gifts, or of using public funds to employ a member of the family (this latter is legal, if unpopular). This is troubling for many French voters, who are appalled at how out of touch Fillon is with the current distaste for the abuse of privilege, he the descendant of a stoneworker who has given himself the airs of a put-upon bourgeois.

“The real problem,” said Jean-Luc Melanchon, a far-left candidate who speaks very well but can be something of a self-righteous scold, “is that he doesn’t see that this is a problem.”

Marine Le Pen, herself an odious, smug xenophobe with the mocking sneer of someone who thinks everyone is beneath contempt (especially foreigners, and most especially Muslims), has also been accused of misappropriating public funds. But like her patron saint, the current lamentable holder of the American presidency, she accuses the legal system, rather than herself, of being corrupt.

To an American, such French political scandals are diverting, especially compared to the governmental horrors unfolding at home. But you can also find enthusiasm and actual joy in some French political events. Earlier this week, I went with a friend to a big “meeting” – the French use the English word for a political rally – of the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, at Bercy, a huge arena in the 12th arrondissement.

Hamon, who is trailing in the polls, behind the youthful Emmanuel Macron, the ex-finance minister and former banker who is expected to win in the second round of elections (he may very well become president), the detestable Marine Le Pen, and even the beleaguered François Fillon, has been unable to rally his party around his candidacy. He beat former prime minister Manuel Valls in the primary, but Valls has not given Hamon his support (he seems to be figuring out his next steps, regardless of who wins the election). The far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melanchon has drawn away to himself a fair share of Socialist Part voters. Melanchon trails the other candidates in the polls – and he pretty much splits the left-wing vote with Hamon. But at the packed Benoît Hamon rally – or meeting – the mood was triumphant, hopeful, spirited.

Three French pop and rock groups played before the candidate arrived – Les Yeux Noirs, Debout sur le Zinc and General Elektriks – and they were surprisingly good, even for an American dubious of how entertainment is used at most political gatherings. Hamon also attracted some big names behind him, who spoke to the crowd about why they support him and his candidacy. These included the economist Thomas Piketty (author of the bestselling Capitalism in the 21st Century), the mayor of Paris, Annie Hidalgo, and the widely admired (though reviled on the right) Christiane Taubira, former Minister of Justice under François Hollande.

Hamon, who in public debates tends to be more soft-spoken than the righteous Melanchon and the strident Le Pen (though he’s more energetic than the morose Fillon), was evidently touched by the stirring show of support in the arena, which was filled with many young as well as older voters, and where many of those present waved flags for the Socialist Party, the European Union or the green party.

Hamon’s appeals for inclusion appeal to a wide swath of the population (even if Le Pen’s message of exclusion has fervent support as well). Hamon spoke with force and clarity. He urged voters to be engaged rather than to retreat into themselves, to be present for the world rather than to isolate themselves from it, to be part of a dialogue for positive change.

It was a real message of hope. But who knows if hope will sell come the elections in a few weeks? Hope certainly didn’t work in the U.S. last November (though resistance might be effective in the coming months, and Americans seem to have learned some of the finer points of mass demonstrations from the French). But although hatred may win an election, it’s become obvious that it cannot govern a country.

The French are about to choose, as Benoît Hamon said at one point during his roughly 90-minute speech, not only what kind of country they want, but what kind of people they wish to be. I am not French, but on this afternoon I found myself fervently pro-Hamon, and I want to be part of the country he wishes to lead.

A Visit to Caen

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With my friend Vin before the Hotel de Ville in Caen.

When I visited my old high-school friend Vin in Caen last week – my first time in that city – I became the tourist, even though I spend several months a year in France. You can always learn something about someplace.

Every March for the past few years Vin has been teaching for two or three weeks in Caen, in the Calvados region of northwestern France (it’s part of Normandy). We passed an afternoon together, and he helped me discover his personal Caen. Spending even a little bit of time in one spot makes it in some way your own. And most people want to share with others.

Still, nothing distinguishes individual personalities more than how someone shows you around. (Or how you react to what you’re shown.)

Vin is far more volubly enthusiastic than I am and he, as a professor, is used to holding forth on a topic. I’m more reserved, even if my enthusiasm is genuine, and I’m more accustomed to keeping my observations to myself. For Vin, speaking is a way of observing, or of considering what he sees while, for me, speech, as opposed to commentary, can be an afterthought to reflection, at least when I’m taking in something new.

When friends have visited me in Paris – which hasn’t happened too often (when I first started living in France, and was learning French, I discouraged visits during the months of my first stay, under the incorrect assumption that spending a little time with an Anglophone friend or relative would somehow impede my progress in French) – I generally walk around the neighborhood pointing out this and that, but I’m reluctant to fall into the attitude of a know-it-all (realizing that I actually know very little about most things).

This might be a result of my experiences with some of the people with whom I became acquainted in my first year in France. I remember, about a month after my arrival in Paris, walking around the 13th arrondissement with Jim, an expat whom I used to know, before a party to which I’d been invited. Jim expounded on everything from bus routes to local butchers, in a manner I found intriguing if a bit off-putting: he was both knowledgeable about certain points of quotidian French life and ignorant of the impression he made as a self-important pedant to a relative newcomer to the country where he had lived for a decade.

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The cloister of the Men’s Abbey at Caen.

I fear slipping into a similar bordering-on-unpleasant explanatory mode when I’m describing to a visitor what I find interesting in a Parisian neighborhood, though I make a point of trying to learn for myself the history of the buildings, parks, streets and homes wherever I live, even if I’m only there for just for a few weeks.

I know that most people won’t share my enthusiasm for having uncovered trivia about a certain area I like – most people are only enthusiastic about what they discover on their own – so I tend to keep this sometimes-useless knowledge to myself, unless it involves something vaguely notorious, such as knowing the house where a celebrated 19th-century courtesan lived. To wit: Caroline “La Belle” Otero – dancer, actress, lover of kings, breaker of hearts, causer of suicides – inhabited a charming Mediterranean-style house on the Rue Fortuny, around the corner from the apartment where I stay in the 17th arrondissement. Knowing this makes the still-pretty house just slightly more significant, since what was once the residence of a self-made woman who lived large and died quite old is now home to a small financial-services firm that’s of interest only to those who make heaps of money there. Its past lends piquancy to its present.

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The cloister at the Men’s Abbey at Caen.

Despite my own reluctance to shower trivia upon the occasional visitor who asks my opinion of my neighborhood, when I visited Vin in Caen I was eager to hear his impressions of a city he likes, one he’s had the good fortune to return to over the course of several years. His daughter Elizabeth was also visiting him at the same time – though for a longer stay than my afternoon – and so Vin’s natural dynamic professorial enthusiasm was further heightened with a strong dose of fatherly pedagogy. He was delighted to tell both of us what he knew, in the refreshing, garrulous manner of someone who loves discovery and who takes great joy in your discovering something with him.

We met at the Église Saint-Pierre and wandered off to lunch, then hit the Hotel de Ville, with its beautiful Abbaye-aux-Hommes and its church of Saint-Étienne where William the Conqueror is buried. Vin described various historical details that I never would have found out during a self-conducted tour of my own, and provided a brief commentary on some unusual liturgical features in the stained glass and among the stations of the cross.

Afterward, we saw the chateau of Caen and took in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has a marvelous Perugino that would likely be passed over by swarming tourists if it were at the Louvre but that in a regional museum is given pride of place, while visitors have the chance to look at a masterwork in peace.

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From the ramparts of the Chateau of Caen.

Along the way, between church and chateau, Vin provided us with some tidbits of Caen’s history, and his association with the university where he teaches. He showed me the rare medieval houses that somehow withstood wartime bombardment, and drew my notice toward the unassuming (or, more plainly, dull-looking) modernist apartment building where he had temporary quarters. I also learned, for instance, that a damaged part of the chateau (most of Caen was obliterated during World War II) was probably caused by a grudge-holding English soldier who dropped a bomb into one of the towers to avenge the Norman Conquest of 1066. That’ll show them.

This is, of course, the kind of enjoyable if apocryphal detail that a professor slips into a discourse in order to pique the lagging interest of overtired students and, of course, I fell for it. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter here: your takeaway of a place is often a result of the lore rather than the facts (see: La Belle Otero).

And the person who gives you the commentary of a place can be as important as the place itself. A difference between how my friend Vin described where we where, and how my former acquaintance Jim recounted some facts about Parisian life, was attitude. One wanted to share his knowledge, while the other wanted to impress you with his. I learned from both the professor and the pedant, but I appreciate more the professorial enthusiasm than the pedantic snobbery. Even if I don’t quite know how my enthusiasms will land the next time I recount to a friend something of interest about where I live, I’ll try to share rather than to show off.