French Discontentment

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It’s always a winter of discontent in France. This winter might seem more discontented than others, but that’s because the discontentment has been publicized. The movement of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, just had its 10th weekend of protests, with no end in sight, and night after night you hear or see arguments, polemics, and discussion after discussion on television, radio and social media, about what it all means, where it’s all headed, what the gilets jaunes really want, what the consequences will be for the government of President Emmanuel Macron and when and if it will ever end.

Each Saturday since mid-November, thousands of people have demonstrated in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and other cities, and have occupied roundabouts and toll stops throughout France, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently, to protest their unhappiness with how their lives are unfolding, and their powerlessness to do any better against “the system.” What began as a criticism against a gasoline tax has morphed into a semi-organized ad hoc movement of generalized grievance, a cry against helplessness in the face of government indifference and of a society that pays more attention to the privileged than to the people beyond the “périphérique, that is, anyone who doesn’t live within the confines of the road that encircles the nation’s capital or, by extension, anyone who isn’t well-connected.

While it’s been tempting for me as an American to wonder at the misery of people living in a society with free medical care and education – despite the relatively high taxes that support these social services – and to compare it with the situation in the United States under a mean-spirited government reeking of corruption, greed and incompetence, I realize that politics is local and the two situations are not the same, even though discontentment is widespread in both countries. The French aren’t living in the United States, and they have their own concerns about social mobility, the cost of living and their place in the world. In regions far from Paris, people also have a growing sense that they are being left to fend for themselves. As much as the French like to complain about their government, they are accustomed to a bureaucracy that provides them with much in their lives. And while many French depend on these services, many are also increasingly under the impression that the haves are paying far less in taxes than the have-nots. Inequality – along with the social unrest that erupts from it – is really at the heart of the gilets jaunes movement.

Something more is at stake here too, though. Many demonstrators among the gilets jaunes – putting aside attempts by far-right and far-left groups to coopt the movement for their own anarchical, xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic ends – are frustrated because they feel they are shouting into the wind. The movement has grown, and has had legs, because people are tired of being ignored.

As Alain Bauer, a guest on the topical talk show C Dans l’Air said recently, “We have a long history of regular clashes between a state that only begins to listen when it’s facing radicalized opposition, and an opposition that says, ‘If you’re not radicalized no one listens to you.’” In other words, the French realize that sometimes it takes a revolution to change the way things are done.

In response to this countrywide despondence, the government has launched a series of public discussions, called le grand débat, where people can meet at their city or town halls, and discuss the issues of the day – or what’s bugging them. One held last week in Brittany, where President Macron spoke with some 700 mayors of towns in the region, lasted for seven hours, during which he responded to all the questions that the mayors proposed – many of the mayors reading from lists of questions or problems that their electors had written. The grand débat will go on for another two months.

Before the start of the grand débat, people had the opportunity to write in cahiers de doléances, or notebooks of grievances, to express their anger or anything else on their mind, so that it might be aired as a topic of discussion. This is a practice that dates to the 14th century. It was a register in which assemblies noted wishes, requests and complaints that were later addressed to the state by the local representatives. It was most famously used in 1789 to reflect the demands of the French at a time of significant unrest, when Louis XVI, unaware of what people actually wanted – in the timeless, clueless way of so many sovereigns – sought their opinions in writing. Some historians have seen parallels between what was written in these registers during the French Revolution and what people are writing in today’s cahiers de doléances, particularly regarding taxation and “a wish to be heard at the highest level,” said Michel Starter, director of the departmental archives in Aisne, France, speaking during a television segment about the registers.

Some of those who wish to be heard, particularly among the gilets jaunes, say they want to be heard personally. I just saw a television clip of someone wearing a yellow vest, speaking at a town assembly, who said that while he was all for the mayors acting on behalf of their citizens, he really wanted someone to listen to him himself. He was less interested in representative government than in direct access to people in power. I don’t know if this will ever be possible, or what this will mean going forward for either the gilets jaunes movement or for the evolution of France’s democratic system, but it speaks to people’s sense of isolation both from power and from something perhaps even more powerful: actually being heard.

Even in France, where people love to talk and, above all, to complain – in what other country would you find a public register of grievances? – I’m not sure if anyone actually hears what another person really has to say. One of the things I have found in the work I’ve done as a writing coach is how rarely people feel that they are heard in life, that they are paid attention to, that their thoughts are validated by someone taking them, and what they have to say, seriously.

Multiply that by several hundred thousand souls, and you have a sense of why the gilets jaunes movement has such staying power.

The House on the Rue Fortuny

 

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The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) lived in this house on the Rue Fortuny between 1933 and 1950.

A few weeks ago, as I walked down the rue Fortuny, which I often take on the way to or from my gym or the Malesherbes metro station, I saw that the door was open at of one of the many private houses that still line this street in the 17th arrondissement.

I had often wondered what the interior of this particular hôtel particulier might look like. The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol had lived there for about 17 years, which I had learned from the eye-level plaque beside the house’s bright red door.

The Rue Fortuny seems to have had more than its fair share of famous inhabitants, in a city dense with them. The actress Sarah Bernhardt had a home on this street. The writer Edmond Rostand wrote his most famous and enduring play Cyrano de Bergerac at a house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony. A Mediterranean-looking hôtel belonging to the 19th century’s most notorious courtesan, known as La Belle Otero, still stands a few yards down the block (it’s now home to a financial services firm). The home and atelier of the renowned pâtissierPierre Hermé – who reinvented the macaron about a decade ago – sit across from where Marcel Pagnol once lived.

Under the diaphanous blue light of this Parisian summer morning an older man, the house’s owner perhaps, was chatting with a woman whose little dog sniffed, with the amiable curiosity of certain little dogs, the dust that was floating in dog-level puffs around the owner’s broom, now paused while he and the woman exchanged pleasantries. Passing them, I glanced inside the house to see gray stone stairs leading up to a shallow landing where a small table stood under a portrait-sized mirror.

I had the impression that the man’s house – the Pagnol house I think of it – doesn’t get much light, since the sun streams down the Rue Fortuny just a few hours a day. This notion could have also been a twinge of my green-eyed hope that not everything should or could be perfect in such a beautiful house on such a beautiful street. I don’t know what I expected to find on looking in. I was grateful simply to see the ordinary stairs and table and mirror. You’re not often given the chance to glimpse the interiors of the homes of the celebrated.

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The house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony, where Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) wrote his most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Marcel Pagnol isn’t known to most Americans. Nor, perhaps, are the majority of the writers and artists whose names grace the streets, squares and boulevards of Paris. But that doesn’t matter. Fame, and even posterity, can be surprisingly local. Pagnol’s career took off in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the popular and critical success of his plays and his films, especially what’s known as the Marius trilogy, which explores the lives of ordinary folks in and around Marseille. Pagnol’s films were precursors of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. They often used natural light, real rather than studio locations, and portrayed the overlooked working-class with respect and humanity, taking care to emphasize and embrace the often-mocked accents of the region, making us aware that these people’s lives had value.

Pagnol died in 1974 and his former house on the Rue Fortuny has undoubtedly passed through several hands since 1950, when he moved out of it. In briefly looking through its open door I’d had the merest peek at someone’s else’s life, a life not Pagnol’s, I know. I had probably expected to inhale the still-lingering wisps of a long-departed spirit whose talent was far greater than mine.

I see these houses with a mixture of longing and resignation, for other lives, different eras, ones where I might myself have mattered more than I do, or created more than I have, or imprinted myself on the public imagination more than I am ever likely to.

I occasionally watch a popular French television documentary series, Secrets d’Histoire, or Secrets of History, which claims to uncover the hidden truths of certain epochs. Mainly it’s a chance for experts with uptight accents to provide speculative insights into the motivations of the high and mighty of another age, as if they knew them personally. They speak with confidential certainty of the Vicomte de Rien and the Comtesse de Machin while reenactments of certain historic incidents, or photos of lavish interiors, cue the viewer in on a vanished world. It’s ridiculous, of course, a supersized and overenthusiastic diorama, but I like to think I learn a little bit about these ghastly French monarchs and courtiers and swindlers.

My friend Jean hates Secrets d’Histoire – since it’s all about the aristocrats and not the people whose lives they ignored. He prefers to think of the numbers who lived faithfully a hidden life and who rest in unvisited tombs. I know what he means – because I am among that number. But we can’t help favoring the famous over the forgotten.

In Paris, however, where history is within reach of even your unintended touch, I sometimes feel during my walks that although my accomplishments are far more narrow than the breadth of even that one word, the plaques or signs that tell me who had profited enough from life to be remembered give me hope. That even I, in all my self-abnegation, might not be entirely erased by time. I don’t expect a plaque. I don’t expect anything, actually, since you can never control how others think or feel or write about you. This isn’t about being remembered, or not entirely. It’s about creating myself through writing, through acknowledging what I often don’t – my fears and my feeble sense of self, to craft something lasting out of the ephemeral me. It isn’t about being known so much to others, as being worthy to myself. Perhaps I see these homes of writers and artists as opportunities to think not just of who I might have been, but who these people were, and why it is important to remember how others have made life even more interesting because of how they saw it.

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The former home of the dancer, singer and celebrated courtesan Caroline Otero (1868-1965), known popularly as La Belle Otero.

Some of the people I’ve encountered in Paris and elsewhere in France, have asked me not to name them in my writing. One, whom I’d simply described as “a friend,” had seen himself in the few phrases of an article I’d written about a dinner he had taken part in. “I want to remain unknown,” he said, since even thinking that he had recognized himself in print was too much exposure.

Another who works at the French Senate, and whose marriage I had attended and written about, told me he prefers to be “un homme de l’ombre,” a man of the shadows, or someone who works behind the scenes. And yet another told me that even though no one probably ever reads what I write, he still didn’t want even those pathetic few who did to have any knowledge of who he was. Today I have no knowledge of him, since we’ve lost contact.

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But it strikes me as odd – or perhaps I don’t understand the profound craving for anonymity among certain others – that you would want to efface yourself from the world, even as you take part in it, when the world will not remember you for long regardless.

I realize that most people will be forgotten. Most of us will rest in unvisited tombs. But many of us, or at least me, will attempt to leave a mark, however slight.

I once visited the Villa Arnaga, the summer home of Edmond Rostand, in Cambo-les-Bains, in France’s Basque country. Rostand became not only wildly famous after the success of Cyrano de Bergerac, but quite rich. The sumptuous house he built on his earnings is filled with photos of then-famous friends and visitors, most now forgotten. There’s no guarantee that your proximity to fame will lead to your being remembered. Or even how you’re remembered. Rostand was remembered; his friends, not so much. But did they even think about it? Did they care if they were photographed for a fickle posterity? Did they wish to stay unknown beside the literary star in their midst? Did they prefer to be des hommes de l’ombre?

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In Paris, the plaque on the wall of the house where Rostand wrote his most famous play sits so high above eye level that you have to strain to read it. As if someone wanted to let pedestrians know that renown such as Rostand’s was unattainable to them. It certainly is unlikely for me – but that is more because my modest work is unacknowledged. I don’t choose to be unknown. I just am.

But living for a few months a year in a city that has chosen to remember those whom others may go on to forget isn’t so bad. Even the accomplished among us may be swept aside by the cruel indifference of time. All I can do is accept that I am nothing, at least in the grand sweep of things.

This makes me realize that my efforts to make sense of the small wonders of the everyday – a curious little dog lapping the motes of dust around his head, the half-open door of a lovely house I shall never enter, the way the plaques and street signs of the celebrated and even the forgotten incite in me an urge to be more than who I am – are worthy in themselves. They may help me to remember that despite my own self-sabotage, despite my dismissal of my gifts, such as they are, despite my regrets at having squandered so much of my life because I feared to change – I may find some joy in knowing that while I myself have not amounted to much, I can accept and even cherish what others have done.

If I chance to come across again the owner of the Pagnol house on the Rue Fortuny, perhaps I’ll stop to say hello, and let him know how much I admire the writer who once lived there. Or maybe I’ll just compliment him on his house. He may find it odd that a stranger speaking French with an American accent might even know who Pagnol was, but then he might also be delighted to meet a stranger who has surprised him by acknowledging that someone else’s life, even one from long ago, still matters.

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.

Striking in France

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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

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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.

Friends Visiting in Paris

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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

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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.

Who You Are in France

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I was left holding the cocotte.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remembered that Karine hated lamb.