Friday, March 23, 2007

Paris 4

March rain. A bad afternoon for walking in Paris. A good day for cafes, bars, and bookstores. Helmette often tells me she wouldn't want to live again in her hometown, but only because of the weather. I actually like it.

I've said this before most likely, but the reason I think the Paris spring is so celebrated is because you've just gone through a miserable winter. Spring is a theater curtain that lifts one day and you find everything in bloom, lovers strolling along, the cafe terraces full, toy boats afloat in the fountain at the Jardins du Luxembourg, all the stereotypical events, actors, and pastimes of Parisian life. But it all depends on that miserable winter.

Nonetheless, I like the winter here (and we're still in winter) because it is insular. People turn inside for warmth and to get out of the biting rain. I've spent more time in bookstores per diem over my lifetime here in Paris during the winter. Galleries and museums. A movie or two. A guilt-free afternoon beer or two. Food. And, strangely enough, I talk with more Parisian strangers during the winter. They're famous for rudeness, but it's not really that at all. Parisians are like New Yorkers. They're busy, and ultimately kind of shy. But when you stop to talk, they're helpful and friendly. Of course, speaking French goes a long way. If a Swahili-speaker came up to you in New York and asked directions, you'd probably turn them away too unless you knew Swahili.

French is such a proud and lovely language. It's assaulted by English and is peppered increasingly with English vocabulary and phrases. Traditionalists detest this. But they tend to be fairly realistic. English is a practical language used globally. The French know this. Even many traditionalists have given in, since realizing that French is not going to become simply an English dialect. The hardcore traditional, the arbiters of French culture, especially at the Academie Nationale, are famous for their tendency to take organically integrated language from elsewhere and determine that a new French word should be used in its place. Thus the famous French word, "balladeur," when "Walkman" had become au courant. Actually, I admire this one. "Balladeur" is a play on words. It draws from the French term, "ballader" - to go for a stroll - and the French term we use in English, "ballade," as in a type of song. A lovely word, "balladeur." But no one uses it. And no one has Walkmen any more anyway. I nevertheless prefer it myself for its creativeness. What do you prefer? Products with names like Chevrolet "Nova"? That's about as stupid as it gets. For Spanish speakers, it means "no go." For English speakers, it means exploding star. These are both criteria I look for in an automobile.

Even a little French goes a long way. This is the key to Paris, and certainly to getting around anywhere else in France. Many Parisians speak English now, but assuming your own language and culture in a foreign country has always made Americans some of the most annoying visitors. I think Italians are the worst of all, but we Americans have our reputation pretty much set.

I was talking with an American friend here the other night. She hasn't been here long, and she's trying hard to learn the language, but it's slow-going. She's frustrated with what this means for living in the city. But once again the key is the language. It's possible, for those who work in American or English-run companies to speak English all the time. Bad for your French. Like any language, you have to be forced to use it in order to learn it. But Paris seems special in that, given the pride in their own language, and given the proud reluctance to bow to visitors' wishes about how they ought to be treated, and given some visitors' sense of exceptionalism, the city will never be terribly welcoming. When you try in good faith, people are usually helpful. There are assholes - like everywhere - but you shrug them off, and go on to the non-asshole. Once you reach that special plateau with the language, where you're having sophisticated discussions in the language and don't need to hold it up to wrack your brain for the vocabulary or grammar, when things start becoming natural in the language, then the place also changes. Now, you're independent, for one thing. But, more importantly, you're now a participant in the place.

It's only like this that Paris has become a kind of home for me. I have family and friends here, sure. But when I reached that language plateau, that fluency, the whole city opened up as full of possibilities. This changed my life here when I lived here. It took a while, but it was worth it. To be able to call Paris home is a great thing. I've lived in many places around the world, growing up and in adulthood, but only have a handful of places I call home. Texas is one (often shamefully), DC is another. San Diego, because it's my birthplace, is another. So is Paris. Oddly, so is Bangkok, though my Thai was never great. My Japanese gained a certain fluency at one point, now lost, but Japan is still not a "home." In this case, I think it's accessibility, the cultural embeddedness of the language (going so far as to distinguish a vocabulary, katakana, specifically for foreign words), and the hall of mirrors one encounters in personal, intimate relationships... or rather the Get Smart doors that keep opening to lead to yet another door to pass through.

There's a point to this post, I believe, despite its wanderlust. I suppose it has to do with patience. Americans tend to be quick in their judgments of other people, holding onto them with such tenacity that they start to eat at who Americans are. Not all, obviously - many of the most open-minded, interesting, and intelligent people I know are American, and it will always be this way since the US is capable of generating terrific, imaginative human beings. But a lot of us are utter buffoons. Unfortunately, that buffoonery shows up in both individual relationships and in policies that affect others, and many of us don't care (which belies American claims to some kind of moral upstandingness - morality is always other-directed). If you want to look for causes of anti-Americanism, that's where to look. The English-only movement in the US is an instance of the kind, as are the parts of immigration policy that treat others like criminals and sometimes animals. This is not to say that the French are not guilty of the same, or other countries, but there's a difference in that Americans have a huge influence on the shape of the rest of the world. When it's done through that odd, blustering American arrogance born of fear and ignorance, it's destructive for everyone.

This is going to sound really hippie of me (and I'm no hippie) - and maybe it's Paris channeling through me - but I don't see why loving different places and people is a problem. But it does require us to take all those damned resources we're so proud of and actually do something with them. That seems to me a pretty good life - let's call it a new American Dream.


troutsky said...

Like far out man.Im so slowly reading Kwame Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, Ethics in a World of Strangers. Some detours are more productive than others but his basic message is just that. Great post. My first night in Paris my girlfriend and I got in a cab at our hotel and went to dinner and I forgot to get the name of the place and it wasn't written on the key. Took several hours of panicked wandering to find it.

MT said...

You, me and Rodney King, helmut. You, me and Rodney. (and of course Jonathan.)

Jim Anderson said...

Pedant point: Snopes takes down the "no va" myth.

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