Monday, June 06, 2005

"Au revoir," "Qu'est-ce que c'est, dégueulasse?", "We'll always have Paris," et cetera

So I haven’t been too good about blogging. I guess I don’t have much to tell you.

Hey. How’s it going?

My parents were in town for a while. One day, I was biking back from the grocery store and I saw them on the street. That made me smile.

The last couple weeks haven't been too Parisian. I was having to make plans for my return, so it didn’t feel as much like Paris, not when I was sitting at my laptop booking a flight and calling my insurance company and trying to make arrangements for someplace to live in Baltimore. And then there’s the laptop bag that is starting to rip into small pieces, and the bike lock that doesn’t work anymore, and the Internet connection that is flaking out, and the glasses I broke. All signs reminding me that Paris is not home, that it's not possible to keep living like this. I think the bike chain breaking was the hurdle that really drove it home that I'm not really at home here.

Of course, I started having a little separation anxiety. Wherever I go, I can’t help but think, “When am I going to be here again?” I’m lingering during the Metro transfers I used to rush through. I think a Metro transfer is one of my favorite things about Paris. Some of the art and architecture in the Metro stations, especially in the big train stations, is wonderful. The ads are fun, too. They only run about 7 or 8 different advertisements, so you see the same ads everywhere for a couple weeks at a time. I see the glasses I’ll never be able to afford, and the ribbed turtleneck sweater I would never want to wear, and the plays I’d really love to see but whose language I will never totally understand, and the skinny, nearly naked models whom I can see in any advertisement in the world.

I’ll miss watching movies here. The advertisements—again, the same few at every theater—are really funny; even comparatively small businesses film really good ads. There’s a really nicely filmed ad of a woman swinging around the carousel under the Eiffel Tower showing off all the different pairs of glasses she’s bought. It’s for the optician down the street from me, who has I think one other shop.

I’ll miss the music that plays before the ads and previews start up. A couple weeks ago, while waiting to see Lemming, the John Lee Hooker track from an old St. Germain album played. I hadn’t listened to that album in six or seven years; that kind of sound dates quickly. But it sounded great in the theater. I knew so little about Paris when I bought that album back in the mid 1990s, with its picture of the Seine on the cover and its slick Euro-grooves.

I’ll miss the previews of great movies from all over the world—Senegal, Korea, China, Iran—and trying to understand them through the gauze of a foreign language and slightly less foreign subtitles. I’ll miss watching movies in small rooms with just 3 or 4 other people, all of whom are silent. I’ll miss how everyone sits through the credits at the end. I’ll miss the espressos I sit down for at an outdoor table after the movie.

Gosh, I sure talk about things a lot on this blog. Meals, parks, coffee. But I don’t want to talk too much about people. I’ve made a couple friends here, and I’ve been able to learn a lot about them and what it means to be French. But I feel like I’d be objectifying them if I wrote about them too much here. It’s just too anthropological. You’ll also notice when I get home that I don’t have many pictures of people. I just can’t shoot pictures of random people; I was living in Paris, so I sort of considered them as neighbors, not “French things that would look really good in a picture.” They would take offense to it, too. For example, I was at a flea market last month with my camera trained on an antique dealer negotiating with a customer. I hesitated, and eventually he looked up. I said, “Can I take a picture of you all at your stand?” He said, “Si vous demandez, oui. Si vous ne demandez pas, non. (If you ask, yes. If you don’t ask, no.) It was as if he was revealing one of the Ten French Commandments.

I guess I’d better learn how to be nosy and invasive before I start journalism school this August. Professional Pest.

You’ll also notice when I get home that I don’t have that many pictures of anything. I bought an old Canon when I was in Copenhagen, and the learning curve is a little higher than I had hoped it would be. I’ve blown three rolls of film so far, including what I thought were going to be great shots of Eric and Heidi with their 18-month-old daughter.

None of these hang-ups—finicky cameras, broken glasses, etc.—really get to me for long here, though. The other day I passed the Musee du Luxembourg on the way to the Metro, and I decided to stop in for the Matisse exhibit. I walked out of there feeling incredibly restored, like it was enough just to breathe. I felt like the week before, too, after hearing a concert by a master organist at St. Sulpice. And hearing the bells toll at Notre Dame when the pope died. And rowing around a lake at Bois de Vincennes. And remembering, as I listen to Charles Ives’s “The Circus Band” in my apartment, that as much as I love Paris I wouldn’t want to “be from” any other country in the world.

America is crazy! After being in Copenhagen’s Christiania squatter settlement, I realized how nutty it is to pick up everything, go to a new place, and decide—based on some new, quixotic, hippie-dippie ideas about freedom and liberty—that you are going to create a culture from scratch and govern yourself.

Sure, there are things I can’t stand about America…but I sometimes doubt it could have turned out any other way. We are obsessed with frontiers. It is a compulsion rooted in the traumatic incidents of our nation’s childhood, and I don’t think any therapy is strong enough to change our collective behavior. How much would you want to change anyway? Jazz could only have come from America. Does the fact that America is willing to run blindly into a pre-emptive war (I mean, most wars are about saving your ass tout de suite—by its very nature a pre-emptive war should give you at least a little time to plan…I mean, it’s a war that starts when you want it to start, right?) mean we should just get rid of the stick-your-neck-out mentality that leads to so many of the phenomenal innovations that define us?

I’ll be in a new city shortly after I come home, but I’m just happy to be coming back to America. [cue the Yankee Doodle music] No, seriously. That’s where I’m from. Pete Seeger. Ella Fitzgerald. Charles Ives. Thoreau, Whitman, Cal Ripken. Flannery O’Connor, Carroll O’Connor, Conan O’Brien. Eleanor Roosevelt. Ralph Ellison. Studs Terkel, Studs McKenzie. Martin Luther King, Jr. Harriet Tubman. Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister. Bonnie and Clyde. Clint Eastwood. Bill Monroe, Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington. Clara Barton. Mark Twain.

Art Ensemble of Chicago. Artie Donovan.

Here’s an old American song…

“War means overtime and higher prices, but we’re all willing to make sacrifices. Hell, I’d even stop fightin’ with my mother-in-law ‘cause we need her too to win the war (ol’ battle axe). Now as I think of our great land with its cities and towns and farming lands with so many people workin’ everyday, I know it ain’t perfect but it will be some day. Just give us a little time.

“This is the reason that I want to fight, not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right. No, it’s just the opposite, I’m fighting because I want a better America and better laws. And better homes and jobs and schools and no more Jim Crow and no more rules like ‘You can’t ride on this train because you’re a Negro,’ and ‘You can’t live here because you’re a Jew,’ and ‘You can’t work here because you’re a Union man.’”


I just wish we had better croissants.