Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Talking About America

Feb. 28, 2005

Qu'est-ce que c'est la difference?

The last day of February, and one might think, hopefully, the last day of wintry weather. But it's still bitterly cold outside at night. One sees a few clochards making camp in the metro with their bottles and bags, sometimes engaging in animated conversation with better-dressed passersby. Others slumped over in the rows of orange plastic seats. But I suspect most of the homeless in Paris are in shelters these cold nights, because, well, the French seem to take care of their own better than we do in America.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes Parisians different from Americans, and why I like Parisians so much, and feel so comfortable among them. This evening I've come to the conclusion that it's at least partly because people aren't in competition with one another here -- for money, for space on the metro, for attention. As a woman here -- even a woman of a certain age, mon dieu -- one gets plenty of flattering attention from waiters and shopkeepers and even from other women. I'm thinking of the old cordonnier who calls me "ma fille" whenever I come into his shoe repair shop. And of the young woman who sold me my little red hat, telling me it would help cure my "grippe" to feel pretty and warm, especially if I added some red lipstick.

This evening, for another example, I went with Adrian and her old friend Debbie Baldwin to a little restaurant in the 11th for dinner. (Adrian and I had planned to have a quiet dinner at her place, but Deb showed up a day early for her date with Adrian, so we decided we'd all go out together.) The restaurant was called La Vache Acrobate, "The Acrobatic Cow." A typically crowded little joint with almost no space between the tiny tables. But when we needed a little more seating room on the bench along the window, the women already occupying the adjacent table cheerfully slid over and moved their coats and bags, laughing and joking and welcoming us. It's the same in the metro: people move aside and make room for one another and also keep their own hands and feet close to their bodies, so as not to trip or grope anyone, or take up more than their share of available space.

Whereas last night Jenny Huxta and I went to Jim Haynes' weekly soiree. I hadn't been in at least five years and Jenny had managed to live in Paris all this time without ever participating in this Sunday evening rite. See, a lot of ex-pats living in Paris get lonely on Sundays, because Sunday is a big family day among the French, a day most people spend at home surrounded by family. And even the French get lonely, if they don't have family nearby. So Jim has been throwing these dinner parties for 20 or 30 years. Good food, bad wine, way too many people -- usually 80 or so -- crowded into his atelier. But jostling and being jostled and balancing a plate on your knee -- that is, if you're lucky enough to find a place to sit -- is half the fun. Jenny and I struck up a three-way bilingual conversation with a Frenchman named Marc, who kept spilling his wine all over himself, but was otherwise really charming. We were happily scrunched into a corner of a kind of built-in couch that runs along two walls, and Jenny and I started making a game of seeing if we could pick out the Americans in the crowd by how much space they were taking up. One woman was sprawled -- actually reclining -- on the other end of the couch, on which she had also set down her plate. This in a room where most others barely had room to stand. When she finished eating and got up, a man took her place and sat with his knees spread wide, hand on his hip and one elbow jutting out so that no one could sit too close, I thought. I thought he seemed a little hostile, a little aggressive in his insistence on his space. Later, I noticed him walking out with a cane and felt like a complete ass for the judgment I'd made -- maybe a disability made it too uncomfortable for him to sit any other way than the way he'd been sitting. At moments like these, I wish I could be a little less "American," myself, a little less quick to judge. And if I were more "French," I might also be a little quicker to forgive myself.

I think there's really just a different attitude toward life here. There's more public space, and people live more in public -- on the streets, in the cafes -- so there seems to be more of a common life, a shared life. At the same time, there's more respect for individuality, and more individuality, period. Maybe it's because the conglometerization and corporatization of France hasn't happened yet. I hope it never does. Deb and Adrian and I were talking tonight about New York City. Adrian said she's never had any particular "feeling" for New York, although she lived there for several years. I agreed that I love my friends there, but don't feel any attraction to the city, itself, don't feel that the city has any particular personality. Then we all started wondering out loud if there was any American city that still had any personality. All the coffee shops and restaurants and stores seem the same, look the same. And the window displays, if there are any window displays, look pretty generic to me.

Here, "window-licking" -- and one does sometimes want to walk right up and lick -- provides a feast for the eyes. One can be almost as satisfied by looking as by posessing the things in the windows. Just the desire they inspire feels delicious. Here in the Marais, the window displays seem to change every few days. I find myself walking past a few favorite shops when I'm out on errands, just to see the new displays. Window-dressing is an art here, as is the making of bread and patisserie. The other afternoon on the rue vielle du Temple, a young woman was standing on the sidewalk in front of a shop, carefully scrutinizing her handiwork -- that flowering branch placed just so between the hand-sewn journals and hand-made paper, between the shiny pens and the brightly-colored pencils, did it provide just the right texture, just the right balance, or could it be even more beautiful? I wanted to stop and thank her. Lucky me, I go about my business and I'm surrounded by beauty, and so often beauty that's been created by individual human hands. It's different, it really is, and it's lovely to live on a human scale, instead of on the scale of the "big box" store.

This also has something to do, I think, with why people look more beautiful to me here -- or at least more interesting. Even the very old. Even the men on the garbage trucks, which look like Tonka toys to me. And it's not that people look "exotic" or foreign to my eyes, but that each one looks exactly like him- or herself, like an individual, and not as if they're trying to look like everyone else, or like the people they see on t.v. Some of this has to do with dress, because it's true that Parisians dress better than we do, and not because they have more disposable income. They just don't all buy their clothes from the same racks in the same big department or discount stores. So a French person may not have the same quantity of clothes that an American has in his or her closet, but the French put them together and wear them with certain panache. How many times this winter have I smiled at a young man in a dark winter coat, a bright lime-green scarf looped around his throat with that certain savoir-faire? And then there's the matter of quality, too.

This morning I walked down the rue de Rivoli in sharp sunlight to meet Corine at le Boucheron. She sat across from me in the smoky cafe in a multi-colored sweater, ribbons of color woven into the dark wool. I had to ask her if I could touch the fabric, to finger the edge of her sleeve. "It's so beautiful," I said. "Yes," she agreed, and named the famous designer and told me the story of how she acquired it: she'd fallen in love with it, but it was "trop cher;" then her sister saw it on sale in London and bought it for her. I told her that, in America, women like me -- and Corine and I are approximately the same age and of approximately the same socio-economic class -- seldom buy designer things. But a Frenchwoman wants le qualite; she may have only two sweaters in her closet, but they're beautiful sweaters.

I thought of the summer day some years ago when I returned to the U.S. from France, and was watching the crowds in the Detroit airport, trying to figure out why these people looked so different from the French. Then I realized they were all wearing their "vacation" clothes, which looked brand-new but cheap, ill-fitting. Corine told me that in France, it used to be that there were only clothing shops for children and for adults. Now there are these chain boutiques that cater to adolescent girls, who crave having a lot of different trendy clothes, and the clothes are cheap. "Ah," I said, "So Americans are like adolescents?" In this, as in so many things. It's been said before, of course: America is a young country, still in the throes of puberty, culturally and historically. And there's a clumsy sweetness in that, and a kind of vitality, but won't it be a relief to leave adolescence behind, if we ever leave it behind?

I met Corine at a dinner party at Brett's and Aileen's a few weeks ago. She had been Aileen's French tutor when my Aussie pals first moved to Paris, and has recently found herself unexpectedly unemployed. So I've hired her to help me with my French, and she's developed an intensive course of study that she believes will "poosh" me from an intermediate to an advanced level pretty quickly. I'm meeting her at Le Boucheron every day, working hard at this but having fun, feeling more connected, naturally, to the people around me, the more I understand and can speak this beautiful language. Corine explains different sentence constructions to me, and always urges me to use "le plus elegante." So I may end up speaking a broken and elegant French, which seems perfect to me.

I love this sense of the elegant in even the smallest things. This evening, on my way up the rue vielle du Temple to Adrian's, I passed a display of little flowerpots on a sidewalk table, so adorable, with a perfect baby rose in the center of each, and only 7 euros. So I chose one for Adrian and went into the shop to pay. The two men working there laughed when they greeted me, and I asked if the shop were already closed? Non, non, they smiled, though there was already an open bottle of wine on the counter, and two half-filled glasses. And one of the men took the time to wrap my gift carefully in tissue paper and twine ribbon. Such attention to detail, which is beauty, is everywhere. And am I the only American to have ever found the French not only unfailingly polite, but unfailingly kind and warm?

Of course, the French can be very critical, too, which may also account for my feeling so at home among them. They're "picky" about how things are done -- or, as my nephew Jesse has said about me, "Well, my Aunt Celia is very particular." So be prepared to wait for a cup of coffee, if you want a perfectly-prepared cup of delicious coffee. And to wait while your purchase, however small, is elegantly wrapped. And to be chastised, sotto voce, for putting your feet up on a chair. (This is Paris -- think of what might be on the soles of your shoes!) And to have your opinions and attitudes challenged with intellectual fervor. And to challenge right back.

Last Friday, Adrian and I met our friends Pamela and Solange at le Coude Fou ("The Crazy Elbow") for dinner. Pamela is, in many ways, quintessentially American -- a professional poker player and dealer who spends part of each year in Las Vegas and also takes photographs and writes. Solange, her partner, is in some ways quintessentially French -- she's lived in Paris all her life and recently retired from her work in the French film industry. Each is also rather eccentric. And their relationship -- they met almost ten years ago, when I convinced Pamela to visit Paris, so I take a tiny bit of credit -- is a pleasure to behold, and sometimes a comedy of cultural errors. Solange will correct Pamela about everything from how she pours wine to how she cuts the lettuce (don't!) to how she offers mints from her purse. Pamela will respond with her big hearty laugh. That they love one another and are committed to their life together seems never in doubt.

So, we were talking about movies, and I happened to mention that my family in Kentucky sees the big Hollywood movies at home on DVD before they even reach the cinemas, because one of my brothers downloads them from the internet. Solange was outraged, "It's 'orrible! I worked in this business for many years and ..." But Adrian, bless her big, open heart, butted right in. "No, you don't understand," she said, "Every artist wants his or her work to be seen as widely as possible, it doesn't hurt the artists. It creates a bigger buzz and a bigger audience." And I butted back in and told Solange that if any entity was hurt by bootlegging, it was the big film companies and record companies, who take advantage of the artists, anyway, not to mention how obscenely they profit from the consumer. I told her, proudly, that my younger sisters bootlegged the music of "alternative" artists and passed it around in our family -- music that doesn't get the kind of airplay that the music of pop princesses like Britney Spears gets, because these artists aren't part of the whole corrupt payola system that the industry propagates and the government allows.

I wish I'd thought to mention, too, that my eldest sister, who runs a hair and tanning salon in a little house on Highway 61 between Shepherdsville and Lebanon Junction, made numerous copies of "Farenheit 911" and gave them to her customers -- most of whom are, or were, apolitical at best, and probably getting whatever news they got from the Fox network. But they came back into her shop furious after having watched the film, saying, "I never knew all this stuff." And when they tried to give the DVD's back to her, my sister told them to keep them and pass them around. I feel absolutely certain that Michael Moore would approve of this method of distribution for his film. I know some of these local folks got out to the polls and voted against W last election day, too, for all the good that's done our country ...

I told my friends at le Coude Fou that I come from a long line of people who've often operated outside of the law -- sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of pure rebellion. One of my grandmothers ran a numbers book during the great Depression, and the other made boot-leg gin. My mother started bootlegging copies of movies as soon as she could afford a second VCR. My father did hard time in prison as a young man for a crime he didn't commit. His half-brother, my favorite uncle, spent a good part of his life running from the law. This uncle took my first boyfriend quietly aside when he came to our house to ask my father for "my hand," when I was 18. "If you ever hurt her," my uncle whispered, "I'll have a contract out on you so fast you won't ever know what happened." I think he had a sixth sense about how bullying and controlling this guy could be. I've had reason, in recent years, to wish that uncle were still alive.

And I've learned some hard lessons in recent years about "justice" in America. Should it have really been any surprise to discover that the "system," and even the law, often protects bullies? And that's what I was trying to impress on Solange: that my family, and people like us, have often operated outside the law because the law -- in America, at least -- only protects the big and the rich. In other words, those who don't need protection, but who have the power to construct --or corrupt -- a system so that it works in their favor.
And so I explained to Solange that in certain quarters in America there's a certain respect for the outlaw, for those who don't follow the rules; that we even romanticize the outlaw a bit. And that, it seemed, was something she could understand, something I think any French person could wrap her brain and her heart around. "Ah!" Solange said, and smiled. Solange has the smile of an impish angel. "It's wonderful!" And then we were on to the chocolat ...

And so maybe March 1st will be the first day of the end of winter in Paris. I won't miss the biting wind, but I will miss the sugary snowfalls of some of these recent nights. I've marveled, lately, that I haven't seen any slush in Paris. Maybe those guys on motos who used to be deployed around the city to vacuum up dog poop now suck up the snow before it gets unsightly? Because it seems there's much less dog poop to be swept up these days. Okay, so there WAS a big steaming pile right at the big red doors of #7 rue des Guillemites on Saturday night when Joe walked me home after the movies -- what do these tiny French dogs EAT that makes them poop in such big steaming piles? -- but it was gone by Monday morning. Paris has a gay mayor, one Monsieur Delanoe, who it seems is widely adored for all the changes he's instituted -- even those one might predict would be unpopular, like urging people to pick up after their pets. "Love your dog, love your neighborhood," say the signs. It seems to be working. Hooray for the mayor, I say, so long as he doesn't try to stop people from kissing in doorways or smoking in cafes ...

3 Comments:

Blogger Y. D. Barber said...

Too often in our lives we spend our time talking about what we don't have and who we wish we were like instead looking at how blessed we are.

There's nothing wrong with being an American, however; there's something wrong with not wanting to be who you are.

We can't pick and choose what country we're from or how our political leaders and fellow county men and women will lead their lives.

We can challenge ourselves to have a more positive attitude in the midst of a horrible storm.


Paris is a wonderful place.
When I was there I was treated like a Queen, but the grass is never greener on the other side. It just looks that way, sometimes.

Try to always remember the spirit in which your father and mother raised you.

1:04 PM  
Blogger M. Ru Pere said...

Quel bon essai!

Moi aussi, I go back and forth twixt loathing and trying to "be" American . . . what did Frank Zappa say after Watts riots in 1965 - "I'm not black but there's a whole lot of times I wish I wasn't white."

Thanks, C. for your up periscope on Paris.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Admin said...

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Thanks

12:50 AM  

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