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A Stranger But Not Strange

View from my Paris window, 2012
View from my Paris window, 2012

Thinking just now about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reaction to walking across the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. He had been in a café, and felt right at home in Paris. But then:

I was high when I left, but walking the streets, and then walking through le Jardin du Luxembourg, I fell down again. I was headed out to meet a new friend. Le Jardin is a manicured walking space where the gravel rivals the green. That afternoon it throbbed with Parisians in the way that the bars in New York throb after a blizzard shuts the whole town in. The children raced small pedal cars. A group of old men assembled under a band shell. There were rows of leafless trees sculpted into brown boxes.

I felt myself as horrifyingly singular there. A language is more than grammar and words, is the movement of The People, their sense of appropriate laughter, their very conception of space. In Paris the public space was a backyard for The People and The People’s language was not mine. Even if I learned the grammar and vocab, so part of it must be off-limits to me. It could never really be “mine.” I had a native language of my own. I felt like a distant friend crashing a family reunion. Except the family was this entire sector of the city. I could feel their nameless, invisible bonds all around me, tripping my every step.

This is completely the opposite of my own reaction to the same journey. I found intense comfort, almost exhilaration, in the anonymity and otherness I felt there. Nobody would have stopped me, nobody would have seen me, even; I was a ghost to those people. If they had stopped me, I probably couldn’t have talked to them beyond very basic conversation, because I don’t really know their language. If, after all that, they spoke English, and if by chance they wanted to inquire about myself, I think I could have made friends easily, because of who I am and the things I like.

I think TNC’s response is the conventional one for an American in Paris for the first time. At least it’s the one that makes sense. What I realized this afternoon, running all this through my mind again, is how much I crave the sensation of being a stranger, but not strange. That is, the condition in which I’m around others but nobody knows me, yet somehow, I fit.

Why is that? Don’t most people want to know and be known? TNC experienced anxiety because he was an outsider in the Luxembourg Gardens; it messed with his sense of self. I experience calm because I’m an outsider in the Luxembourg Gardens — but not such an outsider that I feel alienated from the place entirely. If I were walking across Tiananmen Square, for example, I would probably feel exactly as TNC did. With me, it’s probably that I love French culture so much (the Adam Gopnik thing about it epitomizing “pleasure allied with seriousness”), but still, why the at-home-ness in a condition of foreign-ness? Why do I feel more at home shopping for groceries at the Monoprix on the rue de Rennes than I do shopping for groceries in my own hometown? I don’t want to feel this way, but I do. My is is messing with my ought, my reality with my idealism. Am I an outsider by nature, and the sense of fitting-in, of Home, that I’m always chasing something that I am incapable of experiencing, not because of a moral deficiency or erroneous thinking, but because that’s just the way I am?

Look, when I lived in Paris for a month last fall, I had a terrific time, but I knew deep down that I could never live there permanently. I’m too old and set in my ways to adapt to the rhythms of life in a foreign country. I don’t harbor any move-to-Paris fantasies, because I’ve been there, and I know that I couldn’t manage it. The thing about Paris to me — and this is true about New York City too, where I lived for five of the happiest years of my life — is that these are places where it is possible to be a stranger, but hard to be strange.

I don’t understand this. I wish Walker Percy were here to explain it to me.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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