A Stranger But Not Strange
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.