The Displaced Persons
I’m sorry I’ve been scarce in these parts today. I’ve been in Baton Rouge all day (still am), and I’ve had computer problems. And I’m having a very rough time of it in other ways. This morning I found myself walking back to my car from a store, and suddenly I wished I was back in the Luxembourg Gardens, like last autumn, walking, walking, walking. Walking all my anxiety and stress out in that strange, wonderful, welcoming place. A place I’d never been, but that felt like home.
I was sick with mono when I went to Paris last fall, and worried how on earth I was going to manage the city, especially with three kids. But somehow, I found a shot of energy when I arrived. I walked a lot, as I love to do in cities, and before I knew it, I was recovering. Had recovered. It took a week. I do not know how it happened, but I got well in Paris.
I’m sick with mono again, and have been for four or five weeks. I was feeling sick this morning, but I imagined that I was in the Luxembourg Gardens, or walking down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and suddenly I felt light and eager. But then I got to my car in the mall parking lot, and there I was. Here I am.
I’ve been enjoying reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog dispatches from his first-ever trip to Paris. In his final one, he writes of being in the Luxembourg Gardens. Excerpt:
I tell you again that this is as far from home as I’ve ever been in my life. I was more afraid walking the streets of Paris than I have ever been walking through the projects. American violence, I know well. Your raise your hands. You run. You curl up in a ball. You choke a man out. You stay strapped. This is a dialect of my early years. I think of that scene inThe Wire where Bunny Colvin is working with group of alleged scrappers. These kids have seen the worst of West Baltimore. Then Bunny takes them to a steakhouse, where they are flummoxed by the specials, the quietness, the difference between the waitress and the hostess. The curtain fails away to reveal our hardrocks presently transformed into shook ones. On North Avenue we are kings. In Ruth’s Chris we are peasants. And we know this.
So sitting there on that last afternoon, I was feeling good for the come-up. I ordered the cheeseburger and salad with sautéed potatoes on the side. The café grew crowded. A larger party came in. I was asked to move to another table. I obliged. I watched a young man and his cherie, sans neck-tie, in a beautiful navy suit. I watched a group of high school kids and thought of my son, who would have saw them here trading coffee, cigs and laughter, and thought them the pit of cool I had a Konigsberg. Then I had another.
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 bandshell. 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 really fine writing. On this blog, some people have complained that TNC injects race into nearly everything he writes. I don’t think that’s a fair complaint, but as I said in the blog comments, the experience of being black is how he processes the experience of being alive in the world. What’s wrong with that? Being a Christian conditions most everything I write, even if I never once mention faith. So what if a Jew brings Judaism to his writing and thinking about the world, or an immigrant brings the experience of being a foreigner to his writing about life in America? As I said last week here, when I read TNC on race, even when I disagree with him, I generally feel that I’m learning something about the way the world is, thanks to his vantage point and his articulation of that experience. When I read, say, the gay columnist Frank Bruni writing about homosexuality, it feels rather like a standpoint from which he gazes at his own navel. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but I think TNC does it well.
Anyway, reading him talking about walking through the Luxembourg Gardens made me think how liberating I found that place, as opposed to limiting and exclusive. He and I probably speak French equally well, which is to say, not that great. He felt sad that he couldn’t be part of the scene in the Luxembourg, because this was their city, not his own. Me, I just felt happy to be there, and anonymous. Nobody knew I didn’t belong there, at least I think they didn’t. I felt found, not lost. Every time I went to the Luxembourg Gardens, I felt restored. I wish I could go there every day of my life.
I wonder why TNC and I felt so different about the same place? I wonder to what extent it has to do with how we relate to the places in which we were raised. I almost always felt ill at ease in my home place, like I was an alien who didn’t belong, like I was going to be found out. The People’s language was not my own — an especially alienating thing, because I had been raised among The People. TNC felt at home in West Baltimore in a way I didn’t feel in West Feliciana. I wanted to feel at home in the worst way, but never did. Why did I feel more at home walking through that park in a foreign city than I do walking through the woods behind the house in which I grew up? Why did I feel that the people sharing the footpath with me in the Luxembourg spoke my language, even though they probably didn’t?