Paris Is Not Altoona
I felt myself a Stranger, something I’ve never been in my life. I felt myself falling, disappearing into the stone steps. I felt like people barely saw me, like I was a presence. I barely comb my hair here. I haven’t had a haircut in weeks. My body feels like it is my own and no longer performing for my tribe and its enemies. I perform for myself here. Because I have no tribe here (yet) and the blood feuds feel so very distant from me.
You play a lot of roles as a black man in America. But “Stranger” isn’t one of them. You feel too marked–not even marked for ill treatment, but just marked. Drunk white people stumble up to you and make confessional or mistake you for some long-lost black friend from sixth grade. They do not hate you. They just want to put their shit on you. That doesn’t make them especially evil, sinister or inhuman. Everyone is putting their shit on someone else. But I think more of us should live free for a moment, should–if only for a moment–feel themselves disconnected from the dynamics that ordinarily define their life.
A friend of mine once said that he enjoyed Israel because it was the first place where being Jewish was not the single most important thing about him when he went outside. That is how I felt at Howard, in Harlem, in every hood where I’d ever lived. I’d throw on my hoodie and then disappear. The days of throwing on your hoodie and disappearing are over. But the virtues of disappearance are not. I feel it oddly here. I am disappeared by my Americanness, by my tenuous handle upon the language. I like myself more refracted through this lens, stumbling through this alien tongue. Somehow it feels more like me.
It’s an enchanted feeling, and a strange one. I can’t pretend I felt it as strongly, or in the same way, as TNC. I am not a black American man. But I did feel it in Paris, and in Paris as nowhere else. I remember earlier this year, when TNC wrote about his first trip to Paris, walking across the Luxembourg Gardens and feeling unnerved by his disappearance. I noted that I didn’t feel that way, but rather felt comforted by my disappearance. I can’t say why I did, but I did. His post this morning makes me reflect on that.
It has to do, I think, with the pleasure of playing a role. This has two aspects, I think.
For one, it is pleasurable to have the opportunity to step out of the usual role you inhabit back home. You don’t know what people think of you when they see you, and you don’t really care; these aren’t your people, you don’t have to live with them all the time, you don’t have to have all their shit put on you. You are just passing through. Some people — TNC on his first trip — find that disorienting and even a little scary. Me, I find it liberating, in the same way that TNC now finds it liberating.
But this is a general feeling. You could go to any foreign city and experience the same thing. Why is Paris not like London, or Amsterdam, or Milan, or any other pleasant and cultured world city? This is where it gets particular. For me, I love the way being in Paris makes me feel about myself, and being in the world. I barely speak the language, but Paris feels kind of like home to me, in a way that no other city outside my own country does (and to be honest, it feels more like where I belong than many American places). Why is this? For me, it has to do with the things I love most — good food, old churches, graceful architecture, and an approach to life characterized this way by fellow Francophile Adam Gopnik:
We are happy, above all, when we are absorbed, and we are absorbed when we are serious, and the secret of Paris, in the end, is that the idea of happiness it presents is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.
That sense of serious happiness, of pleasure allied to education … this tincture of seriousness infiltrates our happiness, giving it dignity. In Paris, Americans achieve absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion. …
Each wave of American invasion of Paris has had its own heroes and heroines, and though some asked, simply, what’s this all about, the ones who came to stay asked, Why am I happy in Paris in a way that I am not happy in Altoona? Is it me, the place, or the time, or a little bit of all three?
Why am I happy in Paris in a way I am happy nowhere else? Gopnik knows the secret. It is not true for everybody, and maybe not even true for most people. It is true for me. Everybody should have a Paris.
But maybe not everybody needs a Paris. It is a pleasant intellectual exercise to consider the porous borders of the self, and how much our sense of self depends on our place, our context. This is easy to understand when you imagine, say, a gay teenager who leaves his small town for the big city, and finally feels at home in the world. Or an outdoorsy young woman who feels ill at ease in the big city of her birth, and moves out West, to the mountains, where she can finally breathe. Me, I get the heebie-jeebies out in the woods, but put me down in Union Square, and I relax.
It’s the fine gradations that are most interesting, and most telling about our own
hearts and minds. For me, heaven on earth is a place where you can find “serious happiness, pleasure allied to education.” And that is Paris. Why this is, I can’t say, and maybe it’s not important to be able to say. My son Matthew came alive in a way I had never seen before when he was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently, talking to rocket scientists. He had found his place and his people, and though I do not share his enthusiasm, this was his version of my walking across the Luxembourg Gardens, headed to Huîtrerie Régis for a dozen oysters on the half shell and a pichet of Muscadet, and a conversation with someone who loves oysters and wine as much as I do, and is as open to the experience of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure in the same moment, to the possibility that the mind and body can, if only for a moment, be one.
You can go through life and never experience that, but if you do find it, you never forget it, and you might even spend the rest of your life looking for it. You are not the same you everywhere. The geographical cure for alienation is mostly self-deception, but not entirely. Part of the fun of travel is discovering the real you hidden beneath the palimpsest of the everyday. Where is your Paris? Watch this, then tell us: