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Paris Is Not Altoona

View from our window, Paris, October 2012 [1]

View from our window, Paris, October 2012

I love this passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates, still in Paris: [2]

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

At Huitrerie Regis, October 2012 [3]

At Huitrerie Regis, October 2012

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 [4] 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:

 

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16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Paris Is Not Altoona"

#1 Comment By Helen On August 27, 2013 @ 10:28 am

That last scene of Paris, je T’aime is so gorgeous. What a great movie.

#2 Comment By Sam M On August 27, 2013 @ 10:47 am

Are these statements in any kind of tension?

“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”

And…

“Paris feels kind of like home to me”

Not that tension is bad. I am just curious.

For me, and maybe this will seem odd or wrong in some way… home is a bar stool. In a dive bar. Not crowded. Juke box, but not too loud. Cheap beer and cigarettes. Mix of people I know and people I don’t know. More of the latter than the former.

That’s where I feel like I am exploring the liminal space between the new and the familiar.

[NFR: Yes, they are in tension. Why does a place where I am a foreigner feel so much like home? Mysterious. — RD[

#3 Comment By Noah172 On August 27, 2013 @ 10:50 am

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

This is very backwards. For an Israeli Jew, in a way not quite experienced by his coethnics in the Diaspora, Jewish identity is indeed the single most important thing about him: being “the Jewish state,” a refuge for any Jew (defined by ancestry, not religion necessarily) from any other point on the globe, is modern Israel’s raison d’etre; and Jewishness distinguishes the Israeli Jew in his rights and responsibilities as an Israeli citizen from non-Jewish Israeli citizens.

As for an African-American living in a black neighborhood, race does matter more than Coates is allowing in the above quote. Black neighborhoods, after all, are black neighborhoods precisely because non-blacks refuse to live in them (you can’t, in this day and age, even blame legal discrimination). Coates would not have been at Howard in the first place had it not been, in contemporary parlance, an HBCU; since blacks are not legally barred from any particular institution of higher education, some choose to enroll in HBCUs for the very purpose of immersing themselves in a racially homogenous environment; surely African-Americans do not randomly cluster at Howard based solely on its USNWR ranking.

[NFR: I think you’re reading that as an outsider. Coates is saying that living in an environment in which most everyone is black removes consciousness of your blackness. I remember the first time I went to a black church, feeling that every eye was on me as a white person. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but the point is I felt so conspicuous and anxious, in a way I never had before. That’s normal, don’t you think? — RD]

#4 Comment By Jeff R. On August 27, 2013 @ 10:51 am

Coates needs to get a hobby or an interest. Writing about being black day after day is not an interest. It’s a form narcissism. Why no one calls him out on this is beyond me.

[NFR: I don’t think he’s writing about being black so much as he’s writing about being human. Seems to me he’s discovered in Paris that his blackness is less a part of his real self than he thought back in the US. That’s interesting. — RD]

#5 Comment By Ryan D On August 27, 2013 @ 11:05 am

Thanks for sharing the video. It’s great that she’s made an effort to learn the language, but that woman’s American accent is brutal on the ears. Amusing that the woman in the hair salon switched to English immediately, which is so typical.

#6 Comment By Avi Marranazo On August 27, 2013 @ 11:24 am

Rod, I love Paris too. Even so, I can’t help but feel a profound melancholy these days when I go there and to many European capitals. The unavoidable presence of masses of Third World settler colonists from North Africa and Subsaharan Africa is unsettling at best and makes one worry for the future of Paris, Europe and Western Civilization. It makes me wonder if we aren’t witnessing the last of “serious happiness, pleasure allied to education.”

#7 Comment By Saint Andeol On August 27, 2013 @ 11:54 am

[NFR: Yes, they are in tension. Why does a place where I am a foreigner feel so much like home? Mysterious. — RD

I don’t think it’s all that mysterious. Judging by your writing you’ve always been a bit of an outsider/wanderer type. Even though you’ve “come home”, you still have a lot of personal and emotional baggage tied to your history with that place.

Paris is more than just a beautiful city to you. It seems to hold a lot of personal symbolism to you in regards to your growing up a “cultural outsider” in your hometown. So you’re already used to being “home” in a place where you’re an outsider. Being a foreigner in a city that doesn’t seem to understand half of what you’re saying sounds like what you went through growing up. Except in Paris, they don’t understand your conjugation. Back home, they didn’t understand why you would ever want to leave. One of those judgments is much more personal than the other.

Also, as a very old European city, it has a sense of history that America never will. You know you love history.

Plus, dude, you’re such a foodie. How could you not feel at home there? 🙂

#8 Comment By Art Deco On August 27, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

and Jewishness distinguishes the Israeli Jew in his rights and responsibilities as an Israeli citizen from non-Jewish Israeli citizens.

Not a whole lot. The regime in immigration law differs, but that is salient for prospects, not for extant residents. Compulsory military service is limited to (non-haredi) Jews and Druzes, but it is doubtful many Arabs are anxious to join the Israel Defense Force. There are senior civil offices that are by custom limited to Jews, but very few people in any society will ever be a cabinet minister in the central government. There is a great deal of residential segregation and by extension segregated schooling, but that largely reflects the choices people make.

#9 Comment By James C. On August 27, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

Paris evokes strong reactions. I’m a lover, but when I took my father there, lets just say that his reaction was a bit stronger than Rick Blaine’s “It’s not particularly my beloved Paris”—and (I think) it owed little to the fact that he got harassed on the streets by an array of aggressive Gypsy and African panhandlers and scam artists. Some people just don’t take to French culture.

Avi,

No doubt I will have a good cry when the production of pork and wine ends in France, and when Chartres is turned into a mosque—all its glorious images destroyed, along with the memory of what once was.

#10 Comment By Art Deco On August 27, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

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.

Being Jewish might not be the single most important thing, but being American born and bred might be, most particularly if he is not from New York. In Israel, it is normal to be brash and not carry many affects. That can be jarring for outsiders.

#11 Comment By J On August 27, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

You went to Paris when you were young and open to the world, and liked it. You had a day or hour at Chartres that is perhaps your most precious.

It all seems easy enough to me: for you Paris is about feeling young again, and renewed, and personal remembrance. It’s your Garden.

#12 Comment By K. W. Jeter On August 27, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

My sentiments are in line with those of Jeff R. Coates is boring; being black isn’t just Topic A with him, it’s Topics A through Z. That’s why I don’t bother to read him, except when he’s quoted here.

As for your defense of Coates — I don’t think he’s writing about being black so much as he’s writing about being human — it’s contradicted by Coates’ own words. That whole second paragraph you quoted isn’t about being human; it’s specifically a whine about being black in America, and nothing more. IMO, you’re attempting to see something in Coates, probably because of your mutual love for Paris, that just isn’t there.

And for the record, I prefer Vienna to Paris. Vienna was everything I thought Paris was going to be.

#13 Comment By Prof. Woland On August 27, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

I’m not a lover of Paris–or of things French for that matter–but I do love your notion that “everyone needs A Paris.”

I totally agree with you on that. For me–that place would be Chicago–and perhaps also Berlin.

And that raises an interesting question for me. The way you describe being happy in Paris–that’s the kind of feeling I’ve gotten in both places–but for different reasons.

Chicago is home for me. I love my anonymity there, while also embracing my familiarity with it.

Berlin–I’ve visited there 3 times–and it is a magical place for me. It’s closer to the context of being that place to visit where you find yourself almost like you are at home–even though you aren’t there.. and it’s still new and exciting–although in ways that fit with you..

I must say that a lot of Germany–at least the big cities is like that for me… Hannover is also great–as was Munich…

Anyway.. thanks for the post..

#14 Comment By Sam M On August 27, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

PS: I think there is also an element of the Rod/Ruthie divide here. It’s also evident in the way my own family travels. That is, the place tends to be immaterial. Instead, until recently the idea was to get EVERYONE to go to the same place. They even all stayed in the same house. I am talking 50 people or so, 25-30 of them under the age of 18, all sharing a 17-bedroom house in Ocean City or the Outer Banks. Couldn’t afford to eat at a restaurant, so each nuclear family takes a night and cooks for everyone. Really, no interaction with the “place” or the local culture at all, except to lay out on the beach.

Vacation, then, is a time to get even CLOSER to the people you see everyday, without the distractions of work and sports and school which tend to pull people away.

My wife is horrified at the idea. A year or so ago we went ot the same town but stayed a mile or so down the beach.

But the more people we have and the wider the age disparities between the kids, the harder it gets. The teenagers want to go someplace with a hopping boardwalk. The moms with little kids want a private guarded beach so nobody crowns and people don’t get lost. The old ladies just want people to be together. The guys just want babysitters around so we can drink too much beer.

I honestly cannot envision a scenario in which I would travel anywhere like Paris or Rome for anything other than business. Six kids aged 8 and under… no way. I’d rather stay home, hire a sitter and go to the Elks.

#15 Comment By Gromaticus On August 27, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

“Paris Is Not Altoona”

Truer words were never written; Paris will neve have minor league baseball or a diner that comes close to Tom and Joes

#16 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On August 27, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

Re: Coates needs to get a hobby or an interest. Writing about being black day after day is not an interest. It’s a form narcissism. Why no one calls him out on this is beyond me.

Coates is decent writing about race. He’s *awful* writing about gender, seems to have drunk the feminist Kool-Aid hook, line, and sinker.

Be that as it may, France is actually a more racist country than the United States. Black people in France commit more crimes, are poorer, and experience more discrimination than Black people here (and the idiotic French don’t try to remedy that with affirmative action). Of course, let’s not get into the French colonial history (they used African forced labour, in violation of international law, as late as the 1920s iircc).