Friday, September 18, 2009

Cahiers Parisiens: les Autres, les Etrangres, le Moi

Last night I was having a somewhat dismal (in Paris, that means it was actually decent) meal over on République when I think I saw the mostly iconic image of 21st century Paris I've ever seen: a guy on a rented bicycle, smoking a cigarette as he rode down the boulevards.

Paris, of course, has an uncomfortable relationship with the modern world. It retains it's preeminent place in the world of fashion, is a major political and business center for Europe, and remains the center of gravity of the francophone world. And, of course, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

But so much of that comes from its curious sense of being frozen in time: the perfection of the nineteenth-century vision of Good City Life, the architecture frozen in place, the parks looking almost identitical to the images on the canvases of the Musée d'Orsay. It's static the way New York, my other favorite city in the world, never is: New York reinvents itself every day, in a furious pace of rebuilding, modifying, reconsidering, reconfiguring. Paris sedately glides by, asleep in the long belle rêve of Haussman.

Sometimes I think only Paris' status as the capital of a major country in Europe keeps it a living city. That, and the changing face of the French world.

I am staying in the Oberkampf district, on the northeastern edge of the city. I'm guessing it's going through a gentrification cycle; it's close to the Marais, the former Jewish ghetto that has become not only the heart of gay and lesbian Paris, but the home of most forward-looking fashion designers. It's an area of former factories being transformed into a residential district.

Out here, not quite in the periphery (let alone the banlieues, the suburbs that ring Paris), I still see more people of color than you do in central Paris, tourist Paris: Africans and Berbers from the old colonies, Indians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabs. It makes me homesick and feel at home at the same time, resembling my ethnically mixed neighborhood in the Great American Metropolis. (Also a rapidly gentrifying area with great restaurants.)

I won't rehearse for you the litany of troubles the changing population of France has brought on: the difficulties in assimilating different ethnicities into the French self-conception, the poverty and racism and rioting in the banlieues, the fact that the President of France once threatened retributary violence on those same rioters, before he was elected. France bans the veil at school, championing the cause of secularism and human rights, and we are left with profoundly mixed feelings about exactly what liberties are being abridged, and who has the right to do that. Etre Muslulman en France, screams the headline of one magazine I see advertised: being Muslim in France. What is it like, I, they, wonder, to be marooned in a culture that regards you cautiously, obliged to help you because of the mythic ideals of its own past, but not sure how to come to terms with being more than it was in the past: plural, multiple, different. How it is to be Other until that happens, if it ever does.

I could claim some parcel of this terrain, as both a woman and trans, but I really doubt it's the same: here, as in America, the swath my privilege as a white, able-bodied, educated person cuts through most hindrances.

Still: Tuesday night I went to an aikido class. The dojo has a very different style compared to my dojo back home: much harder, more concerned with proper form than movement. A good experience, but too much like my original aikido dojo for my taste.

I've talked about my French being better on this trip, but the truth is, it's still very weak, comparatively. I can read it passably well (today I was reading the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" in French and getting most of it), but anyone who speaks even moderately fast will have me in the dust. So, when the teacher would explain the technique, I would be...lost. I have almost no vocabulary for body parts: no word for wrist, barely able to recognize "leg" or "knee." I would get a word in every so often, and occasionally a general sense, but for the most part I'd be lost, and have to rely only on what I could see.

Which is the best way to learn, actually. But in those moments...I was the other. I was the one lost in a sea of incomprehension, struggling to use all my wits to figure things out, almost mute, ignorent. (There are times I grow so frustrated with how I speak, because my mind leaps so far out in front of what I actually know how to say: and I know I must sound stupid, with my mangled syntax and wonky accent.) And this is a valuable lesson to learn, to hold to myself the next time I get frustrated with someone else.

We never learn more about our privilege than when we are called on it. Or made to see the other side of it.


  1. "There are times I grow so frustrated with how I speak, because my mind leaps so far out in front of what I actually know how to say: and I know I must sound stupid, with my mangled syntax and wonky accent."

    Hah, this takes me back so much to when I first came to Canada. I would tell my high school teacher that I hate not knowing English and that when I try to communicate with people, it makes me feel stupid. "But Spatula, people know you are not stupid! They know you are still learning the language!" my teachers would say, anxious to repair the holes in my self-esteem.

    "But it's not their opinion that makes me feel stupid! It's my inability to communicate what I think, up to MY OWN STANDARD AND HABITUAL LEVEL OF FUNCTIONING! That makes me feel stupid!" I would scream back at them in the privacy of my own head, both because I am a genteel person who doesn't scream at her teachers and because I had no fucking vocabulary to make that statement.

    I totally get that you're talking about the emotional experience of being excluded from a culture by not speaking the language, but I see a big difference between being a tourist and the barriers that immigrants have to deal with. Even immigrants are in far better position, power-wise, than refugees when it comes to dealing with the language barrier, because they *chose* to come. People like my family, who had a choice as to whether to go to Canada and when to do so, are privileged, and our struggles with the language are much more of a case of inconvenience than social injustice...

    But I know the feeling you are describing, I kind of had it when I was trying to buy lemon grass in Chinatown, and I didn't know what it looks like prior to being chopped up and stuck in a thing of soup, and nobody in the stores spoke English, and all the signs were in Mandarin/Cantonese and I felt like a giant dweeb all over again. And then I was like, HA! Karma's a bitch, Gringa!

  2. Right, I didn't meant to compare what I went through to immigrant/refugee difficulties! Just that for a moment, I got a tiny taste of it, even as I was engaging in my usual set of highly privileged activities. But the language thing, yeah: I mean, look, I'm a writer, OK? I'm pretty proud of my ability to communicate. So feeling stupid even when I know I can communicate in this language, is a really decentering experience--it gives me a lot more sympathy for people who I encounter in the anglophone world with language difficulties, most of whom are vastly better at second languages than I am.