On being, and becoming…Parisian
My name is Elliot Durand. Though American by birth, I am conservative by instinct. Thus my decision, ten years ago, to radically upset my life by moving to Paris with no real plan continues to surprise even me.
In my less inspired moments, I explain this choice by plotting a concrete sequence of causes and effects. 2009 was an unhappy year. I needed a change. A close friend living in Paris suggested that I join him for a few months that summer, and I accepted. This set in motion a chain of events — some prosaic, others less so — that have kept me here all this time. It’s actually quite easy to find reasons to keep doing what one is doing. In the physical world this is called inertia. When applied to rational choice, sociologists use the term path dependence.
That summer — it was the night that Michael Jackson died — I was out walking when the sky exploded in a terrible thunderstorm. I sought refuge under the awning of a café on the Rue Dante. There I met Alexia.
She had green eyes and impossibly luxurious black curls. I asked her if she’d heard about Michael Jackson. “Why do you think I’m drinking?” she answered. Her English was good, though not great. She told me I was “pretty,” and asked if these were my real eyes. We kissed under the awning, and in the rain all the way back to her little apartment behind the Pantheon. By the time we got there her curls were drenched. She fed her cat Ninette, and we made love for hours, in French, before falling asleep in one another’s arms.
The next morning we agreed to meet again as soon as possible. I gave her my number and promised that I would love her forever. She smiled and answered “Me too.” We kissed, and she got on the bus to go to work.
Then she disappeared.
At first, I stayed in Paris because I hoped to find her again. Those hopes were soon reduced to ashes, but I still wanted more of Paris. By now I had a job, which gave me the status of a temporary resident. I hated my work and my petty tyrant of a boss. Every day I was tempted to quit. At various moments I even considered returning to America. However, reason told me that if I stuck things out for a period of time I could apply for French citizenship. I didn’t care about money. I only wanted to be free of the dreadful necessity of working in that horrid factory of discontent. Once I became French I could go back to America. Or to Italy, or Cyprus, or Lithuania, or any other European country my heart desired.
I persevered for six years. During that time I had the idea for a novel. I poured hundreds of hours into it, ignoring my friends to spend evenings alone in front of a screen, waking up at six in the morning to write, scribbling notes during my rides in the metro, stealing five minutes whenever I could during the day to compose a few sentences.
At the end of those six years I became a French citizen. By then I had a Russian girlfriend who visited me to celebrate. A few days later, she broke into my computer and deleted all of my work. Not a trace remained. She disappeared as well, leaving a nasty letter as my only souvenir of the experience.
Staying and rewriting my book became a matter of principle. Of revenge.
I consider myself reasonably perceptive, occasionally even in my own affairs. And I’m certain that by the time I’ve resurrected my lost book, I’ll have another reason to stay. It’s not simply cause and effect that have kept me here all this time.
I fell in love with the city from the moment I arrived, on a school trip in 2003. During the bus ride to catch my return flight, I wept as I watched the dome of the Sacré-Cœur fade into obscurity like a dream upon waking. In that moment I promised myself that I would come back and never leave. Like Emma Bovary, for months after my return to my provincial American town, I’d regularly say to myself, ‘x days ago, I was there.’
The people attracted me even more than the setting. At the time, I believe I was their opposite. They were refined, elegant, clever, and ‘put together’ in a way I’d never imagined possible, while I was an inexperienced, poorly dressed midwesterner with vague pretensions to sophistication. My first encounters with Parisians helped me to see just how far I was from my ideal. They embodied the type of person I aspired to become. I grew to believe that this would only be possible in Paris. It was why I kept coming back, and why I eventually stayed. I didn’t dare to say it then, even to myself, but I wanted to be a Parisian.
The adjective “Parisian” can mean a variety of things, depending on the person using it. For native Parisians themselves, its connotation is invariably positive, even when seemingly used pejoratively. It opposes the energy, refinement, and vast culture of the capital to the sleepy backwardness of the provinces. No matter where he is, with the possible exceptions of London and New York, the Parisian is always somewhat anxious to return to Paris. Oftentimes he never leaves in the first place. A Parisian who appears to mock himself by saying “I’m a typically insular Parisian: I’ve never been to Nantes,” is actually deprecating Nantes, and not his own insularity. Because the island is everywhere that isn’t Paris.
In Nantes, however, and in the rest of ‘provincial’ France, ‘Parisian’ is usually a synonym for arrogant, insufferable, overpriced, or overrated.
For foreigners, ‘Parisian’ is almost always complimentary. That’s not to say that everyone loves Paris. Bad opinions of Paris are common among British or American travelers, and it has become almost fashionable to make observations along the lines of Paris isn’t what it used to be, Paris is dying, or Paris is overrated. But these criticisms only serve to exalt the adjective ‘Parisian,’ the ideal to which the real, earthly Paris fails to rise.
In this conception, the Parisian (whether or not such a thing exists in nature) is someone who has attained a maximal degree of sophistication in the art of living. A Parisian knows how to shop for clothes, how to wear a foulard, how to seduce, how to make love, how to decorate with taste, how to eat a soupe à l’oignon with elegance, how to choose a wine, how to charm, how to cite Rimbaud or Bergson or Foucault, how to be the master of every situation, how to raise children who don’t shout or spit out their food.
I am a member of the most existential of all generations, the millennial. Certain of our elders argued that existence precedes essence; we can’t conceive of a universe in which this is not the case. I decided to become a Parisian, never questioning whether the first twenty-seven years of my lived experience might render that task difficult or impossible. I wanted to become French, to speak the language like a native, to dress and to act the part. I learned the right clothes to buy, took a phonetics course to get rid of my American accent, studied the habits of the people, and even began wearing a summer scarf.
Incidentally, this approach lies behind most of the books — even the good ones — written about Paris in recent years. They treat the city and its inhabitants as riddles to be solved. One becomes Parisian by hacking a code, by beating a game, by learning ‘secrets’: Parisian women’s secrets for staying thin while consuming a diet filled with animal fat and alcohol, Parisian men’s secrets of seduction, the secrets of Parisian charm, Parisian chic, Parisian savoir être.
In the end, I grew tired of the whole exercise, which was really nothing more than a great game of dress-up. My cultural references were all American. My accent was ineradicable. For a time I avoided speaking so as not to ruin the illusion, but even with my mouth shut I gave myself the lie: the clothes never looked as good on me as they did on the models.
So I stopped trying. Out of the past ten years, I’ve spent eight not caring about becoming a Parisian. And somewhere along the way, I became a Parisian.
I realized that people found my horrid American accent charming. It attracted far more women than the techniques of French seduction I’d tried to ape. Some even told me it was impossibly sexy. My friends cared more about the content of my thoughts than the way they were expressed, and admired the fact that I could communicate them in a language that wasn’t my own. I learned to express myself naturally, without worrying whether my Rs and Us sounded perfect. I found work. I became more deeply integrated into the society of the city and the country. I became a French citizen.
I’ve taken the metro to work everyday, complained about the rotten weather, about how dirty, chaotic, and inefficient the city is. I’ve stepped in dog poo many, many times. I’ve dealt with the Parisians’ famously bad attitudes, with their haughty snorts and Gallic shrugs. I’ve been rude, impatient, and generally awful myself when the occasion demanded it.
Ten years of experience and travel have taught me that this is neither the best nor the worst city in the world. But in the end, it’s a fine and beautiful place to do all the things that make up a life.
I’ve spent a week in the Georges V. I’ve slept on random doorsteps. I’ve been treated to dinner by a homeless alcoholic from Austria (who claims to receive a monthly check from Bob Dylan — and I believe him). I’ve bought dinner for one of the heirs to the Laughing Cow fortune. I’ve been engaged to a former billionaire (the furious Russian girlfriend, who’s now only a millionaire). I’ve known true love — the kind that leaves no doubt (it was neither Alexia nor the former billionaire). And I’ve been called a Parisien de merde in Marseille (a sure sign that my old dream has become a reality).
This project is a loose chronicle of that process of becoming, thinly disguised as a guide to appreciating Paris in all its beautiful, ancient, charming, frustrating, modern, and ugly singularity. In any event, some things deserve to be written down and read by others. Time will tell if the anecdotes and observations included here count as such things. The fact that they miraculously escaped annihilation at the hands of the furious Russian ex-billionaire already lends them an air of destiny..
To those who do me the courtesy of reading these pages, I make a solemn promise: I will never dispense advice about arbitrary social codes whose non-observance might make you stand out as a foreigner. Fortunately, France is less absurd in this regard than some other European countries, notably Italy. There, if you order a cappuccino after 11 am someone in your entourage (often an American expat) will make a face and inform you that, “it’s just not done!” I now tell such people that to my knowledge, we have not yet extended personhood to beverages; therefore I have an absolute right to use or abuse the ones I purchase in any way I see fit.
Anyone who tells you how you ought to enjoy yourself with your own resources cannot be considered a serious person. The best approach is to humour him and quickly to move on.
I will not be that person.