- Upright in the metro, I’m spidered into a corner. It’s that hour of the day (19:00 precisely), when the entire world jams into the little space. Obligated at threat of a glaring arraignment to remove my backpack, I have to put my leg through the strap, lest someone grab it and dash. I am the washed-up saltimbanque, balancing on my tightrope. I jerk back and forth between the pole I can barely reach over a woman’s head and the emergency exit of the train car. Each time the cart shifts, I’m thrown back into the door. It clicks, obviously not fully closed. My main objective is to hold onto the metal bar while managing not to squash anyone around me. A sixty-something couple cuddles and kisses. I’m so close to their faces that I feel party, involuntarily, to this impressively wet expression of intimacy. It’s not uncommonly that I’ve noted in France that the call for displays of affection seems to grow more urgent in the public sphere. It’s almost as if my physical nearness threatens this elder gentleman. Hélas ! It was never my intent. The train lurches and sends several people careening into the carriage wall — thankfully I had my hand wound tightly enough around the bar. Descending, I pass through a demi-vortex of some panhandling, others busking. One man collects money in an empty Camembert cask. I don’t have any coins on me, but I want to be kind to them — I try smiling, but smiles don’t buy de la merde, and their eyes generously remind me.
- Passing out of the subway tunnel, a bluster of wind slashes my face as the odor of tobacco harangues my nostrils. Welcome to Paris, the smoking capital of the world. « Mec, tu fumes comme un pompier ! » I hear someone joke as I brush past. I’ve never really understood that idiom — why would firefighters be smoking ? Unless, of course, they mean to say : « You’re smoking like a firefighter on fire. » Well that’s rather morbid. I’ve always preferred our quaint saying with the chimneys.
- As I begin my slow-trudge homeward, I cross the Canal St. Martin. I catch a whiff of more smoke, but this time there’s not even a note of tobacco to be found. Instead, I detect the familiar perfume, that of burning wood, my moist Madeleine, transporting me back to the woods of Tennessee. I peer over the railing, and down below, under the bridge, is a large number of tents, pitched so as to be out of the wind’s way. This makeshift camp is almost certainly inhabited by immigrants and refugees (most white parisians make a point to be scared of anything north of the 10th). A group sits around a fire pit, and I hear some laughter, then the unmistakable fricatives of arabic, or maybe berber. I pass the bridge and round the corner, making sure not to forget which way the cars come ; every time I prepare to leave the U.S., my dad tells me about his pal who only looked left. Easy enough to forget not to die should you get too carried away. The gospel is never nearly as far off as one might expect.
- For such a dirty city, Paris has a certain remarkable absence of stray dogs. While their mysterious nonexistence is not immediately obvious, once one has noted it, one cannot help but rest unsettled, as the sojourner who rejoices upon finding a garden, until discovering the subtle scars, the upturned earth, the signs of a blight. How many have the authorities put down in the city pound ? Even in the poorest areas I’ve never seen a stray, and a mutt ? Oh, grands dieux, non ! Just nice white french people with their small (often also white) dogs, les bons chiens, tous coiffés. Hahahah, Baudelaire would weep.
- Some belgians once opined to a friend of mine : « France is great, but it would be better without the french. » I’m afraid I have no affirmation nor denial to offer, merely the verbatim, but I think Baudelaire would have agreed with that one. Be donkey, be ass, the french will still tip their hat and wish you a nice holiday.
- Many people here seem to have a certain self-righteousness or perhaps just an inability to mind their own business. If you are committing any number of false steps, they won’t warn you for your own good, but they will certainly tell you off for their own satisfaction. Murmur in a cathedral ? Monsieur***, church-goer and part-time Mayberry deputy sheriff, will put you right in your place. And lord forbid you neglect to offer the expected (re)bonjour to nearly anyone you should pass throughout the day. I read somewhere that the perceived french rudeness is actually a large cultural misunderstanding : americans never say bonjour upon entering stores, and then the french merely react appropriately to this affront. It immediately made sense to me : of course, for any sane person would be a complete ass to a foreigner who misses this vital cultural pleasantry ! I wonder what New York would be like if everyone went about exclaiming (re) « Top of the morning ! » in passing. My host-dad told me that when he went to New York, he had a pakistani cabby who told him : « Once I learned the words F*** you ! I finally felt american. » Perhaps France has more in common with the South than I first thought. But then again the South, that’s a-whole-nother pair of sleeves.
- Sometimes, I think about what it was like to live here many years ago, for what place in the world has more of an out of touch, self-important, mostly nostalgic identity than Paris, France ? Perhaps Trump’s America, where it is custom to peer back into history looking for stale greatness, former glory (elles n’existent pas). At least with Paris, one romanticizes the luminaries of the enlightenment, of impressionism, of fauvism, the Moveable Feast, the Beat Generation, la belle époque. In the U.S. we’re talking about when there were whiter immigrants and fewer snowflakes. O tempora ! O mores ! Where have our ciceronian ideals gone ? The parisian clocks don’t chime minuit, and it’s not hard to see why nostalgia is all connerie at the end of the day. If you’re here looking for Hemingway’s heart, then good luck — it’s in Havana, not in this sad town.
- I am at last returned to my flat, where my home-stay family has cooked a nice dinner from one of the dozen or so countries they’ve visited. They just got back from South Africa and gave me a nice lecture on the townships (quelle horreur !). They are friends with Jackson Pollack’s family. In parisian french one calls such folk, bobo (bourgeois bohème), a trite term used to describe something like the post-finance Manhattan hip dad who attempts to appear woke. You know what they say : my host-dad is installing a piano in the Alps, and France still occupies the largest number of time zones (11 !). Where go the french ? Bah, to their (international) affairs, of course !
- I sit alone drinking my two-euro occitan wine. It’s funny to what extent wine d’òc carries international clout. The languedocians, auvergnats and gascons are nothing short of marginalized. After the Revolution, in the name of standardization, the language of the troubadours was stamped out of them, such that now nearly all that remains is their singing accent, quite far removed from that of the parisian pointu. I once got into an argument with a french man upon recounting that I was taking a course on Occitan linguistics. Displaying a characteristic franco-centrism, he responded : « Occitan isn’t a language — it’s a dialect of french ! » I trot out my rehearsed examples, for this is not my first rodeo : « But the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1903 wrote solely in occitan, a language universally recognized by linguists — it’s closer to catalan than to french ! » This gets his attention. Well if the swedes say so ! But what about languages that dynamite’s endowment hasn’t recognized with such aplaudiments ? There are four-twenties-ten-hundreds of extant languages on this globe, and merely twenty-five have won Nobel Prizes in literature. Jolted out of my reverie, I continue sipping my wine. Perhaps this is how les poètes maudits felt, alone in their rooms, high on laudanum, penning social critiques, sad confessionals in rimbaldian self-pity. Except laudanum is opium, and I’ve had two glasses of wine.
- I look out my bedroom window and admire Sacré-Cœur. The clouds inch past, the sky pales, then blushes, and before I know it the Eiffel Tower is alight, flashing like a jolly giant steel Christmas phallus. Every hour on the hour. From my perch I can see all of the major landmarks, but in so doing I am reminded of how little tourism I have done. I still haven’t been to the Catacombs, Les Invalides, the d’Orsay, nor even the Louvre (sorry, Gioconda). Shame on me, I suppose, but when you are here for more than a second it doesn’t feel as urgent. After all, I’ve seen so many Instagram selfies with Mona that I’ve basically already been. Hell, maybe I won’t go at all.
Submit a Verbatim
- A Yoga Ashram, Donna Tart’s The Secret History, and Discobitch’s C’est Beau la Bourgeoisie
- Balls Dropped: Full Design
- Letter from the editor
- New Year, New Me / I Was Cutting My Fingernails and Eavesdropping
- Sorry About the Air Conditioners Being Off: Townes Van Zandt, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Aesthetic Signatures of Heat