Commentary, February 1996
A year – the unit of time – in France is seamless. And, aptly, February is both a time to finish up farewells to the past calendar and begin to think about the new year’s “grand vacances,” only six months down the road, at the foothills of “la rentrée.” Christmas will be on us again in a wink. Oysters and foie gras and salmon fumé, blinis, Champagne. In February you eat the last of these things to close down the season, to squeeze out the last traces of “fête,” like skiing those last runs in the late late spring. “Adieu” collides into “bienvenue.”
“Time” in any case seems to move like that for expatriates in Paris. In February, the accountants beef up for the final count on the previous fiscal cycle, and all eyes veer toward that great French phenomenon, “le bilan.” Literally the balance sheet, the bilan extends deep into the French psyche. It’s the how-we’re-doing mechanism, the how-did-we-end-up tally. Where do we stand at the end of the day? And here the French self-identity with the Latin carpe diem mentality locks horns with the Parisian knack for analytical overkill. So in February in Paris we’re never quite sure if we’re starting or finishing. Thus, there are great “soldes” in this the shortest of months, as half the shops clean out old inventory and the other half rack up early gains.
So, how’d we do in 1995 anyway? For anglophone expatriates the bilan in every case is always mixed. The pain is sweet and self-induced and the joy is tainted with useless regret. The longer you stay the longer you have to stay. Once you’ve stayed too long you’re doomed to always come back. Paris is your state of being nowhere, and everyone on earth secretly hates you for your good fortune. Paris becomes your country, your permanent backpack. The loved ones back home don’t understand a thing. They envy you for the wrong reasons. They see your adoptive home as the celestial city of dreams, one stop short of heaven, and although they’re all for heaven, they’re certainly not ready to make the journey, and can barely imagine why your vacation has been extended so damn long. You try to explain in false starts several times a year. It comes out wrong; you sound cynical. The newfound love for your country bounces out of your mouth like contempt. The frustration you have with your new home rings with ironic pride. Your longing for the comfort of cultural non-awareness sours after a week of “mall” deadness and dinners without dessert and coffee. You can’t live there, but the lines at La Poste and those flimsy bags at the supermarket checkout line drive you to thoughts.of strangulation.
This year in Paris has been particularly hard to defend back home. The country traipsed through the international center ring more times in ’95 than in any year you can imagine. Jacques Chirac’s Nixon-like ambitions carried him from the Hôtel de Ville to the Elysées Palace and the only joy a few of us found was in the sweetness of forgiven parking tickets. The pock marks of a 50-year-old remembrance of deportation and resistance punctuated the city and the beaches of Normandy throughout the summer. Flashes of Nazi perversity mixed with the aesthetics of the plaid pants and loud voices of aging GIs. The new president dropped his atomic bombshell on the world and propelled international public opinion into an anti-French nosedive. Jealous friends seized the occasion to rub our spoiled Parisian noses in the shameful French position.
Then the wicked scenes of terrorism rumbled through our closest ally, the Métro, and the nightly news networks built composite coverage of the nastiest scenes. The phones rang; we were all okay, but the image of our adoptive mother was further tarnished, and the love affair turned deeper into the ennui of habit. Our praise grew thinner. The local “c’est comme ça” became ours, and our national instincts dulled into the Parisian complacence heard in the popular refrain “tant pis.”
As if the year hadn’t already been hard to dress up and take home, the country was ravished by strikes, and the networks again helped paint a deeper shade of gray on the mind-sets and TV sets of parents and friends who wondered what in hell keeps him or her over there. They all heard about the strike. They saw the worst pictures, the ones we didn’t see. Many canceled their trips. It wasn’t the first time, but somehow, after the orgasm of systemic breakdown and cycle-filled boulevards and improvised and classically un-French carpools and hitchhiking faded, the ordeal seemed mostly to zap the anima from a lot of us. A dull fatigue remained in the eyes and cheeks of many Parisians robbed of the enthusiasm of change as the new year arrived. We were reminded again how lovely Paris could be as a temporary place of unwork, and how torturous it can be to stretch the temporary into permanence. The ideal Paris, ultimately, is the city you return to over and over again and you know intimately, as a stranger who feels at home and leaves, knowing he’ll be back. A piece of knowledge that makes it less than easy to raise families and build careers.
Like a crocus in February, last week a lonely Paris poubelle in the 20th arrondissement suddenly appeared open, its riveted lid removed. It had been months since common pedestrians had been able to indulge in the urban delight of discarding cellophane wrappers, crushed cookie boxes and crumpled copies of Libération into one of the green Parisian cans like good citizens without being suspected of criminal intentions. Where has all the garbage gone anyway? In our pockets? The pleasure of releasing in public a fistful of clementine peels from my orange hand is overwhelming! How distorted daily life has become. François Mitterrand is dead and the France of public spirit that attracted many Americans in the early ’80s, when Reaganomics reigned the ponderosa and the dollar bought you a fair chance, suddenly finds itself in search of itself. How will we continue to explain this back home?
Foolishly, I latch onto this lone poubelle, this welcome sight that is working as it was designed to do, an omen of hope for the new year. So, why isn’t CNN here in the 20th filming the opening of a lone Paris garbage can? This is news. This is change. This is hope. This is what you should tell them back home.