This time only expats are welcome here. So, if you’re a tourist, even a groovy one, désolé, bug off; go order a cappuccino in some overpriced sidewalk café and write kitschy postcards to jealous co-workers and doubting lovers. I want to talk to my people, the Great Anglo-Masochistic Zealot Cult (GAMZC) that keeps coming back for more perennial abuse and cultural belittling.
So, what was it like over there where they no longer understand you, where you no longer understand yourself? Impressive, huh? I, too, ducked into Manhattan for a fast week and am still trying to deny the pleasure of the experience. The island was clean, safe, filled with public art and plastered with aesthetically sophisticated cheap places to eat exotic international food while wearing shorts and sneakers. Merde, it was really fun! Nike town was up there with the Guggenheim and what a treat to find 42nd Street converted into an offshoot of the Magic Kingdom. As long as they pay their entrance fees, let them eat cake, n’est-ce pas?
The first day back in Paris I get three lettres recommandées, one a friendly reminder from my local huissier, another from the parking ticket division of the Trésor Public in Nantes, and a third from URSSAF, my “buds” in France. Communing with my environs, I take a little drive around the circle at Nation, only to be pulled over by the Dragnet of the Month squad, who have decided that it’d be creative and lucrative to check pollution emissions of poor Parisians’ automobiles. Face it, the government is broke and the only quick idea they can come up with to replenish the coffers is to fine people. Remember, 60% of your money, time, effort and productivity in France goes to the State. Nevertheless, as voters, Parisians are predictable as all hell. If they voted right last time, it’ll be left next time. If it was left before, it’ll be right now. So, tant pis. As long as no one takes away the five weeks of paid vacation, it doesn’t matter who’s at the helm. Ah, to be the Parisians that we so loyally are!
Anyway, you’re back, and it feels gooood. The way the bateaux mouches’ lights stroke the buildings along the Left Bank, that’s worth everything, well, almost. Plus, it was weird over there, at a place once called Home. It was great, but I couldn’t live there, you reconfirm. Yeah, but I can barely live here, either; and you realize that much of our existence gets its life from being caught between two mind-sets, a virtual place I tend to call the Third Continent.
Let’s go back to those first moments of reentry to the national alma mater.
Ironically, there is nothing quite like being back home to remind you how French you’ve really become. The foreignness hits just as soon as you touch down at JFK or Logan or O’Hare or LAX. For a rich country, it has some pretty dingy airport corridors, you notice. You get ushered past the over sized official portrait of the president, welcoming us into his home. My, how Clinton has aged, you think. He wasn’t gray when I saw him last. Come to think of it, the job turns every American president gray in no time flat – except for Reagan, who took extended naps and swam endless laps in the White House pool. Gore, on the other hand, is looking pretty healthy, clean-cut and boned up with that pre-presidential groom. “Hi guys,” I toss in their direction. Hell, I voted for them; they kinda owe me one, non? There are signs saying NO SMOKING and THIS IS A NO TOLERANCE DRUG ZONE. At the end of the corridor is a chunky African-American woman stuffed into uniform-gray trousers with black stripes sewn on the sides, a white button-down shirt with American flags on each shoulder, and a plastic airport identification tag chained around her neck. In a loud baritone voice she wails like a broken mantra, “Foreign nationals to your right; American citizens straight ahead.” A man speaking Urdu or Gujarati asks her something. “Foreign nationals to your right, sir,” she repeats and he wanders away. The crowd splits and files into distinct lines in a hall with 50 immigration booths marked WAIT YOUR TURN BEHIND THE RED LINE. You think of the Paris counterpart, with a mob coagulating sloppily around six guichets: two are always closed, two are marked for EU passport holders, and everyone is lighting up in your face.
You wait your turn at the red line and then scurry ahead to be greeted by a US immigration official, who begins with “How long have you been out of the United States?” “Ten years,” you utter. “Oh, a wise guy, huh?” Last time back, the inspector asked, “So, what do you do, David?” I know my first name appears on my passport and he’s reading about my life in that ubiquitous government database on his screen, but I didn’t remember we were on a first-name basis. His name tag only says Tadusky, so I can’t return the friendliness. “I write books,” I answer. Here, the first conversation in America can go one of two ways. Either the cult of personality kicks in and the guy wants to know the titles of the books so he can tell his wife guess who came through my line today, Judith Krantz, Colin Powell, Tiger Woods… Or, you get that mild anti-intellectual contempt. Once, upon returning from my junior year abroad in South America, I transited through Miami with two duffel bags filled with reference books and anthologies. The customs inspector peeked into the bag and quipped: “What are you, one of those brains?” Which is paramount to nerd. Few people arrive in Miami from South America with a hundred pounds of books.
I get my passport back and Tadusky grins and says, “Have a good one.” Odd, how casual these Americans are, the Parisian in me silently observes. Have a good what? Day? Life? Dinner? All of the above? You usher yourself to the baggage claim area where a guy who speaks Laotian with a few American cognates pasted in speeds up the luggage cart machine with one hand and grabs your dollar bill with the other. Big porters in white shirts with more iron-on American flags politely offer their services while US agricultural inspectors with specially marked government beagles sniff your backpack and Louis Vuitton knock-off. I know an American Parisian who was fined $50 for being caught with an undeclared apple as he came off the Continental flight to Newark. Frankly, Newark could use more apples.
You pass through a zone of customs inspectors who determine whether you have something to declare, and then you hand in your customs declaration card at the exit. Foreign nationals, of course, have signed sworn statements that they have not committed crimes against humanity and are not entering the US with the intention of perpetrating acts of terrorism. Nor are they here to sell nuclear arms, promote dangerous ideas, or work. Not to mention carrying $5,000 or more in cash or convertible instruments. I always wondered what those instruments looked like. (I couldn’t get more than ten bucks for my harmonica.)
Voilà, you’re home. First thing you see is a stand marked Au Bon Pain, selling pain au chocolat and French bread. It’s summertime and everyone is wearing baggy shorts and surreal sneakers and carrying huge drink containers with orange straws.
Ah, les Etats-Unis!
In any case, now you’re back in Paris and you can sentimentalize about your trip, as you ease into la rentrée and settle in to your hybrid place on the Third Continent.