On my last afternoon in Paris I summoned all the courage I could muster, walked into a small café, and said, "Bonjour Madame. Je voudrais diner, s'il vous plaît." My phrasing was awkward--almost rude perhaps. But madame just smiled and escorted me to my seat. Whatever fluency is, I am far removed from it. I am told that someday I will dream in French and that will be the sign.
I tell you again that this is as far from home as I've ever been in my life. I was more afraid walking the streets of Paris than I have ever been walking through the projects. American violence, I know well. You raise your hands. You run. You curl up in a ball. You choke a man out. You stay strapped. This is a dialect of my early years. I think of that scene in The Wire where Bunny Colvin is working with group of alleged scrappers. These kids have seen the worst of West Baltimore. Then Bunny takes them to a steakhouse, where they are flummoxed by the specials, the quietness, the difference between the waitress and the hostess. The curtain fails away to reveal our hardrocks presently transformed into shook ones. On North Avenue we are kings. In Ruth's Chris we are peasants. And we know this.
So sitting there on that last afternoon, I was feeling good for the come-up. I ordered the cheeseburger and salad with sautéed potatoes on the side. The café grew crowded. A larger party came in. I was asked to move to another table. I obliged. I watched a young man and his cherie, sans neck-tie, in a beautiful navy suit. I watched a group of high school kids and thought of my son, who would have seen them here trading coffee, cigs and laughter, and thought them the pit of cool. I had a Konigsberg. Then I had another.
I was high when I left, but walking the streets, and then walking through le Jardin du Luxembourg, I fell down again. I was headed out to meet a new friend. Le Jardin is a manicured walking space where the gravel rivals the green. That afternoon it throbbed with Parisians in the way that the bars in New York throb after a blizzard shuts the whole town in. The children raced small pedal cars. A group of old men assembled under a band shell. There were rows of leafless trees sculpted into brown boxes.
I felt myself as horrifyingly singular there. A language is more than grammar and words, is the movement of The People, their sense of appropriate laughter, their very conception of space. In Paris the public space was a backyard for The People and The People's language was not mine. Even if I learned the grammar and vocab, so part of it must be off-limits to me. It could never really be "mine." I had a native language of my own. I felt like a distant friend crashing a family reunion. Except the family was this entire sector of the city. I could feel their nameless, invisible bonds all around me, tripping my every step.
A month ago I was giving a talk at a college where someone asked me why it was wrong for white people to use the word "nigger" in a friendly way. I responded, as I always do, by pointing out that the names people use depend on their relations. That I should not expect to call another man's wife "honey" by pointing out that he calls her the same thing. That my wife and her friends use the word "bitch" between them, but that is not a name I should expect (or want) to employ. That whatever they say, I have no desire to address my gay friends as queer. If you respect the humanity of black people, then you respect that they get to do what other humans do--ironically employ epithets in a communal way.
But walking through le Jardin, I saw the problem from another angle. Perhaps it isn't simply that black people have used "nigger" in irony (as all people tend to do with epithets) but that we have made "nigger" beautiful. Our artists, our writers, our comedians, our people have turned poison into wine that only we may drink. That hard alienation must sting a bit for those who, as sure I have no sense of the history of Paris, have no sense of the history of black folks. We don't know why we're shut out. And somehow it feels unfair. It isn't. I am an American and an Anglophone. With that tile I could, at any moment, make myself understood here. It takes a particular kind of tyranny to demand access to everyone's power, to everyone's family reunion.
The next day I packed my bags and went to Gare de Lyon. I was headed back to Switzerland where I would spend the week studying French. I had to buy my ticket at the main office. To buy a ticket I had to take another ticket with a number and a letter on it. I then had to watch the screen for my number. The office looked like it was erected by the same people who built the DMV, and constructed specifically to spite Mitt Romney. But I got my ticket, boarded the train. and descended further into the European continent.
The loneliness was intense. I knew at a least few people in Paris. But this train winding through high and gorgeous country, leaving behind small Hallmark towns, was truly taking me into foreign depths. For most of the ride there were English translations. But when I transferred at Lausanne, the pretensions dropped away and there was only French. I have spent almost as much time away from my family in the past year as I've spent with them. Is this how it's supposed to be? Is learning forever winding through these strange and foreign places? Is study the opposite of home?
In Vevey, I was met at the station by a mother and her daughter. They gave me the layout of the town. They showed me how to catch the train to school. They told me how to lock up their house. They poured me red wine, served bread and cheese. This was immersion. I was given a room. I called my wife then went to bed. That night everyone in my dreams spoke French. I could not understand a word they said.