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On Food Poisoning and Rousseau

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #3

The 15th New York aka "The Harlem Hellfighters." Regiment of black and Puerto-Rican soldiers. Winners of the Croix de Guerre in World War I. (The National Archives)

We are doing a house-swap in order to spend these eight weeks in Paris. House-swapping is the trusted method of travel for those of us with European dreams and a Baltimore budget. I didn't even know house-swapping existed until last summer when I first began plotting my way out. This might be pedestrian for the folks here, but for those who were like me, house-swapping is what it sounds like--you live in someone else's home and they live in yours. I know a family that does this, every summer, sight unseen. Keys are left in appointed places, supers are informed, and whole families from other continents make moves. For others it's like dating--personal ads, vague guarded e-mails, g-chat, then video-skype to see if you like the look of your paramours.

My connection was as old fashion as you can imagine in these times. A sharp, learned journalist on this side was a fan of my blog and a native New Yorker. We exchanged a few e-mails, then dined together in Paris and instantly liked each other. He wanted to get home with his son for the summer. I wanted to get out with mine and my wife. Et voilà. C'est ça.

Before he left, my new found homeboy plugged me into to a number of Parisians--most of them people of color with some kind of immigrant connection. Their job, I suspect, is to get me out of the Sixth and into the underbelly of things. I saw some of it yesterday riding the RER. The further out you go on the train, the more African and Asiatic the world becomes. The kids look like our kids with their headphones and haircuts. They talk loud and boastfully, as I once did, so that you might know that they are alive.

"Here is the thing," my buddy said to me, just before leaving. "I am not trying to get you to hate France. I want you to love France. But I want you to love it for the right reasons."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I thought. "Pass me a pain au chocolat and let's get this swap-joint popping."

And popping it was. Yesterday, when I went out to get milk, I saw a man outside the store preparing le poulet et pommes de terre.  I want to pause here and point out that "Pomme de terre"--"apple of the earth"--is beautiful name for a potato. The man was preparing this in a rotisserie oven. At the bottom the potatoes were roasting in the juices. I came back, told my wife, and I had found dinner.

After we dropped off our son we picked up dinner along with a salad and some chocolate for desert. We drank a bottle of wine together--it's becoming a tradition--and ate an awesome dinner. I got up this morning and hit La Seine for my morning run. I came back, showered, and was immediately felled by food poisoning.  So this is loving France, wholly, right reasons and all.

Illness aside, there is always the danger in falling in for a distant lover who seems magically free of all the complications back home. I was raised by a generation that--to varying degrees--found this out. My friend Brendan Koerner just published a book which is getting raves everywhere--The Skies Belong To Us. The most bracing portion, to me, is Brendan's hard look at the New Left. I got my first lessons in skepticism and counter-intuitiveness from a lot of these guys. But it's worth remembering that there was when they sung the praises of Kim il Sung.

I don't want to take this too far. If America has the right to be wrong, then so do its reformers. It mirrors our discussion here where we find people attacking other countries for not being "democratic" without understanding our own long, ugly and sometimes dishonorable path. More, I would say that because of my particular background, my canon was a little different than most, and whatever differences you might find in my voice are attributable to that.

It's also attributable to discovering the Western canon, and the significance of the West, almost as something exotic since my roots seemed elsewhere. That allows me to be fascinated, to be blown away. Nothing is more fascinating than finding your allegedly foreign roots are common. I thought of this recently digging through Rousseau:

This passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a most remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his behaviour and endowing his actions with the morality they previously lacked before. Only then when the voice of duty succeeds physical impulsion and law succeeds appetite, does man, who until now had thought only of himself, find himself forced to act according to other principles, and to consult his reason before heeding his inclinations.

Although in this state he denies himself a number of advantages granted him by nature, he gains others so great in return – his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas expanded, his feelings ennobled, his entire soul soars so high – that if the abuses of this new condition did not often degrade him below that from which he emerged, he ought continually to bless the happy moment that wrested him thence for ever, and out of a stupid, limited animal made him an intelligent being and human.

Right down to the language around civilization, this is remarkably similar to Malcolm X's parable of transition wherein black people go from being savages "deaf, dumb and blind" and "lost in the wilderness of North America" to civilized black men committed to some higher ideal. In Malcolm's vision it was Islam. Among his nationalist descendants it was black people.

For one such as myself, schooled on the savagery of Cortez and Pizarro, once inculcated with the theories of a natural impulse toward warfare among white people, raised up to seethe after the partition of Africa, it is still odd--a decade and a half after I left that world--to see myself in the image of people I once solely took as conquerors and barbarians.

I like to think I've come some ways since then, bearing the skepticism of those days, but free of the prejudice and the utopian romance. I like to think that I know that every home is imperfect, that I don't come to France looking for something better than America, that I know that America is my own imperfect home. I like to think that you need worry about me going too zealous and hard. This is a great great trip. But it's the food poisoning that makes it real.