Through The Parisian Looking Glass

The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #14


Two weeks ago my French professor asked if we'd like to participate in a competition, the object of which I still don't quite understand. It was at the end of class, and after hours of French I sometimes slip into the bad habit of just nodding along. It's a bad habit. But willpower is a resource, and after four hours of battling my insecurities over being the dumbest kid in class I often find that I'm just trying to make it to "Bonjournée." In addition to being a bad habit, "nodding along" is self-defeating because you can often end up agreeing to propositions that probably deserved more thought.

Last Friday I came into class and was greeted with the fruit of my laziness--I'd agreed to forgo class, train over to Cluny-La Sorbonne, hike up a hill, and then circle the Pantheon in search of history. I was in a crabby mood. Peregrin Ta-Nehisi kept hoping my class would leave me so I could find a creperie and stumble home drunk on Nutella. But Gandalf Ta-Nehisi won. Again. Gandalf wins a lot here. I don't know why. I am starting to think that there is something to the theory that New York taxes the neurons.
We split up into groups. We were given a questionnaire with clues and questions that had to be answered. We answered them by reading historical plaques all around the Pantheon.  I had not put myself in a mental space to stumble through the city. But for two hours that's what we did.  I was carrying a large backpack. I could only halfway read the plaques. My pen kept running over my hands. I was wearing a long-sleeve shirt. I was hot and basically uncomfortable for the entire time.
At the end we met up  in the Pantheon, which is one of these places that's, like, four times as old as America. We shared our answers and checked them against one another's. Someone broke out cold-cuts. There were sandwiches and water. I was annoyed but Gandalf kept telling me to be nice.
We were looking down from the stone rows on several groups of men. The men were playing Pètanque. One of the men was black and wasn't wearing a shirt. And that made me really happy, but I didn't know why. I think it was because back home I would have sat there trying to figure out why a black dude with no shirt on was hanging out with a bunch of white people.
I really wanted to go home. But I sat there for another half an hour snapping pictures and watching the men lob steel balls into the sand. I sat there feeling odd. I was aware that I was tired, that I was hot, that I wanted to be home. And yet there was something pleasant about just sitting there, about feeling myself outside of everything. I don't understand the rules of Pètanque. I don't know black people who hang around groups of white people without their shirt. I didn't understand half of what was being said around me. My teacher kept trying to tell me something about Victor Hugo. I smiled and nodded. Who knows what I agreed to.
I felt myself a Stranger, something I've never been in my life. I felt myself falling, disappearing into the stone steps. I felt like people barely saw me, like I was a presence. I barely comb my hair here. I haven't had a haircut in weeks. My body feels like it is my own and no longer performing for my tribe and its enemies. I perform for myself here. Because I have no tribe here (yet) and the blood feuds feel so very distant from me.
You play a lot of roles as a black man in America. But "Stranger" isn't one of them. You feel too marked--not even marked for ill treatment, but just marked. Drunk white people stumble up to you and make confessional or mistake you for some long-lost black friend from sixth grade. They do not hate you. They just want to put their shit on you. That doesn't make them especially evil, sinister, or inhuman. Everyone is putting their shit on someone else. But I think more of us should live free for a moment, should--if only for a moment--feel themselves disconnected from the dynamics that ordinarily define their life.
A friend of mine once said that he enjoyed Israel because it was the first place where being Jewish was not the single most important thing about him when he went outside. That is how I felt at Howard, in Harlem, in every hood where I'd ever lived. I'd throw on my hoodie and then disappear. The days of throwing on your hoodie and disappearing are over. But the virtues of disappearance are not. I feel it oddly here. I am disappeared by my Americaness, by my tenuous handle upon the language. I like myself more refracted through this lens, stumbling through this alien tongue. Somehow it feels more like me.