I have never seen locusts swarm a field of wheat, but I bet it looks a lot like Paris when the tourists arrive. Each year fifteen million of these creatures descend on the city, stripping the stores and restaurants bare, and since they squeeze their visits into the summer months and the central arrondissements, it’s surprising we don’t have to stack sightseers in human pyramids just to make room.
When the city is this thick with other nationalities, spotting an actual Parisian is something of a rarity, and if he or she happens to be especially endearing—that is, accompanied by a small and smartly dressed child, walking a dog, wearing a scarf, charging across cobblestones on stiletto heels, and/or displaying a look of purposeful exasperation—the appearance can elicit the kinds of oohs and shutter-clicks usually reserved for zoo exhibits of meerkats.
It’s a big responsibility for the locals to perform their nationality so relentlessly. Most theatrical actors get to move from one production to another, and if they’re unionized they even accrue vacation time. But for Parisians life is like indentured servitude to the Broadway production of Cats: you’re in it for the long haul. Only when you get home at night can you finally peel off the necktie that’s been chafing all day, mess up your hair, pull on the sweat pants, and crack open a beer while the TV warms up to reruns of Survivor. (I’ve always assumed the French lead secret lives as Americans. As a kid I marveled at how quickly Parisians could translate their English thoughts into another language, and I still find this impressive.)
Because it’s such a burden for Parisians to keep the ball of Frenchness rolling, I sometimes lend a hand and give it a push. For instance, I’ll be walking across a bridge as a Bateau Mouche approaches. A gaggle of tourists will crowd the upper deck, their attention split between the Left and Right Banks, fingers pointing at spires and domes, the hum of voices audible above the engines. Meanwhile, a kid—usually a little girl—stands glumly at the front, elbows on the railing, cheeks wedged in the V of her palms. She looks sad. Her parents are so busy capturing video footage of debris floating down the Seine that they’ve forgotten she exists. No, no, the mom is probably crabbing at the dad, you’re in selfie mode. Give it here. They fidget with the device, prodding with their forefingers. Meanwhile, the girl sighs, and for a brief instant, there’s only one person in the entire universe paying attention to her: me, glancing down as I pass by on the bridge. Then it happens. She lifts her head and sees me seeing her. We exchange A Look. Slowly she raises her cupped palm to the side of her pageboy hair, and the hand wags back and forth in secret communication. Because I’m still a human being, I stop and wave back, trying to signal not just across the rapidly closing distance between me and the boat, but across the years, the decades. Don’t worry, I want to tell her. It gets better. I give a little nod to convey my sympathy. Yes, her parents are idiots. Her teachers don’t understand her. Her best friend has moved away. And even this trip, the family holiday to Europe, designed to bring them all together, and failing utterly: it, too, will fade to nothing, as will it all—except for this one moment, the few seconds during which she found understanding in the small wave of a man’s hand before her boat disappeared under a bridge in Paris.
Then one of the grownups, probably the dad, notices the girl and her raised hand. His face rotates in my direction, his nose pulling into a rabbit scrunch as he searches for the target of her attention. He spots me, my hand frozen in place. And I think, uh-oh.
In the States, this would be a bad situation: a grown man waving to a little girl in secret. I figured the parents’ thoughts would jump to Lolita. And because during their boat tour they’d have learned about the Conciergerie—the place where Marie Antoinette spent her last days—they would take me there now, so I could await execution, or castration, or whatever happened to be the punishment du jour.
But no! Instead, the dad’s hand has gone into the air, too. He’s… waving. Then the mom turns and sees. She kneels by her daughter’s side and beams up at me, her hand sweeping back and forth. Now others turn and notice. The boat is so close I can make out the moles on their faces. And suddenly all the paws are in motion, as if a platoon of Chinese Lucky Cat figurines was bearing down on me.
What happened is simple. Already the photos would be trickling onto Facebook—pictures of me with this caption: Friendly Parisian.
In this manner I sometimes play a local for the benefit of tourists. It’s a public service I provide to take some pressure off my neighbors. The fact that I don’t look the least bit French doesn’t seem to be an obstacle. Maybe the wicker basket I carry to the market distracts from my height, or the Lacoste jacket obscures the Germanic blandness of my face. I used to wonder if time in Paris would make me more French on the outside—the way scientists before Darwin thought antelope would become giraffes if they strained for leaves long enough. But no, my face hasn’t narrowed and my cheekbones haven’t budged. It’s all pretty stubbornly American. The only indigenous feature I display is an ability to stroll about without the company of a flag-toting guide, or, indeed, anyone. After all, tourists don’t travel alone. They know what separation from the herd means, and nervousness sets in, as if they fear the local jackals will circle, ribbons of saliva hanging from their teeth. Me, I just blend in with the jackals.
There’s also the fact that I’m pretty oblivious to the world around me, which can sometimes be mistaken for the studied aloofness of Parisians. Tourists specialize in gaping—not just at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, but even racks of Vélib bicycles or offerings in bakery windows. For them, a child zipping to school on a kick scooter is a worth a thousand Louvres. Parisians, as a rule, ignore it all. One day I walked down a street to find an African lion approaching from the other direction. The animal was proud and fierce, poised mid-growl on a sprit of rock that left him a head taller than the Parisians he rumbled past, two women pulling him on a dolly. Some people have referred to parts of Paris as a jungle, but really, this was going too far. When the animal and its handlers halted at an intersection, I couldn’t help thinking the beast was waiting for the light, as though the little man had to turn green before the lion would be allowed to choose one of us for eating.
It’s true the great cat was stuffed, destined for the Natural History Museum, but still, none of the passersby had batted an eye. Turning their head might muss their foulard, so they just plodded forward in their world-weary way, as though lions were no more surprising in Paris than squirrels in the Midwest.
In the midst of this menagerie, I’ve become one of the exhibits for the tourists—one more meerkat disappearing into the burrows of the Métro. Often visitors are content to view me passing, or to watch me looming over them from a bridge. On other occasions, however, they embolden themselves to approach the native-like fauna, and here my encounters are of four different types:
CATEGORY ONE: THE FRENCH. Despite what Parisians often think, some French people live in the provinces, and they occasionally venture to the capital. Such individuals often stop me for directions, but as soon as they detect my accent, their smile woodens and their ears close. Even though I’ve lived in the neighborhood for years and actually use the very florist they are trying to locate—it’s on the ground floor of the building I live in—my answer to them is useless, because by definition I cannot know anything.
CATEGORY TWO: THE GENERIC FOREIGNER. Someone—let’s say an Italian—asks me for directions in halting French. In such a case, because my knowledge of his language extends only to the naming of different shapes of pasta, I respond in French, our common tongue, and I part ways satisfied that I have helped another human being.
CATEGORY THREE: THE ANGLOPHONE-ANGLOPHONE. A certain type of native English speaker approaches me as a last resort, as though he would rather bleed to death or lapse into a hypoglycemic coma than utter a word in another language. You can read the terror in his pupils as he joins together words from his phrasebook and braces for the impact of a response. I address these guests to our city politely in their native tongue, watching their grimace melt into relief. (Once a woman from Alabama commented on how good my English was, and when I explained that I was American, she hesitated. “Well,” she said, “it’s not that good.”)
CATEGORY FOUR: THE FRANCOPHONE-ANGLOPHONE. Some American travelers yearn for encounters with otherness. Tired of waiters and shopkeepers who respond in English whenever they attempt to use the local idiom, these tourists hanker for the deeper connection, a skirmish with authentic Frenchness. By mistake they sometimes zero in on me, and I find myself delivering laborious responses in French that I know are only half-understood. When they wander off in the opposite direction from the one I just indicated, I console myself with the thought that I’ve provided them with a memory—a small triumph that they can burnish into a story, an anecdote about that long conversation Dale or Judy managed to have with a Parisian, even all those years after “learning” the language in high school.
In this way I trudge about town as a purveyor of authentic experience, rather like those men who lay out rows of suspect Louis Vuitton bags in the subway stations. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, I tell myself—though also, in some cases, the eye of the police. My son considers my behavior dishonest, but by that definition even Christmas is dishonest. From a certain point of view, I’m distributing gifts, playing the Santa Claus of Frenchness, waving from bridges to Bateau-Mouche-bound children and helping my countrymen locate the public toilets. It’s not a huge sacrifice. I’m not asking for a medal or anything. But still.
It was in this frame of mind that I found myself returning home from the theater one night. It had been a newfangled performance of Hamlet—set, for reasons I didn’t understand, in an 80s era British pub with a graffiti-covered men’s room and a jukebox that erupted into disco tunes at unexpected moments. Guildenstern was played by a hand puppet shaped like a dog cradled in the crook of Rosencrantz’s arm, and King Claudius had been demoted to a surly pub owner. In this unusual context we watched poor Hamlet—blessedly, from behind—while he peed at the urinal, craning his neck and crying out “To be or not to be” in French: Être ou ne pas être.
It was enough to give one pause (or, in the case of the Guildenstern puppet, the appendages that go by the same name). After all, here was a play written in English, where all the characters were supposedly Danish but now somehow spoke French. I found myself identifying with them. Wasn’t this the kind of performance I engaged in daily—even if, all modesty aside, I generally did a more convincing job of it than this particular effort by the Comédie française? When they got to the part about the play within the play, performed in silence—except for the ABBA tune pulsing in the background—it reminded me of all those pantomimes I employed to help foreigners understand the city.
It was thus with a renewed sense of mission that I stepped onto the Métro after the production. It was evening-bustle time, so the car was rather full—your standard mix of theatergoers headed home, young kids just starting to prowl, a drunkard sprawled on a bench seat, and a motley of tourists. A man with scruffy dark hair had strung a curtain between two poles at the end of the car, and as we jerked into motion a familiar tune started. A muppet of Luciano Pavarotti—barrel-chested and bearded—appeared over the top of the curtain, and it burst into song, belting out “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
A minute later the doors opened at another stop, allowing a refueling of passengers. As we started again, I found myself standing next to a family of three. They were American. The scowling man was rather short and square, and I pictured him rolling out from underneath Chevrolets on a mechanic’s creeper. His wife stood a bit taller, big-boned, her eyes imprinted with a pained expression. Their son, maybe ten, was a waif of a child—with the dad’s red hair and his mother’s nose, but narrow-shouldered and delicate—a surprising collision of genes. His mother’s hand was clamped about his wrist as if to prevent her child’s abduction by gypsies, while the boy’s eyes suggested that he longed for just such an event.
Behind me the miniature Pavarotti ground through his tune, rather like the jukebox I’d been subjected to earlier. In front of me, the parents had turned to squint at the subway map above the door, pointing at stations. Bits of their conversation burbled through the soup of noise.
“No, no,” I heard the husband mutter in an irritated tone.
“I think it is,” the wife responded, and she pulled out a guidebook, opening it to a map.
A kind of hushed argument ensued about whether they were headed in the right direction, their words twanging in a way that reminded me of Nashville, or maybe rural Kentucky. Then the husband issued a grunt of exasperation—not about the map or the subway or even Paris, but about this wife of his, the one struggling so hard to make everything right. All at once, I didn’t like him.
Then the wife’s eye caught mine and she stepped forward, asking in severely fractured French if indeed the train was headed for their destination. It was your standard CATEGORY THREE encounter, one where I would ordinarily respond in English. However, invigorated by the French-English-Danishness of Hamlet, I believed I could offer her a Category Four response, demonstrating before the eyes of her husband—and more importantly, in front of her son, who tracked this activity with interest—her excellence and moral superiority as a human being skilled in interaction with others.
“Oui,” I announced. And to underscore this reply, I used my finger to point at the subway map, tracing along the line to the station where they would get off.
Then came the profusion of desperate thanks, uttered in a way that called to mind the long-forgotten connection between merci and mercy. I had done a good deed. And to drive it home, I now bestowed a look of sympathy upon their young child. To wave at him here might seem excessive, but I allowed myself a nod. Yes, my bowed head said, it’s a difficult stretch, but you’ll grow out of it. Your father loves you in his own way. Your mother is trying. And what you don’t know now, but that you’ll learn one day soon, is that—
Which is when the dad spoke again.
“Ask ’im about tomorrow,” he said, pronouncing it tamarah. “How d’we get to the louver?”
I gathered he meant the museum. The wife winced. She tried to wring a few more words from the damp cloth of her memory, but the exercise produced physical pain.
When a corner of her husband’s mouth rose, I understood immediately. He wasn’t interested in louvers. He didn’t care about museums or sights. All he wanted was to flummox this poor woman, to knock her off the pedestal of the puny success she had accomplished, shoving her back into the dirt.
Behind us the music paused while the Pavarotti muppet mopped his brow with a white handkerchief. He started singing again with renewed energy.
The mother struggled for a long while, but finally her lips parted. A little jumble of French-like sounds tumbled out, a couple of them recognizable.
Having committed myself to CATEGORY FOUR, I had little choice but to forge ahead, albeit with the sense of foreboding that accompanied soldiers leaping from trenches at the Battle of the Somme. I uttered an explanation to her in baby French, separating all my words, decorating each one with a gesture. But the woman’s eyes grew small as she strained to understand. She had the pleading look of a beaten dog.
“What’d he say?” the man pressed in a sneering tone. After a pause, he tried again. “What’d he say?”
The train had just stopped at another station, and I was tempted to run, to leave this family to its fate. But I thought again of Hamlet—not so much the urinals, but the words. The slings and arrows, the outrageous etc., etc.! On stage it had all washed over me in a French version of Danish-English. Wasn’t that the way out? It was all a question of performance.
“Yoo seee,” I said to the woman in English, harnessing my best caricature of a French accent. “Fore zee Louvre, yoo goh to zees station.” And I punctuated it with a poke at the subway map.
It was the perfect solution. Neither CATEGORY THREE nor CATEGORY FOUR, but something in between—enough to show the husband that his wife had gotten her point across, and that a willing French person would even step over the linguistic divide for her.
Her face lit up, and I checked to make sure the man’s scowl had returned. It wasn’t enough for me that heaven should exist for the wife; her husband had to end up in hell.
Behind us, passengers were getting on, and Pavarotti’s voice trilled, but I just returned my gaze to their little boy, who watched with wonder. I felt honored to be present at such a formative moment—indeed, to have had a role in a scene this boy would reenact on the stage of his imagination as he grew into a teenager, a young man, or even when he had a family of his own, and—
“Yer a meer-kin,” a voice said.
It was the husband speaking again, though not to his wife. He was looking directly at me, his nose pulled tight, his thick lips hanging apart.
“Aren’t’cha?” he pressed.
Now it was my turn to strain to understand. Exactly what was this little Claudius accusing me of? Could a meer-kin possibly be the baby of a meerkat—a kind of meer-kitten?
I said it again in my head. Meer-kin. What was a meer-kin? He couldn’t possibly mean a “merkin,” could he—those medieval masks for one’s private parts? Was he accusing me of being a codpiece, a prop? Surely not. I bent the accent this way and that. A-meer-kin. Suddenly I understood.
A tone sounded, and the train doors closed in slow motion.
“Yer a meer-kin,” he said again, louder. Heads turned in our direction.
It was quickly turning into a CATEGORY FIVE situation, rather like a hurricane. Scores of tourists had taken me for a local, but somehow this plain and blunt man, alone among them, had unmasked me, stripping me utterly, leaving not so much as a fig leaf.
The train had rumbled into motion. I smiled at the husband and gave a shrug, imitating a man who doesn’t understand. However, since I’d already demonstrated I could speak the language of Shakespeare, that performance felt hollow, and heat rose to my face. The mother’s expression had now turned to incredulity, and even the boy’s eyes had widened.
Pavarotti had finally completed his aria, and the quiet of the car was interrupted only by the puppeteer making the rounds with his leather purse, asking for coins. The husband glared at me, gearing up to launch another assault.
I looked about, hoping an African lion might suddenly appear to distract us. But no, they’re only around when you don’t need them.
It’s worth noting that Paris has one of the world’s oldest subways. The first line of the Métropolitain opened in 1900 at the occasion of a World’s Fair, and with over a century of experience, they have learned to provide for every imaginable situation, including warnings about the danger of pinched fingers and instructions about who is authorized to sit where. To the left of each door, just above the window, a thick red handle is affixed. It is the emergency brake. Pull it down, and the entire train will shudder to a stop. Over the years I have often wished for such a device, not just in public transportation, but at home, in various workplaces, and especially at family gatherings—all those times where you’d like to stop the world so you can get off. Never before had I felt such a deep urge to go for the red handle. One more move on the part of the husband, and I was ready to lunge for it.
Then the puppeteer was there, pressing between us. “S’il vous plaît,” he begged, pushing the leather purse in our faces. “S’il vous plaît.” Cradled in his other arm, wide-eyed Luciano Pavarotti stared at us.
The husband swatted at the air, waving him away, but the man somehow took this as encouragement, turning from one of us to the other, the hand outstretched. “S’il vous plaît, s’il vous plaît.”
“Go away,” the husband snarled. He turned back to me.
But then a coin glinted. It was the boy. He had pulled a euro from his pocket—almost certainly his entire fortune—and ignoring his father’s protests, he deposited this treasure in the purse. The puppeteer gave him a deep bow, and in thanks he swung his muppet forward, clicking the music on. Pavarotti began a jolly new tune of thanks, a melody over which it was impossible to speak.
The train creaked to a stop at the next station, and the doors opened. I leapt to freedom. And as the tone sounded, I turned, exchanging a look with the child who had just paid my ransom. He raised his hand in a small wave, and in his eyes I understood it all. I’m sorry, his look said. You’re a grownup, and that’s not easy. The situation is bad and getting worse. Your kids have moved away and your wife knits. The unknown has vanished. You are burdened with understanding.
But don’t worry, said his eyes. It won’t go on forever.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.