The mindset I mean is that in the US, so far has been instilled in me is that the purpose of life is to assure oneself and one’s ‘clan’ (of sorts) prosperity. That is, you should be wealthy, but you should also bring along with you anyone that you’re prefer in your life, which may be some of your family, and may be some friends, or may be nobody. You live to work, your children are an investment to ensure that someone can continue to work when you cannot, and so that you will be somebody’s child when you have the strength of one again. We drink coffee to wake up and wine to sleep, parties are mostly to find mates or to drown sorrows, our blockbuster films are about checking dreams off a list before death, our bestselling books are about places you must go and things you must do before dying. We demand results, we demand objectives.
‘”Play by Ear.’”
‘Uhm…is it what comedians do?’
‘No. I think improvising is what you do when…well, yes, like on the comedy shows, and when, for instance, you need to make dinner but all you have is a cabinet full of spices.’
‘Like we’ve been doing.’
‘To play by ear, that’s something you say when you want to avoid making plans immediately and would rather just put it off until later. That’s actually part of the American Civil War, that nobody wanted to deal with the Blacks problem until it had already exploded. We also say ‘let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,’ to mean the same thing, as in, we’ll deal with it when we reach the problem. Does that make sense?’
‘Alright, when you improvise, you know what the outcome will be, but you don’t know how you will reach it. The comedian’s outcome will be a laughing audience, ours is dinner. How we get there, we don’t know. To play by ear, you’re not sure what the outcome will be, but you know what you’re going to do in the meantime.’
On the night of the party, we forgot to eat dinner on time, or we ruined it when it was being cooked, or something like that, and so we didn’t eat. Everyone at the party had a piece of bread in one hand and a drink in the other. One after another of the girls sat down next to me to speak in English and suggest that I help with studying for the upcoming examination and talk fondly about America. Someone made me a strong drink with rum, and someone else had me try anise, and Scott always told me to stick with one drink for an entire evening—except beer, because beer is good anytime—which is probably why I was dizzy when I got home and unhappy the next morning.
But my point is that the amount of time spent eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and conversing, by which I mean, all the activities that lead Americans to call the French lazy, is really, so far as I can tell, the only reason to live. They delight in other people, they delight in their senses, and they delight in their bodies, and as far as thought goes, I think it was Abelard’s school in Paris that influenced the direction of Cambridge and Oxford, and in recent years my preferences in the arts tend to be French—and if not, then first widely accepted by the French. When we think of lazy we think of fat people or drunks or dogs sleeping under trees, so that when we call the French lazy we think of them as lazy Americans, when what seems more the truth is that the French swim through pleasure in the same way that girls can swim through love. But they work when they must—and seem much more serious about their work when they do, perhaps because on the other side of work is pleasure again. The customer seems to always come first at stores, everything is always clean and well-ordered in even the shittiest of restaurants, nobody seems to become exasperated at their jobs and things move very quickly. Things are always very clean here—I mean, when I see shit on the sidewalk, it’s always fresh shit, and despite the scarcity of trashcans, there’s almost no litter. Everyone always finishes everything on their plates—I mean everything, every last grain of rice, even every last droplet of salad dressing, even a mound of mustard, if that’s all that is left, it will be eaten. I’ve been told it’s because it’s been paid for and, even if one cannot eat another bite, it must be eaten because otherwise you’re not getting your full value. I think this may be how they treat life: why blush about diarrhea? why refuse an experience? why deny yourself a single thing that is or has the potential to be amazing? and why turn it into an item on a list, like a vaccine, when you can have it again? I don’t mean that I have this mindset, but I do mean that I wish I did. That being said, I’ve also heard that in France I will always be hungry, that their meals are very tiny. It’s not true. I’ve never seen so much food as I have here, and I’ve never seen so many people so consistently eat so much food. Yes, their meals last twice the length of American meals, but they eat four times the amount of Americans, and somehow do so without needing their napkins and still talking twice as much. I ask how it’s possible that the French can all be so thin if they eat more than Americans. “That’s because all you eat is grease. Pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, Coke, nothing but sugar and fat. We may eat more than you, but we have a balanced diet.” I was shopping for clothes recently and the only sizes I could find were smalls and mediums. There were very few mediums.
That evening we met up with friends and went to a bar. We walked down cobblestone streets until reaching a place in the wall that I did not recognize as a door. With effort we pushed the giant metal door open and then pushed it shut again, and once inside the dark, stone room, I felt like I had found my way into a castle’s walls. We crept up a winding stone staircase towards a light and knocked on a wooden door, and then—we were inside a gorgeous modern apartment, unremarkable except in how comfortable it was. C gave me a number of rules when I got here. One was that our yogurt is on the middle shelf on the left. Another was that it’s very important that I never wash any of the teapots because much of the flavor in tea comes from all that buildup. Another was that I need to wait five minutes after I turn off the water in the shower and then turn it off again. The hot water is only produced twice a day, I’m pretty sure. But, as I learned over the summer, you only rinse yourself off with it, and then wash off the soap, and then rinse out the tub. During a shower, the water doesn’t run for more than a minute or so. I learned this by asking her over the summer. I learned also about how we shouldn’t keep anything electric running except when we’re in the room. None of this has anything to do with saving the earth: it’s about bills. All the windows here have shutters—not for decoration, but for keeping heat in. They are often used as window blinds also. My own windows stretch from the floor to the ceiling and have handles as if there was a porch outside. Sometimes, for what reason, I’m not sure, they open on their own. Now, it’s snowed a few times since I got here, and when I woke up this morning and they were open, I found that I hadn’t even noticed the difference in room temperature. We don’t keep the heat turned on. We wear warm clothes and when we’re stationary, we’re generally wrapped up in blankets and drinking something warm or alcoholic. And furthermore, beginning with kisses on the cheeks, people are much physically closer to each other all the time. [At first I found it unusual, but by the time I left I didn’t mind it at all, in fact, I enjoyed it…while here I’m ashamed to wipe my nose in public, there it became easy when I saw everyone was always doing so…they accept that they have bodies, and two months of being cold became easy, and a wonderful excuse for hot drinks all day long–coming back the cold US I immediately reverted to more wasteful habits when it came to heat, not intentionally, but because I found myself shivering much easier. There’s so much we take for granted.]
A few times when girls meet me, they hesitate and then put out their hand for me to shake. Everyone goes silent, and when, a moment later laughter erupts, the girl looks around and then offers me her cheek. When we ate lunch at somebody’s parents’ house yesterday, when wine and anise were being served the girl’s father ran in and, a little embarrassedly and a little concernedly, asked “would you like a coke? Not cocaine! I mean—I mean that we have found one bottle of coca cola—would you like it?” I asked C, do Americans have such a reputation? And she said we do, that when one thinks of an American one thinks of someone eating a hamburger and drinking a Coke.
So I am always sitting next to people very closely, or walking closely, or speaking closely, it’s very easy to make eye contact with people I don’t know, and everyone has been very friendly. When I went to a restaurant (I didn’t know if it was a restaurant or not…it was mostly a bar) to grab lunch one day when I went to school with C, I went to the bar and asked if I could buy something to eat there. The woman asked me a question I didn’t understand and when I told her so, what would be customary in the US, that is to repeat oneself at the same speed but to speak very loudly and make the person feel like an idiot, she asked me simply if I want something to eat, and I said I did, and she pointed towards a door that connected the place to another building and then said “non, non!” and motioned me to follow her, and ran to the door herself and came back a moment later asking if I’d like a sandwich and I said yes and asked what sort of sandwiches there were, and when she began speaking I didn’t know what she was speaking about and just looked confused until she said poulet, and was on the verge of doing a chicken impression with her arms when I exclaimed “poulet! Oui, oui!” [Knowing the word for chicken is second most important to knowing the word for bathroom, and what I didn’t express here at the time was how pessimistic this experience led me to feel, unsure of whether I should be sitting at the bar or a table, knowing how remarkable it was that I’d gotten myself food, and wondering how the hell I’d ever do it again. People ask me now if my French is good. No, by the time I left my French was not good, but I could travel and thrive easily without speaking a word of English, buying strange things, navigating strange cities and transportation that didn’t make any sense, and doing all these things fearlessly—perhaps I didn’t know the language very well, but by the time I left I knew enough to communicate effectively.]