Transcript

165:

Americans In Paris
Transcript

Originally aired 07.28.2000

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/165

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's a gray, rainy day in Paris. A sulky line of tourists waits on the grounds of an old medieval palace, now one of the most famous museums in the world. I'm with David Sedaris, who lives nearby.

Ira Glass

So David, explain where we are.

David Sedaris

We're at the Louvre. And this is the closest I've ever come. I've never set foot inside the Louvre.

Ira Glass

So you've lived in Paris for how long?

David Sedaris

Two years. But I still haven't visited it. I didn't see the point. Why come to Paris and go to the one place where you're not allowed to smoke? As a matter of fact, it's my goal to be the only person who has come to Paris and has never set foot in the Louvre.

Ira Glass

You live how far from here?

David Sedaris

I'm probably about a 12-minute walk, 15-minute walk from the Louvre. I mean, I'm close to Notre Dame, too. But I've never gone in there either. It just doesn't interest me. I mean, I think so many people come here, and they feel like they have to do certain things because somebody told them to do it, or they're going to go home, and people will say, what do you mean you didn't see the Pantheon? What do you mean you didn't go into the Louvre? So I'm guessing that a good number of these people are just standing here because somebody told them that they should do it.

I don't think that they're all museum goers at home. I don't know. Do people look back and remember the experience of standing in front of a painting? I might remember eating something, or buying something, or seeing something like an accident, or somebody who is really twisted up in some way, but not looking at a painting. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe for them, it doesn't get any better than this. But I don't know, just from people that I know that have come here, they go to the Louvre because somebody told them that they have to.

Ira Glass

Today on our radio program, where you might go in Paris instead of the Louvre. I spent three days with David Sedaris, who writes a lot about what it's like to live in France. We never saw the Eiffel Tower, or the Rodin Museum, or the famous cemetery where Marcel Proust and Jim Morrison are buried. No historical sites, nothing having to do with the culture or language of the people of France. But if you want to know the best place to buy a model of a rotten tooth, or a collection of leeches, or a life-sized replica of a human head with the top cut off so you can see what's inside, David did show me that.

David Sedaris

This is a pretty good medical supply store. Like these body parts that they have here, they're handmade and hand painted. And they're not nearly as expensive as you would think that they would be. Like I got my sister, Gretchen, a stomach-- or a backbone. I got her a backbone made out of paper mache for Christmas. And I think it probably cost about $60, which was-- that's a great price for a backbone.

Ira Glass

Today on our program, Americans in Paris and how our Paris sometimes has very little to do with the one familiar to the locals. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

The US government says that about two and a half million Americans visited Paris last year, which is an interesting number, because it's more people than actually live in Paris. The population there is 2.1 million. And even with all the Americans who've been angry with France in this post-9/11 world of freedom fries and all that, there are still a lot of Americans who have dreamy and romantic ideas about Paris, more than about other places, I think.

In 1944, at the liberation of Paris from the Nazis, E. B. White wrote, "Probably one of the dullest stretches of prose in any man's library is the article on Paris in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet when we heard the news of the liberation, being unable to think of anything else to do, we sat down and read it straight through from beginning to end. 'Paris,' we began, 'capital of France and of the Department of Seine, situated on the Ile de la Cite, the Ile Saint-Louis, and the Isle Louvier on the Seine, as well as on both banks of the Seine.'

"The words seemed like the beginning of a great poem. A feeling of simple awe overtook us as we slowly turned the page and settled down to a study of the city's weather graph and the view of the Seine looking east from Notre Dame. 'The rainfall is rather evenly distributed,' continued the encyclopedist. Evenly distributed, we thought to ourselves. Like the tears of those who love Paris."

But what is it actually like in Paris, really, without the rose-colored glasses, if you're American? Well, our This American Life team headed overseas to find out. And let's just pause for a moment. What exactly does that sound like, you wonder? Well, here's a recording.

Tour Guide

Would you like to take a guided tour of Paris?

Maggie Prescott

No, no, no. We're not tourists.

Jo Stockton

Do we look like those people who run around gaping all day?

Dick Avery

I guess they can't understand anyone coming to Paris to work.

Maggie Prescott

My suggestion is that we all go straight to our hotels and get some rest. I, for one, am exhausted.

Ira Glass

Well, Act One of our program today, Him Talk Pretty Three Days. David Sedaris gives me and you a walking tour of his favorite places in the city that he calls home. Act Two, Ca Vie Americain, in which we try to answer the question, what is it that some Americans see in Paris anyway? What is the draw? Act Three, Notes of a Native Daughter. Why it helps sometimes to pretend your French accent is worse than it really is, and why it's harder to cut into a movie line in Paris than in New York, and whether it is the same for African-Americans these days in Paris as it was the heyday of James Baldwin and Sidney Bechet. Answers. Stay with us.

Act One. Him Talk Pretty Three Days.

Ira Glass

Act One, Him Talk Pretty Three Days. A few years back, at the age of 41, barely speaking French, David Sedaris moved to Paris. He had no special feelings about France, no particular interest in the French. It would be the same if it's Korea, he said to me. A sentence that, I think if the French ever heard that he said it, they would deport him.

He moved for two reasons. One, his boyfriend Hugh had a rundown house in Normandy, and two, why not? And over the course of two years, he has written extensively about his experience in stories for the radio, for magazines, and for his newest book. In his stories, David portrays life in Paris as a series of humiliations and near humiliations. And if you hang out with him for a few days, you realize he is not exaggerating much.

David Sedaris

This is my worst nightmare right here.

Ira Glass

We'd barely gone three blocks from his apartment on our walking tour of Paris when he stopped on the sidewalk.

David Sedaris

OK, my lighter has run out of fluid, which would mean that I would have to ask somebody for a match. And so what I would say is, hello, do you have some fire? And I so hate saying that, that I usually carry like four lighters on me so I always have a backup.

Ira Glass

So you're just digging into your bag here?

David Sedaris

Extra cigarettes. I know I must have a lighter in here. I will not spend the afternoon asking people if they have fire.

Ira Glass

I was curious about David's thoughts about Paris, precisely because he was never somebody who had any special feelings for the place. He didn't move here with his head full of Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein, and Sartre, and Proust. He was a blank slate. And so for several hours every day I was in Paris, David would walk me to the places he finds most interesting. And the first thing I learned was this. It is so traumatic to learn a new language that a lot of David's experience of the city, a lot of his personal geography of Paris, has to do simply with the where people are cruel to him when he speaks and where they aren't.

David Sedaris

This is a hardware store where the owner and the people who work there are really, really nice to me. I buy things here all the time. And I buy things that I don't even need just because they're so kind. And they generally just start laughing right when I walk in the door. And then the owner will call his assistants out of the back room, and say, he's back, he's back. And I buy things like-- I bought a heating element so I could make tea in my hotel room, because I had to go to Germany.

So I could go in and say, hello, I am looking for a stick that make the water hot, hot today. So I say really stupid things when I go in there. I only say it in French, but they're incredibly good sports. I bought an ironing board. And I was able to say, hello, it has been three weeks. I bought an iron. Now, today, I look for a table that might work with my iron. Have you such a table? And he said, ah, an ironing board, and went and got one out of the back. But he's really, really nice. And it's a place I can always count on where somebody's going to be good to me.

Ira Glass

Do we want to walk into the hardware store? Do we need anything? Do they sell batteries?

David Sedaris

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Could you get me some AA batteries for the camera?

David Sedaris

Sure.

Ira Glass

We need four. I'll pay.

It's a tiny store, just enough room for a few customers to stand, a store that's taller than it is wide, with shelves full of merchandise running up to the ceiling, plus brooms, feather dusters, baskets simply hanging over our heads to be retrieved by a hook on the end of a stick.

Hardware Store Owner

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

David Sedaris

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Hardware Store Owner

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

David Sedaris

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Hardware Store Owner

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

David Sedaris

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Hardware Store Owner

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

David Sedaris

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Hardware Store Owner

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

David Sedaris

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Ira Glass

This is my boyfriend, David says, trying to say, this is my friend. He is making a documentary of my life. He tapes everything.

David Sedaris

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Hardware Store Owner

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Ira Glass

We pay, there's small talk, and we're back on the street in less than a minute and a half.

David Sedaris

See, that's what's so nice about that guy, all right? I went in, and he said, I haven't seen you for a long time. Have you been on vacation? And that's just worth the world to me. That is so incredibly nice for somebody to notice your absence.

Ira Glass

Some shopkeepers don't notice him. He'd been buying his newspaper from the same woman in his neighborhood seven days a week for over a year. And recently, she said to him, out of the blue, are you a tourist here on vacation?

David Sedaris

And I said I have been coming here and buying my newspaper every day for the last 19 months. No, I'm not on vacation. I have an apartment around the corner. But it took that long for her even to acknowledge that she had seen me before. But that's why I go there every day. I was waiting for that moment, for her to recognize me.

Ira Glass

We go into a chocolate shop, and a bookstore, and a cafe. And each place we go, if there's a little conversation, just normal small talk, and it goes OK, he's really delighted and can recite it all for me afterwards, line by line. When he first moved here-- when his French class wasn't going so well. And he was constantly being scolded by people for not understanding the simplest things, directions, prices, for the proper change. People here are crazy about exact change, he swears to me-- He realized at some point that he could make it all feel better if he transformed himself from the inept foreigner to the inept foreigner with a charge card.

David Sedaris

People will be really nice to you if you spend a lot of money. So then I just started going out and buying things. I could have a bad day in school, and I'd go out after school and buy a desk or pricey lamps, because people were unfailingly nice while I was writing out that check. And I would say the most screwed up thing, and they would say, oh, you speak so well. And they would compliment me. And I would just feel so good. And then I would leave, and I would think, wait a minute. And it took a while to get that under control.

Ira Glass

See, I feel like just observing your day as an outsider, I feel like you've put yourself into this position where the smallest human acts of kindness have turned out to mean so much.

David Sedaris

They have, whereas before, they were things that I didn't really think about. It doesn't take much to make me happy now, whereas before, I feel like it took quite a bit.

Ira Glass

Is your experience here more of a feeling of adventure or more a feeling of humiliation?

David Sedaris

It's more a feeling of humiliation. It would be a feeling of adventure if I were a different type of person, if I were a more adventurous person. But for me to get on a train and go to Switzerland, I don't think, oh good, I get to have an adventure. I think, oh great, I get to make an ass out of myself in two different languages.

That's what I wind up doing. In Germany, they always include breakfast with your hotel. I'm not a breakfast eater. But I want a cup of coffee or something. I stayed at the hotel in Germany-- I don't remember the town-- the last time I was there. And so I go downstairs to have my breakfast. And there are six people seated at a table. And usually they've got lots of tables. But here, there's only one table. And I'm thinking, well, I don't really want to sit with six people. But if I turn around and leave, then they'll think that I'm being rude.

So I've gotten this far. So I have to sit down at the table with these six people. So I pull out a chair, and the man says something to me in German. And I say, oh no, just coffee for me. I'm fine with that. And what he was trying to tell me was that I was in his kitchen. This was the kitchen of the owner. And this was the owner of the hotel and his family sitting down to breakfast. I just saw this door, and I opened it. And I was in their quarters. And then he had to go and wake up his nine-year-old so his nine-year-old could come and explain to me in English that, in fact, the dining room was downstairs. So I don't see that-- And so I didn't see it is an adventure. It just happened.

Ira Glass

David moved here at a particular moment in his life. After years of making his living cleaning apartments and carrying furniture, he finally had published books, made the best-seller list, was on the radio, went on tours and filled 2,000 and 5,000-seat halls with people who wanted to hear him read. And I think most people are built to take only so much of that, to have people think that we're somebody.

I think for most people, for people who are not hopeless egomaniacs, there is a normal balancing that has to happen, of believing that they're a somebody to believing that they're a nobody. There is some ratio, a balance that has to happen in most people's heads. I've known David for 10 years. And I think that what happened to him is that the somebody side of that equation got crazily inflated, fantastically inflated, and so the nobody side had to hyperinflate to catch up. They had to balance out. If a nation of book-buying adults was going to tell him how great he was back home, he needed an entire second nation of adults reminding him that really, how important was he?

David Sedaris

No, that's exactly the case. And when I do go back, it's not like going from-- I don't know-- having an audience to being anonymous. It's beneath the Planet of the Apes. It's going from having an audience to being a foreigner, which is the lowest life form, is to be a foreigner.

Ira Glass

When you were a kid, were you feeling humiliated a lot?

David Sedaris

Yeah. I mean, I didn't want to open my mouth because I lisped and I sounded like a girl. So no, it's a feeling that I'm used to. Really, the feeling that I get here is more comfortable to me.

Ira Glass

One day, David takes me to a cafe that he goes to all the time, often alone. And I'm surprised when he tells me that he is somebody who, until recently, had trouble going to a restaurant or a cafe by himself, just to get a cup of coffee.

David Sedaris

Because I'm always afraid that they're not going to see me there. And then I'll just be stuck there. And other people will say, look, no one's waited on that guy. And he's been here for half an hour. And he doesn't know what to do with himself. I get terribly self-conscious in those situations. I mean, do you?

Ira Glass

I'm not scared that if I'm sitting in a restaurant alone that they won't see me. I assume that they'll see me and that they'll wait on me. Do you know what I mean? It's a business. And they need the money. And so they'll usually wait on you.

David Sedaris

No, but I'm always convinced that they don't see me and that they're not going to wait on me. And it just seemed to happen to me so many times in my life that I would go into a place, and then you have to pretend like you're leaving of your own volition, like you've been waiting for somebody, and then you look at your watch, and well, I guess they're not going to show. I'm not going to sit around here and wait any longer. And you make this whole little play that you do. But really nobody's watching it. But it's very elaborate. And then you can get out, get up and leave.

Ira Glass

The thing is, what you're describing, it's like you're sitting there, and you think that other people are watching in such a way that they will think, oh, that guy hasn't gotten waited on?

David Sedaris

Because that's what I do. I look at people like that. And I notice when it happens to other people. And it's because I look at things like that, that I imagine that everybody else is.

Ira Glass

This turns out to be quite a burden to carry into a foreign country. If somebody does something stupid in front him, David says, he goes home, writes it down, tells his friends, sometimes turns it into a story that he reads in front of thousands or tens of thousands of strangers. And so, when he says something stupid in French, which he does daily, he believes that it is possible that the shopkeepers or waiters just shrug it off and never think about it again. But it seems just as possible that they go, tell their friends, and laugh at him.

David Sedaris

That's why I get so embarrassed of the way that I speak. It's because I go home, and I write everything down. That's the way I am. I assume that everybody else is that way as well.

Ira Glass

We walked to the places that David likes best in Paris. And it's like hopping from one discrete island that David had already explored and found to be safe for human habitation to the next discrete island. I think this is the way that anybody gets to know any new city, especially a city where you do not speak the language. You try one place, and then you try a second place. And you return to those places over and over, slowly expanding your territory to gradually include more little spots that you return to.

The places David takes me to usually had one of these characteristics. There were fantastically unusual and interesting things to buy. They were places of a type which simply do not exist in the United States. They were places where the French was usually very simple.

Woman

[SPEAKING IN FRENCH].

Children

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Woman

[SPEAKING FRENCH].

Ira Glass

Often this meant the presence of children. At the Luxembourg Gardens, there's an old puppet theater where we see Treasure of the Sultans. It's like watching an art form as sturdy and indestructible as the cockroach. The slapstick, the menacing characters sneaking up behind our hero's back so everybody yells in warning.

David Sedaris

There always comes a point where he hits somebody over the head with a stick. And the kids just eat it up. Like when he starts hitting people with the stick, they go bananas. This is the fourth time I've seen the Treasure of the Sultans. I just like coming because it makes me so happy to be around people who are so happy.

Ira Glass

After the princess is saved from the pirates and the friendly tiger is rescued from the savage jungle to come live in Paris, we head outside to the carousel, where six-year-olds are strapped onto wooden horses and handed little wooden sticks to play a game that dates to 16th century Europe or possibly earlier, a jousting game, where they try to spear a dangling ring while speeding by on horseback.

Child

He-ya-ya!

Ira Glass

David also takes me to one of the tiny mom-and-pop theaters in his neighborhood. The whole culture of movies is different in Paris, with hundreds of theaters showing all sorts of movies, new and old.

Detective Mark Mcpherson

Nice little place you have here, Mr. Lydecker.

Waldo Lydecker

It's lavish. But I call it home.

Ira Glass

David sees a movie every day in Paris. He also takes me to the flea market that's open every weekend on the outskirts of the city. It's a sprawling warren of booths selling old paintings, watches, and what amount to five centuries of coffee table decorations. We find a device in one store from the early days of telephones. It's just a paper cone really, designed to be attached to a telephone inside a theater, so your family at home could supposedly listen in on the concert or play over the telephone, in defiance, I might add, of all the principles of proper microphone placement. But that wasn't the highlight of our flea market trip.

David Sedaris

Whereas most places here, people have their booth. And I was here the last shopping day before Christmas-- oh, my God. That's Judge Judy. That's Judge Judy with that white parka on. I love Judge Judy. And that was her right there.

Ira Glass

Should we say something?

David Sedaris

No, if you watch her show, you get the idea that saying something, bothering somebody like that, is so inappropriate. And that's what she does for a living, is tell people that they're acting inappropriately. I can't believe that we saw her. I love Judge Judy so much. I wish that she would run for mayor of New York. Wow. Judge Judy.

Ira Glass

Is that your biggest celebrity sighting in a while in Paris?

David Sedaris

I saw Catherine Deneuve. But Judge Judy's bigger than Catherine Deneuve, as far as I'm concerned.

This square up here, this is the Pantheon. And again, I've never been inside of it. But I know that all kinds of famous French people are entombed here. I don't know. I think Balzac 's here, or people like that, really super-famous writers. But I've never set foot inside. But I like the frozen grocery store that's across the street from it.

Ira Glass

The store is part of a chain that's all over France called Picard. Everything they sell is frozen.

David Sedaris

And they've got this method for freezing that I don't think we have in the United States, like they could freeze lettuce. And they've got everything in there from meat to frozen soups and spices. But it's not like TV dinners. You can buy a little packet of ostrich chops, or of horse meat, or duck legs stuffed with prunes and sausage. And they're sold just in plastic bags. They've taken the stigma out of frozen food. And every French person I've talked to swears by this store, especially people who have kids, because the food is really, really good. And if you opened one of these in the United States, you would just be minting money. You wouldn't be able to count the money fast enough. I guarantee you, it would be such a huge success.

Ira Glass

Inside, it is exactly what you want when you're traveling in a foreign country. Every object is familiar, but packaged and presented in a way that is pleasingly new and exotic. So it's all comprehensible, but at the same time palpably foreign. And the foods walk that disturbing but fascinating line that foreign foods can have between looking delicious and looking frightening. Snails packed in green stuff in their shells of many different sizes, coolers full of massive frozen crayfish that look like they're about to come back to life, premade shish kebabs, osso bucco. We pick up a few things. And then down the hill, we stop at the regular supermarket for a quick run to the dairy case.

David Sedaris

Hugh screamed at me last night. He was so ashamed of the butter that we served during dinner. And he held this brand of butter right up to my face and told me I'm never, ever, ever allowed to buy it again. So I'm here to replace that butter.

Ira Glass

What kind of butter did you buy?

David Sedaris

It was this, but it's Grand Jury brand, a butter of Brittany. And I'm not allowed to buy that anymore.

Ira Glass

Why?

David Sedaris

Because Hugh said-- Hugh is really picky about things like that. He said, I saw Ira putting that butter on bread. And he had like four pieces of bread. And I'm so embarrassed. That butter was awful. And I said, well, I don't really think that Ira's going to go home and write in his little notebook, Dinner at Hugh and David's. Butter was terrible.

Ira Glass

That's where you're wrong, my friend.

David Sedaris

[LAUGHS].

Ira Glass

Note to listeners. If you eat at Hugh and David's, avoid the butter.

[FOOTSTEPS ON STAIRCASE]

At 31 Rue du Bac, we climb a wooden spiral staircase to a store that's been in operation since 1831. Deyrolle, which David calls the Noah's Ark of taxidermy.

David Sedaris

There's a kangaroo. There's a moose. There are two wild boars, about five different varieties of monkeys, a hyena, a pair of zebras, a polar bear, and a beautiful oak case containing different reptiles, snakes and lizards. And there's an ostrich, and that ostrich is what? Nine feet tall? It's really magnificent.

Ira Glass

We walk through room after room filled with pigs and lions, cats and dogs. The dogs are especially real looking. Some of them, according to the woman who runs the place, were stuffed by their owners, but they never had the heart to pick them up. The price to buy an ostrich, or a lion, or a gorilla is nearly $10,000. To rent them for two days is $420 American. Most of the business is rental. David buys a magpie, black, and powerful, and sleek looking. And then we head down to the street.

Ira Glass

So did you have things like this when you were a kid?

David Sedaris

My mother had a great aunt, who was the only person in our family who really had any money. And she was married to a man who was a big game hunter. She would come to our house to visit when we were young. But I only went to her house once, and it was right before she died. And she had a trophy room. And there were all kinds of animals in there, extinct animals. There were snow leopards in there. There were white tigers in there.

And you would walk into this perfect room. And there were thousands of eyes staring at you. And I just thought, this is what I want. And that's the thing that I loved. And that's the feeling you get when you go into Deyrolle, that all of these creatures that are stuffed and poised to pounce, that they're all staring at you. It's the same feeling you get from being in front of an audience.

Ira Glass

It's the same feeling you get in front of an audience?

David Sedaris

Yeah, that people are looking at you. But these are creatures that are looking at you. You know that feeling, that feeling that somebody's watching you.

Ira Glass

David, of course, thinks about that feeling a lot, especially here in France, where he wonders what Parisians think as they watch him speaking so badly. But it's not entirely so hard, that daily stage fright, worrying about how to say every little thing, anxious and straining to understand all the words around him.

David Sedaris

It's that thinking that makes me feel alive. And it makes me notice everything around me. When I become complacent like I was in the United States, you just get used to things so you don't think about them. You think, I'll get a cab. I'll go to the airport. I'll have a patty melt. You don't think about it. Whereas now with me, the anxiety starts early on. And I'm always afraid that somebody's going to throw me a curve ball and ask me a question like, what sign are you? Just ask me a question like that out of nowhere. And I'll appear foolish. So it keeps me on edge. But really, that edginess has always made me feel alive.

Ira Glass

Someday, David says, he'll be more comfortable in French. His accent will improve, and that daily anxiety will be removed from his life.

David Sedaris

And when it is removed for me, then I probably won't be interested in living here anymore. I'll probably leave.

Ira Glass

Because it'll be just like living back home.

David Sedaris

Plus the more you learn, the more disappointed you wind up being. It's easy to like somebody when you don't know what they're saying.

Ira Glass

That's interesting. I hadn't thought about that, that not understanding somebody makes them seem more interesting than they really are.

David Sedaris

I just assumed that everyone talked about books and movies all the time. That's all they talked about, as far as I was concerned. And then I learned a little bit more, and I realized that they're no different than people anywhere else, that they talk about the same banal things that we all talk about everywhere.

Ira Glass

At one point, at the cafe David goes to all the time, we sit and watch a waiter that David likes to watch, though he barely dares to say a word to him. The waiter's in his mid 40s with a kind, baggy face. Picture the actor who played the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, Ray Bolger. And this waiter is kind of a cutup. He hangs out with the regulars, making them laugh at this and that. That's what makes him fun to watch.

David Sedaris

Makes me wonder, though. I wonder where that guy lives, or how much money he makes, or if he's married. You know, you don't wonder about everybody. But I've always wondered about that guy. Do you think he makes his bed?

Ira Glass

For now, things are good for David in Paris. He still feels curious about everything, about figuring out what it all means, and that makes everything so interesting all the time. The mystery has not ebbed from everyday life. Ray Bolger takes a sip of wine.

David Sedaris

I always like it, too, when people drink on the job. He's behind a bar. He's drinking wine. He's smoking a cigarette, and he's picking his nose. Those are three good reasons to live in France, I think.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris. His book about Paris is called Me Talk Pretty One Day.

[MUSIC - "SI TU DOIS PARTIR" BY LLOYD COLE]

Coming up, a public radio host, who doesn't speak French, mangles more foreign words. In a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Ca Vie Amercain.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. It's This American Life, the radio program that dares to ask the question--

Group

[SINGING IN FRENCH].

Woman

[SINGING IN FRENCH].

Group

[SINGING IN FRENCH].

Ira Glass

No, after you, madam. If I can lay my cards on the table at this point in the program, I have never understood why anybody cares so much about France. I mean, it's fine. It's lovely. But there is just this thing that some Americans have for Paris, though, as they are the first to admit, it can be kind of ridiculous.

Kristin Hohenadel

Well, when people ask me where I live, I sometimes say Paris, and they say, well, I mean, you live in Paris? But that's my dream.

Ira Glass

Kristin Hohenadel has lived in Paris for five years.

Kristin Hohenadel

Why do you live in Paris? And I say, well, you know, I just sort of wanted to. All the reasons that you give sound really embarrassing, cliche, and ridiculous at this point. I mean, Paris is a stale dream. And it's kind of like falling in love with the most obviously cute boy in the class, or like the star of this-- or like a movie star. It's like being a groupie. And then you try to convince the other 25 women who he slept with the last week, well, you know, I really love him, and I think he loves me, too.

There are some people who come here. And they get off on that feeling of being-- they think they're unusual because they put themselves in this position. And to me, that's really kind of awful and embarrassing.

Ira Glass

They think they're really special.

Kristin Hohenadel

Yeah. They think it makes them special to live here, A, as if it's original, and B-- part of the horrifying thing about moving here, it's a sort of disappointing experience to realize that your dream is so banal. I mean, this is a dream I had my whole life. And it seems ridiculous to me now that it meant so much to me. It was so important.

Ira Glass

The thing about loving a city, Kristin says, is that a city doesn't really love you back. Whenever I asked Americans who loved France what it was about France that just got to them so much, when did it begin for them, their feeling about France, they all talked about scraps of French culture that made it to them when they were very young, the Madeline books, The Red Balloon, French films, Montessori French class in grade school. I think there is still a part of America where the idea of Paris-- Paris-- not the space program, or the internet, or moving to New York City-- Paris represents reaching a world outside oneself.

Richard Klein first started coming here as a teenager from a small town in Pennsylvania, and has essentially constructed an entire life around the feeling that he got in Paris. He went on to become a scholar and a professor in the Romance Studies Department at Cornell University, author of several books, Eat Fat and Cigarettes Are Sublime, which are deeply suffused with a sensibility that is partly just un-American, or anyway, semi-Parisian, a sensibility that is all about the small pleasures of everyday life.

Richard Klein

You know, the French have a much more uncomplicated and much less guilty relationship to their body, beginning with eating, not only the way they eat, but the pleasure that they take in eating. I mean, the American notion that food is medicine, for example, is totally repulsive to the French. And yet, increasingly in America, that's all you hear. I mean, people eat only as a function of what they think is good for them. And nobody in France would eat strictly as a function of what was good for them.

I tell you, I think really the heart of it was, for me, when I came here in 1958 for the first time, was Les Halles. Les Halles was the central marketplace right in the heart of Paris, not far from where we are. And I remember I used to go there, not every night, but frequently. And then at around 2 o'clock in the morning, you would go out in the streets in Les Halles, which was the central marketplace. And they used to bring all the food every night. Trucks would bring the produce and the food from all over France to the center of Paris, to the heart of Paris, and display it in stalls all around the streets.

Butchers were there with their blood-splattered coats. And people made gorgeous piles of artichokes, and carrots, and cabbages. And it was 2 o'clock in the morning. And it was like life was just beginning at that hour. And people were there, buying and selling. And then right next to Les Halles was la Rue Saint-Denis. And la Rue Saint-Denis was the center of prostitution in Paris. And the people who worked there would work until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, and then they would visit the prostitutes who were there all night. But this world of-- I don't know. This incredible sort of life, and food, and sex, and beauty in the middle of one of the most beautiful parts and oldest parts of Paris, where there used to be until like the 19th century, the biggest cemetery was sort of right there in Paris.

Ira Glass

If you walk around Paris with Richard, he's constantly pointing out spots that had special meaning to Louis XIV. Or there's a restaurant that happened to be one of the first restaurants ever built in France, just after they began the idea of restaurants. Or the shops where the notion of putting big, huge windows on the fronts of stores probably began so people could window shop. The fact is, a lot of what is so pleasing about being in Paris is simple. It's a really interesting, pleasing place just to walk around.

When Kristin Hohenadel tried last year to live back in the States again, she found she missed living in Paris. She missed all that. It can be kind of hard to get ordinary things done in France. You're always kind of an outsider here, even after years in the country. But she just feels better here.

Kristin Hohenadel

You know, you walk down the street in Los Angeles and you feel low. And that's a terrible example because it's Los Angeles, but you feel kind of dwarfed. And here, I just think, yes, this is exactly it. This is how life should be, the pace, the scale, the way it looks.

[MUSIC - "COMMENT ALLEZ-VOUS?" BY BLOSSOM DEARIE]

Act Three. Notes From A Native Daughter.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Notes of a Native Daughter. Janet McDonald had already learned the language. She had already learned the culture, had French friends, and a French apartment, when something happened that made her realize how much she hadn't figured out.

Janet Mcdonald

I was going to the movies with a friend of mine from Yale who is black also. And there was a long line. And we were like, let's jump the line. These white people, they're going to be scared of us. We'll just go and jump the line. We'll get to the front of the line. So, of course, you know, we walked up to the front of the line, like, yeah, you want to try me? I'm black. That usually works in New York.

These people were ready to rip our hair out. And they were white. I couldn't believe it. And they were like, in French, what are you doing? The line starts back there. You can't just walk to the front of the line. They were, like, ready to kick our butts. I was shocked. I'm like, these are white people, and they're not scared of us?

That's when I realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore. And I liked it. I mean, of course, it was kind of humiliating, because you know, we're supposed to be the intimidating, scary ones. And then all these French bitches in high heels were threatening us. And they were in our faces. And it made me realize that the whole black-white game just doesn't work outside of the United States.

Because white people aren't afraid of you here. And at the same time, they don't hate you, because that sort of goes together. So I'll take it. I'll wait on line. Now I don't dare jump lines. So that opened my eyes.

Ira Glass

Janet and I are sitting in the Cafe Flore, one of the most famous, and corniest, and most pretentious settings in which to meet, because it and the Deux Magots cafe next door were home to Sartre, and Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. And when he first arrived in Paris in 1946, Richard Wright, who was well known by then as the author of Black Boy and Native Son.

Janet Mcdonald

I mean, now it's sort of a gathering place for tourists, and wannabes, and nostalgic fake French people such as myself.

Ira Glass

It's a classic, old cafe on a corner with aging fixtures and plate glass windows onto the street. Lovely, but not ornate. By the time Richard Wright arrived here, Josephine Baker had come, seen, and conquered. Black GIs had come and conquered. Jazz had simply conquered. Wright wrote in a letter, "There is such an absence of race hatred that it seems a little unreal."

I wanted to talk to Janet because I wanted to find out if it was still that way for blacks in Paris. It didn't seem possible, really. In the half century since those days, there has been an influx of black Africans to France, and they're not beloved. The National Front Party with the slogan "France is for the French" wins 15% of the vote in national elections. Could it be possible that African-Americans still get a warm reception here? Janet said yes.

Janet Mcdonald

I'm not sure what it is. All I know is that it feels very different to be around French white people than American white people.

Ira Glass

Different how?

Janet Mcdonald

I feel much more comfortable. I feel that I'm not a black object.

Ira Glass

Richard Wright, after arriving here in the mid 1940s, said that he felt that all of his life he had been carrying a corpse with him. And when he came to Paris, he felt it slip off his back. Did you have that kind of feeling?

Janet Mcdonald

Yeah. I really have to say that I have felt that way ever since I got here. And a lot of my friends say, why are you living there? In fact, a friend of mine I went to law school with, he said, what is it about speaking French that makes white people not racist? He was very skeptical. But it really goes beyond that. It's not just that we feel free of the burden of race, because we are still black. I still experience myself as black. It's just that that's not like the center of my identity. It's not the first thing people relate to when I meet them here.

Ira Glass

Janet first came to Paris in 1975 and moved here in '95. She's a lawyer in the French office of a big American company. She grew up in the public housing projects in Brooklyn, worked her way into Vassar College and onto graduate school and law school. And like a lot of people who make the jump from very poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods into the college-educated upper middle class, she felt like she didn't really fit in anywhere. Not with family and friends in the projects who were shooting heroin, barely surviving. Not with the black students she met in college.

Janet Mcdonald

I thought they were bourgeois, Southern belles. I didn't want to be anything like them. And they didn't want to be like me either. They thought I was trash. I was project trash. I thought they were like-- they put the B in boojee. And so I grappled a lot with the racial identity, like what will my posture be? I'm from the projects, but people say I talk like a white girl. And the white girls are like, oh, you're so project. And then when I got here, none of it mattered. Because if I spoke three words of French that made sense, people liked me, and they celebrated me. So I didn't have to worry about talking like a white girl, or a project girl, or anything.

Ira Glass

It was an incredible relief. The central conflict of her life suddenly vanished. In Paris, all the distinctions about what kind of black person she should be, they were all moot. In fact, the most distinguishing fact about Janet was not that she was black. It was that she was an American, which surprised her.

Janet Mcdonald

I associated the word American with white guys with flags on their lawns, who didn't particularly like me. And people would call me American. And I'd say I'm not American. I'm black. And these were like black French people. And they're like, you are so American. And I remember these French West Indian friends of mine, this one, in particular, from Martinique was saying, you even walk like an American. I'm like, what do you mean? What does an American walk like? And she said they kick their legs when they walk. They kick their legs forward.

I don't know. I tell my friends-- because I was in Brooklyn just a few weeks ago. And this woman who'd never been to Europe was saying, so what's it like in France? What are the people like? Are they prejudiced? I said, no, they like us. It's incredible. A country full of white people, and they like us. But still, it's a difficult thing, because they like us, but they don't like other people who look like us. And that's sort of the French paradox.

Ira Glass

Paris, of course, has its own housing projects in the suburbs that around the city, now with generations of Africans, who were born on French soil, who face job discrimination, housing discrimination.

Janet Mcdonald

And they're not well received. They're not welcomed. And they are French. And so in a way, African-Americans, we're in a very bizarre position. It's almost like being an honorary white in apartheid South Africa.

And I noticed that as my French got better and better, that sometimes I wasn't as well received as I would be if I played up my American accent. When French people-- if I walk into a shop and people would think I was just-- basically, what I say, just another nigger, just like one of their own, like from Martinique or Guadeloupe, it wouldn't be the same reception if I came on with a very heavy American accent or even spoke English.

Ira Glass

Why? How would they treat you if they thought you were an African black?

Janet Mcdonald

A little bit of a chill in the air. Like, you know, yes, may I help you? Not so much oh, vous etes Americain. Oh, I love New York. I love to speak English. So it's very bizarre. It's a hard thing to reconcile, because, I mean, good feeling is good feeling. And when someone receives you and makes you feel good, it's a positive experience.

Ira Glass

When you're in a shop, and you can feel that there's a chill in the air and that they think of you as an African, will you actually play up your American accent?

Janet Mcdonald

Well, what happened was I started experiencing that. And so I actually adjusted my speech so that at least I would get the benefit of the-- I mean, I'm here in this country. I want to get the benefit of being an African-American. So instead of walking in, [SPEAKING FRENCH], I'd say [SPEAKING FRENCH]. Maybe I shouldn't do that, but--

Ira Glass

And it works.

Janet Mcdonald

Yeah, and it works.

Ira Glass

A friend of Janet's has suggested to her that maybe Parisians prefer black people from America because only a certain class of black Americans usually comes to France, educated, cultured, interested in France. When Janet asked the writer Cornel West about this at a speech he gave this summer in Paris, that was his argument.

Janet Mcdonald

Basically, he suggested it was a class thing. And he said, well, you know, look at you. You're a professional. You're articulate. Maybe if you brought 15 of your cousins it would be a whole different thing. So basically, he was saying if I brought all my home girls from the hood who didn't go to Vassar and who weren't lawyers and who didn't speak French, the reception might be a little chillier even though they also are black American. But I think if that's true, that is not about racism then. That's about class.

Ira Glass

Before I met Janet, I read the book she wrote about what it was like for her growing up. It's called Project Girl. And what's remarkable about it is how frank she is about all of the compulsive things that she found herself doing during the years when she was regularly traveling between the projects and the world of the aspiring upper middle class. It was a struggle.

In her first year at Vassar, for instance, she felt so out of place, that she started taking the train down to New York City to score heroin, a thing she had never even done when she lived in the projects, until she got kicked out of school for that. It was as if the further that she traveled into the world of college, the more the project side of her personality was compelled to express itself somehow. She depicts herself as somebody who was depressed and embattled and sort of lost for years.

And the most striking thing about meeting her, if you've read the book, is how completely happy she seems today. She's one of the happiest seeming people I have ever met, just relaxed and funny and at ease. And her feeling about France, the country where this transformation took place, it can be sort of shocking to actual French people.

Janet Mcdonald

When we just won the Euro 2000, I came to work, and I was telling the Moroccan secretary, we won! [SPEAKING FRENCH]. And she just glares at me, because she was born here. And she says I'm not French, I'm Moroccan. It's just like black Americans. I'm not American, I'm black. And I was like, we won! We won! And she's like, what are you talking about? You're not even French. What do you mean we won? I'm like, I'm French in my heart.

And this black friend of mine was saying, you're the only person I know who could sing "The Marseillaise." That shows how extreme you are. You know why? It's because I say to them. I never had a country. I never had a country. I had a 'hood. I had Brooklyn. But I never felt like I had a country. So now I have a country. It's a little one, where you always come in third or fourth place in the Olympics. But it's, like, France.

Ira Glass

Here's something else. There are certain things about French culture, Janet says, that just make life here very pleasant. For one thing, people don't ask you personal questions, where you grew up, where you work, what's your family life, what's your story. You're not constantly explaining yourself. She says she has one friend who she knew for five years before she knew this woman had a grown son. Also, there isn't the same striving, the same ambition to be number one as in the States, especially compared with the corporate law job she used to have, where everybody was expected to put in 60 and 70 and 80 hours a week. Here, that would be seen as very strange. Work just is not that important to most people.

Janet Mcdonald

I'll get tears in my eyes just like-- sometimes I look around the subway, and I look at all these French people, and I'm like, thank you for letting me live here in your country.

Ira Glass

We head outside.

Ira Glass

But you feel like it's your country. But your identity here isn't that of the French person. It's that of an outsider.

Janet Mcdonald

I know. And I think that's what it is to be project girl. I was always an outsider. And I feel most inside right now where I'm most outside. Go figure. [LAUGHS]

That's what's freedom is, though. It's not about nothing left to lose. It's about nothing left to be. You don't have to be anything. I was just thinking about it this morning. It's like I'm an outsider. I will always be a foreigner no matter how good my French gets. I will never really be French no matter how much of a wannabe I am. And yet, I feel that I'm home. I'm just home.

Ira Glass

Around the corner from the Cafe Flore is where the author James Baldwin lived for a while. Janet says she feels like she understands a little of how he must have felt coming from Harlem from a family that was always struggling and then arriving here. Everything is so pretty and so much easier than home.

Janet Mcdonald

Here we are. This is where James Baldwin lived with that painter. 56 Rue Jacob. But see, he lived way up in the top, on the top floor, [UNINTELLIGIBLE] one, two, three, four, fifth floor, obviously a walk-up. And the cheapest apartments are always on the top, because you have to walk farther. And that's where he was. Wow. He probably even mailed letters at that post office down there. He mailed letters back to Harlem. Hey, and here we are.

Ira Glass

Baldwin, of course, decided to settle in France permanently. And when Janet first moved to Paris, she thought it would just be for a few years. And now, every time she goes home, she sees too much about the United States that she just does not want to deal with anymore. And she's realizing she may never move back.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Susan Burton and myself avec Julie Snyder, Blue Chevigny and Alex Blumberg. Contributing editors for today's show, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help by Todd Bachmann, Mary Wiltenburg Seth Lind, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] January. Erik Satie music was played for us on the accordion by Dean Olsher. He was recorded by Jad Abumrad. Other musical help today came from the amazing John Connors, and the wonderful [? Nicki Rinkus ?] and [? Kathie Berquist. ?]

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free. Or you know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife.

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[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who reminds you, don't forget. Learn from the experiences of others.

David Sedaris

Dinner at Hugh and David's. Butter was terrible.

Ira Glass

That's right. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Man

Au revoir, Paris.

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