notes from a trip to Paris

I am writing to you from the research library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. As of today (Tuesday, January 8, 2019) I have only two days left in France. After returning, I’ll spend an evening in New Jersey, sleeping and doing laundry before returning to equally cold New Haven for yet another semester of grad school. I must admit, I’m not looking forward to going back. My time in Paris has been enjoyable. Besides not really having a taste for French food, I haven’t had anything negative to say at all. My ability to speak French (I’ll go into this in more detail below) grants me access to an anonymity that I imagine many American tourists cannot enjoy. When speaking to someone, they do not do the tourist thing with me, switching to English in order to facilitate communication. I have only had this happen one time during my time in Paris, and that was when I prompted a librarian in English about how to reserve my seat and access my texts. When on the trains, I find that I am not typically flagged as a non-Francophone foreigner, and I wonder if this is because of racial dynamics which encode what a Black person is and does in France. I won’t be able to really pick this apart in the next two days, but it’s food for thought.

Baby’s first solo trip

This is the first time I have ever done a solo trip, and I’ve found it exhilarating. While I have been a bit lonely, it has not been enough to make me regret this trip. I find the concept of being able to just get up and go somewhere without negotiation or waiting on someone great, but I’m also not a terribly adventurous person. I tend to go for things which are familiar to me which means that I end up avoiding “local fare.” With time, I hope to massage this from my being, but I haven’t succeeded in doing that this trip.

I hope in the future to continue doing these kinds of trips because I want to, and not because I am forced to do so. I like the idea of going somewhere where I already have friends, but am not staying with those friends, and have free liberty to move around and do as I please, checking in with the friends regularly, but also living apart at the same time. That would be optimal. Plunging myself into a big city with nowhere in particular to go may be exciting for some, but considering that most of my trip has been dedicated to going to these archives, I haven’t had the time to do much of the touristy stuff (nor have I really wanted to do that).

Taken from the inaugural edition of La Revue du Monde Noir, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Part of my goal for this trip to was to reinstate a sense of willpower which I had lost in 2018. (A forthcoming post will go into greater detail on this). I ended the year feeling somewhat disappointed in myself and my development. I had stopped going to the gym, I wasn’t eating well and had gained weight, I had gotten sick and hadn’t been adequately treated for it, and was generally down in the dumps. This trip however was a chance for me to recalibrate and focus on recovery. I have been amazed with my ability to do even the most minor of tasks in a foreign environment, which to some may seem somewhat arrogant. Getting a library card, navigating a city by subway, ordering food at a restaurant – all of these are mundane things which have restored my confidence in ways I probably will never be able to explain. Grad school has been for the past year and a half an ongoing marathon of low self-esteem, poor decisions, worsening social skills, self-comparison, self-denial, etc. By the end of each semester, I find myself crawling to the finish line, half-throwing whatever assignment I had been working on at my instructor, knowing that it is not up to whatever standard I had for it, feeling a bit worse about myself as the time goes by. Yet, I’ve always found a deep pleasure in being able to do mundane things well, like cleaning my kitchen or buying groceries for the week within budget. Perhaps this pleasure arises from a place in myself which finds pride in being able to do something within my own measure of sufficiency, the likes of which is made really difficult in grad school, where feelings of inadequacy reign. I’m not really certain why or how, but this trip has rejuvenated my confidence.

It’s also nice that I will be reimbursed for much of my expenditures for this trip!

On Speaking French

I have been learning and mastering French for half a decade now. I have made tremendous progress since my freshman year of college when I was barely able to put together a sentence. That said, I do bear the ongoing worry over perfection, and I am self-flagellating when it is not necessary. French people are not like French professors; they do not correct me when I say something incorrectly, they do not interrupt to suggest that the way I have phrased something is awkward, even if I, bearing my French professors in my spirit, am prone to do this milliseconds after an utterance. The French people I have come across are not academicians dedicated to the purity of the French language and its defense from the onslaught of Anglicisms from France’s uncomfortable presence in an increasingly Anglophone world. These French people are service workers, accountants, baristas, shopkeepers, librarians. Many of them know English but because of the rather “deep” nature of my trip, I have rarely come across other people speaking English. It actually causes me to perk up and pay attention when I hear Americans or British people speaking to one another, primarily because I am realizing just how much English sounds different from French. I have always found French to be a language spoken primarily in the throat and in the nose, whereas English is spoken more in the front of the mouth, especially American English, with its wide array of front vowels. Being in Paris has not massaged into me a love of French phonology or grammar; I find that French is not very pretty in general, although I do not study it because it is pretty.

I am haunted by a certain scene in the “14e arrondissement” section of Paris, je t’aime where Carol, an American woman excited about her first trip to Paris, asks a woman in rehearsed albeit not ungrammatical French est-ce que vous savez òu est un bon restaurant par ici? (Do you know of any good restaurants nearby?) to which the woman responds to her, much to Carol’s chagrin, in English: “It depends: Do you like Chinese food?” I will link the video here, but in general, this was one of my first images of what being in Paris is like for an American with a clear foreign accent. Luckily, I have not had this happen to me, but I continue to fear the prospect of such a dismissal in many of my interactions. Yet, I’ve noticed that there is a divide between my actual capacity to speak French and my ongoing mental processes. French has become like any language to me in some ways – I do not have to focus on understanding what it being said to me, although my conscious mind, lagging behind my subconscious, takes time to really make sense of what’s been said. This happens often when I am reading in French; I scan a sentence, making sense of what’s being said to me without translating it, or really trying to consider the sentence as a grammatical object. I have taught myself to avoid translating into English when reading, primarily because it takes too much time, but also because with time, I will be able to make sense of a text without needed to rely on an English-predicated and heavily Americanized understanding of the world. Language and culture are like the egg and the chicken; one begets the other, and vice versa. I say all of this to point to a specific oddity I’ve noticed when interacting in French, where my conscious mind asks “shit that was fast, what did that person just say?” while my subconscious mind is just finishing the meaning-making process, not by translation, but by something else. A good example today is when a man asked me at the coatroom of the library if I had finished handing in all of my affairs. The sentence seemed to me, on one level, one long word without pauses or breaks, and I gestured for him to repeat himself at the same moment that I came to understood what he said. Another example is when the man at the café yesterday morning asked me if I’d like what I heard to be a “verdo,” a word I had never heard before, but I said yes, knowing that it was a glass of water before I could make sense of the fact that this word, “verdo” was really “verre d’eau.”

I think this mainly has to do with the fact that I do not have a bilingual conscience, and that my brain, when it thinks in language, thinks in English. Yet, my mind is bilingual, meaning that I am able to exist multilingually despite being in many ways entrapped by a monolingual head-voice. I notice this mostly when I have to hold an entire conversation in French: my head-voice goes silent, and I do not think in language at all. Perhaps this is because I need all of my faculties to hold a conversation in French, since I cannot make sense of what’s being said to me in real time, or perhaps this is because I have already been enclosed within the world of monolingualism due to not having access (other than terribly insufficient Spanish language pedagogy for the majority of my education) to other languages as a child. I am not entirely certain.

Nevertheless this trip has reassured me of several things regarding my relationship with French: 1) I do not have to love France to speak French [I already knew this, but it seems that Americans ignore the fact that most of the worlds French speakers live in Africa and most of those people do not love France] 2) speaking French is a means to an end, and it’s somewhat unfair of me to rely on French people to validate my ability to speak their language, which to many of them is merely a means to an end 3) the entire concept of revering a language is often attached to the image of that language’s ‘homeland’ as civilized and that language representing its civility and civilization, concepts which remain attached to the colonial and imperial legacies of these nations and the means by which they forcibly expanded the horizons of the world through the forced imposition of their languages on ‘lesser’ populations 4) I can simultaneously understand what you are saying and have not the slightest clue 5) so long as you are understood, you are doing a good job.

Black in Paris

You can really learn a lot about a country just by seeing who works at the airport. I remember being shocked to see so many Asians working at the airport in San Francisco, with not a Black person or even a Latinx person in sight. This shock was mostly because of the number of Asian people I had seen, but because they were working at the airport. I had never seen so many Asian people working in low-wage service jobs before. At Newark Airport, it’s mostly Black people from a variety of milieux, sprinkled in with Latinx and South Asian people. In Paris, I found something similar to Newark: Black people and Brown people likely from North Africa. This was not surprising to me so much as it was fascinating. Studying the social environment of France from a distance is one thing, but seeing it in person is quite fascinating. During my entire time in France, I have been amazed to see exactly how race seems to function in terms of social organizations in the workplace. Nearly all of the places I’ve been, be them cafés, museums, supermarkets, bookstores, you name it, I have seen brown people in subordinate roles to white French people. This is not to say that this a universal, socially or politically enforced law – such a thing is not possible in metropolitan, republican France – but it seems quite telling that a documentary on Black and Brown life and labor in France points towards a similar conclusion. I do not believe that there exists a conspiracy to deprive Black and Brown people of their rightful position in management, nor do I believe that no Black and Brown people in Paris have management positions. Yet, I seem to find that, in step with France’s history of immigration, those who do not bear all of the symbols of being French do not seem to have as much access to upward mobility as those who do.  Obviously I would love to spend so more time examining this. I may find that I am completely wrong, or that Paris is an exception, or I have curiously entered into establishments wherein this is the case – I am not confident that these observations are anything other than an American Black attempting to make sense of the French Black condition based on his American Black sentimentalities and history of grievances. I have no come across complaints like this in any of the novels I have read, and can only point to Yasmina Benguigui’s documentary, which is not necessarily concerned with being Black, but with being of foreign stock.

“France accomplishes, or must accomplish, in its possessions a work of civilization; it must help the populations of these faraway lands, sheltered under our laws, to better their kind, to improve themselves socially and morally, to acquire, in short, a certain degree of civilization. It is this degree of civilization which will allow them be ready, on one unquestionably faraway day, to take care of their own affairs. The role of France is therefore perfectly compatible with the principles of democracy which are at the basis of its republican regime. Yet however, we must observe that France has not yet had the colonial policy that it ought to have, precisely because of the importance of its overseas holdings.” (La Dépêche Africaine, N.8)

 I must admit, I was really shocked to see just how many Black people there are in Paris. Again, this probably shouldn’t have caught me off guard. I had read Pap Ndiaye’s La condition noire and Isabelle Boni-Claverie’s Trop noire pour être française, among other books on being Black in France, had seen the statistics, read up on the history, etc. Yet, it’s hard to make sense of numbers, my mind does not work in numbers. Getting here and walking down the Avenue de France on my way to meet a friend from Yale, I was amazed by the number of Black people walking around, living their lives unencumbered. I do not know what I was expecting  — I didn’t anticipate not seeing any Black people, but I suppose I also expected them to live predominantly in the areas I had read about; Montreuil, near the stations of Château d’Eau and Château Rouge. Yet, even if they live in these communities, they work and play and go to school around the city, something I perhaps knew but did not acknowledge. It has been a lovely sight to see so many people living freely, a fact which is not reflected in the rather disparaging literature I read about being Blakc in France. With more time, I would like to ask some of these people about their experiences, although I am quite wary. For one, it means something as an American Black, coming from a country which France views as a literal hellhole of liberal values on race and humanity for good and bad reasons, to come to a Black French person and demand them how they feel about les Blancs. While I’m sure many of them have opinions, I must approach these interviews with caution. For centuries, metropolitan France has lived under a staunch republican understanding of a universe forcibly unencumbered by the sociological distinctions which divide people; there are no Black or White or Arab people in France: just the French. The American steeped in a racial environment where it is accepted, if not encouraged, to poke the bear on such issues may find themselves met with consternation and anger in France, primarily because French republicanism has render the issue of racism somewhat inconceivable. I would not be surprised to have a Black person I randomly select on the street or in a café angrily tell me off for asking them such questions (I would never conduct this project by randomly accosting people, asking them “Selon vous, qu’est-ce que veut dire “être noir” en France?” [“What does “being black in France” mean to you?”]) At the same time, an American may find the same puzzlement at being accosted with such deep questions, especially within the domains of American society typically considered taboo and inappropriate. My goal for the future is therefore to build a network – not just of academics and writers and theorists of racist, but also of ordinary people – with whom I can better understand the “Black condition” in France. It is so easy to read about these things and to base my worldview on what is read, but I find that a lot of the discourse on race in France is predicated through an American Black Studies perspective which can occlude some of the intricacies of French life, such as France’s history of colonial migration and the means by which France’s predominately Black regions (Martinique, Réunion, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and its overseas territories) are both culturally and ideologically peripheralized from metropolitan life. My life goal is not to inaugurate les études noires as a much-needed theoretical basis for more complex studies of French life, but to see exactly how thinking about Black people and their experiences in other countries can help us to better understand the “Black condition.” In order to do that, I have to talk to people, build networks, read texts, go to shows, etc. I did not accomplish this during this trip, but I am optimistic about my next encounter.

There’s more to be said, but this post is already too long. I have two days left in Paris. Tomorrow I’ll probably do the touristy things – I’ll go to the Louvre and maybe to Versailles, just to see what the fuss is about. I’m happy that I made the decision to branch out of my comfort zone and do something exciting for once. Hopefully, doing so will become yet another hobby of mine.

Image: “Paris est propre,” Chéri Samba

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