After

1.

Here is the story your eyes are telling: olive light, narrow streets, seabirds gliding down towards the harbor. A drifter has docked at the landing. On the bow stands a leathery fisherman throwing a tether ashore. His voice echoes amidst the arches of the portside arcade. Rows of steel buckets line the frame of the boat. I watch as the silver scales of the gilthead bream reflect the falling light. Bareheaded schooners float by in the distance, their sails limp in the lazy breeze. The buckets of fish are overflowing.

Thus I gain entry to your faraway gaze, to a narrow alley in the ancient city you so loved, where cypress trees grow on limestone hills. I touch your outstretched hand. Where have you gone now?

It is morning. All last night the wind shrieked with frigid voices, and you turned and turned in the sheets. A tuft of fresh snow falls onto the sill when you crack open the window. You take two nervous puffs on a cigarette, three, then let it burn. A crooked finger of ash hangs limply from the tip. I want to taste the cindery fingers of your cigarette hand between my lips. My eyes lift from your bluish wrist to linger on the nape of your exposed neck. Sitting there on the arm of a wingback chair with your head twisted to contemplate the snowy roofs, you look like a heron with a broken neck. You turn and discover my gaze. There you are! Here I am.

The wind whispers death in your ear. I know you can hear it. Don’t pretend you can’t hear it.

“Mme Pagnol leaves early on Saturdays,” you say, snuffing your cigarette in an empty flowerpot, “if we want flowers for the party.” Your lips leave a chilly imprint on my forehead.

We go out into the crystalline air. It is December in Paris, and you insist upon bringing a bouquet of fresh flowers to every party we attend. I have always loved your stubborn elegance, your childlike pout. I love watching you enter a room full of people. Your sails catch wind and take flight.

But this morning your wings are folded neatly beneath a double-breasted coat. A million golden worlds swirl inside your inkwell eyes. I realize, of course, where your grieving mind has gone. On days like today, when Paris is dusting off its festive charms, the scent of it slips out into our small room, heady like old roses, with a tinge of black pepper, the kind that makes you sneeze. Sometimes your heart will bounce softly off the bedside table and land with a gentle thud on the rug. I place it back under your collarbones where it belongs and say, “Why don’t we go out for a walk?”

The air is austere, but the morning light falls in downy feathers on the cobbled streets. See those chestnuts lining the bank? Their black boughs are poised to dive into the Seine, to slip into its argent waters and glide with the patience of a river past the verdant lungs of the Bois de Boulogne, past the sprawling wisteria of Giverny, past the martyred remains of the maid of Orleans, and finally to unfurl their aching limbs and set sail in the English Channel.

Remember the cypress that lined your father’s lane in Marseille, those noble columns stretching up to the heavens to touch the outstretched hand of god? I found you sleeping once beneath the parasol of a stone pine. I feared the rising wind would catch its leafy crown and carry you away. Remember that winter evening, years ago, on our way home to the city? You lifted your veiled eyes for a moment in your mourning, and spotting the square-cut London planes along the broad boulevards, you exclaimed in a dreadful voice, “Poor soldiers! All marching to their death in a row.”

If I could give a color to your sadness that day, it would be mahogany: sanguine, smoldering, ripe. Now your grief is barren as a winter forest, whispering memories of leaves.

The pavement in front of the Marché des Enfants Rouges is cracked and protruding. A trio of uniformed gendarmes has been standing there in their boots for so long that their deep Gaulish roots have forced up the concrete in jagged edges. Your bones turn to bells under your skin. You quiver. Be still, my sparrow. You pined for flowers, now here we are. What rueful blooms have you come to harvest here? Come, my sorrow, give me your hand.

Mme Pagnol has planted her wares in the alley behind the market’s green gate. She is of the fleshy, rustic type, all skin and sunshine. Her aegean eyes sing ocean songs, like a conch shell pressed to a child’s ear. She cradles the trumpet blossom of a scarlet amaryllis in one rough-hewn hand. With delicate motions she inserts a wooden cane inside its hollow stem and arranges the heavy flower in a vase with branches of silver birch.

“Your white chrysanthemums,” you say, “are finally blooming.”

“What grave are you decorating now?” says the florist, wiping her hands on her abundant hips. And then, gently: “All the heroes in the world would die to know your dedication.”

Mme Pagnol wraps the chrysanthemums in parchment, then pulls a bulb from the pocket of her smock. “Plant it in a well-drained pot in the sun and the crocus will bloom crimson in the spring.”

I see your smile for the first time today. I catch my breath. Then it is gone.

The flowers are for Marcel, the writer. Once, while you were studying literature at university, you were wine drunk at a party somewhere outside of Aix, and Marcel was sitting on the kitchen floor in a dinner jacket reading an early Saganaloud in a silly provincial accent. I have never seen you so happy. Peals of your laughter were strewn across the floor. You have loved him ever since. You can’t help it, and I don’t mind. You love him like some kind of father. It is a boisterous and temperamental affection.

Marcel lives north of Montmartre with his wife, Fanny, who cooks in a fish restaurant in the tenth. By the time we arrive the courtyard already smells of slow-cooked bouillabaisse. It is a spicy, brackish scent. We start up the stairs. Marcel is half unbuttoned when he opens the door. I peak inside. We are the first to arrive, or the last. The carcasses of fish for the soup are scattered across the kitchen table: brittle bones, bulging eyes, silver scales. On a newspaper tossed askance I see a bloody image of the black lorry that rammed into a Christmas market in Berlin last week, killing twelve.

“We missed you last night,” says Marcel, cupping your elbows in his palms as he kisses your cheeks: left, right, left. The chrysanthemums are slightly crushed by his embrace. You hold the bouquet against your chest with folded arms like a child with a beloved doll.

The seconds pass relentlessly as you realize your mistake. Distracted by expectation, you chase after a receding horizon: one day late, always late, never sure.

“Stay, why don’t you,” says Marcel. “There’s no reason to go now that you’re here.”

But of course I cannot contain your sorrow. Suddenly it swells and spills out into the room. I can hardly hear your hurried steps as you breeze past Marcel and throw open the doors to the balcony, fumbling to light a cigarette. You lean with creaking bones over the balustrade. The black current of an indifferent crowd surges below.

I remember the night after your father’s funeral. We had taken the train back to Paris, and I followed you out into the clear night. The cold fell in slate sheets, leaving a briny patina on everything it touched. We lost our way coming home from the Gare de Lyon and ended up southeast of the Bastille beneath the arches of an elevated railway track. We climbed a set of stairs that emerged unexpectedly where the Avenue Daumesnil intersects with the Rue de Lyon and wandered into a strange forest in the sky. The decommissioned tracks had been converted into a floating parkway. Bare branches scraped a leaden sky. The city was drifting off into the distance when suddenly you spoke.

“I thought the world would come to an end,” you said. “But of course it goes on living.”

And then, desperately: “That is something one must learn.”

I could see your breath in the cold. It shimmered. I thought how beautiful you were standing there in the dark, with lotus blossoms blooming in your new moon eyes. I have loved you ever since. But I was too late; you were already gone. “Stay!” I wanted to shout into the night. But what angels would have heard my cry?  You left ripples in the stillness that I could not catch. And sometimes, when you are sleeping, I still try to retrace the fragile outlines of the person I came to know in that hour.

2.

At the far end of my father’s cypress-lined lane in the limestone hills on the outskirts of Marseille stood a birdhouse where the sparrows that screamed in the rafters at dusk had never deigned to roost, not even once. Abandoned by the birds, my father turned the wooden nest we built together into a makeshift mailbox and nailed it to a stake, in hopes, perhaps, that other feathers would land there, fluttering in from faraway countries on the sea-salt spray that we could smell, on summer evenings, when he cooked with the kitchen window flung open, floating on the breeze from the harbor beyond the hill. He was waiting, always waiting, for a word from the woman he called my mother.

I never knew her, my mother, but I could see the shadow of her silhouette in my father’s eyes when I grew tall enough to catch him gazing distractedly at my long hair in the reflection of a window after dark, at that hour when glass betrays stolen glances, as a mirror. After, I would stand for hours in the bathroom with my back to the sink, gazing at my reflection in reverse in a handheld mirror, trying to discern in the poise of my shoulders and the length of my neck—slender, like a heron’s, he said—the shape of the woman my father first saw, and never stopped loving, from afar.

Imagine the dark mass of a barge docked in the Bay of Algiers on an unseasonably warm evening in early spring, the exposed deck aflame in gaudy florescence against the black depths of the Mediterranean beyond. Imagine me, a young man—he would say when I would ask him, endlessly ask him, as a child, how he met her, this mother of mine—leaning with lanky limbs against the balustrade on the promenade smoking a cigarette. On the deck of the barge young people from the European quarter were dancing to Algerian raï, the husky voice of Cheikha Rimitti el Reliziana distorted by cheap speakers, the drumbeats echoing amidst the arches of the portside arcade. Below the promenade, on the quai that lined the port, fishermen were climbing onto the roofs of their idling lorries to steal a wink of sleep before setting sail in their drifters for the midnight catch. They used floating lanterns, my father would explain, that imitated the light of the moon to lure the fish to the surface of the still waters near the harbor, ensnaring whole schools of fish in their ready nets, then return to shore at dawn, their steel buckets overflowing, the silver scales of the gilthead bream reflecting the light of the rising sun.

Somewhere not so far away, but still far enough away, French colonial forces were planting bombs in civilian quarters, attaching electric wires to the erect nipples of shivering prisoners in the damp basements of villas that had been gutted of their furniture and converted overnight into torture chambers, shooting suspected dissidents in broad daylight in village squares as their wives watched in horror from curtained windows, half covering their eyes in the folds of the white haïks the women still wore in those days. But on the deck of a barge anchored in the Bay of Algiers, as fishermen napped before the new moon catch, young people were dancing to the scandalous provocations of the temptress of Oran, who called in her songs for a liberated female sexuality, singing a folklore perverted by colonialism. It was then, my father would tell me (and always in a whisper), that he first saw her, my mother, dressed in white. She was dancing alone in a crowd, her arms outstretched like windblown sails, about to take flight.

Forgetting his half-smoked cigarette, descending the urine-caked stairs to the quai, slinking like a cat between the fishermen’s lorries, stubbing his toe on an exposed anchor, climbing an uncertain ladder up the side of the barge, crawling over the slippery rails, and traversing the vast desert of the dance floor where young people from the European quarter swayed together with the stubborn elegance of youth, my father, a tender, timid Algerian, planted himself squarely in front of my mother and introduced himself as Albert, taking his hero’s name. He was sixteen years old at the time; she was older, eighteen. She smiled. Her name was Francine, but she called herself Frankie.

Two years later, as the last boats left the Bay of Algiers carrying crowds of sobbing Europeans—pieds noirs, as they learned they were called—across the sea to a country they had never known, but supposed was their own, my father held in one hand my mother’s suitcase, and in the other, his fiancée’s hand. Frankie had her back turned. She was smoking a cigarette, suddenly orphaned of her homeland, watching the ancient city she so loved disappear on the horizon in a desperate blaze of white.

I sometimes wonder, in my moments of weakness or resentment or longing, when I doubt the strength of her commitment to my father, if it was simply the prejudice of her so-called compatriots that compelled my mother to leave the man she loved. In the market, on Saturday mornings, where she went every week with my father to buy flowers, she avoided the stands staffed by Arabs, who called out to her husband using his given name, Yahia, in a language she never managed to learn. Playfully, stubbornly, she still called her husband Albert.

It was Albert, my father, who took a dirty job at the docks in Marseille repairing ships while his wife pursued a university degree in journalism. It was Albert, whose lanky limbs had grown strong but always ached, that would wash my mother’s long hair in the kitchen sink in their first apartment, too small for a shower but with a view of the sea, when she was too tired to trudge to the washroom they shared with their neighbors down the hall. It was Albert who carried my mother’s suitcase, accompanying her whenever he could to the airport when she left, with increasing frequency, on her trips abroad to report from the front lines of a cold war that was getting hotter, sparking wildfires in remote corners of the globe: Libya, Chile, Cambodia.

It was, perhaps, this proximity to death that led my mother to ask my father, her Albert, to give her a child, one otherwise unremarkable morning when the Mistral was blowing in Marseille, as the Khmer Rouge regime was killing millions in a country far away, but not so far away. Or maybe I was an accident. She was thirty-five when I was born, and she left my father before I had learned to talk.

When my mother disappeared, after my father finally accepted that she had left, he bought us a house in the limestone hills on the outskirts of Marseille. Each year on my birthday, he planted a pair of cypress trees along both sides of the lane. And so as I grew, so too did the forest of my father’s solitude, stretching each year closer, root by spindly root, to the sea.

3.

We did not know, at the time, that we were at war. It wasn’t until after, when the bodies were buried and counted, and the boats were leaving the harbor, that we understood that we had been nothing more than ungrateful guests that had overstayed our welcome by some one hundred and thirty two years in a country we had deigned to call home, depositing bloody traces of our decadence like the red circles left behind by empty wine glasses the morning after a party that had gone on too long. But by then it was too late, and we had already forgotten, and the ancient city we so loved was disappearing on the horizon in a desperate blaze of white.

I thought the world would come to an end, but on the other side of the watery expanse that we crossed together, hand in hand the whole time (I couldn’t let go), of course it went on living. That is something one must learn. You found us our first apartment in a narrow alley near the cathedral, too small for a shower but with a view of the sea, and in the olive light of the early morning, with the seabirds drifting down towards the harbor, Marseille looked through blurry eyes just like home.

From the portside window of our tiny tenant in Le Panier, we would watch the lives of a thousand anonymous neighbors unfold in the dark through the backlit glass of their living rooms, illuminated like rudimentary cinema screens, and you would spin me tales of bourgeois intrigue, the kind we could never afford. Through the lives of distant strangers, you pined for exotic flowers, you longed for diamonds; you tried to convince me, night after night, that the life we would build together in France could cover up the crimes of our forefathers, as the wind effaces footsteps in the sand.

When we married, quietly, in the municipal courthouse, our neighbors from down the hall gave us a dozen roses, and we left them in a vase on the kitchen table until they wilted and then rotted, reluctant to throw them out. I still remember that heady, peppery scent. Sometimes, when we would make love, I would suddenly smell that wretched stench, and then come. You wanted a child from the start, you wanted to watch our sea swell inside me; you wanted to resurrect the bitter promise of l’Algérie française by giving life to a little français algérien of our own making. I suppose you were mourning, in your own way (as was I), the brutal end to our childhood.

I say our childhood, but it wasn’t. It was sand and water, it was windows and walls, it was the vast desert of the dance floor that you traversed, with the ardor of a martyr, to touch the outstretched hand of god. We were at war, but the bombs exploded elsewhere, in byzantine streets I could never navigate, in villages with names I couldn’t pronounce, where the men were lined up in rows in the square and summarily shot, in that unrelenting sunlight, with no one to hear the cries of their abruptly widowed wives but the wind, shrieking with frigid voices across the barren planes. I never managed to learn your language.

On the morning of my first day of classes at the university, you presented me, as a good-luck gift, with two newspapers, both dated May 8, 1945. The first, in French, announced in triumphant typeface the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The second, in Arabic, showed the massacred civilians of Sétif, their bloated bodies aligned in the street, bellies up, like sardines. And then you kissed me, gently, desperately, on the forehead.

When I went to work for the newspaper as a war correspondent, the post-war order as we knew it was crumbling, while the ferry that putters back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the Vieux Port to the other—you know, the one that Marcel Pagnol writes about—pursued its unalterable course. The Americans kept on signing treaties they knew full well they would ignore, Soviet guns kept popping up in improbable places in the Middle East, and the Michigan-based company that invented cling wrap for suburban wives was developing a chemical that would burn the skin off of children in the jungle of Tonkin. Upon my return to Marseille you would meet me at the airport, always tanner than I remembered, somehow changed (or perhaps it was me), and we would go, every Saturday, to buy flowers at the Marché du Soleil.

Once, years later, I was invited to Paris to accept an award for my writing, and I implored you to accompany me, finding it ludicrous that you had never seen the Tour Eiffel, that gaudy metal skirt suspended from the sky that had somehow become the symbol of freedom in the West. We took the train into Paris, and spotting the square-cut London planes along the broad boulevards, you exclaimed in a dreadful voice, “They even massacre the trees.”

We got lost coming out of the Gare de Lyon, and we were late to the ceremony, both of us windswept and underdressed, but they waited and applauded when we arrived. And when the presenter pronounced my name (half of it yours), inviting me to the podium to accept my award, I glanced back at you over my shoulder, and I saw you whisper, “Frankie.” Then seeing you from the stage, your tanned face a new moon against a white linen sea of tea lights and cocktail dresses, I wondered what would be my legacy, in the end.

At the after party, a German writer was reciting lines of poetry that had been scrawled in black arabesques onto the Berlin Wall. He was speaking in crude Alexandrians of revolution, of the crimson blossoms that had bloomed in the cracks of the concrete, foretelling the coming of spring. And you were dancing alone in a corner, swaying drunkenly like a cypress in a vicious, salty wind, telling strangers dark fictions about the end of the world. I had never seen you so happy.

When we returned to Marseille the next day, the Mistral was screaming something fierce, that frightful, knocking wind that blows in from the north when the winter turns abruptly to spring, and the ferry was still puttering, back and forth, back and forth, from one side of the Vieux Port to the other. The sight of it, suddenly, made me cry. Don’t pretend you couldn’t hear it. We made love the next morning, the wind still whistling through the wooden shutters, closed, and I asked you to make me a mother.

But when my period the next month was late, and then the blood never came, I knew somehow that our love had outgrown us, as a million unborn worlds swirled inside my swelling womb. I stopped traveling after the first trimester, and I took to reading fiction: the novels of Françoise Sagan and Albert Camus, the collected short stories of Vladimir Nabokov and the sonnets of Rainer Marie Rilke. As my body acquired new and strange amorphous shapes, I no longer fit like a spoon against the hollow of your sunken chest as we slept, and you would fall asleep, whimpering, with your arm draped across my aching belly, holding me as tightly as you could.

I left you sleeping one morning, your arm outstretched across the crumpled sheets, and I walked barefoot, in the olive light, to the sea.

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Diverse City: On the Cultural and Racial Politics of the World Cup

When France won the World Cup this July, their second win in twenty years, Paris leapt to its feet and marched in mass to the Arc de Triomphe. We streamed in the hundreds of thousands into the street, compelled by a force greater than any individual will, the kind of collective spirit that fuels a protest, a rebellion, a revolution. By the time the impromptu parade turned west onto the Rue de Rivoli, I starting looking around at my fellow revelers. I wanted to know who “we” were, that pernicious pronoun that is so often deployed to distinguish between “us” and “them,” to identify who belongs, to determine whether our spontaneous assembly would read as a parade or a riot. We were French of every color and stripe, nationals and expats and immigrants, singing the national anthem in accents that spoke only of our camaraderie, our exuberance, and our pride.

The day after France’s victory, Trevor Noah, the host of the American political comedy program “The Daily Show,” congratulated “Africa”—the continent—on its historic World Cup win. Citing the disproportionate representation of people of color on the French national football team, Noah quipped, “You don’t get that tan by hanging out in the south of France, my friends.” The audience laughed and applauded.

Noah’s joke was ill received in France, to the extent that Gérard Araud, the outspoken French ambassador to the United States, felt compelled to respond. “By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness,” Araud wrote in a formal letter to the late night host. “This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.” For Araud, Noah’s innocent comment ironically recalled the nativist rhetoric of the French far right, which has routinely condemned the national football team as an “unworthy” representative of France.

By imposing a uniform “African” identity on the French national football team, Noah also ignored the players’ explicit self-identification as French and only French. Araud continued: “As many of the players have stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country, but the great majority of them—all but two out of twenty-three—were born in France. They were educated in France. They learned to play soccer in France. They are French citizens. They are proud of their country: France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.”

Noah, who is of South African descent, was not convinced. In a web-exclusive “between the scenes” segment filmed on Wednesday, Noah responded to Araud’s criticism, claiming that the cosmopolitan ideal to which the ambassador aspired was contingent on the effacement of France’s violent colonial past. For Noah, the players’ “rich and various backgrounds” were in fact “a reflection of France’s colonialism.”

Khaled Beydoun, a law professor and the author of a recent book on Islamophobia, concurred with Noah in an opinion piece published late last week in The Guardian. For Beydoun, the “romantic ideal” of racial colorblindness belies the dismal reality of racial relations in contemporary France, which he describes apocalyptically as “a nation ripped apart by explosive race riots in the overpopulated immigrant suburbs of Paris, Marseille and other metropolises; a state that institutionalized Islamophobia and orients Muslim identity as antithetical to French identity; a political landscape where the xenophobic and white supremacist Front National is a mainstream political party.”

As a scholar of the Algerian War of Independence and what I describe in my dissertation as the “traumatic reverberations” of decolonization in contemporary France, I have to admit that Noah has a valid point. Yet his comments nevertheless reveal a critical misunderstanding of cultural and racial politics in contemporary France (as well as, I would argue, a misleading and idealized misrepresentation of the American “melting pot” myth, but I will leave that argument to the good folks at Back Story).

In Noah’s understanding, assimilation into the French national identity requires the renunciation or erasure of one’s cultural, ethnic, or racial origins. For Noah, the French model of assimilation is intolerant of difference and blithely ignorant of the colonial conflicts that have shaped contemporary France. By contrast, American multiculturalism, commonly known as the “melting pot” model, celebrates difference and hyphenated identities (although this was not always the case; President Theodore Roosevelt, in an address to the Knights of Columbus at Carnegie Hall in 1915, famously argued that “a hyphenated American is not an American at all,” but rather “a traitor to American institutions”).

Contrary to Noah’s assumption, however, the objective of assimilation is not necessarily to suppress cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, racial, or religious diversity in France, but rather to celebrate the civic values that constitute the French community as a whole. Forged by revolution, this notion of national identity emanates from the founding ideology of modern France. Following the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1792, it was necessary for the founders of the First French Republic to articulate a notion of national belonging derived from “a voluntary commitment to common political values” and “an adherence to the Republican ideal.” As the political scientist William Safran has argued, “membership in the French national community meant being heirs of the people of the Enlightenment, the makers of revolution, and the promoters of the rights of man.”

The enduring cleavage between the French assimilation model and American multiculturalism comes down to the contested legacy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution(s), and the expansion of the French colonial empire throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. It hardly takes a historian to recognize that the universal ideals of the French Enlightenment did not apply to the indigenous or otherwise racialized populations of France’s colonies, where colonized peoples were denied equal legal protections while simultaneously made subject to the full force of the law. And France, the nation responsible for the revolutionary “Declaration of the Rights of Man” in 1789, also has a sordid history of human rights abuses, including the mass extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the participation in the Transatlantic slave trade, the complicity of the Vichy Regime in the deportation of French Jews under the German Occupation, the systematic use of torture against Algerian combatants during the Algerian War of Independence, and the ongoing pervasiveness of racial profiling and police brutality in communities of color.

This contradiction is at the core of Noah’s controversial comments on the World Cup. For Noah, the question is not simply, “Why can’t the football players express pride in their French identity while also commemorating their immigrant roots?” but rather, “What is it about the racial or religious identity of these players that the French find so particularly threatening to their notion of national belonging?” Put another way, why is it considered an insult or a threat to identify as an African or an Arab or a Muslim in France?

In his 2007 book, Le communautarisme: Mythes et réalités, the French sociologist Laurent Bouvet addresses this issue through an analysis of communautarisme, or “communitarianism,” in contemporary France. In his introduction, Bouvet distinguishes between two notions of community, one singular and the other plural. In his 1782 book Considerations on the Government of Poland, the Enlightenment-era thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose political writings inspired the founders of the First French Republic, defines community in the singular as the unanimity “requisite to the formation of the body politic and of the fundamental laws necessary to its existence.” In its ideal incarnation, this idea of community constitutes the condition of possibility and legitimacy for the exercise of popular sovereignty, which is rooted in the rational and volitional participation of its members in a shared sociopolitical sphere defined by common civic values.

Community in the plural, however, evokes conditions of belonging based on multiple (often exclusionary) criteria of cultural identification, such as race, religion, or region. Similar to identity politics, communitarianism emphasizes the constitutive role of specific community structures in the subjective formation of the individual, contesting the idea of an autonomous political subject, impervious to the influence of culture, ideology, or class. Beyond identity-based claims to greater inclusion and visibility, communitarianism challenges the representative capacity of existing institutions and political assemblages. Consequently, communitarianism calls into question not only who counts as French, but also what it means, essentially, to be French.

Far from frivolous, then, this quarrel between a South African comedian and the French ambassador to the United States touches on a number of the core problems concerning cultural and racial politics in contemporary France. To debate the origins and identity of the French national football team is to engage in a philosophical inquiry into the autonomy of the subject and the relation between the self and society. But beyond the abstract concerns of ontology, the debate also reveals a cleavage in sociological conceptions of multiculturalism and pluralism in liberal democracies. And from a political perspective, the debate interrogates the role and impact of identity in strategic coalition building.

I am reminded of a story from Homer’s Odyssey. After twenty years at sea, Odysseus returns home alone after all of his companions have been slaughtered. He puts his house in order, he kills the men who plundered his stores, and he makes love with his beloved wife, Penelope. He is tired, and it is dark. But his journey is not over, and he cannot yet rest in peace. The prophet Tiresius tells his Odysseus that he must make one final sacrifice to Poseidon, the vengeful god of the sea:

“‘Go forth once more, you must . . . carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign—unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon. . . .’”

Odysseus will not know peace until the tools of war go unrecognized. And I cannot help but wonder how many decades, how many generations, how many centuries, it will take for race in France to shed its status as a weapon, a threat, a constant reminder of French colonialism. When will a hyphenated identity cease to cut as a knife across the symbolic unity of France? What will it mean to be French in a nation that has neither forgotten nor effaced its colonial past, but has truly embraced its once colonized subjects to build a better future together, for all?

But the sad fact of the matter is that race and religion remain weapons of division in contemporary France, and to bury them now, before we are ready, would be to sow the bad seeds of resentment. I opened this post with a triumphant image of national unity—a cheering crowd of football fans all striding confidently down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe—but I left out the part about the smoke bombs exploding in clouds of blue and red on the pavement, and how I thought in that moment about the unthinkable: what would happen to us all in the case of a terrorist attack, at a time and place when we were at our most proud, and our most vulnerable.

France may have won the World Cup, but its fight against the forces that would destroy it from within—the racism, the xenophobia, the bigotry—is far from over.

Pig City: On the #MeToo Movement and the Fractures of French Feminism

I was nineteen and living in the south of France when it happened the first time. A man whom I had briefly met at a birthday party followed me into the women’s restroom at a pub in Avignon, blocked the bathroom door with his body, grabbed me by the wrists, and groped me. Two weeks later, it happened again. I was standing on the sidewalk outside of a seedy nightclub near the university when a stranger lifted me up, flung me onto the ground, and then straddled me with his legs and held me down with one hand while he reached up my skirt with the other.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, public discussions about the prevalence of sexual violence have forced these painful memories into the front of my mind. Since early October, the #MeToo movement has dominated social media with displays of solidarity for the survivors of sexual violence and, perhaps more problematically, the naming and public shaming of its perpetrators.

A few days after the #MeToo movement surfaced on social media, a French journalist named Sandra Muller followed suit, publicly accusing Eric Brion, the former head of a French television channel, of having sent her salacious messages in a professional context. Inspired by a two-page spread in the French newspaper Le Parisien that referred to Weinstein as the porc, or “pig,” of Hollywood, Muller invented her own hashtag, #BalanceTonPorc, and invited her followers to name their harassers.

As thousands of women (and some men) have taken to social media to share their experiences of sexual violence, the #MeToo movement has quickly transformed from an expression of individual outrage into a collective consciousness-raising campaign. In this sense, the #MeToo movement has revived one of the core tenets of American second-wave feminism, which sought to recast the private or personal concerns of women as the products of sociopolitical structures of oppression. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist activists and scholars like Betty Friedan argued that one of the primary impediments to female solidarity was the social isolation of women in modern capitalist societies. One of the explicit goals of early feminist consciousness-raising campaigns was therefore to provide spaces of civic deliberation that would allow women to understand their own experiences and emotions as part of a shared system of oppression.

The #MeToo movement shares a similar dynamic and objective. By transforming the personal into the political, the #MeToo movement has demonstrated that isolated instances of sexual violence—from lewd comments from a taxi driver to the abuse of asymmetrical power relations in the workplace—constitute a widespread cultural phenomenon that stems from sociopolitical structures of systemic inequality.

Yet for the signatories of an open letter published in Le Monde on January 9, 2018, the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc, have gone too far. The letter (an English translation can be found here), signed by the French actress Catherine Deneuve and dozens of other notable Frenchwomen, denounces the #MeToo movement as a “puritanical” form of feminism that infantilizes women and denies them their sexual power.

“As women,” they write, “we do not recognize ourselves in this feminism, which goes beyond denouncing abuse of power and has turned into a hatred of men and of sexuality.” Comparing the denunciation of perpetrators of sexual violence to a “witch hunt” (a profoundly ironic appropriation of a term that once referred to the baseless persecution of women), the writers continue, “It is the nature of Puritanism to borrow, in the name of the supposed collective good, the arguments of the protection of women and of their emancipation to better chain them to their status as eternal victims; poor little things under the control of demonic phallocrats, like in the good old days of witchcraft.”

Further criticizing the “purging wave” that has swept perpetrators of sexual violence from positions of power, the writers regret that the #MeToo movement has contributed to a climate of “totalitarianism” where public shaming has eclipsed due process. Yet in their disingenuous defense of due process, the writers seem to prop up the perpetrators of sexual violence while dismissing their accusers as prudish or puerile. “Today we are educated enough to understand that sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive,” they write, “but we are also able to tell the difference between an awkward attempt to pick someone up and what constitutes a sexual assault.” The writers criticize what they see as a culture of victimhood that has coddled women to such an extent that they can no longer recognize the difference between gallantry and chauvinist aggression.

In their conclusion, Deneuve and her fellow signatories call on women to resist the appeal of victimization and accept the potential pitfalls that have come with liberation. “Accidents that can affect a woman’s body do not necessarily affect her dignity and must not, as hard as they can be, necessary make her a perpetual victim,” they write. “Because we are not reducible to our bodies, our inner freedom is inviolable. And this freedom that we cherish is not without risks and responsibilities.” In this paradoxical conclusion, the authors appropriate a classic feminist argument opposing biological determinism (“we are not reducible to our bodies”) with an existentialist iteration of feminine agency (“our inner freedom is inviolable”), while simultaneously absolving men of their own agency in and responsibility for the “accidents” that befall women.

Finally, the writers of the letter defend the droit d’importuner, or the “right to bother,” as “indispensable” to both sexual and artistic freedom. But by reducing sexuality to a “naturally primitive drive,” the writers’ defense of the droit d’importuner naturalizes the misogynistic and violent behavior of men. True feminism, to the contrary, “believes that sexuality is a cultural construction,” which is what allows mentalities about acceptable sexual behavior to evolve over time. In this sense, argues Christine Bard, the stance adopted by the writers of the letter is inherently “antifeminist.”

Similarly, in an editorial entitled “Un porc, tu nais?” (“Are you born a pig?”), a clever reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous dictum (“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), the Franco-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani criticizes the letter’s latent essentialism. She writes, “not all men . . . are pigs. . . . Lurking behind this generalization, behind this so-called ‘right to seduce,’ is a terribly deterministic view of masculinity: ‘you are born a pig.’”

Slimani, whose first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre (“In the Garden of the Ogre”), sympathetically portrays a female nymphomaniac, goes on to argue that the writers’ defense of sexual liberation paradoxically disenfranchises the very same women they purport to empower. “I am not a fragile little thing. I am not asking to be protected but rather to assert my right to security and respect. I am not a victim,” she writes. “But that millions of women are victims [of sexual violence] is a fact and not a moral judgment or an essentialism.” Concisely argued and justifiably outraged, Slimani’s response insists on the fact that sexual liberation and sexual violence are coextensive in contemporary Western societies.

While I find the writers’ diminutive attitude towards sexual violence reprehensible, it is their devaluation of the discourse of liberation that I consider the most disturbing element of their argument. In this respect, the writers’ argument is surprisingly complex, and it requires some cultural context and rhetorical unpacking to understand its subtleties. Underpinning the writers’ argument is an understanding of sexual liberation that has long divided schools of feminist thought in America and France.

A decade before the sexual revolution in France, Simone de Beauvoir criticized her American counterparts for their sexual intolerance and misandry, or hatred of men, ideological positions that de Beauvoir saw as contributing to the persistence of the gender divide and counterproductive to the liberation of women. In her essay “America Day by Day,” which de Beauvoir wrote during a stay in the United States in 1947, de Beauvoir observes, “American women have only contempt for French women, [who are] always too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims.”

In the 1960s and 70s, when feminist activists were organizing clandestine consciousness-raising campaigns in living rooms and coffee shops across America to educate American women about the political nature of unpaid domestic labor, French feminists were openly celebrating their sexual agency and autonomy as a source of sociopolitical empowerment.

This decades-old divide between schools of feminist thought continues to inform discussions of feminism in France today.

Following de Beauvoir, mainstream feminism in France has continued to champion female sexual empowerment in the feminist fight against cultural chauvinism, gender inequality, and the inherent misogyny of religion. But as Agnès Poirier has observed, “there is also a rather recent American import of feminism, one that often comes across [in France] as opportunistic and ‘man-hating,’ one that turns a blind eye to religious misogyny. . . . They present themselves at the new vanguard of French feminism, the new blood, except they can sound to some like Stalinist commissars, or Robespierre in culottes, passing edicts about what is acceptable conduct.”

For Deneuve and her fellow signatories, the #MeToo movement represents the risk of “an insidious moral order” that polices sexuality in the name of the women’s protection. According to the French historian Michelle Perrot, “the authors of the letter fear that the “MeToo movement diminishes [faire reculer] creative, artistic, and sexual freedom, that a moralistic backlash comes and destroys what liberation thinking has fought hard to obtain, that women’s bodies and sex become again this forbidden territory and that a new moral order introduces a new censorship against the free movement of desire.” And for Perrot, “There is indeed reason to share their fear.”

I would argue, however, that by framing female sexual empowerment as an issue of free speech, Deneuve and her fellow signatories adopt a conservative rhetorical stance that conflates women’s liberation with the French principle of laïcité, or secularism. In recent years, French conservatives have deployed the rhetoric of women’s liberation to promote policies prohibiting “ostentatious” displays of religious affiliation in public places, including sidewalks, schools, and even beaches. These policies have focused primarily on the sartorial practices of Muslim women, whose choice to wear a veil or dress modestly has been portrayed as antithetical to both women’s liberation and secularism in France.

In the summer of 2016, for example, when a number of municipalities in the south of France banned the wearing of the “burkini,” a modest beachwear favored by Muslim women, conservatives deployed the rhetoric of women’s liberation to justify the religiously discriminatory policy. Manuel Valls, then Prime Minister of President François Hollande’s ostensibly socialist administration, came out in favor of the municipal policies, arguing, “The ‘burkini’ is not a new swimwear fashion; it is the transmission of a political project, against society, founded notably upon the subjection of women.” Although the French Council of State ultimately ruled against the municipal ‘burkini’ bans, the incident remains a poignant reminder of how the rhetoric of women’s liberation has been deployed to justify racism and Islamophobia in France.

Similarly, in their critique of the #MeToo movement, the writers single out “religious extremists” as enemies of sexual liberation. They write, “Instead of helping women empower themselves,” they argue, “this frenzy for sending the ‘pigs’ to the slaughterhouse . . . serves the interests of the enemies of sexual liberation, religious extremists, the worst of the reactionaries, and those who believe, in their righteousness and the Victorian values that go alone with it, that women are species ‘apart,’ children parading as adults, asking to be protected.”

In November 2017, Alain Finkielkraut similarly denounced the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc, for distracting from the misogyny of Arab and Muslim-majority cultures. He writes, “One of the objectives of the #BalanceTonPorc movement was to elude [noyer le poisson] the problem of Islam.” Finkielkraut goes on to cite a number of recent events where European women have been attacked or subjugated by Muslim men, including the New Years Eve attacks in Cologne, the sexual harassment of women in the Parisian neighborhood of Chapelle-Pajol, and cafés in Sevran and Rillieux-la-Pape, suburbs of Paris and Lyon, respectively, where the presence of women has been deemed “undesirable” by male patrons. Although they do not cite Finkielkraut directly, the writers of the letter similarly scapegoat “religious extremists” for the subjugation of women.

Since the publication of the letter last week, Deneuve has since publicly apologized and distanced herself from some of her fellow signatories, stating that while she stood by her original position, she did not condone sexual violence. “I’m a free woman and I will remain one,” writes Deneuve in Libération. “I fraternally salute all women victims of odious acts who may have felt aggrieved by the letter in Le Monde. It is to them, and them alone, that I apologize.”

Despite Deneuve’s apology, the initial letter and the vociferous response it provoked have exposed deep fractures in French feminism; their resolution will determine the future of feminism in France. If French feminism is to remain viable, it must recognize and rectify structures of inequality in French culture rather than scapegoating its foreign imports. The liberation of women in France, I believe, will require a fundamental revision of what it means to be free and what it means to be French.

Unhappy City: On the Cultural Dimensions of Happiness, or the French ‘Joie de Malheur’

“Imagine dying and being grateful you’d gone to heaven, until one day (or one century) it dawned on you that your main mood was melancholy, although you were constantly convinced that happiness lay just around the next corner.” This, writes the American expatriate writer Edmund White in his 2001 book, The Flâneur, is what it is like to live in Paris for years, or in his case, even decades. “It’s a mild hell so comfortable that it resembles heaven.”

The French have such an attractive and sophisticated civilization, and their taste in every domain—from gastronomy to fashion and philosophy—is so sharp and yet subtle, that the foreigner can easily be seduced into believing that mastering the French way of life is a sure although jealously guarded path to existential happiness. But if this true about France, White continues, “then why is [the foreigner] so lonely? So sad? Why is there such an elegiac feeling hanging over this city with the gilded cupola gleaming over the Emperor’s Tomb and the foaming, wild horses prancing out of a sea of verdigris on the roof of the Grand Palais? . . . Why is he unhappy . . . even when he strolls past the barnacled towers of Notre Dame soaring above the Seine and a steep wall so dense with ivy it looks like the side of a galleon sinking under moss-laden chains?”

Even by European standards, the French enjoy a relatively high quality of life, ensured by a liberal welfare state, universal healthcare, free access to higher education, and generous labor benefits, including a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation a year and a mandatory thirty-five hour workweek. And for someone from chaotic yet obstinately optimistic America—where an entire generation of college graduates has been crippled by debt and an unexpected illness or accident can bankrupt the uninsured—France appears an idyllic hamlet of sanity and social comfort.

But despite their cultural affluence and material prosperity, the French remain notoriously unhappy. In a recent poll conducted by the European Social Survey group, France consistently obtained “high scores in negative dimensions of mental health, such as psychological distress and mental disorders.” Among thirteen European countries surveyed between 2002 and 2010, France ranked second-to-last in perceived wellbeing and life satisfaction, trailed only by Portugal. Similarly, in 2011, a WIN-Gallop poll revealed that expectations for the coming year ranked lower in France than in Iraq or Afghanistan. The prevalence of depressive tendencies in France correlates to one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, constituting the primary cause of death among French adults between the ages of 30 and 39, and an exceptionally high consumption of psychotropic drugs.

The economic implications of these findings are paramount. While American enterprises like have gone to exorbitant lengths to ensure the happiness of their employees, the French continue to languish in an idiosyncratic gloom, reinforcing concerns about the declining influence of the French nation in an increasingly globalized world.

In a study published in 2011, the French economist Claudia Senik describes the apparent contradiction between material prosperity and perceived wellbeing in France as the French happiness paradox. In her study, Senik attempts to disentangle the influence of objective circumstances versus cultural factors by comparing levels of perceived wellbeing among immigrants and French expatriates. She found that while immigrants who move to France report higher levels of happiness than their French counterparts, the longer immigrants live in France, the less happy they claim to be. Meanwhile, individuals native to France who have emigrated to other countries continue to report comparatively low levels of happiness. These findings are consistent across different socioeconomic strata, suggesting that there is something peculiar about French culture—that is, “the ensemble of psychological and ideological mechanisms and dispositions that constitute the process of the transformation of experiences into wellbeing”—that is making France’s population miserable. The mere fact of living in France, writes Senik, “reduces by twenty percept the probability of declaring oneself happy.”

Senik concludes by arguing that the French education system and other instances of early socialization are largely to blame for the unhappiness of the French. In stark contrast to the liberal education system in America, education in France is characterized by its conservatism and severity. In the year I spent teaching English in a high school in southwestern France, I was shocked by the austerity of my colleagues, who were quick to deliver criticism and discipline yet withholding of counsel and encouragement.

Writing for The New Yorker in response to Senik’s article, Richard Brody instead attributes the characteristic malheur, or unhappiness, of the French to the critical content rather than the formal structure of the education system in France. Put another way, Brody suggests that it is the what rather than the how of French education that is responsible for the ennui of the French. “Unhappiness,” Brody writes, “often implies the desire for change—in circumstances, or even in oneself—and so dissatisfaction with life despite its material benefits suggests a kind of idealism—of intellectual vision of possibilities beyond the actual.” From this perspective, Brody suggests, the collective discontent of the French might be the expression of an idealistic intellectualism invested in introspection and ideological critique.

Indeed, French philosophy has long explored the intersection between the private and the public, the personal and the political. As early as the sixteenth century, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne examined subjective experience as a form of ideological critique; his innovative essays combine introspection with sociopolitical commentary. Similarly, in the eighteenth century, the radical political philosophy of the French Enlightenment coincided with an increased focus on self-reflection; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who contributed to the constitution of modern political thought with the publication of Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité (“Discourse on Inequality”) and Du contrat social (“The Social Contract”), also revolutionized the autobiographical mode with his Confessions, and later, Les rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (“Reveries of a Solitary Walker”).

While France is known for its decadent aestheticism and joie de vivre, an international reputation that further complicates the French happiness paradox, Brody suggests that the French instead revel in a kind of “joie de penser, a joy of thinking that derives pleasure from its [own] displeasure and derives constructive energy from its self-conscious sense of resistance.” In other words, if the introspective skepticism constitutive of French culture is a constant source of “self-renewing, self-critical, self-affirming unhappiness,” it also produces a peculiar kind of pleasure in and of itself, an auto-affection that Brody terms joie de malheur, or a “joy of unhappiness.”

The apparent contradiction between material comfort and existential ennui is an absurdity that suits the French like a well-tailored jacket, and for centuries, the French have refined their paradoxical joie de malheur into an unparalleled artistic expression. Indeed, argues Brody, “rhetorical pessimism in the face of a perhaps unparalleled atmosphere of aesthetic sophistication and dialectical nuance may be precisely . . . [the] most remarkable and distinctive product” of French society.

Brody cites the experimental documentary Chronique d’un été, directed and produced in 1960 by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, as a case in point. An early experiment in cinéma vérité, the film begins with a series of interviews on the streets of Paris, each initiated by the deceptively straightforward yet strangely disarming question: “Are you happy?” Over the course of the discussions and digressions that follow—with factory workers, struggling artists, impoverished immigrants, university students, and even a suntanned starlet from Saint-Tropez—the basic premise of a person’s private happiness becomes inextricably linked with politics and the ability to speak and be heard in the public sphere.

Each of the subjects portrayed in Chronique d’un été is, in their own way, both happy and unhappy (and the one in spite of the other). And while many of the subjects portrayed express private concerns about work, money, family, and love, Brody argues that “the howling unhappiness that the film uncovers has its roots in politics and history, or, rather, in the repression of politics and history.” Over the course of the film, personal happiness (or a lack thereof) becomes a means of talking, albeit in abstract terms, about the Algerian War and allegations of the French Army’s use of torture in Algeria, as well as the pervasive silence regarding the complicity of the French government with the German Occupation and the deportation of French Jews to concentration camps during the Second World War. In this way, Chronique d’un été breaks down the barrier between the private and the public, constituting even the most intimate of confessions as a form of sociopolitical commentary and ideological critique.

How, then, can we define what it means to be happy in France, and what precisely do we mean when we say that the French are unhappy? Is the French happiness paradox the product of an austere and inflexible education system, as Senik argues, or is rhetorical pessimism just French for a joie de penser, as Brody suggests? Is the collective discontent of the French contributing to France’s economic decline, or is the distinctiveness of France’s cultural sphere a product more valuable than worker productivity? Are the French truly unhappy, or are they simply lacking a language to express an underlying condition that might otherwise be described as happiness? Is this place heaven or hell?

One way to understand the French happiness paradox is to read it in the way that Albert Camus, the existentialist author and philosopher, reinterprets the myth of Sisyphus in his 1942 essay by the same name. In the Greek myth, the gods punish Sisyphus for attempting to evade death and condemn him to perpetually push a rock to the peak of a tall mountain, at which point the heavy stone would tumble back down the steep slope.

Camus reads the myth of Sisyphus as an allegory for the absurdity of human existence. For Camus, the feeling of the absurd comes from the realization that the world lacks any inherent meaning, order, or reason. Camus writes, “At this point in his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

Yet despite acknowledging the absurdity of existence, Camus rejects suicidal despair as an ethical response to the meaningless of life; instead, he offers the myth of Sisyphus as a radical affirmation of life. The lucid recognition of the absurdity of existence “drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.” Paradoxically, by liberating us from the futile search for future meaning, the recognition of absurdity allows us to live fully in the present, in the beauty, pleasure, and “implacable grandeur” of existence.

Camus concludes his essay by leaving Sisyphus at the foot of his mountain, preparing once again to push his mortal burden to its peak. “At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, [like] Sisyphus returning to his rock, in that silent pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him.” Recognizing the “wholly human origin of all that is human” is what allows man to attribute meaning to an inherently absurd existence. And for this reason, Camus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

To take up Camus’s famous refrain, I like to imagine that the French, for all their existential grumblings, are happy. And it is their relentless recognition of and reckoning with the absurdity of their own existence that gives meaning to their joy.

Dry City: On Sobriety and Its Discontents

The first question that people always ask me when I tell them that I am not drinking is “why,” as though choosing to abstain from alcohol in a social setting is an action that demands explanation, a decision that cannot stand alone. “Why?” The question conceals a thousand others, intimate and unanswerable. Are you punishing yourself? Did you do something while drunk of which you are ashamed? Did you hurt someone you love? Did someone hurt you? Do you have an alcohol problem? Has your drinking led to drugs? Does your family have a history of substance abuse? Are you expecting a child? Are you concerned for your health? What medications are you taking? Are you acting on doctor’s orders? Are you dissatisfied with your body image? Have you gained weight? Are you spending too much money on alcohol? Are you broke? Are you depressed? Are you stressed? Does alcohol make you angry? Does it make you sad? Do you tend to cry after one too many martinis? (Yes.)

Bartenders are the only people who refrain from asking “why” when I order a soda water with lime at the bar. They know. Or they don’t need to know. And Thomas. My friend Thomas caught himself halfway through the question, blushed in that bashful way he does, and then promptly apologized. I thanked him.

Drinking is a social activity, but each individual’s relationship to alcohol is a profoundly personal matter. The appeal of alcohol is that it acts as a social lubricant, as inebriation effaces inhibitions. Each drink peels back the calcified layers of your (my) public persona, freeing the fleshy beast that lives inside your (my) social skin: lively, reckless, vulnerable, unafraid. But who is the beast (the creature, the kitten, the child) that comes out after dark with a glass in her (my) hand? Sometimes I don’t recognize her as myself.

My therapist asks me gently to close my eyes and imagine myself in a moment in the past where I felt other than myself. A little tipsy (wine tipsy, then gin tipsy), I am taking a selfie in the mirror of a bathroom in the basement of a gay bar in Kentucky. I am wearing a fantastic gold sequined dress and a faux leather motorcycle jacket with zippers. My lips are my favorite shade of red, and my friend Stephanie has curled and sprayed my hair into submission. It is early summer, and the humidity has made my dark eye makeup smudge a little. I pout a little. I jut out my hip a little, posing for nobody in the mirror. I try not to think about Lacan. Rimbaud comes to mind instead: Je est un(e) autre (“I is somebody else”). I send the picture to my friend Arielle back in Chicago, who compliments my hair.

Another “why” springs to mind. Why I am so offended when people ask me why I am not drinking? What insecurities am I projecting onto an altogether innocent, albeit unintentionally offensive, line of questioning? Why do I struggle to respond? What would my therapist say? Am I ashamed of my self-imposed sobriety? Is it perhaps true that I am punishing myself for my own misbehavior? Am I afraid of some lurking danger, or the crumbling of the walls that I have constructed around my depression? Will I cry if I have one more martini? (Yes.)

It takes incredible willpower to abstain from alcohol while living in Paris. At lunch at Le Tourne Bouchon in Montparnasse after our weekly Derrida seminar, the matronly hostess distributes complimentary glasses of kir, a French cocktail made with blackcurrant liqueur and white wine. I discreetly pass mine to my neighbor. Then comes the wine, a fat pitcher of red for each table, then another when the first one runs out. Then comes a celebratory digestif, a shot of calvados apiece, in honor of Cynthia’s admittance into the Sorbonne.

I find excuses to avoid social engagements where I know alcohol will be served. I am incensed when the reception at the conference I am attending in London neglects to offer any non-alcoholic options. I sidestep the wine aisle at the grocery store, advertising this year’s batch of Beaujolais Nouveau. The nights are growing longer and the days are growing colder. I consume an excess of chocolate. I bury myself in my work and watch reruns of the Great British Baking show.

But I am being dramatic. The simple truth is that for the last three years, I have set aside a month each year to abstain entirely from alcohol. The initial decision came as a tacit acknowledgement that my former partner’s drinking problem had begun to distort my own relationship with alcohol. I encouraged him to follow my lead. He didn’t. I don’t think he could.

I was shocked by the changes that occurred in my body and mind that first month without alcohol. My skin cleared up, my waistline shrunk, and the dark circles under my eyes disappeared. In its sudden absence, I became aware that I had been struggling with insomnia for months. I could sleep again. I could read again. My focus improved. My temper cooled. And in the dark and dead of winter in Chicago, my depression mercifully subsided.

One more “why” imposes itself. Why, with this knowledge about what alcohol does to my body and my brain, would I continue to drink at all after my dry month is up? Why not stop drinking altogether? I like to think that my annual abstinence allows me to recalibrate my relationship to alcohol and to establish healthier habits, but sometimes I’m not sure.

I remember telling my friend Sean in the backseat of a Lyft in Chicago that I was a little afraid to move to place where it was always sunny because I might discover that my depression ran deeper than the unforgiving Midwestern weather. He said it was the saddest thing he had ever heard. I wonder if the same might be said about alcohol. If I can impose order on just one of my vices, even temporarily, then I don’t have to address issues that are harder to cure than a hangover.

The first month I abstained entirely from alcohol, in January 2015, I marveled at the immediate improvements in my physical and mental health. But I am coming to acknowledge that true spiritual healing, the kind I am working on weekly with my therapist, requires a more holistic approach, one that involves the occasional glass (or bottle, with friends) of wine.

Thanksgiving City: On Everyday Gratitude

Last week, in observance of Thanksgiving, the American expat blogosphere was flooded with its annual outpouring of heartfelt expressions of gratitude. While I recognize the sincerity of my fellow bloggers, and I share their desire to celebrate Thanksgiving, especially in the absence of the culinary comforts of home (shout out to my partner, Adam, who brought me canned pumpkin from Chicago so I could bake homemade pumpkin pie for my cohort in Paris), does the blogosphere really need another post listing hastily composed truisms in thanks for family, freedom, and health? And do we really need to wait until Thanksgiving to acknowledge how fortunate we are?

I am, of course, thankful for the support of my family, my social circle, and my loving partner, the financial security and powerful passport that grant me freedom of movement, and my strong health despite a broken healthcare system in the United States. But this Thanksgiving, I want to focus on a few of the everyday aspects of living abroad for which I am truly grateful.

1. Butter

The other day I went to my local supermarket, Les 5 Fermes on the Avenue Secrétan, and discovered that the shelves in the butter cooler were almost entirely empty. It was a deeply disconcerting sight. A notice was posted discreetly in the top corner of the cooler door, informing customers of a countrywide butter shortage. With a slump in European dairy production and a surge in worldwide demand, France is facing something of a culinary crisis.

The International Dairy Federation reports that the French, on average, consume a heaping eighteen pounds of butter per capita each year, a five percent increase from 2013. In response to the butter shortage, local news outlets offered suggestions for butter replacements, including avocado, zucchini, oil, fresh cream, or almond paste; another published a step-by-step guide to churning your own homemade butter. Fake advertisements surfaced on social media selling small quantities of butter for exorbitant prices, and a group of artists produced a satirical film imagining what would happen if butter ran out in Brittany, the salted butter capital of France.

The French take their butter very seriously. Legend has it that the Gothic renovation of the Rouen cathedral in the fifteenth century was funded in part by donations from wealthy citizens in return for the privilege of eating butter during Lent, which had been banned during the religious fast by the Catholic Church.

Imagine for a moment a France without butter, which is to say, a France without croissants, mille-feuilles, or upside-down apple cake, without buttered baguette sandwiches with cured ham, without escargot simmered in garlic butter with herbs, without steaks topped with a thick slab of beurre Bercy that marinates the red meat as it melts, without Julia Child’s famous beurre blanc sauce, served over scallops, salmon, cod, or asparagus.

This Thanksgiving, in light of the recent dairy shortage (and also in honor of my mother, who developed an aggressive intolerance to lactose in her forties), I am thankful for butter, which is to say, the decadence of French gastronomy and the pride that the French taken in their culinary culture and regional cuisine. On a related note, I am also thankful for my gym and my dedicated running group. After our long runs on Saturday mornings, we celebrate at a local café, Le Cercle du Luxembourg, with a post-run breakfast of baguette tartines spread thickly with, well, butter, of course.

2. The 1981 Lang Law

On August, 10, 1981, the French government enacted a regulation known as the “Lang Law,” which regulates the price of printed material across France, regardless of where they are published or sold, allowing for a maximum of discount of 5% off of the price set by the publisher. Regulating the price of printed materials has allowed independent bookshops to compete against industry giants, supporting an atmosphere of intellectual pluralism and the decentralization of information distribution across France.

“This [regulatory] system,” argues the Syndicat National de l’Édition (“National Federation of Publishers”) in favor of the Lang Law, “is founded on a refusal to consider books as a banalized commodity, only responding to the [market] demands of immediate profitability. Indeed, pricing discounts can lead, in the long term, to the rarefaction of available titles, in favor of texts with a quick market turnaround that are popular with a mass audience (bestsellers, guides, etc), and to the detriment of original works.” In the age of Amazon (remember when Amazon was just an online bookseller?), the Lang Law has continued to encourage the publication of consequential, courageous, and creative works and in France.

I am thankful this Thanksgiving for the Lang Law, and by extension, for the plethora of independent booksellers in the French capital, which increasingly represent the rich diversity of French and Francophone voices. Just last Thursday, while wandering through Gibert Joseph in the sixth arrondissement, as I often do, I almost scooped up an entire shelf of modern French philosophy (I settled on two volumes of Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit (“Time and Narrative”) and Algerian author Assia Djebar’s last book, Nulle part dans la maison de mon père (“Nowhere in My Father’s House”), all for less than twenty euros!). On a related note, I am also thankful for the pocket editions of popular French titles, which are the perfect size for train reading and whose uniform aesthetic and dimensions appeal immensely to my obsessive-compulsive sensibilities.

3. Net Neutrality and VPNs 

Last Tuesday, Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), released a proposal that would dismantle landmark net neutrality regulations enacted under the administration of President Obama in 2015.

If you are unfamiliar with the expression “net neutrality,” please immediately watch these three John Oliver clips explaining the concept in comic yet immensely clarifying terms (links to Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” content here, here, and here). To summarize, net neutrality prevents Internet Service Providers (ISPS) from reducing or restricting access to digital content or services, including competitors’ content or dissident political opinions, or offering a fee-based “fast lane” for users willing to pay for preferential treatment online. By obstructing the creation of a stratified cyberspace, net neutrality levels the digital playing field, ensuring that everyone from industry giants to struggling academics and humble bloggers (like me!) can access the digital content and services on equal terms. For more information on net neutrality, the Internet Society and the ACLU have both compiled excellent resource pages.

As Medium reported in June 2017, recent polls reveal “overwhelming support across party lines for net neutrality, with over three quarters of Americans (76%) supporting net neutrality. Eighty-one percent of Democrats and 73% of Republicans are in favor of it.” In its proposal to abolish net neutrality regulations, the FCC is acting in direct contradiction of the will of the vast majority of the American people.

As an American abroad, net neutrality is absolutely essential to my success as a scholar, the health of my long-distance relationships, and my ability to participate actively in American political discussions. Net neutrality ensures equal access to digital content necessary for my research without discriminatory firewalls. And net neutrality allows me to communicate efficiently and effectively with my family, friends, and loving partner back in the United States, day-to-day communications that would be thwarted by slow broadband access.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for our henceforth endangered net neutrality, but I am also, as a bonus, thankful for Virtual Network Providers (VPNs), which allow me to access American streaming services like Netflix and HBO that are otherwise unavailable on computers operating on foreign IP addresses. I get a lot of my news (and, in this interminable age of Trump, plenty of comic relief) from satirical news programs like Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “The Late Show.” VPNs allow me to stay connected to the American news cycle, as exasperating as it may be.

4. Heated Café Terraces 

Even before I moved from Ohio to Chicago, with its interminable winters and the occasional polar vortex or arctic blast—meteorological gimmicks that conceal how much it literally hurts to breathe when it is –16­ºF (–26.7ºC) outside—I knew that my mental health suffered during the winter. The cold and darkness of the winter months aggravate my depression, and by extension, fall becomes an agonizing waiting game, as the sunset creeps earlier and earlier over the horizon, a sunlight thief.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to my seasonal depression is the claustrophobic feeling of being cooped up inside. When the snow is up to your calves and a cruel wind is blowing off of Lake Michigan, its frigid waters coughing up chunks of ice onto the deserted beach, even the slightest errand feels like Roald Amundsen’s 1911 excursion to the South Pole. It takes so much mental and physical effort to leave the house in the winter that it is easier just to stay inside, even if it means skipping class and eating nothing but pasta for a week (Polar Vortex 2014).

In contrast to the humid continental climate of Chicago, Paris benefits from a mild oceanic climate, tempered by the North Atlantic Current. Even in the dead of winter, the temperature rarely dips below freezing, except occasionally at night, and fall slips so gradually, so gently, into winter that it hardly feels like an affront. The mere fact of being able to breathe outside without the searing lung pain of sub-zero temperatures (–17.8ºC) does wonders for my mental health.

If the greatest contributor to my seasonal depression is the claustrophobia that comes with being cooped up inside away from the cold, then the ability to walk and run and simply sit outside year-round in Paris comes as a great relief. It may seem trivial to some, but I have to express my genuine gratitude for the powerful heat lamps that radiate warmth onto every café terrace in Paris. To be able to sit outside on a café terrace with a crème or steaming glass of spiced vin chaud, to watch the world walk by while sheltered behind the pages of a book, to breathe in the aromas of Paris at the cusp of Christmas (smoked chestnuts, anise seed, orange liqueur), in short, to exist outside in the city, is a joy worthy of Thanksgiving.

5. The Nineteenth Arrondissement

Last February, while my friend Rachel was visiting me in Paris from New York, she observed with a bemusement that betrayed her big city sensibilities that Paris was more like a collection of contiguous neighborhoods than a city proper. I felt a twinge of resentment at her remark, because before Chicago, before New York, Paris was my first big city, my cosmopolitan ideal.

But while running last weekend through the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the nineteenth arrondissement—with its Sunday strollers, newspaper readers, and huddled lovers, its refreshing lack of tourists, with its tapas bar and café terraces, with its hidden waterfalls and wooded pathways, the startling view of Sacre Coeur in silhouette from the top of the imitation Italian temple constructed atop a rocky crag—I recognized, or rather, reconciled myself to the fact that Rachel was right after all. Paris is indeed an assortment of small neighborhoods, each arrondissement wheeling outwards from the Seine in a clockwise spiral.

This is one of the many paradoxes that I love most about Paris: its urban cosmopolitanism is ever humbled by the small-town charm of its neighborhoods, where small businesses and artisanal industries continue to thrive, where café servers know their clientele by name, where locals of all ages haul their shopping caddies to open-air markets on weekend mornings to stock up on fresh produce and bulk provisions for the coming week. For all its culture and sophistication, its arrogance and pretension, its gleaming luminaries of progress, Paris still can’t quite shake its provincial air, and for that, I admit I am grateful.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful to find myself living, almost by accident, in the nineteenth arrondissement, a modest working-class neighborhood on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. The nineteenth arrondissement has an understated appeal. There are no boutique culinary shops here, selling artisanal chocolate or expensive tea or organic olive oil, but on my street alone there is an excellent halal butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer, a wine seller, a cheese shop, and an African wholesale grocery that sells plantains and fresh sugar and bulgar wheat in bulk. I am thankful to live in a neighborhood where I feel like I am part of an authentic Parisian community.

Adopted City: On Coming Home to Paris after a Long Weekend in London

I will always remember the color of the sky on the March morning I first landed in Paris nine years ago, and the expression on the face of a fellow passenger, sitting one row behind me across the aisle, as he turned to contemplate the rosy pink dawn. After the long night of a transatlantic flight, his features suddenly softened, as though a great weight had been lifted. (It weighs you down, to feel foreign. Your skin turns to armor to shield against the assault of the unfamiliar; your tongue turns to stone.) The corners of his lips lifted subtly, not quite a smile, but enough that I knew from his expression that here was a man who was finally home. We never spoke, this stranger and I, but I think of him every time I return to Paris, whether I have been away for weeks or months or once, early in my graduate career, for over two years. Because somehow, like a begrudging stepparent, this foreign city has adopted me—or rather, I have adopted it—and to return here always feels like coming home.

Last week I took the Eurostar to London to attend the Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies conference at the University of London. The trip to London from Paris is so comparatively effortless by train that it is easy to forget that after two hours and fifty kilometers of darkness you will emerge on the other side of the English Channel in a foreign country. I don’t know what I was expecting. I thought perhaps that after months of living in France, in French, spending a few days in an English-speaking country would come as a relief, a kind of linguistic homecoming although an ocean away from my first home in America. But instead I was disoriented by a sudden awareness of my cultural difference, of being an American in England, of speaking our common language in a way that signaled the centuries of divergence between our countries’ respective cultures. I strained to understand the speech of my English counterparts, their language—our language—was suddenly incomprehensible, more foreign than French, my adopted tongue.

I didn’t set out to become a scholar of French. Although I studied French in high school, I entered the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University as an English major with an interest in Modernism in British literature. My literary awakening came with reading Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway as a teenager, and when I first visited London in June 2009, I was eager to follow in the footsteps of Clarissa Dalloway on her meandering walk from Westminster through St James Park and north on Bond Street to buy flowers near Hanover Square. Here at last, in brick and stone, was the city that had existed so vividly in my bookish imagination, the literary haven to which I had so often escaped through my reading.

Nearly a decade later, while passing through Russell Square on my way to the conference at the Senate House, I listened again for whispers of Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. After the death of their father in 1904, Virginia Stephen and her sister, Vanessa, moved to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury from their family home at Hyde Park Gate in Kensington. For Woolf, writes Lauren Elkin, “Bloomsbury was not only a geographical neighborhood but an abstract entity, an idea about creativity and bohemianism and an idea about freedom.” It was here in Bloomsbury, finally unfettered from her Victorian family home, that the young writer began haunting the streets of London on foot, an ambulatory freedom that would propel her literary project and inform the urban aesthetic of her writing.

Woolf describes her urban walker, a recurring figure in her novels and nonfiction, as “a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye,” having broken free from the “shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves.” In her 1930 essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” Woolf describes walking through the streets of London as form of transvestitism or shape-shifting: “We are no longer quite ourselves.” Walking in step with “that vast republican army of anonymous trampers” that populates the sidewalk, we transcend ourselves, not just reacting to the stimuli of the street but also transforming the public space through perceptive interactions.

Swept up in the stream of collective consciousness, Woolf goes on to question the ontological unity of the self: “Is the true self that which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. . . . But here [in the street] . . . we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being.”

In “Street Haunting,” Woolf’s narrator crosses London in search of a pencil, appropriately enough, and along the way she steps out of the current of the crowd into a second-hand bookshop, which doubles as a metaphor for the street. “There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf” that “in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. . . . Thus, glancing round the bookshop, we make other such sudden capricious friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely engraved, too, with a portrait of the author.”

How did I first meet my Virginia? Whose prescient hand first presented me with a worn copy of Mrs. Dalloway? Was it Mrs. Augspurger, my English teacher and running coach in high school, who thought to introduce me to Woolf’s work? Or like the narrator of “Street Haunting,” did I chance upon one her novels at the used bookshop in Wooster, Ohio, and find in her stream of consciousness the aesthetic expression of my own creative spring? I wish I could remember how it began, this “capricious friendship” with a “complete stranger,” whose cherished, vanished features I recall from George Charles Beresford’s 1902 black-and-white portrait of the author: Woolf, then Virginia Stephen, in profile, her gaze absent, her hair pulled back into a low bun at the nape of her slender neck.

Virginia Woolf

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941), 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I walked through Bloomsbury on my last trip to London, on my way to the British Museum, and I remember pausing on a bench in Russell Square to read a few pages of Woolf’s novel Orlando, contemplating my as yet closeted sexuality. Life, London, this moment of June (to quote a beloved passage from Mrs. Dalloway): could I have foreseen at that time, on the uncertain threshold between adolescence and adulthood, still fresh in my intellectualism without the disillusionments of academia, that I would choose Paris over London as my adopted city, that I would dedicate the next decade of my life to the study of French, that my street haunting would turn to flânerie? Perhaps, as Woolf writes in “Street Haunting,” “it is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace.”

I scheduled my conference travel to allow time for a walking tour of London, and when the Sandeman’s tour guide, Andy, asked the group where we were from, I surprised myself by responding, instinctively, “Paris.” As we walked east from Covent Garden along the Strand towards the historic center of the City of London, I kept my silence, afraid that my accent would give me away. Andy cast a knowing glance in my direction when he compared the architect Christopher Wren’s vision for the restoration of London following the Great Fire of 1666 to the urban renovation of Paris in the nineteenth century under the direction of Baron Haussmann. I later confessed, shamefully, that I was American, which of course he had quietly suspected.

To take up Woolf’s refrain from “Street Haunting,” which of these selves is the true one: the nineteen-year-old American steeped like strong tea in the literary heritage of British Modernism, or nine years later, the American nodding knowingly during a presentation on cultural pluralism in Paris during an conference on regional, national and global identities in the Francophone world?What varied and wandering path did I take from Bloomsbury in London to the Quartier Latin in Paris? Or, as Woolf writes, “is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there,” but somewhere in between, with rocks in my pockets in the rough waters between two continents, swept out to sea by the receding tide?

It was raining when I left London. I was relieved when the train attendant in the international terminal at St Pancras addressed me in French, the foreign language that I have adopted as my own. It felt like stepping into a warm river, pulling me gently into its familiar current, its cadence reminiscent of home.

Back in Paris, the Gare du Nord smelled like it always does, of disinfectant disguising years of smoke, with the usual riffraff loitering out front soliciting cigarettes and sexual favors from strangers. The tumult and riot and busyness of it all, as Woolf would have said, reminded me that I was home, because these are the streets that I have mapped in my mind through my relentless pedestrian wanderings. I stepped out onto the Rue de Dunkerque and walked home in the Parisian night.