The pain of loss

I’m midway through my second year in Paris and I’ve begun to experience something I rarely did during my time in the States: losing people to moves.  When I was younger this was because I was always the one on the move, either due to my family’s movements or my own moves for work or school.  As I got older, I lived among more stable populations and hence rarely attended “going away” parties because no one was going anywhere.

Before I moved to Paris I spent 7 years in Kansas City, which straddles the large Midwestern American states of Kansas and Missouri.  It is a wonderful place to live and raise a family, and consequently, most everyone stays.  In my time there I don’t think I knew one person who moved away.  And yet I’ve already lost a friend to Nice just this month, and between now and September I expect to lose 4 more.  Some have work assignments ending or visas that expire and they have not begun the work to try to stay.  Others are just choosing to move on.  No matter the reason, it hurts to lose friends to moves.

There are dozens of reasons, always particular to the individual.  I don’t expect everyone – in fact I don’t expect many – to move to Paris with the deep-in-the-bones conviction that they will live there forever.  Since so many come for work it is rare to find that happy coincidence of dream city and fulfilling work (which is why I advocate moving to your dream city and creating your own work) and hence if a more alluring city or job presents itself, Paris can be left behind.

I’m willing to admit that while everyone’s decision to leave Paris can be attributed to individual circumstances, there are recurring themes which I can share with you.  I’ll also try to suggest remedies when it makes sense.

Distance from the city

My friend Anaïs, who left for the south of France last week, has sworn off ever again living in the suburbs.  “I could never do anything at night in Paris,” she opined at lunch.  Since she lived 20 minutes outside Paris she was limited by whenever the final train for her stop left in the evenings, typically some time before midnight.  People can get twice the space for the same price, but it’s not Paris.  I don’t see how one can fall in love with this city when you don’t live inside it, and when you don’t love something, it’s easy to leave it.

Cost of living

I always gamely smile when I hear this, in part because it’s really only the rents that are expensive in Paris, and even then it lags far behind Tokyo, Hong Kong, NYC, and San Francisco.  Super high-speed internet?  15€/month.  Fresh baguette? 1€.  Freshly-pulled espresso at the bar? 1,50€.  1 L of organic milk? 2,50€.  Three course meal at an authentic French restaurant?  24€.  Unlimited travel on the metro, buses, and trains, and 45 minutes per day on the city bikes?  70€/month.  Those are just a few of the things in Paris that are cheaper than what I paid in the States, and specifically in regards to the transport issue, entire costs I used to have are simply gone now, like car insurance, oil changes, gasoline, and the occasional car wash.  Yes, Paris has its expensive sides, but if you are willing to try new/challenging/different living situations you can not only survive, but thrive here.

The Rush

I’ve addressed this in a previous piece.  If you work in one of these nonstop jobs and you aren’t planning and saving for a great escape or a new life, either leave Paris or quit your job, but don’t keep doing what you’re doing.  You’re making yourself miserable and while only the Japanese currently have a word for “death by overwork” (karoshi) it doesn’t mean you are immune to the condition.

Time for a change

This has to be the most valid reason to leave, if you’re really feeling it.  I’ve heard it said that if you’re always dreaming of your next vacation, perhaps you need to change where you live, since you keep wishing to leave it.  I firmly believe that once you are in a place you truly want to be, you’ll find yourself exploring it endlessly, and won’t have to look exteriorly for fulfillment and joy.  This doesn’t mean you’ll cut travel out entirely, but I’ve observed within myself a huge slowdown in travel, and I think this is because I’m settled and happy here.

Everyone is leaving!

Well, I suppose this presumes a greater existential question of “What is a Parisian?”  I know at least 6 people who have lived in Paris their entire lives and half of them don’t really know or love this city at all.  There are “permanents” in Paris (I aspire to be one) but a lot of us came here because we were inspired by what we thought Paris might be like as a residence, not just enamored of what we had experienced in Paris as breathless tourists.

The remedy for this objection is something I am prescribing for myself as well: not so much to close yourself off to new friendships, but covet, guard and develop those more closely that are with those who you suspect are here for the long term.  You can’t escape the pain of losing special people as they move, but you’ll have the consolation of adding friends from all around the world who you might visit on your travels, and you’ll know that when you see them again you’ll be able to pick up on something you’ll always have in common: Paris.

I live in a different Paris than you do…

“And you know, Paris is all metro and work and the run-around.”

He used the famous idiom “Metro-boulot-dodo” which is a colloquialism that is literally “subway-work-sleep” that indicates the grind of life for many in the City of Light.  We were high in the French Alps, not far from the Italian border, but quite a distance away from home, and yet the complaint was similar: “I used to think Paris was magic, but now it’s just a place I work and pay bills.”

I tried to hide my dismay at hearing this, because no one should live in a place that one doesn’t love, if it can be avoided.  It’s socially acceptab2014-04-08 13.57.40le to tell people you moved to a dreadful city for a job but it’s some revolutionary concept to tell people you moved someplace for the city and who cared about the job?  It would come.

Now, I’m not pretending that everyone can have a great amount of time wealth/lifestyle in the world’s finest cities, but if you are going to bother to live there, to “put up” with the cost of living, it’s surely a great shame if you can never enjoy it.

Now, the first time I heard this complaint was from a lady who attended my Paris Culture Lovers meetup who rather sourly 2014-03-28 13.24.00complained about her schedule as I described my own, which included grocery shopping, visiting parks and museums, and riding a Velib during “off hours” – when everyone was at work from 9-5.  While I was a bit taken aback at her tirade, even though I’ve become very used to the French complaining (it’s a national art and sport), especially since she chose to move to Paris 15 years ago – for work – I avoided what would have been a typical American retort: “Well why don’t you do something about it instead of just complaining to 10 near-strangers about it?”  I said it another way to my friend Julia last month: “The French as a people would rather complain about what they don’t have than take responsibility for building their dreams.”  Instead, I just managed to stutter, “I guess…I guess I just live in a different Paris than you do.”

Since my current conversant was French I decided to take a different tack and asked him how he planned to break the cycle.  He shared some great ideas, but unsurprisingly, had not done any real research into those ideas.

2014-04-14 12.29.22***

Okay, Stephen, so people quit their miserable city jobs, then what?  Look, I don’t know.  I’m not advocating that everyone quit his/her respective jobs.  I’m just asking the serious and adult series of questions: what is the life you want for yourself?  Are you living it now?  If not, why not?  Do you have any plan or timeline in which you will be living the life you want?  Does it solely hinge on money?  Have you rethought that?

Surely life is more than paying rent or a mortgage.  Our time on this magnificent planet is too short and brief to spend focusing on the life you don’t have.  Start creating the life you desire and marvel at how much the journey alone will prepare you to enjoy what awaits your sacrifices.  I’m reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The obstacle is the way.

2014-04-18 19.48.52-2The photos are all ones I took this time last year, when Spring had definitely arrived.  For now they are consoling me that we are almost there, as Winter is staying too long this year.

Je ne suis pas Charlie: why I’m not marching in Paris tomorrow

This shrine, among others, was set up around Place de Republique this evening.  I had used the spot as a convenient place to meet two friends before dinner at my favorite Cambodian place in Paris.  I had completely forgotten Republique’s status as a shrine for the Left (there is a huge monument to “Liberty” in the middle of the square) and since I had not been avidly following the Charlie Hebdo news, I didn’t realize how decked out it would be: candles, pictures, drawings, graffiti.  People had plastered bulletins of Voltaire mouthing the now eponymous, “Je suis Charlie” all around the monument.  The devotion reminded me of a much smaller “shrine” in the largest cemetery in Paris, in Pere Lachaise, at the grave of Oscar Wilde.  When I first gazed at all the lipstick marks at his grave, I felt the same feeling I felt just a few hours ago witnessing all the people milling around the monument, around all the reporters doing stand-up interviews with whomever was around (hopefully you would be holding a child, showing that you were “teaching” your kids how to “stand up” to violence): bemusement.

While I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most empathetic of souls, I did feel the normal disgust at a senseless loss of human life.  Any civilized person would.  But then there’s what comes after.  Would I stand up for or march in “solidarity” with “free speech,” for a disgusting magazine, and for a national security policy that is essentially tone-deaf to the unique and challenging situation that is militant Islam (hopefully France doesn’t call it “workplace violence“)  Quite definitely, non.  If I’m going to march it’s not going to be to soak myself in some gooey sentiment of “solidarity,” but because I truly and deeply believe in something.  Because I would be willing to be tear-gassed and arrested for it.  Was I going to march for people who taunted Muslims with outrageous cartoons?  No way.  But before we even get to that, I suppose we should address what this is being universally painted as: an attack on capital F, capital S: Free Speech.

The media and governments and many of the “Je suis Charlie” drones (some of whom I count as friends!) push the idea that this was an attack on free speech.  I dispute that, but I suppose I should admit at the outset that I don’t accept the notion of free speech, either intellectually or practically.  It’s gospel to many people, as certain a value as 2+2 equaling 4 or the sun rising in the east, but to me it’s an abhorrent and dishonest modern fantasy: something that protects the prose of a child molester extolling the virtues of pedophilia in the same manner as that of a nun speaking about outreach to the poor and abused.  In a nation (and city) in which egalité is literally carved into stone, the idea of many ideas having “equal value” resonates – but perhaps because it is taken for granted it is never truly scrutinized.  “Free Speech” is a lie the West tells itself, and then is shocked when others don’t accept it as gospel truth.

So there’s my first stumbling block to the #jesuischarlie movement: I don’t accept the so-called “Western value” of “free speech.”  I think that there are ideas that are dangerous and words that are beyond the most foul and disgusting and rather than buy into a system where I accept that all ideas are equal (something I can barely type!) I accept that some things are beautiful and should be protected and some things are vile and disgusting and should be discarded.  The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo fall into the latter category.

That’s the second problem – while I find their cartoons disgusting (I cannot even bring myself to describe the Christian “satire” that this rag of a publication has served up) I do not believe that their pictures should have carried a death sentence.  But I do think the editorial staff knew what they were doing and in the French tradition of “brave journalism” were “daring” to do things that upset people, and they knew what might happen.  A true “Western value” (read: values derived from Christianity) is respect for life and we try, prosecute, and in some places in the world, execute murderers.  We don’t tolerate the wanton murder of people.  Yet, saying Je suis Charlie precisely means you are standing up for the disgusting values this magazine propagated (calling the magazine the French version of the American Onion is not just American oversimplification at its worst, its simply inaccurate).  Saying “Je suis Charlie” extends beyond the borders of empathy for the murdered to solidarity for their work, which was, at its very best, highly questionable, and at its worst despicable and wantonly provocative.

Finally, “Je suis Charlie” insouciantly marches with banners of “we are not afraid” while failing to examine the real problem: militant Islam.  NPR Americans whose “Muslim friends” eat bacon will tell you that Islam is a religion of peace, but those who have read history, have actually read the Koran, and know the violent arc that is the founding and ongoing mission that is Islam know otherwise.  When someone in New York whose name isn’t even remembered does an art exhibit depicting a crucifix in a jar of urine, does anyone fear reprisals from Christian terror groups?  No.  Because there aren’t any roaming around or training in special terrorist training camps!  There isn’t anything in the Christian New Testament that instructs Christians to convert people by any means necessary, up to and including the threat of murder.  This week France, when confronted with an Islamic terrorist attack, reacted the same way that England and Spain did when they experienced their own attacks in their own cities: explained how this had nothing to do with Islam, took no responsibility for military policy in the Middle East that stirred up such hatred and violence, and then pivoted to say this is a “terrorist” issue, without taking the time to point out this is a uniquely ISLAMIC issue.

Something that the West does well, for better or for worse, is tolerance.  We may not agree with you and may even disagree with you on fundamental human matters, but we will live in peace with you as long as you observe our laws.  The people who committed these murders trained in places where it is a crime to possess a crucifix!  Western governments have the opportunity to take a long hard look at this and ask if this is a problem of “religious fundamentalism” (something bland and generic that implies there could be such things as buddhist terrorists or hindu terrorists that are operating on even a fraction of the scale of Islamic terrorists) or of “Islam and the West.”  Those who’ve read history know that the Muslims tried and failed dozens of times over centuries to militarily invade Western Europe, conquer it, and put it under the Crescent.  It failed, perhaps most famously, on a 9/11 few know about, the night in 1683 when Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, arrived at the gates of Vienna to successfully repel the Muslim invasion.

The Muslims are no longer at the gates of Vienna.  They don’t need to invade Europe because they are already here and they will simply not permit “free speech” that mocks their religious beliefs.  You can say what you want about these men, but they truly believe in what their religion professes in its scriptures.  As for the West, it has to decide whether it will keep pretending to be shocked when these things occur or actually start to formulate public policies that take into account the realities of Islam instead of the lies we tell ourselves about that religion.  The march tomorrow blithely ignores that reality, preferring instead sentiment and tears.  There is a time for such things.  Then there is the time to fix public policy so that such things don’t happen again.  Je suis Charlie sure is catchy, but it doesn’t even begin to address any of the problems this horrific event has laid bare.

NYC: Parisians’ Delight

I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States.  Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York.  Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC.  And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.

While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”

The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked.  That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view.  Some commonalities:

1.  NYC is the only American city he/she has visited

2.  While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.

3.  He/she was there for a week or less

These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Cloisters.  And the High Line.  And Brooklyn.  The Park.  Washington Square.  The MET and all the things that make NYC great.  But it’s not our finest city.  That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time).  For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.

The cityscape itself

NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like.  There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels.  Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.

I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings.  But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.

The melting pot

On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.”  Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires.  Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales.  If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux.  Or Bayeux.  Or Grenoble.  Or Strasbourg.  Those are all “European cities.”  But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.

London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers.  Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture.  And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too.  But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture?  NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself.  It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.

The cost of living

One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value.  You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂  It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.

A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world).  Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.

This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US.  This HuffPo list might be the place to start.

NYC: hardly the most European city in America.  It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂