I’ve lived in Paris for nine years now, but I’m still often not sure what goes on here. The other evening I was sitting around a table in someone’s beautiful house listening to some Parisians having a political argument. One of them was a man who spoke at length whenever he got a chance. Then, the moment he’d finished, he’d get on his BlackBerry and check his messages, ignoring whoever was trying to reply to him.
At first I couldn’t understand why everyone kept responding to the rude bloke. Eventually it dawned on me: he must have status in Paris. I Googled him later, and found that he was a rising young politician. I’d had no idea. As an expat, you are freed from two blights that afflict people who live in their own countries: the “status dance” and the “media bubble”.
When I still lived in Britain, I was a victim of both. As a journalist, I’m a media junkie, and so I always knew who was up and who was down in each day’s British news cycle. I knew who the transport secretary was, and what their scandals were. The British media bubble is so big (almost as big as the British housing bubble) that it enveloped me wherever I went. I remember one day landing at Luton airport, getting on the airport bus and hearing the latest “news” about the Beckhams blaring from the bus driver’s radio. Living in the media bubble means having a constant dreadful ringing sound in your ears. It’s like having tinnitus.
If you are in the media bubble, the status dance follows automatically. Mostly, what the media do is track people’s rising or falling status. When you meet someone in your own country, you don’t just see the person. You see their status too. They wear it like a hat.
Moving to Paris, I escaped all that. The French have their own fully fledged status dance (one rule of which seems to be that only people who live in Paris have status), but it means nothing to me. The French media bubble is smaller and less tenacious than the British one, but in any case I rarely read French newspapers or watch French TV and so I have no idea who is up and who is down. I gather French people fuss about Carla Bruni and Michèle Alliot-Marie (“MAM” to insiders). It passes me by. Living here, my tinnitus has almost entirely cleared up.
I can still see if someone is good-looking or nice or funny, but I don’t know what it means if they live in a certain neighbourhood or went to a certain school or know someone who is purportedly famous in France. Here, I can only dimly infer somebody’s status from their self-importance, and from the reactions of other people. I see who people look at during a conversation, whose jokes they laugh at, and I presume that’s where status lies. But I don’t care.
Nobody in Paris knows if I have status either (though they can probably guess). I think that’s what the American writer James Baldwin meant when he said he was always grateful to Paris for the utter indifference with which it treated him.
Living here, my head is free. I think that’s what another American writer in Paris, Gertrude Stein, meant when she said, “It’s not what France gave you but what it did not take from you that was important.” Better yet, I’ve lost track of the British media bubble and status dance. I no longer know who the transport secretary is, or what their scandals are.
I should hastily add that I’m not urging anyone to stop buying newspapers. Au contraire. In Paris I remain a media junkie. But because I no longer track the status dance, I’m now free to read media strictly because they are good. I read The New Yorker, or the London Review of Books, and it’s better for me.
Pico Iyer, in his book The Global Soul, captured the advantages of being an alien. After shacking up with a Japanese woman, he ended up living “in a two-room apartment in the middle of rural Japan, in a modern mock-Californian suburb”. Iyer speaks almost no Japanese, and regards this as a liberation. “Being surrounded by a language I can’t follow means, at the lowest level, that I can sleep while the television’s going full blast (so long as it’s not in English), and am never disturbed by all the chatter outside my window about O.J. or Diana’s death.” On visits to English-speaking countries, Iyer finds that “the extra words (the extra goods) get in the way”.
Living in Paris is almost as good. Now we just need to shut down the internet (the Chinese government is working on it) and my tinnitus should be completely cured.