Je est un autre
– Rimbaud, age 16
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem
– Lauryn Hill, ageless
About ten days ago I wandered into a small vintage clothing shop hidden in one of the cobblestone lanes of the 4th arrondissement. The clothing-addicted have a nose for such locations. Almost immediately upon my arrival in Paris some time before I had realized the unsurprising fact that I would never, ever, for even a moment be warm during my long stay in the great city. Between my weight (low in the States, normal in Paris), my health (not great by any Western measure), and my general constitution (vata vata vata, as my Ayurvedic doctor says), I seek heat like a lizard and am forever chilled like a Maltese left out in the rain.
Because I am a person of conflict, like everyone else, and I was inhabiting for awhile a culture that recognizes no problem with conflict, particularly of the inward sort, or of the moral sort, I found my almost-vegan self yearning for the embrace of old vintage fur. The heat, the soft aura of illumination fur grants to its owner (look briefly at your cat, in any light but total darkness – he glows), the beauty and the enfolding grace of an old well made coat: I couldn’t, could I? The animals, even though they were slaughtered long ago, and for the bodies of many women before me (oh, but I love that part) – they are still victims of vanity, of fashion, of desire and human power.
One can look. As I traced the lines of soft pelts rich with differing histories but all bearing the same odd, pleasantly musty smell of true vintage, I heard a man speaking to the storekeeper. He was one of those irritating types one finds in probably every culture: a lingerer, a constant commentator, filters permanently set to low.
In this case, a German! Speaking with great authority to the beautiful black man with gorgeous blonde dread locks behind the counter about racism, and the word – dare I write it – no. The word n—-r. He was speaking about hip-hop and his love of hip-hop, and that white people now say the word with regularity because hip-hop has made the word belong more to the general culture than a specific, black culture. The man behind the counter, sweet, tolerant, probably unable to hear everything the German was saying because of the astonishingly loud, quite good hip-hop playing on the stereo (heavy on the word n—r), nodded in agreement, and said he thought perhaps things were “softening.”
And then the German turned his attention toward me. Speaking in a loud tone, believing either that I was deaf or spoke no English or was too passive to respond, he began a long explication to his patient friend about why I look beautiful in grey, but my boots are bad, and that I should buy the black fur (yes, by then on my body) instead of the white, etc etc.
Does one harden or laugh, when being gauged so openly by the male gaze? A few years ago I would have been traumatized, embarrassed, perhaps felt harassed and guilty – so often women feel guilty because of the judgment or actions of men. We live our lives inverted, in a permanent handstand of upside-down, confused vision. Put as simply as possible, it is so very difficult to be clear about oneself when one lives primarily in a world created in its essence by the Other.
Difficult but not impossible, as I am learning through age. So it was at this moment I turned to the vulgar German and the lovely Rasta and started telling them my opinion of the word I won’t even write, and how it is perceived in this country. At first the good German blanched (he thought I was Italian), and then quickly recovered, and for the next 15 minutes or so the three of us had a lively discussion, a bit in French, mostly in English, sadly no German which probably would have been best, about the nature of race and the problems with linguistic ownership of a particular phrase or word, and the cultural weight and history such words possess.
And then with equal intensity my new German friend switched suddenly the subject to me, and began dissecting my clothing with the same blunt honesty with which we had just been speaking about politics and culture. I just as bluntly argued back, and it was all wonderfully intimate, polite, totally honest and extremely impersonal all at the same time. The way conversation should be, I think, and never is in the places I inhabit in this country. What is the rule? We don’t talk politics or religion at the dinner table? The inverse seems true in France, which of course has solved none of their entrenched problems but makes the country that much more irresistible to me.
The sun was setting, it was time to be off. I had a lusciously long walk ahead of me, back through the 3rd, into my favorite part of the city, the sacred ancient island, and then on up to the Cluny, eerie in the twilight, and down the forever elegant blvd. Saint Germain, off of which I had found a perfect little flat down the Rue de Seine.