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Author: William A. Stein
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"One American in Paris"
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The following essay by Steinbeck comes from a collection of essays by various authors in Holiday in France (Houghton Mifflin 1957, 142-153). As usual, Steinbeck explores just what it might mean to call oneself an American. Rather than taking the common approach of ridiculing the tourist, Steinbeck defends their efforts to broaden their experience of the world often at great expense to their ordinary incomes. (William Lederer and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American was published a year later and became a bestseller.)
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Steinbeck's experiences in Paris will seem quite different from those of Ernest Heminway, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, or James Joyce in the 1920s. Not only does Steinbeck visit Paris thirty years after these other authors, he also visits as a rich American celebrity.
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It would be ridiculous for me to try to write anything new or original about Paris. In all the world no city has been so loved and so celebrated. Indeed the traveler comes soon to feel that he is received into the arms of this city which is so much more than a city. I imagine that many Americans come to Paris for its restaurants, its gaiety, its beauty. For myself, when I come back to Paris I feel that I am always coming home. I love the good food too and the beauty but I invariably find myself drawn to the Ile de la Cit�, that stone ship of the Seine whose cargo has gone to the whole world. I love this island, I love the music in stone which is Notre-Dame. I rejoice in the little streets and houses which are the material memories of another time. But the relationship goes farther than this. The Ile is holy ground. Here the thinking of the Western World was born--the brave thinking arduously rising out of the noble ruins of Rome and Greece. Here the great ones sorted over the pieces of the past, chose the valid, cast aside the gross, added their own new ingredient and drew a cold world to warm itself at the new fire. And surely the Ile spilled over to the banks and coursed out, but here, right here, physically under my feet, the miracle happened--not quickly but with the incredible labor of birth and growth. I have read of the French Gothic that it draws the eyes to heaven, that it defies or seems to the laws of weight, and the limitations of stone. It seems to me that Notre-Dame and its brothers are the symbols of that exuberant thought.
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But the great churches are only one symbol--my own thinking, my own conceptions, are no less the products of this tiny island, when the fabric of man's relation to man was picked apart and rewoven with the new thread of responsibility. Here the conception of liberty was born--not only political liberty but the enormous conception that the individual mind of man had not only the right but the duty to rove the world and dig into the heavens. This Island raised the heavy sky and kicked out the close horizons. This is indeed holy ground.
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My sons are too little for abstractions but I can take them to the Ile and raise for their delight the lovely ghosts. Here where you stand Caesar stood; here Richard of the Lion Heart trotted his heavy charger over the cobbles. Right here Francis the First walked with perhaps little Leonardo at his side and here Ab�lard pushed back his hood and raised his voice. My boys love this pageantry. And later we walk down to the river and sit on the stone and let our feet dangle over the water. We wait patiently for some of the many fisherman to catch a fish and when some tiny thing is hooked we run to examine and to congratulate. The minnow is a triumph beyond which the big game fisherman cannot rise. Kicking our heels against the stone we watch the barges moving by, the laundry drying on the deck and the seeming sweet, slow life of the bargemen. Sometimes we can smell the soup cooking in the galley and through a window see the sturdy wife, her sleeves rolled up, stirring the pot. Then there is excitement, another fisherman has landed a fierce fish as big as his little finger.
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Sitting there I had a horrid thought, a mean and malicious thought and I told it to a French friend. "What would happen," I asked, "if I should go to an aquarium and buy a live trout of thrity centimeters--then bring it concealed to the embankment, put a hook in its mouth and throw it living into the river? I would then play it with courage and finally land the beauty."
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"Oh! My friend," my companion cried, "put this thought from your mind. Promise me you will never do it."
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"But what would happen?"
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My friend said seriously, "Fifty fishermen, the flower of Seine fishermen--men of integrity and seriousness--would commit suicide."
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We walk past the bird market. We are always just about to buy a bird--only our inability to decide which bird deters us. We want them all...
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How this island, this magic ship calls to me when I am away from it. How it reassures me that the world is not about to disappear, and that men and ideas are eternal. And this island set in its timeless river proves to me that I am small but reassures me that I am important.
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And I will not catch the trout.
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I do not see enough of Paris, I am told, to write about Paris, particularly for Parisians. Sometimes I do not leave my terrace, or if I do, only to go to the kiosk on the corner for a paper or to the Tabac for Gauloises--or perhaps to walk a few miles of ordinary streets looking in the windows of stores, looking at other people looking in stores. I should learn the real Paris.
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I know a small bar on the Left Bank--only four tables on the sidewalk, near one of the Seine bridges. In an hour of sitting there I have witnessed four accidents, minor ones, and refereed their passionate resolution in which emotion and logic have drawn my applause. This is not the real Paris.
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I have peeked in windows, stumbled into courtyards, watched with aesthetic lasciviousness the lovely legs and the undulating progress of young women who measure the pavement as an inchworm measures a leaf. This is not the real Paris.
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I have eaten too much in small restaurants where the food was so delicious that one would prefer to die of overeating rather than to miss the next flavor. But this is not a real Paris restaurant. I have missed the essence.
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For an hour I have watched a man on the street selling small dancing figures, secretly actuated by a thread behind his back. This is not Paris.
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I have strolled among mountains of vegetables and surreptitiously pinched a cabbage or scorned with sophistication an artichoke (of the species of an ancient camel). This is not Paris.
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I have ached with tired people coming from work pushing the pedals of their bicycles like rundown mechanical toys and I have stood beside a despairing workman and with the wine in both of us, helped him to denounce "them"--the "them" who make life hard--the rich and powerful and heartless. This is not Paris.
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And I have lived regally too--have emerged from an expensive maison of intolerance, accompanied by beautiful and sweet-smelling women, and have seen in the dawn light the look of the tumbrel in the eyes of people going to work.
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I hardly dare mention an experience or a place because it is not the right place nor the true experience. What in the name of Parisii is the real Paris? If I descend into the sewers--they are the wrong sewers. An abbatoir? I should have seen them kill horses. The National Assembly? Wrong day--I should have seen it last week.
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I know the answer. No Paris I can see is the real Paris except to me--I must learn to be sure of this. Paris is the personal and private property of each one of millions of Parisians, and not one of them will tolerate my tampering with his Paris. I have only one choice. I must get a little Paris of my own and defend it against all others as the real Paris.
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In the gray dawn I dress and go to walk because sleep seems irrelevant. The pigeons stalk along like stallions and the sparrows are fighting so fiercely on the pavement that I must walk around them. I smell new-baked bread and see dear women scuttling home holding the long loaf under their shawls. The pink light behind blackens the chimney pots and the curious perfume of morning delights the air so that an excited wind rises and subsides. My friend of the kiosk takes down her shutters and arranges her papers. A taxi cruises by, the driver glancing hopefully towards me, until he sees by my gait that I am going out, not coming home.
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I do not speak French. I have been told by many that because of this I can never know Paris. But I am coming to believe that because of this I can see a kind of Paris more clearly. I am not confused by words. I can see color and line and movement, can hear the overtone of speech without being drawn into it. The city is music of one piece to me, with no part overemphasized.
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I stop for coffee. A heavy-eyed waiter patiently corrects my pronunciation and spills my cup. There is a picture theater next door. A girl comes hurrying along her way to work...perhaps to an office, or behind the counter of a store. She pauses and looks around herself to see that her stocking seams are straight, then hurries on until the photographs in front of the theater draw her. She stands and studies them--an Italian actress of pneumatic proportions.--a girl straightens her shoulders and throws out her bust. A sultry child from the great wise world of Hollywood--my girl tosses her head. A leading man, black-haired, black-eyed, black passionate, stares at my girl from the picture until her lashes droop and she offers promise for promise and her hand rises to her upflung hip--for a moment. And then she hurries on--stocking seams straight and her hand like a tidy squirrel searching for loose strands of hair. How beautiful is her city in the morning. But this is not the real Paris.
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Now that I feel that to a certain extent I belong in Paris, I look at tourists, particularly American tourists, with a new eye. Tourists lead sad and expensive lives. Before they leave home, in other words before they become tourists, every nation woos them, offers them pictures and descriptions of the delights which await them in foreign lands. They are assured of comforts and kindness everywhere. It is suggested to them that their cultural status will never be assured until they have traveled. They are even beguiled by stories of cheapness of articles which at home are very expensive.
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In America people save for many years to make the grand tour. It isn't easy but they feel their lives will never be complete until they have traveled. They read extensively, study maps, pick up their history books unopened since they left school. Many of them take quick courses in languages and nearly all of them equip themselves with dictionaries. They practice French and Italian words before they leave home. This is the great American dream...to travel, to see the world. They feel inferior to their untraveled neighbors. A Frenchman in no way feels insecure because he has not seen England or Greece or America, but an American feels a sense of shame that he has not personally inspected those buildings and places the pictures of which have been with him from childhood.
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The myth that all or even most traveling Americans are rich is a complete myth. The great majority have saved and stinted for this time. Every penny has been allotted, every hotel price considered. Almost shyly they have learned about tipping. They want to do everything well and in a seemly manner. Most of all they want to act in such a way that foreigners will not be angry or contempuous of them.
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Finally the great day comes and they set out with their maps and their dictionaries and their little books of traveler's checks. They feel lonely and frightened.
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And then it happens. They find themselves scorned, and they suspect they are being cheated. Sadly enough the greatest scorn for tourists comes from other tourists. They find themselves huddling together fearful of the raised brows of headwaiters, the superior smiles of guides. Local people who have not in their lives been fifty kilometers from their villages look down on tourists. Prices go up when they appear. They become lonesome and some of them grow angry.
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In any group there will be some people of no taste. Let one of these get drunk and the whole body of tourists is blamed. One loud mouth, one show-off overcomes the great body of quiet, patient, courteous tourists who come yearly to Europe. And why the contempt, I wonder. These people are offering the greatest compliment one people can pay another. They have come to see and learn and to carry away impressions of the greatness and beauty of Europe. And in another sense they are paying their respects to the roots of their culture. What is laughable, what is contemptible about this?
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I have been looking at them lately. For ten in the Place Pigalle there are a thousnad at Notre-Dame. For every one looking for a peep show or a circus, many hundreds with their guidebooks in their hands stare upward at the glass of Sainte-Chapelle. The Louvre draws crowds of quiet people, humble in their approach and earnest in their appreciation. They are sad that they cannot speak French. They do not blame the French for being ignorant of English.
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Of course there are exceptions, but the bitter thing is that the generalities about tourists are built out of the exceptions. And I do not mean that they are always badly treated. But there is an overtone of dislike which makes them even more quiet and shy than usual. Some of them even try to pretend they are not tourists although why being a tourist should be a matter of shame, I cannot see. Being tourists means that they have the curiosity, the interest, and the acumen to leave their own comfortable homes and their own known language and people to learn something outside themselves.
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I have had to learn myself not to blame all American tourists for the ugliness of one. I know some pretty bad Frenchmen, some Italians of outrageous conduct, and some ugly British but this does not cause me to hold the French, the Italians and British in contempt. A wormy peach does not make me hate the peach tree.
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I find a great affection in me for my countrymen who have worked so hard, saved so long to come to Europe, to see the great architecture, to stand before the great sculpture and painting. Perhaps they do not know the esoteric language of the art critic but they do go away enriched. And by coming in contact with Europe, if they are not too badly treated, they do lose some of the insularity, the fear and suspicion of the stranger which is at the heart of so much of the trouble in the world. Quite apart from the fact that they leave their savings wherever they go, I believe that tourists are very valuable to the modern world. It is very difficult to hate people you know.
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I had thought to make all Paris my field. I should have known better. Here, as in New York, my district has become my city. I visit other districts but the place where I buy my bread and wine for my family is my village. The gendarme on my corner is no longer police but my gendarme--an individual. The neighborhood people have become my neighbors. I am no longer strange to them nor they to me.
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One sees first the broad picture, the design complete but the details undeveloped. Then gradually the outlines of the details become clear and the larger picture fades. I suppose this is inevitable. I am sure it is good. Paris is becoming a city of units to me and the units are people. As in a foreign language, words gradually begin to stand out of sentences, so in a foreign city individuals begin to stand out of crowds.
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Around the corner from where I live a barrow man has his post. He cleans the street and picks up papers in the park. He lives a comfortable and successful life. At night he sleeps under the barrow and when it rains he drapes a waterproof cover over the handles to make a shelter. His friends visit him under his barrow and sometimes they play cards. The postman delvers mail to the barrow. He always has a bottle of wine uncorked in his shoulder bag and a piece of bread and cheese for his friends. His eye is merry and his nose is not pale. In the great world he would be considered a failure and something of a rascal, for the world of property considers it a sin to be content without things. But from watching him, and I have now a bowing acquaintance with him, I think he is a more successful organism than those worried men with briefcases and feverish eyes who race to work driven by the pressures of things. My man has apparently given up things he can do without for other things to him more important. I admire him.
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We learn so many things. This cold, unfriendly people, full of self-interest--described by Descartes as a people of unsentimental reason. What utter nonsense! Madame tells my wife not to buy from her but to go a few blocks over where the same thing may be had more cheaply. The Kiosk saves for us the papers we want. Just as they have been sorted out to us, so we have to them. We are no longer the mass tourists but individuals. It is a lesson we must learn over and over, that people and person are two very different things. We are helped and our way is made easy for us by the kindness of our neighbors. Perhaps this is because we like them very much.
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I know that it is considered unseemly for a modern writer to find anything good in his time. I also know, because I have seen it, that there is terrible poverty in Paris, that there are areas of despair and want, that there are groups of anger and also that there are other groups of cynical disdain and selfishness. In spite of this I want to draw to the attention of Parisians some things they may have forgotten, perhaps because of the pressures of daily life and perhaps because they are too close and ordinary to be remembered.
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Do you know how unique is your respect for the individual no matter what his position? Are you aware of the courtesy and kindness of person to person? The genius for allowing a man to be himself without interference makes a great impression on me. I had always heard of the disagreeableness of the Parisian taxi drivers. What an error! A cigarette exchanged--a few words concerning weather and the world, and this so-called sullenness disappears, one finds a man of incisiveness and intelligence and moreover a member of the best informed group in the city. The cabdrivers know everything and sit like brooding gods on their knowledge.
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I wonder whether you Parisians know how kindly you are to the stranger who asks for help. Asking directions of a stranger in the street, he has more often than not gone out of his way to direct me and even conducted me to my destination. Dining in a bistro strange to me, it is my custom to ask the waiter or the sommelier to suggest a wine, out of the conviction that he knows his cellar better than I. Invariably the result is delicious and by no means the most expensive. Shopping for one of the innumerable small items necessary in running a house, the shopkeeper, if he does not have the article, has either sent out for it or conducted me to a shop which had it.
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From my window I have seen my small sons returning from play in the park. The gendarme who directs traffic knows them. He stops traffic and makes sure that they arrive safely through the roaring river of motors, then smiles and waves his white stick at them.
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These are the cold and selfish French of our experience. What dear people they are!
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Before very long I must go away, first to Italy and to Greece, and then to New York. But I strongly suspect that the elastic string of Paris is tied to me and that for all my life I will not visit Paris. It is other places I will be visiting.