The doors in Paris opened the wrong way. That is, they swung inward when my hand reached out to pull, and they remained stubbornly shut when I leaned in, hands busy with baguettes and hot cafe au lait, to hip-check them open.
Also, the carved wooden knob—how strange, how charming, how counterintuitive—was smack in the middle.
Context, not instinct
In June, my mother, my partner, my 18-year-old daughter, and I stayed for six nights in an Airbnb in the City of Light, on the Seine’s Left Bank. If I leaned out the living-room window, I could glimpse the charred towers of Notre Dame. Multiple trips a day in and out of the building, and my body never quite adapted; every time, I stood in front of No. 4 Boulevard St. Germain, stymied over how to get inside.
Travel disrupts your center of gravity. It reminds you that what seems instinctual is actually contextual, and that the “right” way to do something (greet someone, brush your teeth, further a democracy) depends entirely on who and where you are.
Does your arm extend reflexively for a hand-grasp, or do you dip forward to kiss your new friend lightly on both cheeks? Do you scald yourself on water you thought would be cold (the faucet was marked “C,” after all), forgetting that you are in France, where chaud means “hot”?
I did all those things, and more, in my eager, fractured, high-school-with-a-Pimsleur-refresher French. I chatted up cab drivers (the one from Haiti hadn’t seen his mother in 19 years; the one from China believed it was simply fate for some people to be homeless) and boutique clerks, the ticket-seller in the Metro booth and the imperious server at Girafe, who corrected my grammar and called the Eiffel Tower “she.”
Pharmacy in French
To travel the way we did—not as refugees, not in exile, but with curiosity, volition, and enough money for airplanes and bottles of Sancerre—is a luxury. A humbling one. Because regardless of my status at home, that is to say, my particular mélange of privilege and marginality (I am white, able-bodied, Jewish, queer, an artist, a US citizen), my clumsy language skills alone made me a minority among the fluent French. I became a migrant in the realm of conversation, where I am used to carefree, certain passage.
How, for instance, to explain to the pharmacist that I needed ointment for a yeast infection, a scenario Pimsleur did not address in the 90 half-hour lessons I aced before leaving? I scoured my limited vocabulary. “Infection,” if said with the right accent, sounded French enough, and I’d seen trays of bread marked pain levain, a word that might mean “leavened.”
I took a deep breath and explained the need to treat “une infection de levain dans les partes de femme”—literally, a “sourdough infection in the woman parts.” The ponytailed pharmacist did not laugh. She simply vanished into the back and returned with a small box that looked exactly like the tube of Monistat I would have bought back home. Gratefully, I handed her eight euros.
Divisions and repairs
Language divides, but it can also repair. In the Marais, a street sign (these are affixed to walls in Paris, not mounted on poles) with the faded title “Rue Grenier sur l’Eau” is literally X’d out (though, importantly, not erased) with a narrow crisscross of white tape; below is a bright new sign: “Allée des Justes,” Avenue of the Just, in memory of those who hid or rescued Jews during the Nazi occupation.
And plunked down in the middle of the Luxembourg Gardens is a sculpture of three huge links in a chain, one of them snapped, with a sign honoring the enslaved people of the French colonies “for their struggles and their profound desire for dignity and liberty.”
Where, I wondered, are equivalent sculptures in US parks, acknowledging the blood and humanity, the oppression and exclusion, of Native Americans and enslaved Africans and exploited East and South Asian immigrants? Could the old/new street signs be a model for us as we grapple with Confederate monuments and whether to let them stand?
Bumping into walls
All week in Paris, and the following week in Israel, I kept bumping into walls. They were fashioned of Roman brick, Jerusalem stone, steel fencing, barbed wire. They aimed to harbor, banish, divide, or confine. How you view those walls—even how you name them—depends on where you stand. The 400-mile-long West Bank barrier is the “separation wall” or “security fence” to Israelis; in Arabic, it is the “wall of apartheid.”
Words heal. Words wound. In Tel Aviv, I heard a veteran of the Israeli army refer to ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers as “parasites.” The next day, a Jewish tour guide of Moroccan ancestry declared, “I would never trust an Arab.” He drove us to Masada, the remains of a Jewish stronghold in southern Israel where zealots resisted Roman siege for two years during the first century C.E.
When we tuned occasionally into news from home, it felt as if humans had learned nothing from these ancient histories: Central American children kept in filthy, flu-infected US holding centers, their detentions upheld by a callous president who has called immigrants “animals.”
Here’s what I learned on my summer vacation: doors open, and close, in ways you cannot guess. Walls fall down, but the ones we make of language are the most persistent. Hang on for a couple of centuries; material barriers devolve to rubble. But on a planet gnashing with hatred, choking in CO2, seemingly too stubborn to learn from its mistakes, I’m not sure we have the time.