Edmund White, Our Paris (1995)

Am I the only person to enjoy seeing your own city through foreign eyes? Of course, it helps that I’m lucky enough to live in a place most people like. But in my daily routine, I don’t see any famous monuments, and I see few foreigners except the immigrant shopkeepers in my neighbourhood. The only time I see transient, starry-eyed foreigners or arty expats is whenever I get to go to my international writing group held at the English bookshop Shakespeare and Co.

It never fails to make me smile to see foreigners grapple with French life, because I remember how fascinating and challenging it was when I tried to make sense out of a complete different place, people, language and set of values. The reverse position is interesting too. It’s fun (and I think, healthy) to be reminded how things are not taken for granted in different cultures. It’s fun to someone else’s exotic character once in a while (because mostly, I live in a French-only environment where foreigners are the exotic ones). I get more aware of how French I am when I’m with foreigners.

Paris has a intellectual and artistic glow and legend that people want to experience firsthand, but of course in real life it’s not accessible to everyone. That’s why I found this memoir of Edmund White’s life in Paris in the 1980s so refreshing and generous. It’s also a celebration of everyday pleasures with his French lover, Hubert Sorin, a designer and architect, written together with him during his last illness and published just after he died of AIDS. Instead of focusing on sadness, this book is full of simple joys, quirky characters and true-to-life portraits of Parisian neighbourhoods. White was lucky to live in the Ile Saint Louis and Châtelet areas, one of the oldest parts of Paris, and I could easily visualize the scenes he writes about.

One of the qualities of this unpretentious book is that White spends about as long introducing a fashion designer or an intellectual as his concierge Madame Denise, or a familiar bum in the street. Is it perhaps a socialist influence? One of the short chapters made me laugh out loud. It was starting to get a bit boring because White had explained at length whom he dined with, the relatives of celebrities he had met while in Paris and researching Jean Genet’s biography. Then he ends the chapter with:

I hope this book is never translated into French, because the French would thoroughly disapprove of this chapter. They dislike name-dropping so much they don’t even have a word for it.

How true! White really saw through me and made me a typical French, even though I had never noticed this characteristic!