Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Paris #2

Things have not quite worked out as I hoped when I arrived in Paris (thus). As I left England, my father fell gravely ill (full knowledge of the nature of which would have been reason not to come out) and thus anxiety about him has coloured my experience of my stay in this city.

So it’s hard to know what is a generalisable feature of being away – the sort of thing I would like to write about on my blog – and what is particular to this experience. But one general thing is that to be installed in a flat anywhere in the first world is still, these days, to be connected to the web ands thus via email and chat programmes immediately to one’s home. This year also, an improvement on my trip to Dallas last, I’ve not had to forego BBC radio. Of course, the downside of all this is that my poor French language ability has hardly improved.

But there is something contestable about this. Meeting Simon Wessely, from the Institute of Psychiatry, at last week’s conference, knowing that he works with the armed forces, and with thoughts about the play Kursk I saw the other day in mind, I asked him about the mental health of submariners. Apparently they do much better than army soldiers posted abroad because – in part at least – they have no communication back home. They accept their three months of isolation. By contrast, soldiers have easy access to systems akin to Google Talk but this causes no end of difficulty with the merely partial connection back home it helps to emphasise. The army would like, now, to go back to their men having little home contact but obviously can’t.

From a work point of view, that seems very attractive. (Whilst my UCLan colleagues may reasonably judge that I’ve not been pulling my weight back in Preston, neither have I been able to avoid working through emails etc so it has not been quite a short sabbatical either.) But socially or emotionally all this electronic communication seems to me to make things much easier.

A second issue is a practical tension, for me at least, to do with authenticity in a foreign city. If I were on a brief holiday in Paris, I’d consult the Rough Guide and tick off some sights: museums, bars, restaurants and so forth. I would have no sense that I was being anything other than a tourist.

But there is a temptation in spending a little longer somewhere, and further, approaching, at least, the idea of living there (‘dwelling’!) that one might do things in a subtly different way. I imagine, for example’ saying “Of course when I lived in Paris in the summer of ’68, I …”.

But here’s a problem. If I were actually living here, I would just do the things that please me and, crucially, the overlap with my actual historical life in Kendal would be akin to the overlap between there and Cubbington and, before that, Cubbington and London. I would cook and eat thus and so. But if I do that, if I replicate life in Kendal – modulo the odd baguette – that seems not to be taking enough advantage of being in Paris. There is an incentive to be authentically Parisian in a way which is not really to be authentic at all.

I am not at all sure how to balance this with the authentic desire, also, to get some writing done.