I was in Paris for part of the Carter Administration. Not all of it: I’d watched the Iranian Revolution and then the hostage crisis on TV in my parents’ bedroom near Seattle, but we were in Paris by the time Carter tried to rescue the hostages. I was eleven.
When Mitterrand thrashed Chirac in 1988, I was in Paris again. I remember that evening more vividly than I remember Reagan’s election. French students took to the streets, singing triumphantly, “On a gagn-é! On a gagn-é!” It made me realize, with a shock, that I felt foreign (I did not feel strongly about Mitterand, one way or the other. I thought Chirac would have been fine.) I missed the First Bush Administration, all of it, while studying at Oxford. Then the Berlin Wall fell. We were glued to the television. Some of us flew to Berlin to get pieces of the wall.
I was in Bangkok for the OJ verdict. The whole copy desk from Asia Times gathered ‘round the television in my air-conditioned tower-block apartment to watch it. I think I was in India when Jerry Garcia died, but I’m not sure if that’s a real memory or a joke. Back then, the only way to get news from home when you were in India was to go to a PTT and use a fax machine. I remember laughing with my brother about some backpacker, at last returning from a long, blissed-out peregrination through Orissa and Karnataka, coming back to Thailand for some peanut butter pancakes like they sell on the Khao San Road—and air conditioning. She comes out the next morning all crazy cat peekin’ through a lace bandana, waiting for her pancakes in her white pajamas—
“What? Jerry’s dead?”
“Yeah … oh, man you didn’t hear? It must have been two months ago.”
“Two months? You mean, this whole time Jerry’s been dead?”
“Yeah …. So sad. We did an awesome wake for him at Koh Phang Khan, though.”
I’m not sure if that person was me.
I was in Paris on September 11. My first reaction was to think we needed to use the Bomb—on someone, it didn’t matter who. I was in Istanbul throughout the Second Iraq war. I was earning some money freelancing in the last happy years before Lehman Brothers collapsed, back when writers were paid a dollar a word and Erdoğan had not yet acquired absolute power—or named me personally as an Enemy of the People. Those were happy times. I adopted seven cats. Six are still alive, and by my side as I type this. In Paris.
I missed the Obama Administration, too.
But I’m entirely American. I was born in Stanford Hospital in 1968. My parents, children of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, were born in New York. I went to kindergarten in Manhattan. Civics lessons made a profound impact on me. I learned how our government worked, and why democracy was the best system, much as every other American kid did—from Schoolhouse Rock:
In 1787 I’m told
Our founding fathers did agree
To write a list of principles
For keepin’ people free …
I’ve lived mostly abroad since I was about 18. That was my intention from childhood, the way some people know from their earliest dreams that they want to be an astronaut or the President. What fixed it was the sabbatical year my father took in Paris. That made me realize the world beyond Seattle was so much bigger, so much more interesting, than I’d been given to understand. I wanted to see everything in it.
It didn’t occur to me that at some point, if I lived outside of America too long, I would no longer understand my own country or be able fully to participate in its civic life. In fact, over time, the opposite came true in some ways: It became increasingly easy to stay in touch with America. When I was in Paris in 1987, living in a chambre de bonne and working as a fille au pair, I would occasionally go to the movies when I was homesick. Now America is omnipresent, everywhere, through the Internet.
I didn’t see any special need to go home to check on the place. I figured she was steady as a rock, continental, Brobdingnagian. My values were American values.
Like all Americans (I thought), my grandparents were immigrants. My great-grandfather fled the backlash of the Russian Revolution of 1905, and my grandfather was born in Leipzig, as was my grandmother. They were musicians. When Hitler came to power, they fled to Paris. My grandfather directed a Yiddish art theater that performed literary plays. The troupe was mostly made up of the survivors of the Yiddish art theater in Vilna. They applied for French citizenship in 1934. “French was the language of my heart,” my grandmother told me. “I never expected to leave.” But then the war came. My grandfather served in the Foreign Legion. Of his 1250-man regiment at the Belgian border, only 250 survived. He attributed his optimistic and generous temperament to that good fortune, to having been “one of the few Jews with the chance to have a machine gun in my hand and shoot them.”
After the fall of France, my grandparents escaped to America with the help of Varian Fry. They were lucky; they had relatives in the United States. I’m a product of chain migration.
Before Trump came to power, I never once was asked if I was really American. What the fuck else could I be? I’ve explained the Federalist papers and our Constitution and the First Amendment around the world—to the round-face, expressionless Party official of middle years whose job was to supervise the ideological content of my newspaper in Laos; to puzzled Turkish boyfriends who asked me, in all seriousness, whether the United States would have to assassinate the Navy Seals who shot Osama bin Laden lest they use those skills to join the Mafia. I was never cynical about any of it. When people didn’t understand me, I told them, you don’t understand Americans.
I’m sure not German. Or Polish. I understand a dozen-odd words in German because my father and my grandparents spoke German together. I understand more Lao than Polish.
My father moved to Paris after his second divorce, thinking it wise to put the Atlantic Ocean between himself and his ex-wife. We were bombing Kosovo when I came to visit him. I was stressed because I thought I might be on the verge of losing my job. On the last night of my visit, I said, “I wish I could just stay here in Paris and write a novel.”
“Why can’t you?” he said.
I moved to Istanbul to be with a photojournalist with whom I’d fallen in love. He asked me to marry him and then we split up. By then, I was more deeply in love with Turkey than with him. When it came time to divide our possessions, I insisted upon keeping Istanbul.
I’d been there nearly a decade when the Gezi protests began. During the height of the protests—the moment I felt most useful, as a journalist—my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died within weeks. The idea that she might die while I was living abroad had never occurred to me. Erdoğan was now singling me out by name. It seemed clear I should leave. The only place it made sense to go was Paris.
It felt like going backward. I wasn’t ready yet to make this concession to age and mortality. And what would I do? I had been the American Foreign Policy Institute’s Senior Analyst for Turkey, a genuinely useful job. That felt like a serious answer to the question, “So what do you do?” But what could be happening in the West that would be of any interest to my readers?
I did feel some relief; the safety and predictability of the West, where everyone dies of natural causes and everything runs on time, was calming. Paris is so lacking in drama that people take acting lessons. But I’d imposed an early moratorium on my career. I feared no one needed another American journalist in Paris, and a few years of trying proved me right. The only time I was able to sell a news story for significant money was when I stumbled, accidentally, into the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. But you can’t make a career, in Paris, of covering terrorist attacks. You can no longer make a living as a journalist anywhere, particularly not as a foreign correspondent. During the recession, the rest of the world dropped out of the United States’ consciousness. Then came Trump. It’s now almost impossible to sell any piece of writing that doesn’t feature his name.
Recently, I tried to explain to American readers the details of a scandal with which France has been consumed. The story had everything: police brutality, the revelation that it was not a policeman who had beat the snot out of the protesters, but Macron’s intimate friend and advisor. The city was alive with rumors and intimations that the President of France had been having it off with a swarthy bodyguard from the other side of the tracks, and this wasn’t just any old extramarital affair, but one with a man who beat up civilians—and women especially—for kicks. A hell of a story, especially in its bigger geopolitical context. If Macron fails, we could see NATO mothballed, the EU collapse. Germany is now in all seriousness privately debating its need for an independent nuclear deterrent.
This is important, I thought, and I sweat bullets to write it. But no one read it. The story was published on the day Manafort was convicted and Cohen copped a plea.
So, I’ve been a bit stuck, here, to find a productive way to use my skills. I won’t write another book about why French women don’t get fat. (They eat less.) My proposal to embed with the French firefighters was shot down by their corporal, who couldn’t see why Paris needed another American journalist.
People aren’t sure, at first, but they hear something foreign in my French. My accent isn’t markedly American, but it’s not Parisian, either. After a few minutes people might ask, “Where are you from?” They’re not sure whether it’s a polite question, because I might be French, but they’re curious. Sometimes I dick with them and chirp, “du quatrième”—from the fourth arrondissement, in the center of Paris. Sometimes I ask them to guess. They rarely get it right. They’ll look at me quizzically and try a faraway French province where people speak strangely. “Peut être … oufff … l’Alsace?”
I look like a European Jew, unsurprisingly, a versatile look; people have guessed, variously, that I’m Spanish, Turkish, Canadian, German, Argentine, or South African. Even in India, people have suggested that I could be from northern India. A Parsi. I’ve always been proud, no matter where I was, to reveal the secret, with a flourish: I’m American. Often people are surprised, but never once—anywhere in the world—has this prompted a rude reply. Usually people say they have a cousin there, or that they’d like to visit California. No matter the political climate, people tell me they like Americans. Sometimes, they say, “I like Americans, but not your government.” I’ve leapt in to explain that this makes no sense, because we elect our government. “Du peuple, par le peuple, pour le peuple,” I’ve insisted to puzzled interlocutors.
I thought all of this was normal for an American. That being an American meant freedom to invent oneself, to pursue happiness. Freedom so generous that I could live like this and still be an American. When Trump was elected, I sensed I might be wrong. I was, it seems, not really an American just like any other, but a globalist, rootless, cosmopolitan Jew. I was a member of the lying media, and a coastal elite with a hyper-rarified elite education—eyeglasses, even. I suddenly saw that to a significant part of America, this meant something—and to another significant part of America, it meant nothing at all. Rang no bells, triggered no alarms.
Had America fundamentally changed while I was gone? I did not, for the first time in my life, have any idea why Americans were behaving the way they were. I couldn’t explain it to puzzled foreigners. Were they saying these things in full knowledge of what they meant? Since when were American politics so campy?
I began to realize I might not go back to America, ever. That home might not be there anymore. That I might not understand it anymore. My idea of home was frozen in the Reagan Administration.
But I didn’t have another home. I have a father, in Paris. I had an apartment big enough for me and my seven cats, adopted when they were orphaned kittens, in Istanbul. My apartment here was an impossibly lucky find. I had the right to live here, legally, on compassionate grounds, because my father lives here, and the French are not yet assholes to Americans. But I didn’t have the right to take jobs from the French. I didn’t have the right to vote in French elections. Even thinking about asking for that right made me feel traitorous.
I mention all this prefatory to the story of enrolling myself in French acting lessons.
As 2018 approached, I thought vaguely of New Year’s resolutions. Something about my life here wasn’t right. It lacked a sense of challenge. My friendships lacked the intimacy of my friendships in Turkey. Friendship took on a more intimate dimension there, I suppose, because life is more precarious. You need your friends. You can live in Paris for five years without once thinking, “My God, my friend just saved my life.” Or you might think that, but it would be a metaphor. In Istanbul it was often literal.
I wrote in my notebook:
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: MAKE TWO FRIENDS.
I didn’t write that because I was lonely. On the contrary. I wrote it because my social isolation struck me as unwholesome. The research has been pouring in on social isolation. One meta-analysis that greatly disturbed me showed that if you’re under 65, social isolation is a better predictor of premature death than obesity or high blood pressure. I could quibble about cause and correlation, but it worried me. I had not quit smoking just to drop dead of social isolation in my prime.
I considered the resolution. I thought it modest, reasonable, and healthful.
I could see that it wouldn’t happen on its own. I work at home. When you’re a middle-aged freelance writer—as opposed, say, to an undergraduate in a dorm—friendships do not effortlessly or spontaneously blossom. I was also doing everything humanly possible to ensure they wouldn’t. I rejected invitations to attend lectures or give them. I turned down invitations to dinner parties. Why?
My first instinct was that I simply didn’t want to socialize. This was a symptom of mild depression, I suspected, or just the natural loss of energy that comes with age. On closer examination, though, I noticed a source of my aversion that I hadn’t quite recognized before. It took me a long time to realize it, because my French is so good compared to my Turkish. My Turkish was and remained comically bad throughout the time I spent in Istanbul, to the point that my inability to choke out a single grammatical sentence had become a source of deep shame. I was comparatively fluent in French, but I was a little bit less confident than in English. My vocabulary was a little bit smaller. It added up to, “Going to a dinner party sounds like a little bit more work than fun.”
What’s more, I realized, my aversion to speaking publicly in French bordered on the phobic. And this fear was bad for me, professionally. There was no way I could be anything more than a sideline observer of French life unless I was prepared to speak in public.
There we go, I thought. The source of the problem I needed to fix. But I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting in French classes. I reckoned I needed simply to force myself to do something that required me to speak more—whether I felt like it or not.
On New Year’s Eve, I called my brother to wish him a happy New Year. I mentioned my New Year’s resolution. “I really need to make friends here,” I said. “I’ve been here for years now but I just don’t have friendships like I had in Istanbul. Like Okan and Bulent. But it’s just not going to happen unless I do something to make it happen … I’ve got to take up a hobby or something. Like maybe Tango. Or Parkour.”
My brother—also a writer—has been working on a novel about Shakespearean actors.
“What about taking that acting class?” he said again. He had spent the past year watching acting classes. It was all he wanted to talk about.
“Well how’s that going to work?” I said. “You can’t exactly perform Tartuffe with an American accent, can you?”
“Why not?” He rattled off a list of names of actors who, he claimed, had done incredible Shakespeare even though English wasn’t their native language. (I’d never heard of any of them.)
To humor him, I said, “Well, I’ll look into it.” I figured they’d tell me, “We’re very sorry, but no, you can’t perform Tartuffe with an American accent.”
A few blocks from my apartment is a theater called the Espace Marais. I’ve walked past it hundreds if not thousands of times. I had noticed the small sign: ÉCOLE DU COMÉDIEN: ADULT. A comédien is not a comedian. The word means, roughly, a stage actor, as opposed to a film actor. Once or twice, I’d thought, “Perhaps I should ask?” But I’d rejected the idea as prima facie ridiculous. I had never acted before, not even in English. I was shy. My American accent would be an obstacle, I assumed, and everyone would laugh at me.
Thus my New Year’s resolution: I would jump in the deep end. If I could learn to play the Marquise de Merteuil on stage, I would never again avoid a dinner party or fear giving a lecture in French or doing a television hit on a French TV channel again. I probably would have blown it off, like most New Year’s resolutions, had I not sold the story of the diary you’re about to read.