Paris is as musical as the stereotypes would have you believe. When I first left the airport, I encountered two accordions in the same train car, and every time I transferred to Censier Daubeton, a jolly Spanish man played the guitar with his lengthy thumb-nail. Upon arrival at La Muette, a dozen Ukranian men stood by the exit with clarinets in tow.
This was the case when my friend Jen and I made two transfers to get to a Lizst concert at the Museum of the Army. Jen had gotten two free tickets in January at the start of our semester abroad when we barely knew each other. Still, I insisted I go with her. As a child, I loved the Tom & Jerry episode in which the pianist Tom performed Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsodies while Jerry relentlessly beat and disrupted him. So naturally, I fancied myself a Lizst connoisseur.
The crowd’s assemble at the salon’s entrance was not an eclectic one. Recalling it, I realize the crowd was quintessentially Parisian: senior women clad in fur coats and pantsuits, old men in a pair of corduroys, and a few canes that lingered on the cobblestone while the elderly awaited Guillaume Vincent, the 19 year-old pianist and the showcase of the night.
We were seated in a chandelier-ed room amongst golden suns above every doorway. The Sun King himself hovered over the piano when suddenly the plump Frenchman Vincent emerged from the east wing. His bows were hurried, and he was quick to loosen his bow tie and begin crashing his fingers into the Grand. Early into an arpeggio, Guillaume melted into the classic French artist, chest heaving toward the keys, knees shaking and mouth agape.
Although I’d never seen anything like it, I was ready to dismiss the boy as a cliche, a Pepé le Pew. But I realized the prodigy, who lifted his chin as he hummed softly to himself, must have created the cliches. With his tight smirk of superiority and his brusque bows, Guillaume was a picture of legendary French coolness. But as the rhapsody descended into a loud minor, I imagined his mentor yelling, “A piano is a loose woman, Guillaume—you must tame her!” Guillaume grew furious—the elderly were quite moved.
Jen and I, however, shared a look. I grew excited to discuss the musician in a mean-spirited conversation sure to take place as soon as we’d left the salon. But in awing at Guillaume, I discovered a stunning scene: here was the Frenchman, smoldering with a fully, dignified passion, and I–the jeering young American transplant–bored, impolite and very, very hungry.
* * *
In the composition class I took in Paris, our professor facilitated a Skype conversation between our class and a small group of high school students from Northern France. The goal was to have an informed and open discussion about the labels different cultures pin to one another. This is why Professor Olivier asked us to bring a picture that embodied a French stereotype, and this is why I had made sure to print a picture of a frowning face.
“The French are grouchy and like to complain,” I said, presenting my picture to the screen. The students on the screen nodded their head, laughing (a lighthearted gesture that meant I was right, but that also suggested I was wrong).
“The difference is the French always complain about the heat, the weather, and when the trains are late,” the star student offered, “but the Americans complain when they are sad and not well.”
His colleagues nodded. The student next to me shuffled in his seat, a photo of a hairy armpit in his hand.
Soon it was the French who presented us with photos of a fat couple, a red Solo cup, and a white picket fence. For the most part we yielded to the French just as they had yielded to us, their stereotypes often rooted in the most factual of facts.
This is why Guillaume Vincent, that caricature of a Frenchman, provoked me. Soon it was myself I found amusing, having morphed into the uncultured and tactless American. I giggled knowing that after the performance, Jen and I bought kiwis and baguettes. We had a picnic on the great lawn spread in front of the Eiffel Tower just as the natives did—in a manner typiquement Parisienne. There are more dignified pursuits than mocking an identity you secretly desire, really, but not so much more dignified.
Story and Photos by Stela Xhiku