“Field” Research

I have a friend who studied abroad in Germany last year at the same time I was in France, and we were talking once about our experiences adapting to a different culture and learning the language. He said that one of the best things about being in Germany was that if he didn’t understand a grammatical structure or if he didn’t know a word, he could just stop a random person and ask them to explain it or translate it for him. When he said that to me, as obvious as it seems, I looked at him bewildered. The idea of just telling everyone that I was American and that I didn’t speak their language ran counter to everything I had been thinking. My first day at the French universities, I was utterly terrified and desperate to appear native, but when the girl sitting next to me leaned over and asked what year I was in and if I knew anything about the professor, I turned to her and said, “I’m sorry. I’m afraid.” And that was the end of that conversation…

It was just so important for me to feel like I was doing Paris without any handicaps. I didn’t want waiters to speak English to me. I didn’t want professors to go easy when grading me. Really, I didn’t want to speak *just* well enough to survive; I wanted to speak like a French person. I wanted to assimilate. It was crushing to me when, for instance, a woman stopped me on the street to ask if I knew where a cybercafé was and, after I paused for a second to sort out what a “see-bair-ca-fay” was, interrupted me in English to say, “Oh, you are not French.” It was bad when the guy at the Italian salumi shop told me the price, looked at how much I gave him, and then said, “No. It’s 8 euros. This is not enough.” It was the worst when a little old lady came up to me on the street (what is it with old French women and talking to kids on the street?) and accosted me for about ten minutes for how stupid it was to waste my education on studying literature when I could be getting a real degree. Although that time she at least said that if I was smart I would learn English (“I already speak English” “Yeah, well I speak six languages”), so at least she thought I was French!

Moments like that were frustrating because they made me aware of how far away from fluent I was, how little I looked like the other boys and girls (somebody get me Chanel sunglasses, manly stubble, and a gift card to Zara…), how much work I had to do. It made me wonder if I would ever fit in as much as I wanted to and it made me wonder if I would ever speak really fluently. I just felt like I would never belong.

Tonight, I was walking back to my apartment and I saw the same woman who yelled at me about my life choices… standing outside a bar, yelling at a French guy sitting on the patio who looked absolutely bewildered. The only words I made out as I opened the door to my building were, “And he was very content to be a homosexual!”

So maybe, in fact, you’re only a real Parisian once you’ve stared blankly while that lady unloads on you.

One thing that does make me feel at home is my research, which has been going very well. I’ve settled into a routine where I eat lunch, go to the library, and read for three to four hours. Then I come home and read the novels I’m studying until dinner. Alternating the registers I’m reading between the architectural texts, the historical texts, the literary criticism, the more general literary theory texts, and novels allows me to keep my brain responsive for longer than usual. Just since I got here, I’ve finished Haussmann’s memoirs, Pierre Barbéris’s book arguing that the origins of realism can be found in the bourgeoisie-aristocracy conflict, Henri Mitterand’s analysis of Zola’s Naturalism, an essay comparing realist literature to Hegelian reality, François Loyer’s history of 19th-century Paris architecture, Roman Jakobson’s famous essay on Realism in Art, Alistair Horne’s history of Paris, and a history of urbanism from an ideological and theoretical standpoint, not to mention reading in their entirety’s Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Zola’s La Curée, and Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons. Not bad for three weeks.

It’s very encouraging to see each book I read contribute something and help me narrow down what I want to say. At the same time, it’s hard to resist going in every direction at once. I still have a very long list of books I need to read in the library, and once that’s done I’ll be applying for access to the research wing of the BNF. I also may or may not take advantage of my access to the National Archives.

All of this reading can, however, get a little stifling, and in my experience it is often better to take a day off and let the brain come back at full strength rather than trying to work when it’s not there. With that in mind, today I took a field trip to one of the most famous of Napoléon III’s projects: the Parc Monceau in the 17th.

The Parc Monceau, in a neighborhood that probably has more Hermes outlets than it does McDonalds

The Parc Monceau, in a neighborhood that probably has more Hermes outlets than it does McDonalds

The Parc Monceau is one of the central scenes of Zola’s La Curée and represents one of the parts of the new Paris that was hardest for the people of the late 19th century to reject. You see, one of the central conflicts I’ve noticed about this period – and I don’t think it’s really that important for my thesis, but as a lover of Paris it strikes me as nonetheless significant – is that the works of Napoléon III and Baron Haussmann were without a doubt brutal and totalitarian, and helped usher in the modern consciousness and its feelings of impotence and foreignness. Their works largely failed in their socialist goals, probably hurting the poor more than helping them, and is directly implicated in the tragedy of the Commune revolt. But for all the historians lamenting the destruction of Paris’s medieval neighborhoods and the writers railing against totalitarianism and the poor people lashing out against a system that hypocritically marginalized them, the Paris that we know today as the most beautiful city in the world is essentially the Paris that Napoléon III and Haussmann gave us.


How many monuments can we directly attribute to them? The completion of the Louvre, the Garnier Opera, the clearing out of the plaza in front of the Notre Dame, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau, the Buttes-Chaumont, the Parc Monsouris, 50,000 trees alongside the streets (all of that in a city that at the time had almost no green space), the Musée Carnavalet, the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris, Châtelet, Les Halles, the reconstruction of ten bridges including the pont des Invalides, the Palais de la Justice, and most of all the boulevards and their distinctive apartments – themselves one of the most powerful symbols of Paris. On top of all that, the modernization of the infrastructure, for instance tripling the number of gas lamps and increasing the oil lamps by 20 fold. Haussmann took a city where dirty water from the Seine was sold by street vendors door-to-door and installed a series of aqueducts and water storage facilities to provide fresh water to all of the city’s residents. Haussmann doubled the city’s area, incorporating the 13th through 20th arrondissements. He improved circulation, by which I mean he made circulation in the city possible. Paris in the 1830’s was a nearly unlivable space that was approaching its suffocation point. Haussmann not only made that city viable; he made it what Walter Benjamin called the capital of the 19th century. It’s hard to convey how extensive these projects were. Haussmann was very fond of boasting how his projects had funded themselves by increasing property values and tax revenues, but he still added over 481 million francs to France’s national debt and those are 1871 francs we’re talking about. The total cost was 3 billion.


And so at the end of the day, when Emile Zola looked out at the new Paris, he could not speak unequivocally about it. He could point out the injustice of the bourgeois made a millionaire on housing speculation, he could point to the thousands of poor people removed from slums in the middle of the city only to be forced by real estate prices into slums outside the city, he could talk about man being reduced to a pleasure-seeking beast, but he also had to say how much he enjoyed being able to walk across the ile-de-la-cité without being stabbed to death. Even George Sand, who was one of the staunchest critics, had to admit at the end that the parks were worth it.

So today I went to the Monceau, one of the most luxurious parks in the city in one of the most expensive districts. And while I certainly thought about the image of Napoléon III building artificial lakes and Zola’s Renée sneaking into the park at night to commit incest with her stepson and all of the economic injustice that the park can represent, I also thought it was really pretty.


And I don’t think Zola would mind seeing all the kids lying outside on an 82 degree Saturday, enjoying a big patch of green right inside the city.