On Being a Foreigner

It was a cool spring evening. There was a nip to the air, but there was also a promise of the summer that was to come. I was walking through my village, admiring the cherry blossoms and the daffodils, looking at the budding gardens in front of the houses. The village’s only real street was empty; people didn’t stroll much in this tiny village, but I regularly walk from one end to the other to get some exercise at the end of the day. I had my headphones on, and was listening to music on my iPhone, when a song from Pink Floyd’s Animals came up on shuffle. The music brought me back in time, making one of those connections that music has the power to do, dredging up memories from the depths of your brain.

It was the same time of year, and I was on my first trip abroad. I was exploring London, alone, wandering around the city, armed with my A-Z, looking for familiar landmarks. I didn’t know too many of them, but I had ended up in the area of Big Ben, probably the most iconic of London buildings. From there, I walked south and then west along the Thames for a long while, and I remember turning a corner, and then suddenly seeing the majestic spires of the Battersea Power Station looming above the horizon. I continued walking along the river until I reached this landmark, which appears on the cover of the Pink Floyd album, because, next to Big Ben, it was the most recognizable structure in London, at least for me.

Battersea power station

On that spring evening, walking down a street lined with old houses, that music and the memory of my first trip abroad made me think how incongruous it was that, after the many peregrinations of my life, I had ended up in a small village in the West Midlands of England.

For the third time in my life, I was a foreigner.


I don’t really have the travel gene. When I left my native New York City, back in the 1980s, I was curious about what life would be like in another country. I had saved up enough money so that, during that period when the dollar was at a peak against European currencies, I could live for a year without working. Why not take advantage of an opportunity like that? So I rented a house in France for a year, and went to see what would happen.

I had no intention of staying, but I met a woman, and started settling into life as a foreigner. I had studied French in high school, and I took classes as the French Institute in New York before leaving, knowing that I’d need better language skills. When I got to the country, I was able to communicate, and I picked up the language pretty quickly as I negotiated the many everyday activities where one needs to communicate. After that first year, I moved to Paris, and took more classes, at the Alliance Française, that haven for foreigners wanting to learn the language and the culture.

Before long, I was fluent in French; I have a knack for languages, it seems. The French stopped smiling politely when I asked directions or bought something at the market, and started having conversations with me. But I was still a foreigner. During my first year in the country, I spent a lot of time hitchhiking around “the four corners of the hexagon.”[1] Some of the people were very friendly, others not so much. I recall one driver who, hearing my accent, asked if I was German. “No,” I said, “I’m American.” “Oh,” he replied, “I don’t like Americans.” The rest of the long trip was shrouded in heavy silence.

Most French people accepted me, grudgingly, into their midst. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I had the unique position of my foreignness being by main selling point. My students – mostly executives of large French companies – were used to working with foreigners, so they thought nothing of the fact that I was not one of them. I was an other, but the right kind.

After a few years, my French wife and I headed off to Norway for a year. Her company was working on an energy project there, and she was sent to work as part of the design team. The Norwegians are charming people, and most of them speak excellent English. So, while one could get by without learning Norsk, we both wanted to learn the language. This endeared us a bit to the locals, but when we started speaking Norwegian in a store, we would generally be greeted with a smile, and then responses in fluent English, making practicing the language difficult.

Back in France, in another part of the country, I worked as a bookseller for three years. I had this vague idea that I might want to open a bookstore someplace, and live the “romantic” live of peddling literature to fellow book-lovers. Alas, I quickly learned that the bookselling was not a growth market, but during the period I was in that bookstore, I met and talked with many French people. My accent was such that many people didn’t notice that I was a foreigner; some might have thought I was Canadian, and others just didn’t care.


Being a foreigner can be quite instructive. It makes you hyper-attentive to the world around you, as so many things are different. You quickly get used to the biggest differences – road signs, the way houses look, how people dress – but the small differences remain hidden just below the surface of everyday life. Things like the way the French greet each other (do you shake hands, or kiss on the cheeks?; if it’s the latter, do you kiss two, three or four times?[2]), or even the semiotics of food, take a long time to master.

Some people are happy to help you as a foreigner; others see you as an interloper. Depending on the color of your skin, you are treated differently. I was told several times, when discussing immigration in France – a hot-button political issue for the entire time I lived in the country, as it is now – that I was a “good immigrant.” This was most likely because I don’t have dark skin, but no one dared say that out loud. Yet the French won’t forget their animosity towards Americans, for having had to intervene in World War II, and help Europe defeat the Nazis. Instead of being thankful for this, the French tend to project their own failures onto Americans, and blame us for coca-colonization.

Yet there is an unease that festers just below the surface. As a foreigner, you are always an “other,” an outsider. You’ve come to the country to potentially take a job, marry into the culture, perhaps even take advantage of people in some way they can’t imagine. You can speak another language (the French have historically been poor at languages), and communicate a secret code that they can’t understand. As an American – a representative of a hyper-capitalist, materialist culture – it is assumed that you are naturally like the stereotypical rapacious American, people who exploit others in search of profit. You are the victim of every preconception and prejudice applied to your compatriots. Even if, over time, you manage to prove that you don’t meet those simplistic images, many people will remain suspicious of you.

Not all countries are the same, of course. And what is a “good immigrant” depends on the country. In France, the “bad immigrants” have dark skin: they come from Africa, mostly, either Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa, from former French colonies. They are either “Arabes,” as the French call North Africans, or blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. In the United Kingdom, where I now live, there is less immigration from these countries, but the current worry is about migrants from other member states of the European Union, or about Syrian refugees. The British are worried about the Poles and Romanians coming to take their jobs, impregnating their women, stealing their hidden treasure, as the Vikings did more than a millennium ago. And they’re worried about Middle Eastern refugees being ISIS operatives masquerading as displaced people.

For the British, I’m a different kind of foreigner. My partner tells me that my American accent gives me a sort of “get out of jail free card.” That I would be allowed to make gaffes that would lead a British person to hide in his or her garden shed for weeks. She often explains to people that I am “very direct,” such as when we were visiting houses recently, and asked some, well, direct questions about a house. Unlike the English, who skirt around issues when they have questions, I just ask them outright. People don’t seem to be bothered by this, perhaps because my accent and their familiarity with Americans on TV makes them less sensitive to this difference than it might have in the past.


No matter what, I’ll always be a foreigner. When I left New York in 1984, planning to be away for a year, I had no idea that I would be pulling up my roots for good, and condemning myself to being an other for the rest of my life. Even if I moved back to the United States now, I would be a foreigner. I’ve gotten so used to the way people live in this part of the world, that learning new habits and customs[3] would be arduous.

For a while, it’s interesting to be the exotic one at a party, where people are curious about you, your life, and the mores of your country. That curiosity faded over the years, because while I was getting used to the French, they were learning more about Americans through television and movies[4]. Naturally, much of what they think they know about my native country is based on stereotypes, but as the internet has spread information, and people travel more, it’s easier to know the basics of what American life is like. People here in the UK don’t even bat an eye when they hear my accent, the way the French and Norwegians did, so it’s easier to blend in.

I never intended to be different; things just turned out that way.


  1. France is roughly shaped like a hexagon, if you look at it on a map and turn your head a bit. The French sometimes call their country “l’hexagone.” And they do use the expression “les quatre coins de l’hexagone,” in a slightly facetious way.  ↩
  2. Even the French get confused by this, and sometimes ask the other person how many times they are to kiss. Seriously.  ↩
  3. WalMart, no single-payer health care, and the omnipresence of guns, to name just a few. I’m naturally aware of all these things from television and the internet, but I’ve not lived with them.  ↩
  4. Of course, for many years, the French learned about American culture by watching Dallas.  ↩

Freezing Time

I had long wanted to see Bob Dylan live, and took advantage of his performing in Cardiff, Wales, about two hours from where I live to tick that off my bucket list. Festooned around the arena like bunting were signs which, with both pictograms and strong words, warned that photos were not allowed. Having front row seats, and wishing to take a photo of the empty stage before the show, I asked the usher if this would be allowed. He apologetically explained that this was a zero-tolerance rule set down by Dylan himself. I had read a review of the previous night’s concert in Manchester, which told about ushers removing people from the audience who persisted in trying to take pictures. So I put my phone in my pocket and sat down to wait for Bob to come on stage.

It’s very common that people take pictures at concerts. Many people spend much of their time at concerts holding their cellphones up and filming the events. You can see this on photos taken at concerts, and on numerous YouTube videos concertgoers post. Unless the person shooting the footage is in the front row, you see countless other cellphones, their screens radiating a bluish light on their owners, creating a sort of wall of screens between the audience and the performers.

I understand Bob Dylan’s desire to have people pay attention to his music-making, rather than have it mediated by a screen. In addition, the constant flashing of lights is distracting to the those on stage. Benedict Cumberbatch, who recently performed Hamlet in London, had to ask the audience to stop filming and taking pictures during the play. Of course, the irony was that, in order to circulate this request, he had to do it in front of fans filming him at the stage door of the theater where he was performing.[1]

I attend the theater often, living near Stratford-Upon-Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company performs in its two theaters. There are announcements before each performance asking people not to take pictures, and to turn off their cellphones and digital watches. Only once have I seen someone attempt to take a photo during a performance. I was in the first balcony, and someone a half-dozen seats to my right attempted to snap the actors bowing on stage at the curtain call. An angry usher rushed down near me – I was sitting on the aisle – shined her flashlight on the young woman, and tried to get her to stop. The usher was more of an annoyance than the spectator who merely wanted one photo of the cast. However, no one is ever bothered if they take pictures of the stage before the shows begin (something I have done often).

Othello

(A photo of the empty stage before the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2015 production of Othello.)

I might have wanted one photo of Dylan and his band, but I wouldn’t have spent my time shooting video of the concert. I had spent serious money for front row VIP tickets, and wanted to focus entirely on the music. But I did see the occasional flash – and usher’s flashlight – during the concert, as people tried to get personal memories of the evening.

Why do people feel the need to have a visual record of what they are seeing with their own eyes? Is this an attempt to reify the feelings they have while attending a performance? Is it to have visual evidence, proof that they were, indeed, listening to Bob Dylan? “Pics or it didn’t happen,” one often hears. Or is it, like the many selfies people take in various locations, just a modern equivalent of dogs pissing on benches?


I saw many concerts as a teenager in New York, in venues both large and small, and, while I don’t remember particulars of any of them, many of them exist in my mind in a sort of crystallized form. I have vague memories of many of these events, with either good or disappointed feelings, but nothing more. For many concerts, I still have ticket stubs, and perusing them acts like a sort of madeleine that brings me back to the mood and feelings of specific shows.

One concert I remember well took place on November 11, 1978. My friend Jay and I traveled to Philadelphia to hear Jorma Kaukonen play a solo acoustic concert.[2] I remember the date because this was the first time the Grateful Dead performed on Saturday Night Live; quite an important event for us Deadheads. We were sitting in the fifth row of Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania. We had whippets that night; those little cartridges of nitrous oxide that give you a fleeting rush. In a recording of the concert, about three songs in, you can hear when Jay slipped up trying to inhale one of the whippets which noisily leaked from the small dispenser. This was in between songs, and Jorma said, "is that nitrous oxide I hear?" The audience cheered, of course; altered states were the norm at this kind of concert.

There’s an audience recording of this concert, made from very close to where we were sitting (close enough to hear the whippet’s whoosh). The quality is not excellent, and in no way reproduces the excellent music we heard that evening, nor the feeling of seeing such a great concert in seats so close to the stage. But if I listen to that recording, memories of the event come back to me, through a veil of time. I don’t have any photos of the show, and I don’t recall seeing many people with cameras at most of the concerts I attended. Sure, you can see the flashbulbs going off during concert films from the 1970s in large arenas, but with a limited number of shots on a roll of film, and the cost of developing it, people didn’t spend an entire concert trying to take pictures.

I remember watching the New York Jets play the Oakland Raiders in the AFL championship game in January, 1969. Sitting behind the end zone in Shea Stadium, the cold New York winter permeated my clothes and my body, freezing my feet. I drank a constant supply of hot chocolate from the ambulatory vendor who carried a tank around on his back. I don’t remember much of the game, other than the fact that the Jets won (And eventually won the Super Bowl), but I have a strong memory of sitting in the stands, huddled in my parka, freezing in the cold winter afternoon. I have no photos, no selfies, no autographs, no videos, noting but my memories.

My youth is full of these fleeting recollections, all of which are tinged by time and by the disintegration of memory. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had photographs and videos of these events. Would they seem more real? Or would my actual memories of the events be different because they were visually frozen in time?

I’ve bought keepsakes from a number of events I attended over the years. I’ve bought t-shirts at concerts, catalogs at art exhibits, and, these days, you can by downloads of concerts you’ve seen, in some cases buying quickly burned CDs on your way out of the venue.[3] But the best keepsakes are the ones in the mind; the feeling of the event, the reminder of the thrill of seeing your favorite band come out on stage as the lights go on and the audience erupts in applause, and the experience of hearing your favorite band on stage without the filter of a recording studio.

What is the value of a blurry photo of Bob Dylan and his band on stage taken from the 30th row? Sure, it reminds the person who took the picture where they were sitting, the colors of the suits the band was wearing – scarlet, for this concert – and the lighting on stage, but its very blurriness suggests that it doesn’t tell a true story. It is, perhaps, something to tweet, or share on Facebook or Instagram, but beyond that, it’s nothing more than proof that the photographer was at the concert. (And took the photo at the risk of missing the rest of the concert.)


We live in a world where everyone has a camera in their pocket and can take photos or videos of whatever goes on around them, with no worries about needing special lights or developing film. These images can be saved or shared instantly. But do we need all these photos and videos? We often see people walking around points of interest taking photos, viewing landmarks through a lens, rather than through their own eyes.

Are we all Zeligs of our own lives, wishing to prove our existence by demonstrating where we have been, and what important events we have attended? Do we need these visual reminders of what we have done, what we have seen, who we have been with to construct our personas? How will people feel in 20 or 30 years when they look back at the selfies they took with transient friends and brief acquaintances, and try to figure out where they were, and who those people were?

Perhaps it’s time to stop taking photos, to experience events through one’s eyes and ears, rather than through a lens and screen. While memories of those events won’t be as sharp, they may be more potent. In a world where people are trying to hold on to memories of everything, maybe the strongest memories are the ones we can’t capture.


  1. Watch the video: Benedict Cumberbatch urges fans not to take photos or video during Hamlet performances  ↩

  2. Jorma Kaukonen was one of the guitarists in Jefferson Airplane. Together with bassist Jack Casady, he formed Hot Tuna, a band that played old blues songs, along with songs inspired by the blues. Jorma has had a long career of playing solo acoustic concerts of his own compositions, along with the classic blues songs that he has championed. You can see a grainy, black and white video of another concert earlier that year on YouTube.  ↩

  3. Bob Dylan doesn’t sell live recordings, and issues very few live albums. Nevertheless, I do have a bootleg of the Cardiff concert, made by some intrepid member of the audience.  ↩

Searching for the Perfect Recording

Music accompanies me in my daily life: when I’m working, or when I just want to sit back and listen, and immerse myself in music for an hour or so. I felt like listening to Franz Schubert’s last piano sonata today: the B-flat major sonata D. 960.[1] This is a long work, which lasts about 40 minutes, in four movements, the first of which is as long as the other three. I have twenty-two different recordings of this sonata, and I have one recording that features a pianist playing the work three times, on three different pianos.

So which one will I listen to? One of Alfred Brendel’s recordings? He’s one of the finest interpreters of Schubert on piano, and I have four by him, including a live recording from his final series of concerts in 2008. How about Paul Lewis’s recent version? This young British pianist has shown himself to be very sensitive in playing Schubert’s works. Or maybe one of the recordings I have for fortepiano, the ancestor to the modern piano, and the type of instrument that Schubert himself played. I have three of those, by Paul Badura-Skoda, Andreas Staier, and one I just bought by Jan Vermeulen. Brendel doesn’t play the repeats in the transcendent first movement, so his recordings are the shortest. I love the sound of the fortepiano, so maybe I’ll pick one of those. Or I could go back to a pianist like Wilhelm Kempff, or the more recent recording by Murray Perahia, who, while not a Schubert specialist, recorded a very moving version of this work. Or the brand new release by András Schiff, on fortepiano.

I don’t listen to this sonata very often; perhaps once a month or so. And I don’t give all the versions of this sonata equal play time, so there are some I’ve only heard once or twice, whereas there are others that I’ve listened to twenty times or more. But this is one of my favorite works, and I regularly seek out new or different versions of it. But why?

Call me obsessive.

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(Re-)Reading Proust: Memory and Exile

Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.

Thus begins Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, a seven-volume novel about time, memory, perception, love, and disappointment. Translated as both Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time – the latter being a more literal rendition of the title – Proust’s fictional cycle is often cited as being the longest novel ever written.[1] This seven-volume work[2] requires that readers make a long-term commitment to the story and its characters. Most people probably don’t get past the first volume, and perhaps a handful read it all the way through. For many, this book – or these books – lies perched on a shelf along with many other long books that one simply never has enough time to read, taunting the reader to take up the Proustian challenge.[3]

I’ve read La recherche three times: the first, in the early 1980s, in an English translation. When I moved to France in 1984 – initially to spend a year, but eventually staying in the country nearly three decades – I was optimistic. The very first book I bought was the compact, three-volume, leather-bound, bible-paper Pléiade edition of the novel. I paid 660 FF for it, at the Paris bookstore La Hune; that was about $66 at the incredibly beneficial exchange rate that I took advantage of that first year.[4]

Pleiade2

Since then, I have read the novel twice in French. (I also “read” it once in French by listening to an audio recording of it.[5]) I didn’t read La recherche right away after I bought that leather-bound edition; Proust used a prodigious vocabulary in his work, more than 18,000 different words[6], and it took me several years to amass enough familiarity with the language to tackle it. But I did read it a few years later, taking the books with me when commuting on the Paris metro, busses, and suburban trains.

I don’t re-read many books, but La recherche is one that I try to rediscover every decade or so. I would put it alongside such books as Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, Updike’s Rabbit series, Ross Lockgidge Jr.’s Raintree Country, or Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. These great works have influenced my life, and I’ve returned to them as I age, seeking out new ways of understanding them. In a book as long and dense as La recherche, each re-reading peels off new layers of appreciation of the complex characters, and the long story Proust tells becomes clearer and more relatable. You can recall many of the milestones in the story, making it easier to follow. As you go through life, you live many of the experiences that Proust recounts in his novel, and each time you read about them, you can compare your life to his semi-fictional explorations.

When I read that opening sentence, I know that it is the first step on a long journey, one that may take a year or more.[7] But that sentence is also the promise of a return to a familiar world peopled with a large cast of characters, one that has become a part of me over the years. A friend told me, after he finished reading La recherche the first time, that when he got to the end it was as if he had lost a number of very close friends. You become so familiar with these characters, their actions, and their foibles, that they become part of your life. Great fiction can do this: you may not agree with the characters, you may not want to be like them, but when you stop reading about the greatest ones, such as Ahab, Leopold Bloom, or Harry Angstrom, there is a sense of regret, of loss.

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Road Movies: The Quest for Home

One Saturday some thirty years ago, I saw a triple feature at a cinema in Lower Manhattan. That day, the white screen in the dark room was filled with three unforgettable road movies: The Searchers, Stalker, and Kings of the Road. I had never thought much about the road movie, and after that day, I realized that not only did this genre touch me deeply, but I understood what that type of film was saying. These three great movies all tell stories of people on the road, searching for home. And that’s what the road movie is all about.

Ever since I had first seen Kings of the Road, sometime in the late 1970s, I had been fascinated by this minimalist story of two men wandering in the gray German landscape. I had probably seen it a half-dozen times by then, but, back in the pre-DVD days, it was hard to see foreign films. You could only catch them occasionally at one of the handful of movie theaters in Manhattan that showed foreign films.

So I jumped at the chance to see it again, at a retrospective of Wim Wenders’ movies at the Film Forum in Greenwich Village in July, 1982.[1] The director had chosen a program of movies that influenced him, or that were important to him, along with his own films and others he had produced. Kings of the Road was shown alongside two other road movies, introduced by Wenders himself.

Kings of the road poster

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