L'argent Is No Object
Paris Was Ours, 2011
I interrupted her: Tell me again. Why exactly am I supposed to put money away? Her jaw dropped. Excuse me? she said.
She had managed my portfolio for more than ten years and not once had I expressed doubts about the need to plan for the future nor unhappiness regarding her long-term investment strategy. Why not spend my capital now, while I am still in good health? I asked.
She hesitated. Was I joking? Momentarily deranged? Exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s? She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. But I made no move to get her off the hook. She groped for an answer. Opened her mouth. Forced a smile. You are kidding, of course, she said.
In retrospect, I remember this uncomfortable pause as the exact moment when I made up my mind to move back to Paris.
* * * *
The year 2007 looked pretty good as my plane was banking over the countryside surrounding the Charles de Gaulle airport. I had just sold my Brooklyn Heights apartment at the top of the market and was moving into a 100-square-meter rental in the first arrondissement. How bad could that be?
As we were approaching the runway, the snow-dusted landscape appeared fastidiously groomed, with its meticulously mapped fields, its sinuous tracing of thick hedges and its regularly-spaced apple trees. The well-tempered pattern of farmland of the Ile-de-France was shockingly unlike the urban sprawl surrounding JFK. The silhouette of a small village huddled around its pointy church steeple echoed that of Paris — the profile of the Eiffel tower poking out of the fog in the distance.
The insidious power of numbers had turned my life in the United States into a system of checks and balances. I woke up every morning wondering how I could be more productive.
My freelance income was no longer what it used to be. My husband would lie awake at night worrying about his bonus. He agonized about meeting his sales projections. The most fun we had as a couple was comparing notes with friends about real estate values. The fear of health care bankruptcy was paralyzing us. Only the prospect of capital gain kept us going. Going where? Eventually we found out: A divorce and Paris.
Many of my French friends, who had fallen in love with New York decades ago and immigrated to the USA, as I had, could not afford to move back home because, paradoxically, they’d become too rich. The dreaded French Wealth Tax (ISF) would have taken too large a bite off their life’s savings. Mercifully, in spite of my portfolio manager’s efforts, I didn’t have this problem. But still, I could not have picked a worst time to convert my life from dollars to euros.
In Paris, no one talked about the looming international financial crisis. People read about it in the papers or heard about it on TV, but somehow never discussed it. It was a presidential election year. Strikes, protest movements, and political rallies were aplenty, yet dinner table debates about how the dire state of the economy might affect one’s pocketbook remained few and far between.
Apparently, public discontent was permissible, but not private disgruntlement.
With the Almighty Dollar in free fall, I would have loved to share my trepidations with someone, but details about my money worries were not deemed an appropriate topic of conversation. Parents, siblings, friends, no one would sit still when I tried to get their sympathy about my fiscal or financial situation. Each time I broached the subject, they would interrupt me, talk about something else, or find a pretext to leave the room. It was creepy. A couple of times I even wondered whether I was dead and only imagined that people could see me.
You Americans talk about money all the time, my older sister eventually told me, as only an older sister would, her frosty tone resurrecting in me long-buried childhood terrors. In France, money is dirty. Very dirty. It was as if she had caught me playing with my merde. Seizing the moral high ground, she instructed me to call her accountant, an international expert who happened to be one of her former lovers. I traipsed to his fancy offices near the Champs Elysées where I was treated to a full-blown flip-board presentation during which he feverishly scribbled a jumble of pie charts and diagrams. None of what he explained to me made any sense, but he was so tall and handsome, I didn’t really mind.
As it turned out, he was the first of a string of expensive accountants I consulted subsequently, each one more attractive than the one before. My second attempt at elucidating my financial situation put me across the desk from a very busy yet utterly charming attorney who spoke at a breakneck speed, so much so that he never stopped to listen to my questions. Finally, he advised me to waste no time and hire his own accountant, who, oddly enough, lived in a project in a godforsaken suburb at the northern end of a subway line.
I trudged there, and found him eating a sandwich at his desk in an apartment whose front door was left open on a hallway resonating with the sounds of children crying, televisions playing, and vacuum cleaners running. He too was movie star material, which was a welcome treat because by that time I had been rendered numb by the stress of trying to figure out my French fiscal status.
* * * *
I still have to meet someone who would listen to my story from the beginning. Even though private financial troubles are as widespread in France as they are everywhere else, they are not the stuff of narrative. For various reasons, mostly historical, tales of rags-to-riches are not part of the popular culture. The French bourgeois are notoriously tight-lipped about their affairs, particularly in the provinces. Their love of secrecy is a legacy from pre-revolutionary times when tax inspectors snooped around the countryside, spying on everyone, listening to conversations, hoping to evaluate people’s fortune and figure out how much they could collect.
For Parisians, mum’s the word as well, but they deflect other people’s curiosity about their money with more élan and panache than their country cousins. They’ll wax poetic about the most modest objects in their possession but dismiss exorbitantly priced acquisitions as mere commodities.
Tourists are not expected to conform to this unspoken rule of silence. In Parisian restaurants, French patrons would never dream of discussing credit crunch, promising stocks, or short-term loans, but they are remarkably forgiving of those “noisy guests” (translate “Americans”) who are lamenting the cost of a six-day stay in intensive care or regaling their friends with their exploits in the stock market. In order not to be mistaken for one of those visiting Yankees (I have developed a slight American accent and waiters still bring me the menu in English), I had to rid myself of certain habits I have picked during my 40 years abroad. Pointing at merchandise and asking How much? Saying How’s business when meeting an acquaintance.
When I consciously tried to curb my money talk, though, I realized how much it dominated my thoughts. My dollar dependency was so ingrained, it tricked my brain. Early in the process, I’d confused not talking about money with talking about having no money. I’d assume that saying I don’t think that I can afford a 300,000 dollars studio in Paris was a show of restraint. I didn’t understand why this comment only got me a glassy-eyed response from my French friends. They’d mark just a pause, but it was enough of a reprimand to fill me with shame.
Mere neurotransmitter errors, my blunders would reveal to me how much I had been conditioned to rely on money as a universal system of reference. So I tried again, remarking in all earnest that I got the Epson Stylus printer because it was the cheapest option. Wrong again! Only after the fact was I able to figure out what I should have said in order not to quote a price, bring up a cost, or mention an expense. How about: It’s either a small studio in Paris or three Cartier diamond necklaces. The Epson Stylus is neat, but no faster than a golf cart.
If you don’t talk about money, what’s left to talk about? asked a Los Angeles friend who thinks that you’d have to be insane not to go crazy over the rising cost of about everything.
What’s left to talk about? The asparagus season, the Tour de France, Japanese art, the films of Jean-Luc Goddard, photojournalism, Yoko Ono, how to silence creaky floorboards, women’s sports, the wonders of foot surgery, Cartier-Bresson, revisionist history, great radio programs, the latest Grand Palais contemporary art exhibition, and, last but not least, best recipes for beef Bourguignon.
Not talking about money is what cultural life in Paris is all about.
* * * *
During my first year in Paris I didn’t just learn not to mention the content of my wallet, my bank account, or my retirement investment portfolio, I also familiarized myself with the body language of monetary moderation. The new gestures associated with the distribution of funds were strangely exacting. Tipping waiters and cabdrivers demanded that I dole out small change with homeopathic precision.
An overgenerous contribution to the cash economy could be construed as a criticism of people’s hard-won, union-negotiated salaries. God help me if I tried to grab the check at the end of a meal with good friends. They felt insulted. I’d embarrassed my dinner companions whenever I waved my credit card in the direction of the waitress, to attract her attention and let her know that I wanted her to bring the check. When it came at long last, I was publicly chastised for not studying it carefully to make sure that the amount was right. Don’t look like you are throwing your money around, I was told.
No one seems in a rush to make the cash register ring. To postpone as long as possible the anticipated moment when money will have to change hands, a lot of verbal reciprocity takes place across oak-veneered checkout counters or on either side of zinc-covered bar tops. In Paris, small talk with shopkeepers and waiters rates high as a health and longevity factor, as high, if not higher, as being happily married, exercising regularly, or eating at least three vegetables a day.
When finally it’s time to close a deal, the transaction takes place on a downbeat, with merchants taking your cash or credit card almost reluctantly. Instructed to look away as customers type in their pin code, they glance at the ceiling or examine their shoes to give you a moment of privacy. There is a hush, a strange stillness in the air, one that confers a delicious surreptitiousness to the act of spending.
* * * *
Parisians approach parting with money as they do foreplay: with plenty of time to spare. On more than one occasion I have stared in disbelief as French friends couldn’t figure out whether to pay for their sandwich with a personal check or a credit card. Apparently, they enjoyed the suspense. Rushing the proceeds would have been crass. Standing by as they waffled, patiently waiting for them to make up their mind, is not unlike watching an excruciatingly slow sex scene in a foreign film.
In Paris, before possessing an object of desire one tries to covet it for as long as one can. On the whole, yearning for something is believed to be more enjoyable than buying it. Monetary or amatory, preliminaries are savored leisurely. The same man who takes his sweet time deliberating over the best method of payment for an eight-euro tab will win you over by creating equally awkward diversions d’amour as he attempts to lead you from the bistro table to the bedroom.
On the way, he will probably manage to get his car towed away, buy you flowers, ask you to tag along as he retrieves a package from the post office, and take you to visit his aunt in Neuilly. You are an emotional wreck by the time he decides to kiss you as you ride up in his creaky elevator.
Alone at last with you, he might forget, in the heat of the action, to remove his black socks, step out of his trousers scrunched up around his ankles, or mention that he has a wife and two kids. He will most likely chose the moment when you are on all fours on his oriental rug, looking for your lost earring, to declare that you are the most beautiful woman on earth.
With a man like this — a typical Parisian artist — the topic of money simply never comes up. At least not until you decide, as I did, to acquire one of his paintings. The occasion was an open studio event, with all his friends milling around, munching on cheese and crackers and drinking champagne. A monumental canvas, which I had noticed on that first visit to his place, was beckoning me.
I could not reasonably afford to squander rent money on such a frivolous purchase, but even in Paris being broke is seldom an incentive to thrift. There was no price list, and so I could not evaluate what it would cost for me to buy this particularly handsome piece. However, trying to handle the situation like a pro was a challenge I could not resist.
Would you part with it? I asked him, motioning in the direction of the painting. He was surprised. Is there a wall in your apartment large enough for it?
Now, sex had been pretty good, but this turned out to be even better. I bought the painting from him without either of us ever mentioning a price or negotiating an amount. The exercise presented itself as an equation in which not only “x” was an unknown, but also all the other letters of the seduction alphabet. I finessed it by writing a series of random checks which I mailed to him in envelopes containing other unrelated information regarding various art shows.
When he called me, we talked over the phone about his recipe for rabbit stew. He emailed me pictures of his daughters taken that summer in Normandy. We made plans to go to New York to visit the Dia-Beacon museum. And then one day he rang my bell and showed up with the huge canvas wrapped in crisp paper the color of candied chestnuts.
Our affair had been over long ago, with no repeat performance scheduled anytime soon, but suddenly we were in love.
* * * *
At long last, I am getting the hang of it. Paris is becoming my personal tax haven, my Liechtenstein, my Gibraltar, my Aruba, my state of Delaware. Here I can evade greed, find respite from acquisitiveness, dodge my self-aggrandizing ambitions. I no longer feel the urge to rag against the hidden costs of banking operations, the abysmal exchange rates, or the extra charges on my phone bills. Give me a couple of months and I will stop fretting when the stock market takes yet another plunge. I may not even notice when it goes back up again. I can almost see the day when being broke will bother me about as much as breaking a fingernail.
Only last month I met a young French woman who had spent six years as a successful artists’ representative in Los Angeles and had recently moved back to Paris, her hometown. Reentry was proving so grueling that she was exhibiting symptoms usually associated with road rage. She became incoherent as she tried to convey to me her vexation at being turned down by a local bank that had refused to let her open a checking account.
I was not unsympathetic — that morning I had received a threatening letter from URSAFF, one of many organizations that levy heavy taxes on individuals to offset the cost of paying for the French government’s generous social services. So I understood what she was going through — I understood, yet I refused to feel sorry for her. I knew that soon she would appreciate the irony of it all.
Living in Paris is “priceless,” but it will cost you. It ain’t cheap, yet it is one of the greatest bargains on earth. In our day and age, there are only two ways to get free of money worries: Either accumulate wealth, lots of it, or move to Paris.
1/12 - By Penelope Rowlands: Paris Was Ours: 32 writers reflect on the City of Light
2/12 - Back in Paris after 40 years abroad, I had to learn not to worry about money. (photos VV)
3/12 - "In Paris, being broke is seldom an incentive to thrift."
4/12 - "Yearning for something is more enjoyable than buying it."
5/12 - "Trying to handle the situation like a pro was a challenge I couldn't resist."
6/12 - "Sex had been pretty good, but this turned out to be even better."
7/12 - "Here I can dodge my self-agrandizing ambitions."
8/12 - "No one seems in a rush to make the cash register ring."
9/12 - "The fear of health care bankruptcy was paralyzing us."
10/12 - "Either accumulate wealth, lots of it, or move to Paris."
11/12 - " Not talking about money is what the cultural life is all about."
12/12 - "Our affair had been over long ago, but suddenly we were in love."