Letter from Paris

A Lesson From iPhones

Of their trip to Paris, most people choose to remember a croissant that they ate at a café, the view from the top floor of the Eiffel Tower or Mona Lisa's smile at the Louvre. Our columnist Adam Gopnik prefered to remember the day he lost his phone!
© Steven Lasry

Not long ago I got to spend a couple of days in my beloved city of Paris, and while I was there I lost my iPhone. I wasn’t sure exactly when, and I wasn’t sure exactly how. We were staying at an old-fashioned hotel right across from the Gare du Nord, which is the legendary train station in Paris where iPhones go to be stolen. It seems to have a kind of magnetic attraction for smartphones of all kinds – meaning that it’s really just a locale for pickpockets who seem to be able to wangle a smartphone from your pants by sheer force of will from across the station floor.

As part of my work we had gone to the Gare du Nord to find a taxi to take us to Saint-Denis – now a slightly grimy Parisian suburb that was the cathedral seat of French kings in its day. All I knew was that by the time we got back to the hotel I no longer had my iPhone. In the strange way of these things, I had no memory of the last time I had held it. One of the oddities of our time is the phenomenon of the phantom iPhone – the certainty that you feel your smartphone vibrating in your pocket when, in fact, it isn’t. So I could remember it at various moments, thinking that I had felt it vibrate, but later couldn’t be sure if it really had or if it was just an illusion.

All the odds suggested, though, that it had vanished some time and place around the Gare du Nord – that a skilled pickpocket had taken it. I thought back through all of our encounters and intersections as we had searched for a cab, but I couldn’t pick out the telltale pickpocketing moment. No one had asked me to sign a petition; no one had brushed alongside me or accidentally spilled something on or near me; no child had tugged at me plaintively…

I knew the full catalogue of those distractions because only a year before I had come to Paris and the Gare du Nord to write a reporting piece about, as it happens, pickpocketing in Paris. This subject is often unfairly but inexorably linked to the subject of the Roma in France – the people we once called gypsies, now known as Romany or Roms. It was one of those pieces that well-meaning liberal writers write, thinking they are exploring prejudice in order to defuse it. I had interviewed Romany activists and leading Roma thinkers in and out of France – I could even tell you what symbol would have been on the Romany flag if one ever flew over a Romany nation (a wagon wheel).

The distinction I was trying to make when I wrote up what I had seen – that it may well be true that the Roma were involved in pickpocketing, and that you might often find Roma syndicates behind it – was not at all the same as thinking the problem of petty theft was a question of ethnicity. Just as the horrible stereotypes of Jews as grasping and greedy contributes to the hatred of Jews and all its horrible consequences. But still when Woody Allen held up a pocket watch in his old cabaret act and said “You see this watch? On his deathbed, my grandfather sold me this watch,” I not only laughed, but knew that, speaking from within his own culture, there was sufficient truth in the stereotype to earn a laugh. On her deathbed my own great aunt had asked me exactly how much the New Yorker paid me.

Once again in Paris, these questions of others and aliens were very much on my mind, as I was also in France to talk at a seminar about one of the great French Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Levinas. The subject was how we deal with the Other – the big, philosophical one, with a capital “O.” His philosophy tends to obscure articulation and gnomic utterance, but at heart is simple: We discover ourselves by looking at others. This took the place of the classic French inquiry that Descartes began – what can I know, what can I see, how do I know that I am at all, since everything I see and hear could be dreams or delusions imprinted by a demon, or implanted in my head by a machine? Tolerating other people is not the second thing we learn laboriously; it is the first thing we have to know in order to know that we are alive at all. Look someone in the eye, sense their mind at work, and you will feel alive yourself. “Know thyself” is actually bad advice. “Look around!” is better. I felt a certain kind of rueful self-mockery and shame familiar to liberal journalists when I realized my iPhone had been sacrificed to the purity of my sentiments and the loftiness of my philosophical allusions. I had waltzed through the Gare du Nord having persuaded myself to be imprudent, glorying in my encounter with the Other, and while I was glorying, the Other had taken my phone.

Then on our last night in Paris, as we packed and talked to our hosts, Richard and Agnès, an email arrived – an email written in stilted but fluent English:

I am actually the daughter of the taxi driver in Paris and we have found your phone between two seats in the taxicab. So how can we give your phone back?
Caroline Chong

I answered at once – got her phone number, and called her. The tricky bit of course was that we were leaving the next morning, and so we arranged for Mr. Chong to meet us outside our friends’ apartment just before our taxi came. We should have left it at that, but then it occurred to all of us at once that it seemed rather pointless to arrange for a taxi to drop off my phone five minutes before another taxi arrived to take us to the airport. So we called back in a fit of inspiration, and arranged with Mademoiselle Chong to have her father come round in the morning to pick us up, return the phone, accept his reward, and then conclude the merry occasion by driving us to the airport.

This negotiation took more time than perhaps this description suggests it should have, since it had to be worked out in trilingual form, with Mademoiselle Chong’s fluent French and formal English being translated to her father in Mandarin.

It seemed thrilling. But of course it didn’t work. We went down to wait for him – and then waited and waited – and when we finally got in touch with him we discovered he was indeed waiting for us – at the airport where he had virtuously already gone. Trilingual negotiation had its limits, and he had thought we wanted a pick up. We found an Uber and raced off.

And here is where I think the story becomes rather special. Far from driving off in exasperation as he had every right to do – and as indeed he probably should have done to get his rush-hour business – we discovered upon arriving that Mr. Chong had repeatedly circled the terminal (you’re not allowed to stay in place long), waiting for us to call so he could return the iPhone. His view of the other was so courteously humane that he circled the airport for two hours with the Other’s iPhone. While searching for his among the lookalike taxis, I felt shamefully that I would not recognize his face – because during our perfectly polite trip out I had never really looked him in the eye. It was a perfect example of the need for Levinas’ “looking around.” What had begun as a philosophy had now become a practical question of parking. Would I know the Other when I saw him, having failed to see him properly the first time?

We intersected at last and recognized each other – oh, yes, of course, you! With the plane about to leave and the security line beckoning, I grabbed my iPhone and thrust the small reward at him, which he refused to take. Then off he drove, and once again I had my photos and my screen saver and my notes and my music. What I had feared would be a story about the tragedies of immigration in France turned out to be one about its triumphs, albeit in a suitably muted tone. Not a story about ethnicity but about Mr. Chong and his daughter. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that there are no tragedies, no triumphs, but only individual cases. They may merge together into muddy patterns – at times they may even gang up in train stations – but at the end of the day they are all ineffably singular. The Other comes to us only one by one, with a daughter speaking elaborate but imperfect high school English. There is no “Other” with a capital O. There are only others, circling the airport in a moment of dogged and unearned charity.

As soon as we got home from Paris, I told our kids the story and was about to unload some moral lessons on them. My wife cut me off before I could. “Dad’s right. There is a life lesson. Always, always look back at the seat when you leave a taxi.” I couldn’t argue with that.

Article published in the October 2015 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.