While Montaigne concerns himself with friends and insists that true and perfect friendship is a bond stronger than justice and even love, I will content myself with a few anecdotes about strangers I have encountered over the past month. Considering his definitions and examples of friendship, one gets the idea that he really is talking about love as we currently perceive it. For example, “They were more friends than citizens, more friends to one another than either enemies or friends to their country, or than friends to ambition and innovation; having absolutely given up themselves to one another, either held absolutely the reins of the other’s inclination,” and, “In the friendship I speak of, [friends] mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed then by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”
On to the anecdotes, both of which involve trains.
It is not uncommon in Paris to encounter poor people or beggars or drunkards or people who otherwise discomfit or harass you. One time, taking the train back to Coulommiers I encountered a man who probably fell into three of the above categories: poor, drunk, and discomfiting. I was in a car of the train with only one other person and had intended to flip tranquilly through the copy of Le Petit Prince, which I had just purchased for my sister, but before I could settle into any sort of tranquil groove, the two of us, I trying to read, the other trying to listen to music, were joined by a third person, the stranger in question, who began to spit his harsh words at the two of us from about 15 feet away. I cannot say I understood everything of what he said (I’m not sure my fellow French passenger could either), but from what I could make out, the two of us were somehow personally responsible for this man’s hardships and for the trials of black people everywhere. “Black people,” he edified me, “were just as smart as white people, were just as human as white people, and would not put up with white subjugation any longer.” His vehemence was starling, but I took my cue from the other guy in the car and tried to pretend that this guy wasn’t spitting hatred at us—tried to pretend even that he didn’t exist. How else to combat a voice that wouldn’t listen to reason even if I could accurately articulate it in French?
When my family was visiting me in Paris I made frequent trips from Coulommiers to see them. On one such occasion I was taking the 12:36 pm train from Coulommiers. In the particular car where I found myself was a group of three Japanese men speaking very loudly and incessantly. Two of them had their backs to me and the third, sitting across from them was drinking from a can of Heineken. The source of the loudness identified, I settled into reading a magazine to pass the hour-long train-ride. Their continued loudness was hardly distracting. Unable to comprehend the sounds being made any more than the din of a bustling café can be understood, the sound washed over me.
Also in the car was a weaselly-looking and nervously fidgeting Frenchman who had come onto the train smoking a cigarette despite the signs forbidding it. But of course there’s no one to enforce the rules, and I wasn’t trying to make any enemies. If anything this nervous guy was more annoying than the boisterous Japanese people. He kept getting up to whisper in the ear of his friend and make enigmatic gestures.
As we were minutes from arriving at Gare de l’Est, something changed in the Japanese conversation. One of the men with his back to me had stood up and was standing over his friend who had been continuously drinking the entire ride. It was the drunk one who had been talking endlessly, the others had apparently just been laughing at his inebriated state. Until now that is. Standing over his drunk friend, this guy suddenly slaps him smack across the face. His body language tells me there is no joke in the slap he has just administered. The drunk friend seems little fazed by his face which should be throbbing with pain; instead he says something else to his angry friend, who, now truly furious, starts to choke him. Thinking he would stop momentarily, after he got over his anger, or that the third friend would somehow intervene, I did nothing except get more concerned as the drunk guy, already red from alcohol, starting turning purple. The third friend made some nominal effort, amounting to little in the face of the second friend’s fury. At this point, the few of us in the car are truly worried but basically petrified into inaction. Are we about to witness a murder? Won’t he let go of the guy’s throat? Please…
But it was the weaselly, fidgety Frenchman who snapped to action and broke it up, “J’ai dit STOP!” After a few terrifying seconds where the drunk guy was half on the ground, half on the chair, more immobile even than we had been in coming to his defense, he at last began to move again. The Frenchman’s friend took the opportunity as we were getting off the train to offer me these words of wisdom, “Il faut boire avec modération l’alcool.” (One must drink alcohol with moderation.) Thanks for the advice, man.