Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


©2000 UrbisMedia

©2000 UrbisMedia

[continued from 84.8]

Les Americanes

When it comes to rocky love affairs there is also the on/off relationship between France and America that goes back to the French and Indian Wars (although it was British America then). Then Les Americans jumped ahead in the anti-monarchist revolution contest (but with the assistance of Layfayette, of course), and then sort of ripped off the French with the Louisiana Purchase. The Americans helped France out in a couple of big wars, but then they had their disagreements during and after the Cold War, and, regrettably, that recent business about “freedom fries.” But most Americans have warm and positive feelings toward Parisians and have even forgiven them for appropriating the name of one of our collegiate football teams for their cathedral. That said, we can understand what comedian Fed Allen meant when he wrote that “The American arrives in Paris with a few French phrases he has culled from a conversational guide or picked up from a friend who owns a beret. He speaks the sort of French that is really understood by another American who also has just arrived in Paris.”

Americans flocked to Paris after WWII, as Stanley Karow wrote, because “the legendary Ville Lumiere . . . promised something for everyone—beauty, sophistication, culture, cuisine, sex, escape and that indefinable called ambience.” F. Scott Fitzgerald felt that “The best of America drifts to Paris. The American in Paris is the best American. It is more fun for an intelligent person to live in an intelligent country. France has the only two things toward which we drift as we grow older—intelligence and good manners.” Oh, so that’s where they went. But not everybody agrees: “She’s one of those third year girls who gripe my liver… You know, American college kids. They come over here to take their third year and lap up a little culture… They’re officious and dull. They’re always making profound observations they’ve overheard” bemoans Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan in An American In Paris. It is the rare American who is as unimpressed as Babe Ruth. “Paris ain’t much of a town,” he grumbled.

But why is it that Paris seems to turn some Americans to morbid thoughts? It could have been Oscar Wilde’s fault when he said, “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” Wilde, who is interred in Paris’ famous Pere Lachaise cemetery might have revised that accolade when rocker Jim Morrison was buried nearby and visited by hordes of his pot-smoking, boozing fans. Some Americans never got the chance for a Paris resting place. Not many Americans make it to Pere Lachaise, although writers Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright did. Patti Smith, it seems has lower standards: “Maybe I’ll be 48 and die in the gutter in Paris.” Mae West said “I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do.” She’s buried in Brooklyn.

Americans aren’t the only ones with such dark thoughts about Paris. Consider: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, “Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is still considered an art.” Or, Montesquieu, “Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half.” And Balzac, “Suicide, moreover, was at the time in vogue in Paris: what more suitable key to the mystery of life for a skeptical society? But Paris itself endures, managing to survive intact despite being near the epicenter of two world wars. Beautiful cities, it is sometimes said, can have a “beauty fatal to themselves.” Yet the beauty of Paris might have saved it from looking like Berlin in 1945, paradoxically thanks to a stranger admirer. “Berlin is a big city, but not a real metropolis. Look at Paris, the most beautiful city in the world.” (Adolf Hitler)

Le Cinema

The French nouvelle vague has long since washed its hip-ness over American shores, in my day, if you couldn’t get to Paris, the next best thing was to head for the art movie house for some French “new wave” film. It was like being into Ingemar Bergman films without lingering thoughts of suicide. Being able to drop a few lines about directors like Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Malle might get you a date with a girl who had no interest in Beatles concerts.

Admittedly, the French could get a bit self-indulgent with their home-grown cinema, given director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s claim ““When Americans shoot movies they aim at the entire planet. When the French make movies, they aim at Paris.” Big-budget films didn’t fit the French auteur image and moreover, “In Paris, everybody wants to be an actor; nobody is content to be a spectator,” according to Jean Cocteau. Non-French actors were rare in the French dramatics, but some, like Vivien Leigh, acknowledge its influence: “When I was at school at Paris, I had special lessons from Mademoiselle Antoine, an actress at the Comedie Francaise, and I was taken to every sort of play. I felt very grand.” But Paris might be the greatest influence and, despite director Ernst Lubitsch’s snide “I’ve been to Paris France and I’ve been to Paris Paramount. Paris Paramount is better,” American’s can’t seem to get enough of movies shot in those magnificent streets.

And Speaking of the Streets

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life,” remarked Thomas Jefferson. Of course, Jefferson got off those streets and was back in Monticello just before they began to run red with the blood of the Revolution. Even at a distance, and being an anti-monarchist, the Revolution soured him on Paris. “Great cities are a sore upon the body politic,” he wrote.

All that aristocratic blood has since been washed away (occasionally by other blood) since those revolting days. These days we find some of the greatest praise for Paris given to these same venues witnessed the Reign of Terror, the lives of Les Miserables, and the drumbeat of Nazi jackboots. Jefferson was right about the history lesson. “Paris was a universe whole and entire unto herself, hollowed and fashioned by history; so she seemed in this age of Napoleon III with her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets – as vast and indestructible as nature itself,” enthused Anne Rice without ever mentioning a vampire despite the reputation of those sanguineous thoroughfares. Anais Nin concurs: “Each stone [in Paris] has a history, and each street bulges with lives well-lived, deeply loved. . . . It is. . . the capitol of intelligence and creativity, enriched by the passage of all the artists in the world.”

What other city could have its own mot just specifically for urban perambulation. “Paris… is a world meant for the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail,” wrote Edmund White in his aptly titled “stroll through the paradoxes of Paris,” The Flaneur. Margaret Anderson probably qualifies as a flaneur (or someone who works for the Paris Tourist Authority)(when she writes that Paris . . . “is the only city in the world where you can step out of a railway station—the Gare D’Orsay—and see, simultaneously, the chief enchantments: the Seine with its bridges and bookstalls, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Tuileries Gardens, the Place de la Concorde, the beginning of the Champs Elysees—nearly everything except the Luxembourg Gardens and the Palais Royal. But what other city offers as much as you leave a train?”

Kate Simon offers “A final reminder. Whenever you are in Paris at twilight in the early summer, return to the Seine and watch the evening sky close slowly on a last strand of daylight fading quietly, like a sigh.” No doubt then you are likely to agree with Turkish playwright and novelist Mehmet Murat ildan “If you have ever walked in Paris, you will see that Paris will ever walk in your memoires!” And what more romantic way to remember our meander through the streets of Paris than in the lyric of Oscar Hammerstein, with a melody most appropriately recalled in the tones of a concertina: “The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay/ I heard the laughter of her heart in every street cafe.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself . . . really, I couldn’t.*
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.31.2013)
*Many of the quotations in this essay and the preceding essay have been taken from my forthcoming book, The City, A Dictionary of Quotation 2nd Ed., Transaction Publishers.

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