Paris Was Ours
“Paris lives in its details,” observes one contributor to this collection of essays. But equally true is the idea of Paris that thrives through clichés. You’ll find spare references to the Eiffel Tower, berets, cheese, and wine in Paris Was Ours, although the apparently ineluctable forms of French snobbery are discussed. What this anthology delivers instead are a wide breadth of creative and nuanced meditations on the culture, history, and inhabitants of the City of Light, confirming that all our romantic associations with Paris, despite the city’s faults, are quite justified.
Paris Was Ours offers a diversity of voices and topics, and in this regard, it is a superior resource among the proliferating anthologies on the city. (Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French come to mind.) The contributors range from well-known writer David Sedaris and poet C.K. Williams, to a homeless woman, a chef, an Iranian revolution escapee, and various scholars. There are translations in the book from Arabic, Spanish, and French.
Paris Was Ours serves as a useful introduction to French culture, and even the most frequent travelers to France will find it illuminates what can oftentimes be perplexing Parisian mores, such as their disdain for discussing money matters, heavy-handed parenting style, chic fashion sense, tangled bureaucratic systems, insistence on a well-rounded and balanced quality of life, and greater acceptance of human shortcomings in their political leaders. Reading the book had the satisfying effect of gaining a greater appreciation for living in France, and perhaps by some comparison, the United States.
One discovery I made is that, for many of the writers, living in Paris afforded a certain liberation that led to greater self-knowledge and appreciation. “People just find themselves here,” says one Uighur journalist. Valerie Steiker, in “Fledgling Days,” whose sojourn was motivated by her desire to connect with her deceased mother by re-living similar Parisian experiences, learns about humility and self-reliance. In “Understanding Chic,” Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni discovers that “[t]he secret to acquiring chic… is to correct negative thinking.” In “Just Another American,” African American student Janet McDonald describes how Paris freed her from being perceived mainly through the confines of racial assumptions:
The French drew no such [racial] distinctions, which meant I no longer had to worry about making African Americans look good. Or bad. Whatever I did was attributed to Americanness, not blackness. What a switch – a black person with the power to make white people look bad.
No discussion of Paris is complete without mention of seduction and romance, and there is certainly plenty of that in this collection. One standout essay is “Love Without Reason,” where student of post-structural theory Caroline Weber draws comparisons between Lacan’s views on human desire and her foray into becoming “a one-woman band of seduction.” In “Ma Vie Bohème,” Karen Shur sensually describes the days and nights spent with her lover in their scant apartment. Brigid Dorsey, in “Litost,” tells the heartbreaking story of her failed romantic relationship with the father of her child.
Paris Was Ours will conjure nostalgic feelings for those who have lived in Paris, and wanderlust for those who have yet to visit. Many aspects of Parisian life are captured in such original and surprising ways that I found the book tough to put down and almost as good as walking down the Champs-Élysées.