Living in Paris and Other Fantasies

When asked in a recent survey to name their number one fantasy, most Americans polled did not reply “being president of the United States” or “writing the great American novel.” The number one fantasy was, mais oui, our present reality – “living in Paris.”

As Anglo-Americans who already live in Paris, our greatest fantasies obviously have had to be redirected. Ironically, something like half of the long-term expats living in Paris today actively dream up vague schemes for returning to the Lower 48. (The others gag at the option.) These cockeyed plans, of course, are almost always impractical, considering the presence of hybrid kids, ambiguous spouses, severed and sometimes missing roots, irate IRS inspectors, and that bastardized franglais that makes one feel equally foreign in Paris and Pittsburgh, Tulsa and Toulouse. On top of that, the America you’d now return to has left you in the dated dust. You are out of sync, you can’t compete, and from your solid American trunk stylized European branches have stemmed. Although you don’t think you do, you think like a Parisian; you’ve been inculcated with the culture of formulaires and your logic is organized into a maze of orderly but less-than-valuable “guichets” and “dossiers.” Admit it! You’re French. Look in the mirror and ask yourself “What’s my ‘raison social’?”

Other less ambitious Yanks harbor more delightful fantasies than sheepish retreats. Mine, for example, is to manage Paris’ first 24-hour drive-in Safeway supermarket. As the gregarious “bagboy-gérant” I see myself personally greeting each customer, as he or she glides through the check-out aisle, with that friendly and truly genuine question: “What’ll it be today, Missus Dupont, paper or plastic?” Ah, the pleasure of battering them with over-the-top service, money-back guarantees and hard-to-believe value. How fickle we are: the things we came to despise in our native malls and entertainment channels we miss in Paris. The truth is we end up “ringard” everywhere.

Eyeing with particular interest the Paris-filmed scenes of Woody Allen’s recent bijou “Tout le Monde Dit I Love You,”a perverse wave of envy flooded my mood: it is exactly “comme ça” that I’d love once again to experience this ol’ city of ours, enchanted by the lights on the river, seduced by the grandeur of the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, charmed with “amour” while waltzing with an angelic Goldie Hawn on a Left Bank quai at midnight. I found myself longing for the lost innocence of the tourist in Paris. Oh, to be free for a day to walk around the French capital with an auto-focus camera and a Galeries Lafayette city map.

Knowing how the place works (and doesn’t) has its obvious advantages, but the real pleasure of being in Paris is NOT knowing the daily ropes. Not having that plastic 10-year “carte” in your wallet. Not incorporating the mental walls of local negativity into ways of thinking that were, you reminisce, once different. How much energy in France goes to unproductive battles like figuring out how to get paid, how to talk to an operator, how to get a prospective client to agree to see you, how to get a refund. Never mind the content.

So, face it, the tourists are the lucky ones. The tourists’ Paris is the France that novice expats came for. But today we are obliged to live in real time, and now maybe more than ever, more members of this nebulous community are feeling “coincés” between the Paris that they’ve battled to defend and the Paris that is increasingly harder to work and live in. You can only label discouraging work habits and popular reflexes as charming for so long.

Asked incessantly “How to do it?” by Americans who wish to work in France as a necessary pretext for living here, the answer that itches mutely inside is: DON’T. Make your money elsewhere and bring it with you so you can continue to play tourist in this otherwise aesthetic and sensual paradise. The façade of connectedness is far more satisfying than the real thing.

Nothing has brought forth these inner contradictions more poignantly than Roger Cohen’s recent New York Times article, “Liberty, Equality, Anxiety: For France, Sagging Self-Image and Esprit.” (Feb 11, 1997.)

For those of you who didn’t see the piece, Cohen writes: “France today is racked by doubt and introspection. There is a pervasive sense that not only jobs – but also power, wealth, ideas and national identity itself – are migrating, permanently and at disarming speed, to leave a vapid grandeur on the banks of the Seine. Rapid technological innovation, radical strategic shifts, the Internet and the global market have contributed to an optimistic mood in the United States, as measured by the ever-rising stock market, an increase in jobs and public opinion polls. But these same forces have cast an ominous cloud here. The old cultural antagonism between France and America, rooted in the fact that both countries aspire to represent some universal model, has been brought to a new level by the American victory that a market- – and Internet – driven revolution are seen to represent. There are now regular snipes at America’s ‘velvet hegemony.’ ”

So where does this leave Americans in Paris? Which model do we adhere to and to which are we perceived as belonging to?

As the national debate on immigration intensifies, the larger question of French national identity gains importance. The polemic is between an old, inward-looking posture and a new, global-oriented one: the French model vs. the American. The cultural attitude of local Americans is bound to confusion. We prefer a president who promises an Internet connection in every classroom in America by the end of the century to a president stunned by a computer mouse in 1997. We like to feel part of a whole and not live by the sounds of our own incessant complaints. But as Cohen states: “To go to London or Berlin today is to feel how flat, how lacking in energy, Paris has become. The sense of living in a museum becomes almost tangible.” The truth of these words hurts the Parisians in us, but it’s the sense of living in a museum, on the other hand, that makes Paris so thrilling to visit.