Paris Was Ours: 32 Writers Reflect on the City of Light

by Penelope Rowlands

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From the Commonweal blog (9/​5/​2011)

I’ve been reading a marvelous new collection of essays edited by Penelope Rowlands, Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light, and I just saw Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, so it won’t be a surprise that I’m wallowing in nostalgia, even though my own visits to Paris have been infrequent.
...
There’s a lovely line from Proust quoted by Marcelle Clements in an essay in the Rowlands collection entitled “Paris Is Gone, All Gone,” that seems to sum up Gil’s “teachable moment”: “We do not succeed in changing things in accordance with our desires, but gradually our desires change.” Clements’ essay, which is about teaching Proust to young Americans who’ve never visited the city of lights and don’t speak French, also makes the excellent point that l’Age d’Or and even Paris’s own “Roaring Twenties” were themselves beset by nostalgia. The Golden Age was full of regret for the medieval city that Baron Haussman destroyed in his obsession with straight lines, while the Twenties were overshadowed by the absence of those whom the Great War had taken away. There’s something about Paris, writes Clements, that makes us homesick, but for “something unnamable, very old and hard to articulate…. Maybe for longing itself.”


-- Paul Lakeland


From The Chicago Tribune (8/​16/​11)

Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $15.95

In the introduction, editor Penelope Rowlands recalls when she and her then-boyfriend first arrived in Paris. It took a while for the then-20-year-old Rowlands to become accustomed to her new surroundings. Initially she hated the city, resisted it — then fell in love with it. "I learned the language," she writes, "through sheer humiliation" as she was subjected to the "scorn" of waiters and bus drivers as much for her perceived foreignness as for her halting French and "pale English looks."

But it was in Paris, the city that she loved and hated seemingly in equal measure, where she came of age and where she was changed by the experience of being there. That is the theme of this wonderful and mostly original collection of essays and two poems by 32 writers. They describe why they went there and what they found when they got there. The writers gathered by Rowlands are a diverse group.

A few are famous, such as David Sedaris and Edmund White. Others are well-known in their own areas of expertise. Stacy Schiff has written a well-received history of Benjamin Franklin in France, and Jeremy Mercer wrote a fabulous memoir of the time he spent working and living at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. There also is novelist Diane Johnson and blogger Julie Lacoste.

The essays capture the mood of the city in all of its dark and light shades, evoking the spirit of Eugene Atget and Marcel Proust.

Paris Was Ours is a sparkling collection as well as a nice literary complement that fans of the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris would especially enjoy.


-- June Sawyer



From Paris Breakfasts blog (6/​29/​11)

The top book I'm reading this week is Paris Was Ours. I can't put it down and neither will you.

It won't tell you what to wear in Paris, though there's a chapter on 'Understanding Chic' by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni but I haven't read it yet...

It won't tell you which patisseries to go to either...

It will tell you what it's like to be an ex-pat in Paris and feel lost. Editor Penelope Rowlands starts off the introduction with,

'I'm a PARISIAN of the recurrent, revolving door kind.'

Later she reveals, 'We hated Paris and loved it all at once, and when we headed back to New York [after a year] we did so reluctantly.'

32 writers contributed their experiences of living in Paris, so there's something for everyone here.

The first excerpt by Véronique Vienne, (a terrific art director I illustrated for at SELF Magazine) tells of her très difficile return to live in Paris - she'd forgotten many French ways after years in New York. "Living in Paris is 'priceless,' but it will cost you."

Véronique created one of the best and earliest how-to books on 'French Style'. I wish someone would reprint it...

Alicia Drake (of The Beautiful Fall) writes of those grey, metallic Parisian skies - it's not always champagne and roses bien sûr.

Patric Kuh, now an LA food critic and author, gives the best description I've read yet of what it's really like to work in a French restaurant kitchen. Put your knives back in the drawer. And I thought only women had a tough time over there...

Why are French women thin? Could it be the strict rules and boundaries French parents set up in childhood? Dessert comes at the end of dinner, never first. I loved 'Parenting French-Style' by Janine di Giovanni.

Valerie Steiker in 'Fledgling days' remembers spending a year in Paris at 23, with high expectations of reliving her mother's inspired year abroad at the same age. The pursuit of her mother's joie de vivre eludes her. 'I tried to comfort myself by thinking of one of my mother's sayings for not letting things get to you - "Let it glide over the back of your indifference" - but it didn't work.' Her story is poignant and endearing...

David Lebovitz tells all in the last entry, 'Enfin.' And David Sedaris admits his addiction to books-on-tape in English early days in France.

If you read Paris Was Ours on the subway as I did, be aware your laughter may frighten the other passengers. Now I'm off to read 'Understanding Chic'

Bonne reading!

BONJOUR PARIS WAS OURS!


-- Carol Gillott



From David Lebovitz's Living the Sweet Life in Paris blog, (June 22, 2011)

Even if you’ve never been to Paris, it’s obvious that the city has a special allure that no other city in the world has, and a multitude of books get written about Paris by past and present residents. Readers look for answers to how French women miraculously stay so slender, or offer guidance for mastering the eternally sun-drenched foods of Provence (which don’t hold back on the lavender, although I’ve never seen anyone eating lavender anything in Provence), or promise to unlock the secrets of how Parisians have so much flair and maintain their certain .

I was thinking about those when I was reading Paris Was Ours, a thoughtfully edited anthology of thirty-two stories written by writers who live in Paris, or whose lives have been somehow profoundly affected by their time here. While those topics have their audience, there’s many sides to Paris that aren’t often broached, which is why I found myself so caught up in this book.

Unlike books by single authors, disparate voices were to compiled in this book to demonstrate the complicated relationship many people have to Paris, not just one person telling their story. Most of chapters are recounted by adults who have come here usually filled with bright hope and ideals, although a good number of the stories are memories of people who came in their youth, and are now reflecting back on how their years in Paris affected their lives. There are stories of immigrants that recall lives and countries left behind; an Iranian woman detained at the airport before leaving her country, denied boarding to Paris because of bureaucratic snafus, and a Cuban woman whose husband was exiled in Paris, who barely had a clue as to what Paris was and was afraid to go shopping or even take the métro because “the Communists said women were raped and murdered there.”

To those who think all French women are slender and gulping down crème brûlée at Café de Flore, there’s the fleeting life – told in a series of thoughts and emotional outbursts – by a homeless French woman who lives on the outer fringes of Paris. And while it makes people elsewhere envious to think that French students are dining on frog’s legs, camembert, and les escargots, a young man attending a university reminds us of a running joke amongst French students that the food they’re being served in the cafeterias is punishment by the government for the student riots of 1968 which seized the entire country and brought it to a halt. The stories bring you back down to reality the Paris, while being “The City of Light” to so many, is also just another big city once you look beyond the pastry shops and take the métro a few stops away from the twinkle of the Eiffel tower, and has the same problems and issues of other urban areas.

In one chapter, Alicia Drake wrote, “The sound of Paris is not laughter”, an observation which captures the somber morosité that pervades the city: the beige sameness of the buildings whose balconies are trimmed by dark ironwork, the gray skies that overwhelm Paris on a daily basis, and the street sweepers with their heads down, washing away soiled remnants and cast offs of households, cafés, cigarette smokers, dogs, and other sorts of detritus left behind. Paris is constantly cleaning itself, and as history has shown, is a city that has has to brush the past aside (not always comfortably) to clear room for the present.

Paris is full of wonderful things – the Louvre, Hermès, sprawling boulevards, chocolate shops, and pristine parks – although one of the first essays in the book details the shock that a newcomer has when faced with the reality of life in that pricey paradise shortly after she arrives: “Living in Paris is priceless, but it will cost you.” And Judith Thurman gets a good scolding when her very young son has the temerity to step on the grass in a park; “You know very well, madame, that the lawns are off-limits.” Guilt is often assumed, and Paris – first and foremost – must get your respect. A reader wrote to me a while back, “Paris will kick your ass” which gave me a good chuckle, but is true: you’ve got to really toughen up if you want to live here. If you’re looking for someone to hold your hand or take pity on you—or even cut you some slack, you won’t make it.

Those writers who immigrated here and subsequently left, took with them impressions that lasted long enough so their stories formed a deep impression on them and affected their lives, which surfaced years later when they went to write about them. Some remember details, like the long, drawn-out months of dreary rain and how the simple act of slipping into a shop to get out of the deluge and finding a pair of shoes can transcend the act of “shopping” and because a critical turning point in the life of a young Arab étrangère.

But surprisingly, my favorite essay was by journalist Judith Warner, which broached the uncomfortable (and somewhat timely) subject of the way women are treated in France, in business as well as in their position as child-bearers. She finds that the social programs which at first glance appear to be overly generous to outsiders, when she moves back to the states with her family, make her realize that those social benefits fill in the parity between the sexes. When she returned to America as a working mother she discovered the constraints women with families have when trying to find a job and was told repeatedly that certain jobs weren’t for her, often hearing – “That’s for a young person, without children.”

The French system offers childcare possibilities which are part of the social benefit structure of France, and allow women who want to work and have children to be able to do both, whereas women in the states have to face the decision of whether to have a family or to be a working woman, a dilemma she had to face when she returned. But the beauty of an anthology is the mix of voices and opinions, and some of those ideals are later refuted by Stacy Schiff, who claims that in France, “The school week is cleverly configured to keep mothers from working” as kids are “home for lunch”, school is “half-day on Wednesday”, and there are “four-hour birthday parties”, (although later offers that “the last thing any French school administration wants to encounter in its hallways is a parent”) which proves that Paris, and France, are sometimes rife with contradictions and paradoxes.

While reading through the book, I wasn’t sure if my own essay, that was more topical and self-effacing than the others, (which I wrote for The Sweet Life in Paris), was going to be the right story to wrap-up the book. Then I reached the end and realized why Penelope Rowlands, who edited Paris Was Ours, used my story to place a bookmark at the end of this collection of stories. Not to mark the end, but to sum up the good as well as the infuriating – and all the things in between – that fascinate people about Paris.

Rereading it made me see the optimism embedded in the observations about the quirks I found in Paris and in the Parisians, which permeates some of these stories as an undercurrent. It wasn’t truly evident until it was summed up by someone who finds humor here (See? There is some laughter in the city..) and it made me glad to have rounded things up in a lighthearted way, but one that still acknowledges that Paris is a real city, and those who come sometime leave their mark, and sometime it leaves a mark on them.

Ms. Rowlands opens Paris Was Ours by astutely observing, “For a foreigner living and working in Paris, the bar the city sets can feel impossibly high: to clear it is to feel as if you’ve conquered the world. The thirty-two writers in the following pages have done exactly that.” It all sounds a bit lofty, but as Alicia Drake later explains – “When I came to Paris, I believed in queuing, apology, duty, ideals” which seems to sum up a lot of life for any foreigner living in Paris. What you thought you believed is no longer true and you have to face obstacles that you never imagined you’d have to face. You have to re-write your own rules using the specific, and sometimes rigid, guidelines set by Paris. We may not have conquered the world — or Paris, but many of us do remain here, making the city somehow ours.


-- www.davidlebovitz.com


From The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY) (June 3, 2011)

Most visitors to Paris agree that it's a magical place, a sophisticated city emblematic of all things chic. Yet it's fascinating when 32 writers asked to note their impressions of the French capital react in uncanny harmony. In Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light edited by Penelope Rowlands, the authors describe their attraction to the mystical, mercurial city as the always dazzling yet also dizzying experience of being drawn, moth-like, to a flame. “We hated Paris and loved it all at once,” Rowlands writes in her introduction, echoing her authors' heady confusion.

Paris is beautiful. That's the essayists' overwhelming assertion. Many of them cite the Jardins du Luxembourg as the aesthetic center of the universe; others note less obvious haunts. “For me Paris lives in the details,—” Edmund White writes in “A Mild Hell.” “[T]he blue windows set in the doors of the boxes at the Opera-Comique, the only (and magical) source of illumination during that moment just after the house lights are lowered and before the stage curtain is raised. The drama with which the waiters cluster around a table in a first-class restaurant and all lift the silver bell-shaped covers at the same moment to reveal the contents of the plates — and the pedantry with which one of the waiters explains in singsong detail exactly what each dish contains.”

But Parisians' manner and manners (or lack thereof) tend to grate. In “In Franklin's Footsteps” Stacy Schiff states, “A café waiter is meant to do his job, but that job is most decidedly not to guarantee the satisfaction of his customer. Rather it is the customers' job to admire the professionalism of the waiter, the expertise with which he can flick a baguette crumb into oblivion.”

Zoe Valdes adds in “The Tribulations of a Cuban Girl in Paris,” “I must say that I've gotten along well with the Parisian men. With the Parisian women it's another story. These women are tough. If I were a man, I wouldn't have all that patience. If men's stinginess is proverbial, women's is biblical. I remember the time that painter we were staying with introduced us to his girlfriend. We invited her to dinner. … She looked at the plate as though instead of a Cuban dinner she was standing before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The painter had warned us that the surprise of the night would be left to his girlfriend. We thought he was talking about the wine, but no — she proceeded to drink all our wine, and then our rum, and then absolutely all our liquers “She took from her bag a small silver package, a little wrinkled and not a little mashed, opened it before our astonished eyes, cut us each a tiny piece of Camembert as though slicing up a gold nugget, rewrapped her cheese, and tucked it back in her purse.”

And the way Parisians treat children apparently astounds our countrymen. In “Parenting, French-Style” Janine Di Giovanni writes, “Because I am accosted with a version of French parenting every day — I live in front of the Luxembourg Gardens and see the endless parade of mommies — I do an informal survey of my Anglo-girlfriends in Paris on their view of French parenting. The response is staggering. …

“[A friend] recalls taking her five-year-old son to the park and telling him repeatedly not to do something. An elderly woman was eavesdropping and suddenly reached over and pinched the boy's ear until he squealed. ‘Listen to your mother!' she said sternly, in French.”

But the tone of most essayists — of most essayists who've lived long enough in Paris to call the city home — can best be described as bemused or resigned in the manner of aficionados secretly delighted to have passed a difficult cultural test. As David Lebovitz notes in “Enfin,” “I do my best to act like a Parisian: I smile only when I actually have something to be happy about and I cut in line whenever I can. I've stopped eating vegetables almost entirely, and wine is my sole source of hydration. I never yield to anyone else, physically or otherwise, and I've gotten so good at giving myself a shot that I'm beginning to think my mother was right — I should have been a doctor.”

Rowlands sums up her authors' entertaining and thought-provoking remarks by stating, “For a foreigner living and working in Paris, the bar the city sets can feel impossibly high: to clear it is to feel as if you've conquered the world.”


-- Linda Elisabeth Beattie


From The Barnes & Noble Review (May 23, 2001)

What is it about Paris that enthralls and inspires the creative mind? Thirty-two writers, ranging from the well-known (David Sedaris) to the obscure but no less lyrical (Roxane Farmanfarmaian, who escaped revolutionary Iran for the French capital) describe their experiences after making the pilgrimage that has compelled so many writers and artists. Whether debunking myths about Paris or paying homage to its wonders, these short works offer a multi-faceted portrait of a city both ancient and forever young.



From The New York Times (February 17, 2011)

Speaking of romantic, Paris doesn’t merely put visitors in the mood; the city itself is the object of mad crushes. This diverse collection of reflections is a testament to that passion. How we try to fit in: “I do my best to act like a Parisian,” Ms. Rowlands writes in her own piece. “I smile only when I actually have something to be happy about, and I cut in line whenever I can.” How we start wearing scarves: “Ditto the purse, a preoccupation that steals in on you like fog,” writes Diane Johnson. Stacy Schiff may encapsulate the thrill of having been an American in Paris best: “It did what a foreign adventure is supposed to do — it made the mundane thrilling.”


-- Susannah Meadows


From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (February 5, 2011)

...In "Paris Was Ours," Penelope Rowlands culled 32 essays, stories and poems, some original, some previously published, from writers who include professors, single mothers, gay men, a homeless woman, a wealthy Iranian and a poor young Cuban. The collection takes some of the shine off Paris but not the allure -- not unlike the pull of a troubled but passionate lover who could never be more than a fling.

In his essay, Walter Wells described what he called the "dangerously seductive" "vacation syndrome" of Paris. His wife, Patricia Wells, was not yet a best-selling cookbook writer when the couple found themselves together, often in tears, during their early days in France. Wells said the reality of living in Paris hit him while stuck in traffic on the way from the airport.

"My previous trips to France had lasted days or weeks and had been marked by an epiphany at some museum or cathedral and a lot of feel-good time at sidewalk cafes or strolls in the long summer twilight," he wrote. "You actually believe that this magical place you have come to allows you to be the contented, stress-free person you really are."

He and others dismantle the romanticism with stories of "Ma Vie Bohème" in a seven-story walk-up apartment without running water, the unreliability of just about everything, the grim workaday life of a chef, and a stern approach to child rearing. (Dogs are more welcome in some Paris restaurants than children.)

Every writer offers a nugget of perspective on the city, but Roxane Farmanfarmaian's "Out of the Revolution" is haunting for the picture of life as a young Iranian on vacation in Paris. She tells of the eerie uncertainties of leaving Iran for Paris and trying to return to Iran in 1980.

Ultimately, the writers fall in love with Paris, a city that embraces sorrow, depression, snarkiness, human frailty and living in the moment no matter the menial task that entails.

In dismantling the dream of Paris, they reveal an infinitely more complex city and people. What could be more French than rendering complications from mere adoration? As Alicia Drake wrote in "The Sky Is Metallic," "Parisians do not assume a moral zone of black and white. Nothing is unequivocal, absolute or indisputable."


-- Rochelle Olson


From Elle (February, 2011 issue)

"Paris Was Ours (Algonquin), edited by Penelope Rowlands, collects essays by 32 writers, including Stacy Schiff, Lily Tuck, and David Sedaris, that pay homage to (or take issue with) the City of Light — making for a lively show-and-tell about the city’s legendary Latin lovers, celebrated cuisine, fashion worship, and its rarely heard from (or about) homeless citizens."


— Lisa Shea


From USA Today's “Pop Candy” blog (2/​3/​11):

“[Paris Was Ours] is the exact escape I need during this snow mania, and it includes pieces by David Sedaris, Diane Johnson, Marcelle Clements and others.”


-- Whitney Matheson


From National Geographic Traveler:

Book of the Month (January, 2011)

"...I have been so deeply savoring the multifaceted new anthology Paris Was Ours, in which 32 contemporary writers—mostly from the U.S., Canada, and England, but also from Iran, Iraq, and Cuba—reflect on their experiences in the city. If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris, you know that it is not all passion and profiteroles, that everyday life in Paris can be fatiguing, frustrating, and downright infuriating—as these stories abundantly illustrate. But as these tales also reveal, if you persevere through the flummoxes, you discover richness on a deeper and more nourishing level than the casual visitor’s superficial shimmer.

There are youthful memoirs in this volume that instantly bring me back to my own post-grad infatuations with art, theater, history, and jeunes filles françaises. And there are more mature accounts as well: Patric Kuh learns life-changing culinary lessons, Véronique Vienne achieves a new understanding of money and its place in the Parisian world, and Diane Johnson comes to see the wisdom of French flirting and fashion.

Whether you have lived in Paris or not, this captivating collection will transport you there."


-- Don George


From Virtuoso Travel (Jan/​Feb 2011 issue)

"While the ostensible topic of this collection is Paris, the real subject is its people. In vivid, varied, demitasse-length essays, students, mothers, journalists, chefs, and designers (mostly from America and Great Britain, but also Iran, Iraq, and Cuba) attempt to decipher their Parisian counterparts. Why so chic? So disciplined? So aloof to visitors? So demanding? So cultured? So morally gray? The authors’ often hard-won insights and admiration provide a welcome key to the heart of this iconic city.”



From Booklist:

"Rowlands compiles into one volume 32 works, about half of which have never been seen before, by different writers who relay their experiences of living in Paris. Although the contributors are as mixed a bag as the City of Light’s 20 arrondissements, they report universal similarities: In Paris, the customer is,if ever, only rarely 'right.' The city’s taunting, melancholy beauty is unsurpassed. And any moment passed in the Luxembourg Gardens can be considered time well spent. Rowlands does a seamless job of presenting a city as seen by so many eyes (those of David Sedaris, Stacy Schiff, and Zoé Valdés, to name a few) that readers who’ve visited will recognize their own memories, and those who haven’t will glean a globally in-depth portrait. (The piece by a Parisian single-mom, blogging about her homelessness, is particularly poignant.) Judith Thurman perhaps sums up the whole endeavor best when she writes that 'one of the greatest charms of having lived [in Paris] is the Proustian glamour of being able to claim that one did so.'"


— Annie Bostrom


From Library Journal:

"Design writer Rowlands (A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters) here returns to the city to which she sailed in her twenties to live the intriguing life she'd seen in French films. Many of the writers in this anthology moved to Paris to work or study, drawn by the culture, history, architecture, and romance. But the gorgeous light, the art and theater, and the beauty of the skyline were not always compensation for the humiliation, indifference, hostility, and loneliness these writers encountered in this city with a past. Edmund White describes it as a "mild hell so comfortable that it resembles heaven." Others find it sinister, melancholy, and full of contradictions. Featured are writers from diverse backgrounds and nationalities and such well-known authors as David Sedaris, Joe Queenan, and Diane Johnson. VERDICT Not a guidebook to the Paris that most travelers see, this compilation provides an honest view into Parisian life for an outsider. Absorbing reading; essential for anyone thinking of living in la Ville-Lumière."

— Melissa Stearns, Franklin Pierce Univ. Lib., Rindge, NH