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

by Penelope Rowlands

Excerpts from Paris Was Ours:

From the Introduction:

"...Paris is the place where, more than anywhere else, I became who I am today. Although I’ve lived in a handful of other cities, this one left the deepest mark. Its effect on me, as on the other writers in this volume, was outsize: it’s where we came into ourselves...

In the following pages, some wondrously diverse writers parse their Paris moments, describing, in some cases, why they went there, in others what they found... Together, their words add up to one picture, a multifaceted one that, in the way of a cubist painting, is all the more descriptive for the disparate elements it contains."


From Diane Johnson:

"You can almost tell how long an American or English woman has been in Paris by whether she’s wearing a scarf, only the most obvious sign that cultural reprogramming has begun. Every French person wears one, but Americans tend not to at first. Ditto the purse, a preoccupation that steals in on you like fog."


From Joe Queenan:

"The men who ran the market insisted that I eat tripe and eat calvados at five o'clock in the morning, just to watch my face turn green. They also made me holler out things like,'Regardez mes belles pêches, mesdames et messieurs! Cent cinquante la boîte!' It was the only rite of passage I ever actually enjoyed."


From Stacy Schiff:

"Generally Paris is not considered a hardship posting, save to someone who values efficiency, candor, and Szechuan takeout. Nor was this to be a larky, lighthearted school year abroad. Paris means Angélina’s chocolat chaud and the Tuileries at dusk and the Rodin Museum and Pierre Hermé, but it is also a city, I had come to learn, of phone repairmen, plumbers, and dentists, the vast majority of them French."


From Janine di Giovanni:

"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. One friend writes, "What do I think of French mothers? Mean, mean, mean.'"


From Janet McDonald:

"In France... no one judged me on specifics, and I had nothing to prove. The French saw me as just another American, though I didn’t see myself that way at all. I viewed Americans as white patriots in 'Love It or Leave It' T-shirts, with a flag on their lawns, who didn’t want me in school with their children. I was black, period. The French drew no such distinctions."


From Patric Kuh:

"The phrase 'learning to cook in Paris' is so vague -- I write it down without quite knowing what it means. Are you learning to cook when you buy your first knives at Dehillerin? Have you learned to cook when you're trusted to send out a dish? To me the decisive moment is not culinary at all; it's when the cooks accept you with a quick salut and a handshake, as one among them."


From Lily Tuck:

"Each week I sat at the same table and ordered the same plat du jour and a little carafe of red wine to drink with my dinner... While I waited for my meal, I propped a novel by a favorite writer -- Donald Barthelme, Nathalie Sarraute, Franz Kafka -- prominently in front of me. Someone, preferably a very good-looking, intelligent man, I imagined, attracted by my excellent taste in literature, was sure to seek me out."


From Véronique Vienne:

"In Paris, before possessing an object of desire, one tries to covet it for as long as one can. Yearning for something is believed to be more enjoyable than buying it. Monetary or amatory, preliminaries are savored leisurely. The same man who takes his sweet time deliberating over the best method of payment for an eight-euro tab will win you over by creating equally awkward diversions d’amour as he attempts to lead you from the bistro table to the bedroom."


From Walter Wells:

"Slumped in a battered taxi that was barely moving and blind in the fog, I had just begun learning Paris's best-kept secret: its gray, damp weather."