She professed to love this country more than any other. But I sensed that for her, as for M. and Mme Verdurin, the great thing was not to contemplate the country as tourists, but to eat well there, to receive guests they liked there, to write letters there, to read there, in short to live there, passively allowing its beauty to bathe them, rather than making it the object of their attention.
Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah
These two sentences crystallize a modern dilemma: is it better to pass through or go native? Until I actually went native, the answer to that question was clear to me. I was, after all, a liberal American teenager, and to that particular demographic tourism means Hawaiian shirts and braying commentary on the size of the Eiffel Tower. We wince at this garish obviousness, our uniquely American brand of provincialism. The Proustian brand of aesthetic, ecstatic contemplation might not offend us, if it occurred to us, but it doesn’t: there is no middle ground between being authentic – being a native – and being a brightly-coloured travelling advertisement on the dangers of obesity and reality television. If you don’t want to be the latter you have to be the former; you have to make yourself belong somewhere new.
Like most things, our desire to leave the US behind for good is really about sex. The urgency of the American teenager’s sexual desires leads to a certain unpatriotic point of view. Where exactly are you supposed to have it? Cars are uncomfortable, and not everyone can afford one; parents rarely leave town, and there are only so many friends with convenient spare rooms in the basement, cocooned in silence. Between the stress over where to have sex and hurriedly having it, one ear cocked for the chastening footstep on the stair, the brain has room for one activity: imagining a place where this planning and snatching and being denied is unnecessary. A place where there are no puritan attitudes to stop you having sex whenever you want, even when you’re sixteen. The name of this place is Europe: the country of the American teenager’s imagination.
This imagined Europe has a capital: Paris. Lately, for Americans at least, Prague has been rising in the ranks, and Western Europe is now spoken of as ‘too done’ – like a roast gone dry. But Paris, city of bohemian delights, retains considerable cachet. The women, as everybody knows, are so sexy and free that you don’t mind their armpit hair, and the men all wear boating tops and are just waiting for an accordion player to turn up so they can whip out a bouquet of red roses and ask “What say you to a night of passion, ma colombe?” There is nothing to eat but croissant. They used to call syphilis the French disease, and American young people can’t wait to find out why. But they don’t want to be tourists. God no. They want to go native. Leg hair and Amsterdam and a preference for wine over beer.
Some young Americans would rather go native in Thailand or Ecuador, of course, but these are incidental details; they have more to do with hobbies than with souls. Since, perhaps wrongly, I like books more than nature, and stuffing myself with haute cuisine more than building wells in impoverished villages, it had to be Paris. The essential urge is the same in each case: to get away from American restrictions and enjoy not only freer manners, but a sense of belonging to them. There must be drama. It is not enough to live in Europe; one must abjure America. It is not enough to be able to order a coffee in French; one must be able to write a poem.
Having a French mother, I affected a European vibe as a teenager. Or rather, I didn’t affect it, I believed it. It suited my temperament to wear black and read existentialist literature. I casually worked my mother’s nationality into conversations. I made it clear I was moving to Paris after college. I may even have pronounced it Paree, with the throaty French ‘r.’ And, happily for the credibility of my teenage self, I did move there, first for a year abroad in college, and then, after graduating, on a more permanent basis.
Only then did I discover that going native is no fun at all. I hate the lack of spicy food, the ubiquitous smell of urine, the excessive bank holidays and the deadness of the city during them. I hate the empty shells of universities I’ve attended, the fact that everyone dresses the same, the gluey mess that French people call pasta. I hate the sameness of Paris streets, all lined with aesthetically unified Haussmannian apartment buildings, all making you feel like you live in an art-class drawing assignment demonstrating perspective. I could go on, if I didn’t already sound bitter enough.
But what I don’t like about Paris is of no particular importance. If I were living somewhere without these irritants, others would present themselves. I have lived in many places – the same number of places, in fact, that I’ve decided I don’t want to live. In each of them I found life a bit bland. But I had expected little from Denver, from Massachusetts, even from New York. Only about Paris were my senses worked up to a pitch of excitement that would allow me to be disappointed. Life here is not the debauched playground I had been led to expect, the landscape of glittering attractions and extravagant pleasures. It was not fertile ground for a pretentious young authoress with a suitcase of black clothes, but a world of people also dressed in black simply (it seems) out of a lack of imagination, and of dishes tasting, time after time, of butter. It is, in short, life as it had always been – with a few cosmetic alterations.
I only realized that I expected more when I was shocked to find less. In the run-up to my first trip I had delivered a long series of speeches to family and friends about my low expectations, my pre-existing familiarity with the life-size realities behind Paris’s larger-than-life reputation: I wanted them to believe I was already so sophisticated that I wouldn’t be impressed. My frustration at finding that I had prepared everyone so well for my inevitable disappointment that I could not, when it came, complain about it, was painful. Less painful, however, than my embarrassment would have been, if my true nature had been revealed: I was the sort of naïve girl who expects Paris to be wonderful.
The bad taste in my mouth has nothing to do with being an outsider. I have gone about as native as one can go in a couple of years. I have Parisian outfits and Parisian friends. I have a local café, a local bar, a local bakery, a local wine shop. I walk everywhere and know how to make a cheese soufflé. I speak grammatically excellent French, and slang too, with such a good accent that I pass for a native – although Parisians still tend to take me for a Belgian or a country girl, since I pronounce all the syllables of my words and don’t slur them by going fast. In short, I do all things here as Princess Sherbatoff wanted to do with the Norman countryside in Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah: passively bathed in its beauty, rather than making it the object of my contemplation.
The true indication that I do not like Paris is my new tolerance for all things American. I was raised by proper hippies, the sort of people who celebrate the summer solstice with a chanting circle and possess unlimited amounts of home-grown marijuana and scorn for the government. I have always known that France is better than the US, because it has state health care, because they don’t teach creationism in public schools, because it doesn’t involve itself in wars of economic imperialism. To find myself living in France and disliking it – actually seeing the benefits of free market capitalism and the American appetite for choice I used to think of as grotesque – is emotionally unsettling. I feel mundanely but intensely disoriented, as though I had picked up an empty milk carton expecting it to be full.
Again: were I elsewhere, other lacks would make themselves felt. That is the worst pang at the heart of each fresh disappointment: Paris is no exception, it has no special magic, it is not proofed against the subtle curse of daily habituation. One can get sick of Paris just as well as of anywhere else.
For that is what happens, when you live somewhere: the dreams you had of it die, and whatever made it special seeps from it slowly. Getting used to things, as Proust observes many times in À la recherche du temps perdu – and in reference to love as well as tourism – quite often means ceasing to care for them, and it’s only once they’re gone or we leave that we notice how important they were or weren’t to us. The dream of this American teenager was to go native, to live abroad, to have a corner boulanger and a preferred caviste and to say these words with the right accent. I do live in Paris, I have those things, and I can, without pretension, make such claims. But my best moments in Paris come when, walking through the city, I stumble on a neighbourhood I don’t know, with which I have no associations, and where I rub against a frayed corner of the charmed bewilderment the city wore when I arrived, when I was cut off from its bustle and flow, watching it rather than making up one of its number. My best moments have been those when I felt myself once more a tourist.
The stereotypical American tourist, Hawaiian-shirted and wearing Mickey Mouse ears, will always tighten my stomach a bit. I do not want to be ignorant, insensitive, or loud, but I do want to be a tourist, in the grand old style. A tourist like Marcel, or like the bashful but honest Lucy Honeychurch in Forster’s A Room With a View, both creations living in the afterlight of the Grand Tour. That sort of tourist goes abroad not to become foreign himself, but to appreciate what is foreign to him. I intend to be henceforth someone in search of beauty for its own sake, unwilling to lose the keenness of my sense of it by bathing in it, writing letters in it, daily inhabiting a faded version of it, no matter how authentic it might make me feel. No more will I ruin the cities I love by living in them.