Recently I had dinner with the French wife of one of my husband’s colleagues, the prettiest woman I’ve met in the college town where I live. I complimented her adorable fitted two-tone dress and patent-leather pumps, and she responded: “I could never get away with this in Paris. You have to be so stylish, always the right shoes, the perfect hair.” I was wearing a loose cotton shift and hiking sandals, my clothes, hair, and shoes a pale shadow of hers. So how could I ever live in Paris?
We will be spending the next academic year in the couture capital of the world, for my husband’s sabbatical. Perhaps I should start preparing now, shopping for dresses with sharp darts and flirty hems and wearing stilettos, lipstick, and updos to the supermarket.
Half my life ago, I lived in Paris for half a year, through Columbia’s semester abroad program. At twenty, I was as alluring as I’ve ever been, slipping into tight jeans like a mermaid, but I was always conscious of being the proverbial ugly American.
The French students at the University of Paris could pick me out in a crowd even before I opened my mouth. Maybe it was the red cowboy boots I adored (like all my clothes, a Salvation Army bargain), my denim jeans with flower patterns, or my home-made haircut. I didn’t own a high heel, and my bag of choice was a Guatemalan hand-woven sack from a sidewalk vendor in Manhattan. It could have also been my flaming red hair. As I told someone I was planning to meet for the first time at a café: “I’m the one with red hair and red boots. You can’t miss me.”
Even when I silently shuffled through stacks at the library, guys propositioned me in English. Were my gauche clothes a signal of desperation? Or were American girls just known as being easy?
Back home, whenever I needed to go to Times Square, I was always careful not to dress too skimpily, lest I be mistaken for a hooker. But one look at the polished knee-high black boots of the Parisian putains along rue St. Denis made me realize I was not nearly well dressed enough to be mistaken for a French lady, even a lady of the night.
In Almost French, Sarah Turnbull, an Australian ex-pat, says, “One of the consequences of [the] pervasive beauty in Paris is that it makes leaving your front door feel like you’re stepping onto a stage.” It takes her a long time to understand why her French boyfriend is angry when she runs a quick errand in sweatpants. “The French are highly sensitive to aesthetics,” she concludes. “Anything unattractive . . . can make them . . . irritable [and] unwell.”
Adam Gopnik, in Paris to the Moon, explains the French obsession this way: “Couture is a romantic cartoon,” he says. “The thing you feel in a couture moment isn’t ‘What a wonderful dress’ . . . but, more simply, I’m in love.”
But what women wear on the street, opposed to on the runway, must be elegant and understated. Turnbull says, “In Paris there is no. . . edginess. . . innovation. . . or irony. [French women] do not want to stand out.” Unlike me, back then, visually screaming to be heard.
I didn’t know then that nonconformity was part of my national identity. America is an individualistic society, and it took living in another country to make me realize how American I was. Not just my clothes, but also my words, as I discovered from the French poet Anne-Marie Albiach.
Through friends of friends I had snagged an introduction to Anne-Marie, and she offered me room and board. In exchange, I did the daily food shopping from outdoor markets and kept her company after dark, when her panic disorder made her afraid of being alone.
Anne-Marie hosted frequent dinner parties for other French writers and invited me to sit in. It was a thrill to hover at the fringes of these artistic soirées, eating the first course of radishes, crème fraiche, and fines herbes and skipping the lamb chops. Here I was, barely an adult, being introduced to legendary writers, and Anne-Marie was telling them I was an American poet!
“Very American,” she said, and I wondered what that could mean. Isn’t being American like being pregnant—you either are or you aren’t?
“She has so many things in her work,” Anne-Marie explained to her guests.
“Things?” I asked.
“Objects,” Anne-Marie said. “You Americans are so concrete, so literal.”
“Oh.” Or maybe I said, “Ow.” It felt like one of my objects had just flown across the room and hit me in the forehead. I had always thought of myself as airy and ephemeral, a descendant of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, a writer of reveries more than an American dream-er.
But Anne-Marie was right: I did have a lot of things in my poems. Toasters. Tenement buildings. Peanut butter sandwiches. I took William Carlos Williams (an iconic American poet if there ever was one) to heart when he said: “No ideas but in things.” Anne-Marie’s poems are full of concepts—ideas colliding with each other to create new meaning from the explosion. The English translation of her book, Mezza Voce, begins: “In the power of his geometric statements, he had perhaps established it at right angles to the irreversible.”
I now see what an overgeneralization it is to say that Americans are concrete and the French are abstract. “Language school” poets in America, like Charles Bernstein and Jackson MacLow, can be as theoretical as any semiotician, and they look for inspiration to the pioneer of non-narrative literature, Gertrude Stein. Stein lived in Paris for most of her adult life but remained so loyal to her native land that she named her thousand-page chef d’oeuvre The Making of Americans.
If my hero Gertrude Stein could feel at home in Paris, why shouldn’t I? She didn’t waste time fretting about whether she had the right coiffure. Instead, she held Saturday soirées, gave Hemingway and Picasso aesthetic advice, and became the ultimate insider.
Perhaps it is because I am looking from the outside that I am intimidated by the loveliness of French women, imagining every one with a perfect chignon, no hair out of place, like Catherine Deneuve. Once I become an insider—walking my daughter to school and running out of toilet paper—the Parisian standard of beauty may start to seem normal.
And maybe if I were an outsider in America, I would be struck my own country’s acute beauty, especially the vast and majestic landscapes that fascinate Europeans.
All you have to do is look at films by foreigners to see America the beautiful. The spaghetti westerns by the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone feature long, slow moments of flies settling in the dust, as if with the wings of angels. Wim Wenders turns scenes of American schlock—chain stores, billboards, and freeways—into something novel and gorgeous through the blue tints and pinpointed attention of his lens.
When I move to Paris this time, I will be able to afford a professional haircut and won’t need to shop for my clothes secondhand. But I will miss those red cowboy boots. They represent a time in my life before I had to wear suits to work and respectable mom clothes to the PTA, before I had to worry about looking my age or embarrassing my kids. A time when everything looked good on me, or so I thought, and all that mattered was freedom and novelty.
I loved those boots for their irony, a quality that meant more to me, in my recovering-punk-rock-groupie phase, than beauty. “Me? A cowgirl?” those boots said. “Are you kidding?” I was from New York City, where you could barely find a country music station on the radio. The boots also begged the question: Are we in Paris, France or Paris, Texas?
I am still an unaccessoried, un-made-up, ketchup-eating, drinking-coffee-while-walking, making-plans-on-the-fly Yankee. “I am what I am,” Popeye said. Gertrude Stein expressed it more eloquently: “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
After dinner with the French woman who claimed to be slumming it in her gorgeous outfit, I told my husband, “I’m too imperfect for Paris.”
He didn’t respond by voicing my thoughts: “There’s still time to shape up.” He just said, “You’re perfect for me.”