Paris Was Ours. Thirty-two beautifully illuminated expatriate memoirs recalling their time in the City of Lights.
Paris Was Ours projects a joie de vivre that really is a joie de Paris. Subtitled “Thirty-two Writers Reflect on the City of Light,” Paris Was Ours collects an array of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century observations and considerations of the city. None of the essays was written by a native. Rather, these are pieces penned by a wide range of visitors who, for one reason or another, settled in Paris for a while or forever. Their experiences differ, but their enthusiasm for the City of Light is steadfast. Like a chorus, together these authors sing a triumphant paean of thanksgiving for a Paris they love.
Penelope Rowlands, the editor, bookends the essays. She opens with an Introduction that describes her own introduction to the city as a love-struck young woman. She closes her book with a chapter titled “Le Depart,” when she and her young son head for California, leaving Paris behind. With bittersweet feelings, she recalls her Paris years. Her growing nostalgia as she sells their belongings and packs their bags provides a wistful conclusion to the other Paris Was Ours reminiscences.
Some are students of varying ages. Those in their teens and late twenties write of financial problems, of trying to make their money stretch. One man recalls spending hours and hours in museums because those were warmer than his unheated lodgings. Years later, he is the director of the Guggenheim in New York. Another remembers an allowance of thirty-five francs per week—ten for lodging, five for tobacco and alcohol, five for entertainment, five for food—not in today’s market, but nearly fifty years ago. The women tend to laugh at their unstylish student clothing, or they anguish over parenting expectations in a foreign culture. Several remark on their difficulties learning to tie the ubiquitous Parisian scarf.
Other writers are in Paris for other reasons. Several are freelancers; some are researchers; some are there with spouses; some are just looking for escape. Each is someone who sees Paris both as an insider and as an outsider. Often they recount how their relationships with the city ebbed and flowed. Several mentioned uneasiness dealing with the eccentricities of native shopkeepers and restauranteurs. Five years, for example, for the woman at the charcuterie to even smile at a regular non-Parisian customer. Food plays a prominent role in many of the essays, as do grey skies, rain, and wind-blown umbrellas.
One strength of this collection is the breadth of backgrounds. Paris Was Ours is not a book of Americans in Paris. Samuel Shimon, for example, was born and raised in Iraq. Roxane Farmanfarmaian escapes to Paris from 1980 Teheran when the Shah was overthrown. Zoe Valdes titles her essay “The Tribulations of a Cuban Girl in Paris,” and relates to the city in ways vastly different from the two Arab writers. Several of the authors are from the British Isles, so the reader sees how an Englishwoman experiences the city differently than an Irishman does. This international flavoring adds a multi-faceted perspective to the City of Light.
But always those facets are colorful and coercive. If a reader already knows and loves Paris, these essays will bring back countless memories. But even if a reader has never been to Paris, these essays will make that reader smile. Even so, the Paris of these pages is a city in flux, a sparkling city that changes from moment to moment, from decade to decade. Marcelle Clements details how she shows her New York University students the Paris of Proust’s youth. Many of the other authors recall a Paris of their own youths, comparing it to the Paris of the present. Very few, however, mention the Paris of today, after the Notre Dame cathedral fire and in the midst of gentrification. Rather, Paris Was Ours is a collection of nostalgia, but joyful nostalgia, to be sure. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Penelope Rowlands: A Dash of Daring; The Beatles are Here.
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