Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Romantic, Expatriate Paris

I received my first delivered edition of the Wall Street Journal this weekend (don't worry, I traded in frequent flier miles for the subscription) and beyond the usual business news, things I've learned I need to keep up of for work (you know, the real job) there was an excellent article titled Why the Expats Left Paris, by Dinaw Mengestu.

As the title indicates, Mengestu looks at how different Paris is today from the way it was different expatriate waves that took over it's cafes, when American intellectuals and artists could be found on every corner of the left bank. It is the notion of the American expatriates' Paris that has always made the city attractive. Beyond the city's own dandies and intellectuals, from Baudelaire to Sartre, it is the idea that Hemingway and Gertrude Stein are hanging out at one bar, while (in another time) Richard Wright and James Baldwin are at another.

Those times are gone. I went to Paris in 1999 in search of that Paris, looking for the heady cafe conversations, while chasing the history of my favorite Parisians. Even then, while the city remained romantic in my mind, the old Paris was gone. Walking the Champs Elysees should tell anyone that individual Paris, the city with it's own single identity is gone. The big American stores are here, with all the American vulgarity that the expats were looking to leave behind. The article points out that across Germain de Pres from Cafe de Flore and Deux Magots, an American Apparel store, with all its trashy clothes, has set up shop.

While the old expatriates' Paris is gone, the city remains romantic in the minds of many of us, include the article's author:

Unlike many of the writers and Americans who came here before, my reasons for being here are purely selfish and self-absorbed, with nothing and no one to run from. I used to say that I came to Paris because it was so quiet, in large part because at the time I could hardly speak the language. While today that may no longer be as completely true, the city still strikes me as quiet. There's no romantic ideal to be lived out here anymore -- no caf├ęs, readings or events that can't be missed. What remain today are largely ghosts that are easy if not even comforting to live amongst. They had their Paris -- garrulous and crowded with the politics and culture of America -- and now finally, with no one else around, I can have mine.

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