With the 70th anniversary of D-Day fresh in our minds, I keep going back to how my father (who fought in World War II) would tell me those involved in the Normandy invasion were “the best Americans had to offer.” Unfortunately, that trend stopped after the war, because the Americans who’ve debarked in Paris since aren’t the best America has to offer. The French may think so, but I know better.
And I’m not talking about the tourists visiting the “Louvray.” I’m talking about the ones who actually live here. Because if you do live here and you’re American, chances are you’ve probably failed at something in the US. It could have been a business, it could have been a marriage, it could have been that bar exam you didn’t pass. But there’s rarely the guy who says “Wow my career just took off, and I got sent to Paris!”
And if, by some miracle, you are successful here, it’s probably because the French don’t know any better. The French I’ve found are a lot more suspicious of other French than they are of Americans. You could be a serial rapist back in the States, but if you say you’re famous, the French are happy to take your word for it. Hell, it even makes them a friend of a star.
So, imagine their deception then when they brag to me about so and so, an American writer or actress or singer they love, and I tell them I’ve never heard of this person.
“But John, you must. He’s Jerome Charyn, a known author from New York.”
“I’m sorry I don’t.”
“Bah, you must know Jim Harrison then?”
This isn’t the same as the actor David Hasselhoff becoming a huge rock star in Germany or the child actor Emanuel Lewis from “Webster” killing as a rapper in Japan because both David and “Webster” were known in the States beforehand. These people the French are talking about can’t even be found on IMDB.
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I usually apologize at some point, because I see the person across from me is on the verge of tears, and then I follow it up with a….“But I’m sure she is a great singer” or “But what I do I know? I haven’t been in the States for ten years now.”
And ten years is a long time. At least I thought that, until recently, when I was reminded by another American in Paris it’s not.
“You just got here!” she said, which kind of depressed me actually because 1) it sounded like something prisoners say to other prisoners and 2) the person across from me was old, and I don’t like seeing myself old.
Americans in Paris aren’t like most Americans who get fat and die early. They age slowly, like cheese. And they weirdly rarely assimilate deep into Parisian life like you’d think. You can usually find them in the touristy areas of Paris, somewhere drinking pints on the Hemingway beaten path or in a café where Josephine Baker once sang, stuck in a time they didn’t even live in, but feel they should have because they’re that “American in Paris.”
And they’re rarely chic, which I find peculiar. Most of them have grey beards or ponytails, carrying around ratty backpacks, strolling the quais in Birkenstocks. Call me a stickler, but wouldn’t you think after thirty years of living in the fashion capital of the world something would wear off? Nope. They’re happy as they are – looking like they’re still traveling on a Eurail pass.
And yet the French are convinced I want to be friends with these people.
Often they’ll invite me to dinner telling me another American will be there, prepping me with the “Oh you’ll just love him” promise. I smile back, convinced I won’t, simply because it sounds too much like my parents when they dragged me off to their friends’ houses for dinner when I was a child, telling me “They even have a boy your age!”
And when you and this American finally do meet, you’re both reduced to that of the token minstrel, there to entertain your hosts by speaking American about everything American you have in American common.
“Where did you live in New York? Are your kids bi-lingual? Where do you find your turkey on Thanksgiving?” which would all be tolerable if I was in my 20’s and was trying to have sex with this person, but since I’m not, it’s mostly painful. Not as painful though as meeting the Americans who, through by mitosis, have amazingly managed to split themselves between two countries.
“I’m actually living in between New York and Paris” they brag nonchalantly.
“Between New York and Paris?” I say. “Does that mean you live on the island of Man?”
They usually don’t get the joke. They’re too busy boasting about how having a creative job allows them to travel, having two apartments can be complicated, and that their quest for finding a good bagel in Paris or a Croque-monsieur in Brooklyn hasn’t ended.
And of course, they ultimately ask that most pretentious question of all, “Have you forgotten your English?” which I never know how to respond to. Do you reply with “Well we’re speaking English together so I guess I haven’t.” Or do you twist it a bit and say “I’m sorry. When did you suffer your first stroke?”
Instead, I reply with a lame “yeah sometimes,” probably because I just want the conversation to end. But it doesn’t. They continue to burn on with the “Oh I’ve found the best cure to jet lag” or “Will the French ever get brunch right?” babble looking like a proud six-year-old.
I painfully smile back and nod and play nice, conscious of the fact that the worst American in Paris is the snob who doesn’t want to meet other Americans. And it’s during all this that the others at the table, the French, look on us like loving parents watching their two kids play on the carpet, “Aren’t they drole?” They say. “Oui. They’re so American those two,” laughing and wondering to themselves if either of us might personally know the American, Jeane Manson.