06/15/2012 05:18 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

The Modern American Woman in Paris

When I first came to Paris for a year abroad during college, I was struck by something odd I perceived in the behavior of the American women I encountered: they had none of the hospitable warmth I expected nor any of the trademark charm that bubbled out of some of the "my life in Paris"-genre books (think Harriet Welty Rochefort's French Toast: An American in Paris Celebrates the Maddening Mysteries of the French!) they had written. Instead, they were quite cold and rather distant -- seemingly in a sort of "limbo" between two identities; they were no longer American, yet could never be French. This work -- the interviews of twenty American women living in Paris and the subsequent analyses that make it up -- is my search to find out who you become when you leave the "parents" of your identity: your mother tongue and fatherland.

"There is an Indian story -- at least I heard it as an Indian story -- about an Englishman," writes Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures [1]. "Who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave) what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.'"

By contrast, the following is not a study of worlds resting on turtles "all the way down," but rather one of worlds built and -- in some cases -- nearly destroyed by the very lack of stability inherent when worlds of any kind collide. For the world that is any one given human culture is powerful enough to -- when in head-on collision with another -- give life to a new.

Cultures in contact nearly always implicate cultures in conflict, though the extent to which this is true is almost never fixed. Someone once said it is impossible to run into "Society" on the street, and the same can be true for a given culture; the extent to which any one culture is used and applied depends heavily on the individual applying -- is there any one person who ever fully incarnates his or her culture?

If, like the referenced story, fables are integral pieces in constructing not only a point of entry into cultural studies, but a culture in and of itself, it seems appropriate to invoke another in order to introduce what the following work seeks to analyze.

The fable of the American woman in Paris is an antique ornamenting the parlor of American cultural myths so hallowed and prized that it is entrusted to each generation of the nation's posterity with the utmost attention to its upkeep, detail, and ability to capture the imagination. We look to the examples set by the Jacqueline Bouviers, Angela Davises, and Susan Sontags of our collective history (as Alice Kaplan did in 2012's Dreaming in French)[2], recalling what it is to be an American and to be a woman, endlessly reinterpreting these examples to uphold Paris as William Wiser termed it -- the "Great Good Place"[3] --where all of our bundled potential to be could be realized. After all, is the American woman really anyone until or unless she is Parisian?

Part cultural analysis, part commentary on the different forms of a migratory phenomenon, partly a search to describe and define an identity in flux, this work is ultimately a second glance at those whose lives are coated in an almost impenetrable veneer of projected perfection. Reeling one gloomy Paris day from the kinds of "mean reds" Capote wrote about in Tiffany's, a stateside friend of mine tartly reminded me: "At least you're having a bad day in Paris."

And the myth is special. Special the way a Monet painting is, since one is simultaneously conscious of its beauty and forgiving of its lie; the myth is beautiful to look at, speak of, imagine -- never mind our own impressionistic lens through which we perceive it. The deconstruction of the myth (Adam Gopnik went so far as to call it an "illusion"[4]) of Paris and the American (woman, especially) here is not the focus of this work, though, because out of the women whose stories and experiences make up this work, not one of them came to Paris (or admitted to having done so, at any rate) in pursuit of the myth. No. Paris, while always and forever a harbinger of cultural capital, did not -- at least in the following examples -- pull in young Yankee dames to live along the Seine solely with brute magnetic force, but rather with something altogether difficult to quantify: the pursuit of a life lived fully.

For at its core, this project tells a story -- stories, in fact -- one(s) with a beginning, middle, and unknown ending. This set of stories all share, at their core, a tale of pursuit; of risks taken and dreams chased, of bureaucracy thwarted, and identities constructed. They are of sunsets seen from Eiffel Tower elevators, chance encounters worlds away, lives uprooted in the name of change, or chance, or love. They are of girls far from home and of the worldly women they become, of educations sought and experiences lived. These stories are of films made and novels written and stories told -- some true, some disguising a truth too painful to be revealed. These stories construct the denial, or acceptance, that life is real.

Together they constitute the story of the modern American woman in Paris.


[1] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973), 28-29.
[2] Alice Kaplan, Dreaming in French: the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
[3] William Wiser, The Great Good Place: American Expatriate Women in Paris, (New York, NY: WW Norton & Co, 1991).
[4] Adam Gopnik, Americans in Paris: a literary anthology, (New York, NY: Library ofAmerica, 2004), xiv.