French (Un)Dressing: Youth, sex, and squalor in the City of Lights

“L’amour c’est comme une cigarette

Ça brûle et ça monte à la tête

Quand on ne peut plus s’en passer

Tout ça s’envole en fumée.”

-Sylvie Vartan

Photo by Maria D.

Photo by Maria D.

un.

To start, a little free association.

If I say the word, “Paris,” which images come to mind? Quick! Recite them aloud.

Did you envision asthmatic accordions and crusty, yardstick-sized loaves of bread? Gerard Depardieu in that one movie about green cards? Or, perhaps, a towering pillar of puddled iron so celebrated we needn’t even invoke its name?

Here’s my personal shortlist: broken umbrellas, walking pneumonia, a manic-depressive art student with paint on his hands, over-cheesed egg baguettes, lost eyeglasses, dank discount supermarkets, ghastly wine hangovers, and the smell of a sewer.

If it sounds unduly grim, that’s because it was. Paris, I mean. As a much younger woman, I spent a fall and winter there. If I were being dramatic about it, I might tell you that my time in the City of Lights was rather darkly lit, existentially speaking. I might declare it a season of the bitterest discontents, unsmilingly cast in the poor shades of ennui, that classically French affliction. I might tell you that living in Paris sort of made me hate being a woman, and that it most definitely made me hate being an American.

And each of those things was true, in its own way, at least for a little while. Permit me to explain.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

deux.

There’s an old, not-so-nice joke that occasionally gets told on the French by we Americans:

Why wasn’t Jesus born in France?

Because God could locate neither a virgin nor three wise men.

The French, for their part, have been known to let loose with equivalently snappy return jabs:

What’s the difference between an American and a pot of yogurt?

After time, the yogurt begins to develop culture.

Such snubs are as uncharitable as they are abiding. Our two countries have been parrying insults for centuries by now, most of them rotating around the quarrelsome axes of sex, love, and food.

See: Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell circa 2004, right after that nasty “Freedom-fries-not-French-fries” flap, likening America and France to a married couple that’s been in counseling for centuries.

And, around that same time: bon vivant Woody Allen coming to France’s defense with the tart rejoinder: “I don’t have to ‘freedom kiss’ my wife when what I really want to do is French kiss her.”

Or, more recently: the French huffing “Lynch mob!” when former International Monetary Fund Chief and native son Dominique Strauss-Kahn was skewered in US media in 2011 for allegedly pawing at a New York hotel maid. How gauche, the French presses hissed, to condemn so incisively a single indiscretion. How Puritan!

Forget Women’s Lib and anti-sexual-harassment legislation and Gloria Steinem’s burnt bra. By popular French estimations, the United States is a nation of undersexed salary-men and oversexed deviants, all of them nursing the sangfroid hangover of a post-pious age.

Forget the province of permissiveness and wine-dark seas. By American estimations, France is yet muddling through a veritable apostasy of gender relations, where nudity parades as High Art and women must endure daily the orgiastic handsy-ness of piggy male coworkers.

In whichever direction those quivering, scorn-tipped arrows happen to point at any given moment, our two countries have gotten on far better, it seems, when we Americans have behaved ourselves just a little bit worse.

American founding father and avowed sensualist Benjamin Franklin was wholly embraced by the flamboyant French court of the 1700s. Franklin traveled to France under orders to forge an alliance between his home country and the downtrodden Gallic nation, but he must have seemed by appearances an unlikely sort of ambassador. No fine silk robes or powdered wigs for this guy; his dress and countenance were unabashedly plain-faced, his head scandalously bald.

However, Franklin’s libertine tendencies – purported to include a hearty appetite for women and off-color jokes – found a sympathetic audience among the preening members of court. They liked his style, an enduring diplomatic rapport was forged, and Franklin’s hairless head became a shiny, intercontinental beacon of good will between our two countries.

At the end of his nine-year stay, he saucily declared: “Every civilized person has two homelands, and France is always one of them.”

Franklin’s congratulatory salvo might strike contemporary sensibility as a wee bit slavish, and it probably was. The Paris Franklin encountered bore scant resemblance to the fashion-forward city of moveable feasts we Yanks conjure today. A few lucky sods were draping themselves in silk and stuffing their maws with oysters and sugared brioche, sure, but the vast majority of Parisians lived in squalor, disease was endemic, and stinking, open sewers coursed down the middle of the streets.

Despite our abiding skepticism, fascination with the French Way endures among modern Americans. To wit, a cross-section from the long list of recent boot-licky bestselling books praising life across the pond: French Women don’t get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, and The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave up Sex.

And, to be courteous, we are talking about the ancestral home of some of the United States’ most beloved modern titillations: motion pictures, condoms, codeine, hot air balloons, denim, Champagne, foie gras, a zillion kinds of cheese; and all of them embraced by us Americans almost to the point of total cultural co-optation.

Blue jeans, painkillers, and spectacle of every make – What could be more French? What could be more American?

 

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

trois.

I’m no diplomat of high consequence. Actually, I’m no diplomat of low consequence, either. I do, however, share Franklin’s taste for inelegance, poop jokes and European travel. Laying down the rough coordinates of a long trip abroad is, for me, among the most gratifying of endeavors, reeking, open sewers or none, and I’ve lately been planning a trip to Spain. But every time my eyes begin to rove across that crooked grid of greens and blues and browns, they slip north of Spain their own accord, past the stippled edges of Catalunya and Aragon and over the rolling Pyrenees, drawn irresistibly to the blank hexagon set just above.

To France. And to Paris.

I was a French minor in college, and yes, I still speak French well, and regularly. Yes, I dig the food and the books, and a black-and-white of a Parisian street scene hangs above my writing desk like a hopeful injunction.

But my relationship with Francophonia is complicated. To say that this country and I have issues would be like describing the Eiffel Tour as kinda tall and pointy, or calling the smell of Roquefort cheese vaguely foot-like.

At 16, I visited Paris on a horrible, terrible, very bad church trip (which ultimately drove me into the arms of an abiding secular Atheism, but that’s another story entirely). The highlight of that vacation was making out with a French boy, Simon, on a stoop in an alleyway while my best friend took pictures. The lowlight was being banished to my hotel room on our last night in Paris by a hateful nun who suspected him for a Miserable and me for a virgin. (She was right about one of those things.) It mattered not. I was smitten, and I vowed I’d live there someday.

At 18, I pulled off a sort-of-triumphant return to the city with my doting father in tow. We sublet a Parisian apartment owned by a blind Frenchman, ate scoops of Nutella right off the spoon and snickered at the city’s abundance of bare-breasted statues. Waking up at dawn in a little French bed in the little French apartment, my world felt awash in a grand, diffuse kind of light, and I renewed my vow to become a real, live American in Paris. Just like in the movies.

At 21, I made good and embarked for a semester-long sojourn in Paris, where I was to study French and live with real, live French people. And I did not enjoy it. I did not enjoy it at all.

Let’s travel together a moment, all the way back to the start of the Millennium. And back to me: a young American woman on her first extended stint abroad, desiring frantically to be less like who she was and more like where she was. I’d landed, by unintended design, in a city uniquely well versed in projecting loathing and anguish forcibly outward: Paris, Crabby, ancient, irresistible. The Land of the Thousand Sniffs.

I wanted in. Can you see me there, on that Parisian park bench circa 2002, smoking a cigarette and practicing my dour face? I may look idle, but make no mistake: I am hard at work, endeavoring eagerly to cobble together a broad conception of what a European Woman is, what she does. How she moves, how she loves, how she lathers herself with fancy soaps and smugly refuses to trim ancillary swatches of body hair.

I relied for this construction on a ratatouille of cultural referents that rotated around the aforementioned diplomatic triptych of sex, love, and food. True to form, I picked up all of my new country’s worst instincts and dive-bombed with them the instant I stepped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport with my mighty, mighty luggage allowance: I smoked Gauloises cigarettes incessantly. I grew thin. And my choice in lovers was, to put it kindly, undiscriminating.

I found I had a knack for the French language, and I quickly honed a self-effacing banter that made me très populaire with the French men, especially with my host brother, Timothée. (See: previous reference to manic-depressive art student. See, also: aforementioned policy of amorous non-discrimination.) I nursed tiny cups of bitter tea for hours in rue-side cafes, scribbling long pages of purple prose into my journal and producing mediocre sketches of strangers and skylines. I read mealy-mouthed missives penned by the major-depressive-disorder French bards – Baudelaire, Voltaire, Camus, Rousseau – and I tried hard to relate. I, too, would know anguish, nausea, ineptitude.

I also border-hopped on every possible occasion. Weekends, I sunned topless on Greek beaches and ate drugs in London clubs as big as my hometown high school. And I’d occasionally fib and tell new friends I was Canadian, just for the slight boost in social currency it afforded me. I began to refer to my true country of origin as “The States,” fancying the appellation a bit more continental sounding, never mind that I didn’t even really know what “continental” meant. Not yet.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

quatre.

I reveled in my newfound Vie Boehme, which was being bankrolled by a generous checking account back home in Oregon courtesy of parents considered permissive even by French standards. This was the land I’d been casting about for. Life in “The States” was dull and stifling. My grandparents had been wrong; I was a patriot at heart, only born to the wrong country, to a place incapable of receiving my spirited affections. Now, I was wandering the country of my own true heart, adrift among a mass of likeminded souls who smoked unapologetically in hospitals and airports and nodded reverently to bare breasts of every shape and turned up their high, crooked noses at the merest whiff of Puritanism. A place where the men called you “My Angel” and wrote you love poems on the backs of napkins and pawed at you in the Richelieu Wing of The Louvre Museum without the slightest hint of irony and you loved every fucking minute of it. I hoped it could go on forever. I would moor myself to this new ancestral home, and I would not return to America, not ever, ever!

But as winter descended upon Paris, the music died. The city is lauded for its springtime (or its fall, depending on which song you’re singing) but come November, the City of Light resembles a big gray cage more than anything else. Everything ugly, everyone foul-faced and pushy, the starry-eyed tourists gone, and no snow, ever, ever. Only nasty gobs of rain that brought the city’s medieval gutter system to life, birthing a mess of tiny, stinking rivers. Down, down, down those old sewer ducts the water would race, carrying riotous trails of cigarette butts and food wrappers out to the waiting Seine.

Something was definitely rotten in Fairest Europe. And I was looking a little past-the-sell-by-date myself: although a steady diet of booze, cigarettes, and little else had kept me thin, I hacked like a black-lunged coal miner and my skin had assumed a sickly pallor.

I’d pick my way across the deluge each morning, trudging to class, clammier by the day. I’d been a straight-A student back home, but in Paris, my grades dropped. I skipped classes. I smoked incessantly. And the men. Oh, the men.

They were not so very evolved as I’d first imagined. First, my host brother told me he was in love with me, then he quit speaking to me entirely. Strange old men stopped me on the streets to ask me back to their flats for a quick romp. Crowded mornings on the metro, their hands traced uninvited patterns across my lower back. As I waited for a friend outside my school one afternoon in the Quartier Latin, a young teenager cycling past dropped his bike, then ran up and smooshed his squishy, pubescent lips against my own. I screamed and swung at him with my purse.

In the sticky warmth of the Parisian fall, I’d felt better equipped to take the advances in stride.

Laissez-moi, I’d say when they came at me, flashing their rotten rows of teeth and spitting innuendo. Leave me.

Then I’d wave them off with a flick of my limp wrist, a dignified dismissive. In the chill of winter, I had no such poise. I’d kick and rail and yell. I’d smoke in seething protest. I’d cry.

For the life of me, I couldn’t recall encountering such displays back home. Or was this a simple revisionism, willfully curated after a few long months away? Sex – and just being a creature with tits at all – had begun to feel like an increasingly dangerous occupation. It seemed empty and untenably risky. I guessed that it truly was empty and untenably risky, no matter which side of the pond a girl found herself on.

But I didn’t want to think about this stuff! I was in Paris. I wanted to take bubble baths and smoke cigarettes in bed and eat chocolate-hazelnut spread straight from the tub, because that was what you did in Paris. I wanted to read about Baudelaire’s spleen and Camus’ car wreck, because that was also what you did in Paris. What you didn’t do in Paris was ponder gender relations and dodge fat men’s erections on the metro and apologize compulsively on behalf of yourself for a litany of missteps so long and so creative they’d begun to form their own stumbling waltz.

 

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

cinq.

I was hardly the first to do that particular dance, or to do it so gracelessly. In fact, the literary-cinematic canon is littered with cautionary tropes of fallen lady expats.

Among my predecessors: author Henry James’s tragic, erstwhile heroine, “Daisy Miller,” who travels abroad and consorts shamelessly with a rotating cast of European suitors of questionable breeding before her ruinous punishment is meted out: the impudent Daisy takes ill with something called The Roman Fever. Then she dies.

Also: “Patricia,” the pixie-haired American girlfriend to a gangster in Jean-Luc Goddard’s so-bad-it’s-fantastic-instead mobster film, “Breathless.” Patricia decamps to Paris with dreams of becoming a journaliste. Instead, she hawks copies of the New York Herald Tribune on the side of the road and gets knocked up by a cop-killing hoodlum. Ultimately, Patricia tattles to the authorities on her no-good baby daddy. Then he dies.

A young woman’s sexual and cultural education, it seemed, was little more than a smutty morality play, with bad actors waiting around every possible poor-lit corner. The world felt tinier, suddenly, and my carefully constructed confabulations of what a French woman was, or even what an American woman was, also seemed tiny. I’d tried to rearrange myself based on gross stereotypes and fleeting impressions. When the colors didn’t match up, I fell into a deep reverie.

My mind spun all through the start of that winter. I had been so ready to abandon my roots, but maybe it wasn’t about hating what I’d been given by my home country. It wasn’t about hating my tits, or even myself. It was about wanting to be reborn into someone bigger, someone more powerful. I wanted to be like the tight-lipped, inscrutable French ladies I passed on the rue each morning, so poised and impervious, even with the bums closing in from all sides. Instead, I remained an overgrown girl, a pretender to internationalism who puked in bushes and loved bad men and hugged her arms around herself in unsurety whenever she walked home alone at night.

No matter where in this huge, rotting earth I willed my feet to carry me, it seemed men were still writing the book. And the Europeans, I was coming to realize, didn’t have any better of a patch on why than did those neutered, corn-fed politicians that flapped their receding gums on the televisions back home.

To be fair: Paris wasn’t all broken umbrellas and hacking coughs and open sewers. There was takeout Chinese food along the banks of the Seine, there were hash cigarettes and dancing to Lou Reed in Timothée’s bedroom late at night, there was a magical Greek restaurant in the basement of a building older than my home country. There were accordion players on the metro and drippy ice creams and little French children chasing each other in circles beneath the Tour Eiffel, just like in the movies.

On my last day in Paris, I bought a newspaper and spent an hour on my favorite park bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg, chain-smoking cigarettes and reading. It was February, and it had snowed in Paris for the first time in a decade. It was a terribly beautiful moment and I won’t forget in a hurry.

Still, I left Paris that next morning like a thief in the night, slump-shouldered and marginally scandalized. I didn’t say “Goodbye” or “Thank You.” I left that place like a bad date, or a dropped penny, or an old, raggedy map that never got you anywhere but hopelessly lost. And here I am all these years later, yet doing battle with my niggling, Post festum dilemma: why was all of this so, so very hard?

 

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

fin.

Americans are routinely dismissed by the French as inflexible and lamentably proper, but I’d argue that self-loathing is a far more pervasive national pastime. We Americans can get down with self-hate like nobody’s business. Especially we young American women. And especially, especially we young American women abroad.

Mostly, the fact that I ended up hating Paris (and, briefly, myself) was probably nobody’s fault more than my own. Because, really, what does a 21-year-old girl know about anyplace? The great affair when she is young is simply to escape. To flee, preferably in dramatic fashion, to fanciful and faraway lands where life is more indulgent and self-evident and the boys speak her name in strange, deliciously swarthy tones. The precise destination is relatively inconsequential. Or so it was for me.

But, alas, the wheel must turn, and to those impetuous and untried legions of young ladies pondering at this very moment a similar escape, I can offer from the indolent comfort of middle-age a promise and a warning both: The edge of a map is a tempting address to visit. Who hasn’t willed herself beyond the dull, scrubbed borders of home, toeing oblivion, longing for it? Way far out past the vanishing point, there is, indeed, a field. A plane of sorts, where possibility seems blessedly infinite. But if you charm your way into that fabled territory of cheese and tobacco and wine, you ought to proceed with care. Out that way, too, you’ll find hooligans, and crumpled hopes, and rotten grapes, and rainstorms, and strange, existential afflictions from which you might never fully revive, all of them tracking you ever onward, to the most improbable destination of them all.

We trace our crooked ways with maps, see, but we don’t live on them. We are stationed instead atop a maniacally pirouetting globe, which means we live, necessarily, in circles. Like it or not, the way forward is also the way home.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

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16 thoughts on “French (Un)Dressing: Youth, sex, and squalor in the City of Lights

  1. Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

    Brilliant. I have many a similar impressions and experiences from earlier days in Europe, not quite so well thought out or culturlly/historically tied in/realized. We should travel Europe together lol, an early 30’s installment, strangers on the road, then write about what it’s like to travel with a perfect stranger from wordpress, fodder for many essays to come. Travel journals, intermixed perspectives, literary awards lol…I can feel it.

  2. Veronica Lavil says:

    I laughed and cried reading this because all these emotions I can relate to personally. I decided to move to France at the age of 19 to get my degree and most importantly, “figure myself out”. It has been everything I thought it was going to be and it has been everything I had hoped it would not be. People tell me to cheer up because I live in PARIS, but sometimes, it gets to you. You feel so small in a world where everyone seems to have everything figured out. The woman are so tiny and beautiful, the men poised and educated and you stand here feeling vulnerable. I love this post because it is so honest and raw. It contains every beauty there is to living in Paris… and with that beauty, the truth about moving abroad.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Well, kudos to you, first of all, for striking out on your own at such a young age! I hope you are finding some of what you moved to Paris in search of … I think attempts at self-discovery, especially when made in a very foreign land, are always fruitful, even if what we learn is sometimes hard and painful, or even if it takes some of us (me) years to fully come to terms with them. I do regret that I spent so much time being miserable in that beautiful city, so I’d agree with the advice to try and enjoy it as much as you can. And when you are just over ALL OF IT, try a night in with wine, waffles, and Charlie Chaplain movies (The French love CC!). That worked well for me. And it really is true what they say about needing to do your adventuring when you are young … I’m 33, and currently on a solo trip in Mexico. It’s probably my last big trip before marriage and babies and all of that … It’s the end of my adventuring era and it has me rather wistful … My travel experiences are immeasurably precious to me as I grow older; I wouldn’t trade any of them, even the shit ones, for anything on this earth. So, Courage, Mademoiselle! You are going to grow in ways you just cannot imagine.

  3. Sabina says:

    I loved this piece. Very personal but also very relatable because of it’s coming-of-age theme (but since it’s a bit later in life it’s more like coming-of-maturity/coming-of-life-experience).

    • erinjbernard says:

      Thanks! It’s weird … I’ve been trying to write this piece since I was about 23 years old, but I honestly think I didn’t have the maturity or perspective to do the experience justice until now – my almost-mid-30s. Sometimes I think we have stories inside of us that we’re not quite ready to tell, and we’ve just got to wait until we’ve got a little more life under our belts. 🙂

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