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TRAVEL WRITING: I See Paris, I See France

By Hillary Frey Hillary 

Frey is associate literary editor of The Nation.

September 14, 2003

ALMOST FRENCH: Love and a New Life in Paris, by Sarah Turnbull. Gotham Books, 304 pp., $25.

PARIS IN MIND: Three Centuries of Americans Writing About Paris. Edited by Jennifer Lee. Vintage, 267 pp., $13 paper.

When I visited Paris a few years ago, I discovered the real virtue of being petite. It was January, and I was brooding over an unrequited love. For my first venture from a cheap hotel in the far-flung 20th arrondissement, I wrapped up in black wool - sweater, skirt, floor-length coat and scarf - and, bound for some landmark, steeled myself against the hostile cold. And the people. I had been warned: "The French are mean," said one friend. "They despise Americans," said another. I was determined to refrain from speaking, so as not to inconvenience or insult the clearly superior people whose city I was supposedly offending with my very footfalls.

As I walked, however, I was approached no fewer than four times before noon - by tourists asking for help in broken French, but also by actual French people! Was I being mistaken for French? Days later, shopping on Rue de Rivoli, I understood. My size, if nothing else, was unbearably French. As was the all-black ensemble. Voila! If you kept your mouth shut, it was that simple to blend in.

Sarah Turnbull, a striking blond Australian, had no such luck on her first visit to the City of Light. She arrived in summer; Turnbull's debut outfit - a denim shirt, shorts and brown sandals - was perhaps as glaringly un-French as could be. This is not to mention her very Aussie attitude - open, gregarious, raucous even - which marked her not only as a foreigner, but a walking offense to the devoutly reserved Parisiennes. A culture clash, for sure. But not one so violent that it would keep Turnbull from making France her home.

Turnbull was lured to Paris by the possibility of love with Frédéric - a trés French man she had met at a dinner party in Bucharest, Romania - and that possibility blossomed into the real thing. With the exception of a few business trips and family visits, Turnbull hasn't left France since first stepping into Charles de Gaulle Airport years ago.

So, "Almost French" is a love story - but more about the place than the man. And, as in any good love story, there is much strife. Turnbull wrestles with the language, at one point accidentally offering Frédéric oral sex (instead of his pipe) in the presence of company. She struggles with fashion; getting dressed to pick up croissants, Turnbull dons sweatpants, only to catch an appalled look from Frédéric. What have I done? she implores. "[I]t's not nice for the baker!" he exclaims. "In France," Turnbull comes to understand, "vanity is not a vice.... it's a mark of self-pride." Especially for French women, who see her as a rival before a friend. In contrast to their reticence, the outgoing and ambitious Turnbull feels suddenly exposed as a "Radical Anglo-Saxon Feminist."

To cope, Turnbull turns to guides and self-help books for the expat in Paris. Some offer cold comfort; others, helpful tips and insights. Anyone who finds herself in a situation like Turnbull's - plunked down in Paris for the long term - will be luckier; she'll have Turnbull's warm, clear prose to soothe frayed nerves.

The tourist in Paris, however, requires a different kind of book (in addition to an Access guide, of course). For some, the new Vintage collection "Paris in Mind" might be it. Full of snippets of writing about Paris by Americans - ranging from James Baldwin to Dave Barry to M.F.K. Fisher to Benjamin Franklin - "Paris in Mind" is impressive in its scope. However, such a comprehensive effort comes at a price. Excerpts of long works often feel incomplete - especially when they consist of just a few short pages, as many do here. A discreet chunk cut out of Hemingway? No thanks. A mere page of E.B. White? What a tease!

Yet, as an introduction to a handful of contemporary writers, old masters and thinkers, "Paris in Mind" is useful. There are real gems here, including a perfect piece of Stanley Karnow's book, "Paris in the Fifties," about his assignment to do a cover story on Christian Dior for Time (Can you imagine a piece on, say, Marc Jacobs, written by a man no less, on the cover of Time today?); a wistful memoir on being "Passionate and Penniless in Paris" by travel writer Maxine Rose Schur; and a nice slice of David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day," about American cinema in Paris. I wonder, though, how many people will read both the goofy travelogue by Dave Barry and the long - not to mention decidedly drier - excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's autobiography?

"Paris in Mind" left me wanting more. But maybe that just comes with the territory. While in Paris, I nearly froze to death, caught the flu and was teased, by an entire restaurant, for ordering lamb the wrong way. My trip was terrible, in the English sense of the word. Still, the city worked its charms on me. "In France ... la séduction is the essential spice to life," Turnbull writes. I guess, between sneezes, I got a taste. I can't wait to go back.

Copyright ©2003, Newsday, Inc.

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©2003 Jennifer Lee