Frenchification and the Art of Living: My Enlightened Perception of Paris
Alexis de Tocqueville’s and Edith Wharton’s critique of American restlessness still prevails through the American rat race and our constant hurry. From rush hour in the morning, to grabbing a burger at McDonald’s on our dash to soccer practice, Americans hardly ever seem to stop and “smell the roses.” We tend to be focused on what we need to accomplish next, whether that’s making it to a big meeting or taking the kids to school. As Americans caught up in the “New York Minute,” we ignore our surroundings. I couldn’t count how many times I have nearly bumped into people on campus because one of us was texting or talking on our cell phones. America, as Wharton claims, “tends to irreverence, impatience, to all sorts of rash and contemptuous short-cuts” (Wharton 32). American children are increasingly looking to their futures with this “impatience” – deciding what they want to be when they grow up, what college they want to go to, what they want to study – at a very early age. I attended a private elementary school in which by the time we were eight years old, we knew the math track we simply must be placed in so we could take two math APs, and how we could increase our chances of being accepted to a prestigious Ivy League school. Americans are so motivated to succeed in the future, but rarely spend time enjoying the present. This perpetual longing for the American Dream of success is shown clearly in Shay Youngblood’s novel Black Girl in Paris. Eden often daydreams about meeting James Baldwin and her hopefully successful future career as a writer: “[I] relaxed enough to fantasize about drinking champagne with James Baldwin…celebrating the publication of my first book” (Youngblood 73). Last spring break I went to Walt Disney World with my friends. Though vacations should be relaxing, we spent most days strategizing what time we should go on each ride to avoid long lines! Even on vacation, Americans are in a rush and refuse to wait longer than they feel necessary. When I first read Tocqueville’s and Wharton’s comments on American impatience and restlessness earlier this semester, I thought they were exaggerating minor flaws to make them more interesting or to prove French superiority. Now that I have observed my fellow Americans (and, I admit, myself), I realize that Americans have a thing or two to learn from the French about the art of living.
The recurring theme of French taste strongly contrasts with the distinctly American rush. In many of the texts and films we’ve discussed this semester, the French are portrayed as leisurely and appreciative of minor details like floral arrangements or how food is presented on a plate. Wharton credits the French with leaving time for living, which results in an art of living that the French pride themselves in.. She observes, “every Frenchman and every Frenchwoman takes time to live, and has an extraordinarily clear and sound sense of what constitutes real living” (Wharton 110). In her view, the French take an almost carpe diem, Epicurean approach to living. Unlike Americans who fail to appreciate smaller, aspects of daily life in their dash for the future, the French “[live] more slowly,” and “have learned the advantage of living more deeply” (Wharton 73). Before I took this seminar, I thought French taste simply meant chic French fashion and art. I envisioned leggy brunettes with blunt bobs and designer scarves walking their poodles down the street wearing a stylish outfit and a sophisticated air. I was surprised to learn that French taste and their art of living are so much more than clothing or materialism. To the French, living is recognition of simple and grand enjoyments. As Eden notes in Black Girl in Paris, “you must live, not simply exist. The French have this one thing right” (Youngblood 56).
Interestingly enough, my paper written at the beginning of the seminar highlighted many stereotypical products we identify as French here in America. Such “products” that I mentioned included crepes, designer clothes, and the child heroine Madeline. It is interesting to think about the French image and products sent here to America, and to think about these exported aspects of French culture as propaganda for the urbane, glamorous, sophisticated French culture many Americans romanticize. Even some of the American characters we’ve read about this semester, such as Youngblood’s Eden and Undine Spragg from Wharton’s Custom of the Country, have a glorified perception of French culture. Though Undine married into a prominent New York family, she has an affair with a sophisticated, bureaucratic Frenchman because she thinks French culture and fashion is sophisticated. Eden admits to her initial faith in the idealized façade of Paris when she says, “‘[Baldwin] said Paris was a haven. I’m looking for that’” (Youngblood 126). In 1954, the film Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn depicted Paris as the changing force that sophisticated Hepburn’s girlish, flighty character and made her a confident woman. Paris is the city of possibility, the place to escape your faults and become a better version of yourself. We saw this idea of escape and self-discovery in Paris most prominently in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris. In Giovanni’s Room, the protagonist David flees to Paris in an attempt to avoid confronting his homosexuality. In Black Girl in Paris, Eden recounts that in her childhood, “Aunt Vic’s stories about Paris had sounded like fantasies. She talked about it as if it were a made-up place. If Paris was a real place, I wanted to go” (Youngblood 17). I myself called France a utopia in my first reflection. The first memory I have of myself as a Francophile is dancing around my kitchen when I was five years old, singing songs from the French fairy tale-inspired Disney movie Beauty and the Beast while helping my father bake baguettes in my itchy yellow Belle costume. I idealized France from an early age; I often mimicked Madeline’s French accent and, being rather short myself, sometimes pretended to be her during playtime. Last year, my school’s senior prom committee decided on the theme “Light up the Night in the City of Lights.” Our adaptation and conception of Paris décor was to scatter rose petals around our quad, project a large Eiffel tower on our own tower, and serve croissants, madeleines, and assorted cheeses. We even hired gourmet coffee carts and set up very small tables rather than the standard table rounds, to give the dance more of an intimate, “café” atmosphere. As my August reflection suggests, I continued to glorify France until I took this seminar. I think that this idealization of Paris is what entices Americans to incorporate aspects of French culture in our own lives.
For many years, America has increasingly integrated France’s art of living into our society – we have become Frenchified. Our films, novels, television shows, and media have portrayed France as an enchanting, alluring city. In the 1999 Mary-Kate and Ashley film Passport to Paris, the charming twins instilled America’s youth with wonder as they paraded about a superficial, glitzy Paris, shopping in chic shops and eating chocolate éclairs in the Eiffel Tower with moped riding French boys. These very aspects of French culture, though perhaps not the most educational or illuminating of true French living, have Frenchified us. They have also proved that most Americans, believing these stereotypical aspects of Paris represent the whole of France, are “‘consumerist [cosmopolitans]’” as we engage in a “massive transfer of foodstuffs, artworks, music, literature, and fashion” from France (Vertovec and Cohen 14). On that spring break trip to Disney World last year, my friends and I explored their representation of France in the Epcot theme park. The aspects of French culture that Disney chose to include, I think, are very indicative of Americans’ perception of France. Featured in this miniature France was a patisserie, a perfume shop, and a souvenir shop selling French flags and clothing stamped with poodles and Eiffel towers. The French designer label Givenchy has even recently agreed to open up a shop in this area. I think it is ironic that, as Kuisel described in Seducing the French, France “invent[ed] an America that reeked of materialism” in order to “[separate] themselves from the New World, assert[ing] their superiority” (Kuisel 235). Yet they too export stereotypically “French” materialistic products to America, such as Chanel, French food, and their very art of living.
The American adaptation to the French art of living – taking time to live and valuing the beautiful – is most commonly seen in our increasing appreciation for food and good meals. Even in Beauty and the Beast, an American classic, the singing French candelabrum praises the French enjoyment and quality of food in the song “Be Our Guest.” We have recently begun to put more importance on the quality and enjoyment of our food rather than eating a quick meal before rushing off to our next task. When Ernest Hemingway ate breakfast with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a trip in France, he claims that Fitzgerald insisted on having a luxurious breakfast rather than a quick meal at a café. Hemingway accounts, “by the time we ordered it, waited for it, eaten it, and waited to pay for it, close to an hour had been lost” (Hemingway 160). This not only shows the move away from the quintessential American rush, but the Frenchification of Americans. Fitzgerald preferred quality food and an enjoyable meal to saving time. Black Girl in Paris’ Eden also represents Americans’ increasingly French appreciation for meals. She recalls that a particular meal in Paris “was certainly the most beautiful and most delicious I’d ever tasted. I…felt that I was living, and when I could, I’d always eat dessert first” (Youngblood 56). I think Americans’ adoption of France’s carpe diem lifestyle is clearly shown in Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent. The musical takes place in New York City in the 1980s, and preaches the dogma that we must live life to the fullest – that there is “no day but today.” Interestingly enough, Larson based the musical on the operetta La Boheme, which is about Parisian Bohemian life. If Americans continue to say “bonjour!” to French ways of life, I strongly believe we’d be much better for it, individually and as a nation.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Scott Fitzgerald.” A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner,
1964. 149-176. Print.
Kuisel, Richard. Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1993. Print.
Vertovec, Steven, and Robin Cohen. “Introduction: Conceiving Cosmopolitanism.”
Introduction. Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, and Practice. By
Vertovec and Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1-22. Print.
Wharton, Edith. French Ways and their Meaning. 1919: Forgotten Books, 2010.
Rpt. in French Ways and Their Meaning. Print.
Youngblood, Shay. Black Girl in Paris. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000. Print.