To Be Black, American, Female and ‘Un-Invisible’: A Brief Paris Memoir
I could’ve titled this essay “The Dark Side of Paris,” but I’m no Jackie Collins, and despite my penchant for black eyeliner, I’m not a whore. This isn’t meant to be any kind of travelogue. The tone of this memoir starts off on a bitter note because I decided impulsively to see Paris after the life of someone close to me ended. And, just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, spiteful colleagues sent me on my way, not with a “Bon voyage!” but with mean-spirited comments about how nervous and lonely I would be, how I “should’ve waited until you landed a boyfriend first,” and with questions concerning why I would “want to go there anyway.”
These colleagues, all of them White and female, had just returned from leisurely vacations in various European countries. Those misguidedly envious women couldn’t have been more off-target because not one of them could ever know what it was, and still is, like to be Black, American, female and alienated in the United States. Therefore, it stands to reason that they also could never have known what it was, and still is, like to be Black, American, female and traveling solo in a foreign country. I ignored the naysayers and traveled to France by myself, with nothing to prove to anyone. Once I reached my destination I was alone, but not left alone.
However, my negative experiences – and my positive ones – as a solo Black American woman traveler in Paris were so far beyond my racist-conditioned, jealous, clannish colleagues’ imagination that they reached an existential level. In our department, I was the token Black journalist. In the U.S., I was, and still am, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in female form. But in France, I was a very visible woman.
In the late 1990s, after returning from a weeklong trip to Paris — my first trip to France — I was still tingling from the erotic sights I’d witnessed in the “City of Light,” hereafter occasionally referred to as the “City of Enlightenment” for better or worse. When I say “erotic sights,” though, I’m not referring to erotic movies, of which I’d seen not a one during the trip, but everyday tableaux, such as many couples of various persuasions and ages smooching and caressing each other. They openly expressed their love and lust in parks, in subway cars, in alleyways, and in restaurants; fed each other chocolaty, sticky sweets in pâtisseries; and stole moments on the lower and upper quays of the Seine in full view of videocamera-equipped tourists on passing bateaux-mouches (“fly boats”).
Other erotic sights were the outdoor sculptures in parks such as the Jardin de Tuileries, and the seminude and nude imagery on billboards and subway posters that would be considered obscene in the U.S. Oh, and I can’t forget the erotic overload of the Pigalle district, which made New York City’s former red-light district pale in comparison to the point of seeming like the Disneyland that it is today. Add to those images the sounds of French in various tonalities and dialects from the mouths of descendants of West African countries and of Algeria — and, booyakah! My worldview began expanding through the language of other people’s love and lust.
In addition to the sensual sights and sounds in Paris, there were the not-so-subtle encounters I had, which only make me smile awkwardly from the safe distance of years gone by. They were encounters that continue to find their way through my consciousness and defensive filters in composite form in some of my short stories. Thank goodness, I’d carried several small notebooks and many rolls of camera film with me on my journey to the City of Enlightenment.
For example, there’s the motorcyclist who couldn’t care less that he was on his way to work when he swerved to a screeching stop. He wanted to burn rubber, and I’m not talking about his bike’s tires. Picture it: I’d just turned a corner in a high-rent Right Bank district, and was wearing shades and an all-black outfit except for a leopard-print chiffon scarf that was flowing behind me à la Isadora Duncan. I didn’t mean to strut but I was trying to walk briskly in new ankle boots, to get to a fashion show on time. (Printemps, one of the city’s two famous department stores that had their origins in the late 19th century — the other, Galeries Lafayette — still hosts a free, fantastic fashion show every Tuesday morning.)
At the time, I wished that I’d studied a bit more French because all I understood from what the guy said beneath that helmet, with a strong undercurrent of testosterone, was: Mademoiselle, vous êtes quelques chose (“Miss, you are something“). As for those ankle boots, they’re the same pair I was wearing when I slammed a foot into that pillar in Le Panthéon on the Left Bank two days prior to the motorcyclist’s seduction. You can read about that mishap on my “About” page on my Negrotica WordPress blog (http://www.mujerotica.wordpress.com).
I could go on and on about my encounters in the City of Enlightenment, but I’ll share just a few more: about the sexagenarian security guard who was somewhat working at the American Express building (the same building where iconic scenes in the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant film Charade were filmed). The gent was almost stereotypically French. Think of the horny animated skunk “Pepé Le Pew.” When he – the White security guard, not the skunk – stepped forward to grasp my brown hand (well, orange; I was blushing all over), he bucked his eyes and suavely propositioned me near the lobby.
In a seamless Bogart move, Pepé slipped me – no, not a mickey, but something symbolically close – a discount ticket to some bullshit tourist film. Then in a liquorice-smelling breath akin to absinthe, he half-whispered to me in Franglish that “yerrrize arrre zo beeyooooteefuuulll” and that they reminded him of Josephine Baker’s. Well, I did take that as a compliment because La Baker left racist America for France, and France — not just Paris — loved her back and loved her not just for her artistry but her Blackness. I also have an overbite similar to hers, but if the old French guy made reference to that, my beginner’s French didn’t pick up on it.
Pepé Le Pew got a leetell clozerrrr to me, so close that I could taste his spittle. His hand moved to my hand, and I was in utter shock because in the United States, I was used to White people wiping their hands on their pants and, in the case of White women, their skirts. So I watched as if it were some other Black woman’s hand that Pepé was groping. I watched a gradually reddening, spotted hand moving up, beneath the cuff of my pea coat sleeve.
The heat from the “security” guard’s body must’ve sparked my neurons because my French lessons came back to me all of a sudden, and I warned him: “Pas touchez, monsieur!” in near-perfect Parisian French. I swear I sounded better than Thandie Newton in that needless remake of Charade, titled The Truth About Charlie, with a miscast Mark Wahlberg. Before I could shout, “Au secours!” Pepé suggested in a surreptitious, spy voice that I meet him back at “L’Américain Express” after the film, “pour un café, Mademoiselle Baker.” At this point in the story, I’d just about had it with the Josephine Baker references. I love her, but I couldn’t get past the scene of her topless, though iconic, performance in film documentaries. Banana dance, ma derriere!
I also was regretting that I hadn’t stood in line for another crêpe instead of craving a visit to the American Express building like a true fan of Charade — and I don’t mean the word guessing game. I wanted to pull this perv’s ear (“sounds like … rat”) because I was no easy chick. But I did take the easy way out and lied en anglais about looking forward to mixing coffee and cream. I then jetted off to see the film and, two hours later, made sure to merge with the crowd in case Pepé was looking for me. Thank God that Paris had lots of Black people (most of them immigrants from West African countries, Algeria and the French Caribbean), or else I would’ve stuck out like a blemished grain in a pot of white rice.
Ahhh, but this Paris memoir isn’t without a twist. While it’s true that many nationalist French people despise Algerian immigrants and Algerian descendants born in France just as much as, if not more than, West African immigrants and West African descendants born in France, I found myself caught between empathizing with the non-Whites’ plight and despising their men for objectifying me as much as their White French counterparts. I mean, I got rather pissed off when a Black French guy in a navy blue pinstriped business suit stopped me in the middle of the sidewalk on my way up the hill to Montmartre’s vineyard, undressed me with his eyes while speaking in rapid-fire French and then, when he could see that I didn’t understand anything he was saying, insulted me in even more-rapid-fire French. To add insult to injury, he punctuated his monologue with a very guttural “Umph.”
Before Le Suit turned on his stacked heels, I rolled my eyes at him as if to dismiss him with, Moi aussi. Merde. It may not have been proven that the rolling of the eyes is West African in origin, but I think it is. If that’s true, how ironic that said body language could exist today through practice by descendants of survivors of the African Holocaust, yet be a trait that is much-maligned here in the U.S.
Again, it’s the curse of being a cinema buff. Why? I was headed to Montmartre for only two reasons: to photograph the old vineyard’s exterior (Clos de Montmartre) and to walk the same winding streets beautifully filmed in two of my fave retro films: Paris Blues and Un Homme et Une Femme (A Man and A Woman). If I’d wanted to be chatted up and spat out by an upwardly mobile Black professional, I would’ve just vacationed in a major urban city in the U.S. — that is, after having a very expensive lacefront weave sewn into my hair and learning how to flip it like Beyoncé, getting my nails air-brushed, losing 30 pounds and undergoing liposuction, getting breast implants for double-E effect, getting a Brazilian and buying post-waxing pain medication, threading my eyebrows until they’re em dashes, and losing any trace of facetiousness exemplified by this paragraph. Me, bitter? No.
Again, the phenotype of the French male chauvinist didn’t matter, but having an interest in independent cinema did. While walking back to my Left Bank hotel from indie moviehouse L’Arlequin — the name that filmmaker and comic genius Jacques Tati bestowed on the Art Deco-era theater when he acquired it in the sixties — on the rue de Rennes, I was trailed by a van filled with Algerian male youths. The rue de Rennes is a very wide street running the length from Boulevard Saint Germain and Montparnasse in a trendy, artistic district called Saint-Germain-des-Prés; the street (or rue) can fit a huge number of cars — especially the tiny ones in Paris — but on this night, it seemed like the rickety van was the only vehicle on the road. There were five or six young men in the vehicle and they were quite vocal. This was a nightmarish version of the experience I’d had the evening before, in which a pair of White French sailors had catcalled me as if I were a prostitute. I’d been minding my business, dressed down like any of the Parisian college students, while on a self-guided tour of Montparnasse. An avid reader, I desired to trace the bold footsteps of literary giants and American expatriates such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Chester Himes, and of the “Lost Generation”‘s Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and others.
Back on the rue de Rennes, I was terrified but managed to smile in a relaxed way as the van rolled on. My blue denims were too tight to enable me to run. As I contemplated the many ways I could die after they pulled me into the van, I wondered if they thought I was a Parisienne or an American — as in U.S-born, not Mexican or Canadian. (As long as they didn’t think of me as the Ugly American; I saw plenty of those idiots. One couple, clearly from Central Queens — I could almost pinpoint their neighborhood, Forest Hills, perhaps — couldn’t even figure out how to exit the friggin turnstile. Can you spell “Paris guidebook”? When they appeared terrified and looked in my direction, I wanted to pretend to be a Nigerian Parisienne so badly, but I couldn’t get the accent together in time. Besides, I was on the verge of laughing … at them. The couple was middle-aged, but not septuagenarians, and the woman was struggling with her “PARLAY-view FRONT-say.” So I stopped her from further self-humiliation and, in the thickest Central Queens accent I could muster, I told her: “Look here, youze guys. Insert the ticket in this way, and wait for it to pop up.”)
I walked fast, fleeing (but pretending not to be) my would-be Algerian-French captors. I concluded that the young men probably hated both Parisians and Americans, so I said nothing. I suddenly became religious and invoked a prayer, then fixed my line of sight straight ahead. Somehow my mind drifted to the sensation of sinking my Josephine Baker front teeth into the juicy ham and cheese crêpe I had stashed in my backpack. OK, there were two huge crêpes in there — WGAF?
The young men were shouting all kinds of remarks as their van occasionally swerved near the curb. Perhaps they smelled the crêpes and were angry that I didn’t want to share them. Perhaps they drove off when they figured that I was struggling to walk fast as part of a nightly exercise regimen. Yes, that’s it. They thought that I was a Black Parisienne, and they actually were trying to incite me to join them in brown solidarity. By the time I reached my room in a very American (read: inexpensive) hotel, I nearly swallowed one of those crêpes whole. All was calm.
Three days later, I would watch CNN in horror as a group of Americans were killed amid the Pyramids in Egypt. I know I’m way off topic here, but I will never forget being afraid to look American (whatever that is) when I walked through the Paris streets the next day, French military everywhere with their big guns out.
Apparently, being a lover of visual art was also a curse of being a solo female traveler — of any “color” — in Paris in the late 1990s. Merde, I couldn’t get past the Black Parisian security guard near the entrance of Musée d’Orsay. There was only one damned hour remaining to see the works of Monet, Cézanne and Picasso. I was on a packaged tour and had to coordinate the museum visits by arrondissement so that I could hop from attraction to attraction while using a three-consecutive-day, unlimited metro/bus pass. After spending much time at Musée Rodin, I ventured over to the Musée d’Orsay to see Cézanne because:
1) While Le Musée d’Orsay didn’t contain the largest number of Paul Cézanne’s works, it had more than, like, three of them, so I took a shot. (Atelier Paul Cézanne – the Cézanne Studio Museum – in Aix-en-Provence, does not contain the Impressionist’s works but has preserved his rooms.);
2) I figured I had time to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie, which houses a larger collection of Claude Monet’s works (I never made it; next time I’m in Paris I’ll go, or I’ll take an inexpensive day-trip to Giverny by bus); and
3) I already had a few hours penciled-in (there were no PDAs then) to visit Musée Picasso (Ideally I needed a half-day after getting lost through the tiny, narrow – read: medieval – streets of the must-see district of Le Marais. Taken another way, I was so busy marveling at the beautiful, ancient buildings – actually, for Paris, 14th-century buildings, not 17th– through 19th-century edifices, are ancient – that I easily lost my way. After going back in time at Musée Picasso, there were trendy boutiques to browse and ethnic cafes and bakeries to resist with their calorie-adding aromas.).
I also love the work of another modernist, the great surrealist artist of Catalán heritage: Salvador Dalí. The Espace Dalí-Museum, in Paris’ hilltop village of Montmartre, was the first museum devoted to the works of Dalí. A return to Paris warrants a visit to this museum. I missed my chance during my trek to Montmartre because I went on a Monday, a day when many museums in Paris are closed. Again, that damned, three-consecutive-day, unlimited metro/bus pass.
I shouldn’t complain, though. When visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art five years ago, I acquired a ticket to a touring Dalí exhibit that was sold-out. It was a total fluke. I’d planned only to flit through the museum in the hour before closing time, knowing I easily could return to Philly. If I hadn’t been standing there near the front desk pouting and watching all the Dalí exhibit-goers filing their way toward the special space, I wouldn’t have caught the attention of the front-desk guy. As it turned out, a married couple with a name like “Peabody” or something or other, couldn’t make the exhibit, so the front-desk guy gave me one of their coveted tickets after I handed him the PMA general donation of $10. He could’ve pocketed the $10 bill for all I cared. The point was that I was in like Flint! Well, wrong simile there, but you catch my drift.
As for that dream trip within France, it may never come true if I don’t take driving lessons really soon. See, the thing to do is rent a car after departing from the TGV. For example, Atelier Paul Cézanne is in the region known as Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and it’s not exactly a few feet from the train station. I also desire to see three museums in the South of France: Musée Matisse de Nice, The Chagall Museum, and the Picasso Musem in the city of Antibes.
Getting around and staying in all those cities, not accessing the museums, is where one’s wallet takes a hit. It takes a big bank roll to afford to stay and dine at a luxurious hotel in the French Riviera, too. I wouldn’t go to the South of France to do the Novotel thing. I’d be better off waiting for Vegas to reproduce the French Riviera the way it has done the Eiffel Tower. But wait, Vegas — not the off-peak flight fare — isn’t cheap, either!
And yes, if I ever get to the South of France and nearby Monaco, I will be compelled to walk the same hallowed grounds that Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant strolled in To Catch a Thief. I will not be compelled, however, to step foot into the Monte Carlo Casino, which, I’ve read, drips in opulence, and which means I’d be broke after tipping the doorman.
That’s why these wide-eyed fantasies are called dreams. Pipe dreams. As in I’d have to be inhaling from one of those funny, colorful pipes to think I’ll really ever again have the kind of job where I can earn enough money to save for a trip to California, let alone France. As for luxuriating in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the French Riviera proper, and (hah!) the principality of Monaco one day? As that West African Parisian suit said to me in Montmartre: “Umph.”
Copyright © 2010 By Chantale Reve