L’Americaine in Paris: Another View

Fellows Spring 2003

By Sarah Wildman

June 05, 2009

I have sublet an apartment from an artist that is fantasy Paris: all floor-to-ceiling windows with billowing sheer curtains and open space. It is in the 3rd arrondissement, skimming the top of the Marais neighborhood and bordering on the grittier streets around Place de la Republique. And I am on my dream assignment, having received a fellowship to study Muslim integration and ethnic tension in France.

But I arrived in France at a moment all too grounded and much less halcyon.

I have been here about three weeks, just in time to watch French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell growl on French television, and to see protestors fill Parisian boulevards. As bombs drop on Baghdad, the protests continue and the McDonald's posters in the Metro are steadily defaced with anti-American graffiti. No matter how jauntily I tie my scarf as I walk the streets, I'm all too conscious of being American.

The conversations and comments swirling around me about the United States and its citizens cannot simply be chalked up to anti-Americanism. It is more bewilderment. It sometimes can be "anti' and sometimes "pro," but in either case, it's often quite strong.

On a recent Friday morning, when I stopped at Le Lutece, a small cafe on Rue Beaubourg, a couple of locals recognized me. "Oui! L'Americaine!" they laughed as I stood with my coffee and newspapers at the bar. What followed was a pretty common response to an American here: a gentle ribbing, a question or two about whether I support "George Bush's war," and a reminder that they don't dislike me personally, only my government's policies. That I can handle.

Even those who are angry at the United States are usually polite to me. My first week in France, I ate with an ex-pat American at a tiny Marais tratoria called Little Italy. With all of about six tables, it's the perfect non-tourist destination. Not a word of English was spoken beyond our three feet of table space, and I felt very Parisian. That is, until our waiter asked us if we were American. When I assented, he pulled up a chair and asked us earnestly why all Americans support Bush. He wouldn't believe that there might be any divide among Americans, and he expounded upon the follies of the U.S. government. My tablemate told me quietly that I would soon tire of this conversation, as I was bound to have it with more people than I had the energy to argue with.

It's not just our president, though. Everyone here has read the stories about "freedom fries" and French wine being poured down drains.

Two weeks ago, my sister visited me from the States. She arrived the same day the bombing in Iraq began.

After she dropped her bags at my apartment, we walked down to Place de la Concorde, since I wanted to interview some of the thousands who had gathered there to protest. But when we arrived, we quickly saw that this was no gentle gathering. This protest was a little more menacing than the others, the signs a little more vicious. I brought her home just before an American flag was sent up in flames.

The next night, when we stopped in at a tiny bar in the neighborhood called La Petite Vertu, we weren't received warmly. The bartender, after cracking a few anti-American jokes with some regulars sitting at the other end of the bar, yelled down to us. "Hey, are you Americans? Speaking English down there?" I said we were. "Get out of my [expletive] bar!" he said laughing, and then, "Just kidding." We left anyway.

But for the most part, I haven't been so rudely dismissed. I've enjoyed most of my visits to bars and cafes without incident, even when reading English-language newspapers.

The other night I went back to Little Italy. I couldn't help but hear repeated references to "les Americains" from the group at the table next to me. But it wasn't a simple case of America-bashing. One of the group actually supported Bush -- a wildly unpopular sentiment here -- while the other three thought Americans, or at least our politicians, were "crazy."

Toward the end of the night, they heard me talking to the waiter and realized I was American. "Oh my," said the genial guy next to me. "Where are you from in the States?" I told him Washington. He said he'd spent time in New York.

"Great cities!" he said without irony.

Reader Comments

  • Naomi said:

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