washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Jonathan Yardley

Our Parisian Love-Hate Affair

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page C02


American Tourists in France Since 1930

By Harvey Levenstein.

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Univ. of Chicago. 382 pp. $35

"What about us?" Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) asks Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in one of the most famous scenes in one of the most famous movies ever made. Bogie gives her that penetrating look, then says consolingly: "We'll always have Paris."

That's where Harvey Levenstein gets the title for this book, the sequel to his "Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France From Jefferson to the Jazz Age," but it's easy to imagine that over the generations millions of Americans have said, or thought, "We'll always have Paris." As Levenstein is at pains to demonstrate, our love affair with Paris specifically and France generally has had its sour moments and even its periods of separation, but the pull Paris exercises on Americans goes back to Lafayette and is felt even by those who've never been there, thanks to movies ("An American in Paris") and popular songs ("I Love Paris") and the vast mythological edifice that has been constructed around the world's most beautiful, elegant and alluring city.

Our infatuation exists despite a considerable amount of negative feeling toward France. There's a lot of lingering anger over French policy on the Iraq war, which "set off the greatest wave of Francophobia" in American history, sentiments that Levenstein believes (probably correctly) "have been concentrated among people who have never been and never want to be tourists in France." But Francophobic sentiments go back a long way. Americans who served in France during World War I often came back believing that the French were "miserly, greedy and rapacious with Americans, whom they regarded as a nation of millionaires." The propensity among the French intelligentsia to attack America for what they view as "its materialism, puritanism [and] racism" has always produced a predictable and heated reaction among Americans, and not merely those inclined to dislike France in the first place. Then, too, there is French rudeness:

"In August 1963 a French reporter dressed himself in American-style clothes, put on sunglasses, slung a tourist's camera around his neck, and, affecting a midwestern twang, set off with an American woman posing as his wife to see how Parisians treated American tourists. At practically every turn, he met people who cheated him, insulted him, and demanded exorbitant tips. . . . A taxi driver who refused to take him to Versailles slammed the door on his hand. The concierge of a historic Marais building whose picture he was taking jumped in front of his camera and demanded payment. More than thirty times in three days, he wrote, he endured 'shabby and unpleasant' treatment, making him feel like a 'pigeon' or 'a cow to be milked.' It was no wonder, he concluded, that tourists were flocking to Italy rather than France."

It was no wonder, too, that authorities in Paris realized something had to be done about this. Like it or not (and obviously a great many among the French do not), American tourism is essential to the French economy. Over the years, a number of be-nice-to-Americans initiatives have been undertaken by French tourism offices, with impressive if imperfect results. Anecdotal evidence should always be viewed with suspicion, but during three visits to France over the past four years, my wife and I were never treated shabbily, and in some cases -- we were in Paris when the Sept. 11 attacks took place -- met with great kindness. It seems unlikely that millions of Americans would continue to visit France each year if they all got hostile receptions and were fleeced at every turn.

During the three-quarters of a century that "We'll Always Have Paris" covers, patterns of American tourism have fluctuated fairly widely. The Great Depression didn't prevent wealthy Americans from sailing the Atlantic, but foreign travel was out of reach for most of the middle-class Americans who might otherwise have visited France. The chief exceptions were intellectuals, who followed in the trail of the Lost Generation emigres as chronicled by Levenstein in his previous book, and blacks, many of whom had served in France during World War I and chose to stay there because they had found it to be "a land where they were treated as equals."

Those Americans who did make it to France tended to congregate in "a well-demarcated American tourist zone on the Right Bank of the Seine," where contact with unwelcoming French was at a minimum yet the pleasures of the city could be enjoyed.

One of the true oddities about American tourism in France is that until fairly recently, people went there despite, rather than because of, French food. "People raised on plain Anglo-American fare [feared] that French sauces camouflaged putrid ingredients," and the French habit of using everything in the pig except the oink made people suspicious of what was set before them. (Mea culpa: Accustomed as I am to andouille sausage à la Louisiana, I was horrified to see that one served to me at a Left Bank restaurant resembled nothing so much as packaged offal!) This began to change in the 1960s, when Jacqueline Kennedy made no secret of her love for French cuisine, and the pace was subsequently accelerated by Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Gourmet magazine.

Just about the only Americans in France in World War II were soldiers, whose history there is far darker and more complex than "Greatest Generation" sentimentalists would have us believe. Bored and homesick after the armistice, too many engaged in what one military policeman called "drunkenness, petty robbery, assaults, and destruction of civilian property." They did little to ease French apprehension about Americans and much to increase it; when they finally got home, they spread tales about French rudeness and price-gouging that heightened American apprehensions. Into the bargain, France had been wasted by the war, which left it in no condition to welcome tourists, yet it "desperately needed American tourists' dollars."

So a steady rapprochement began, albeit one not helped by Charles de Gaulle's bitter anti-Americanism. Students resumed coming to France for summer study and mischief; tour groups of every conceivable sort whisked people around; culture-seekers found their way to the Louvre; and status-seekers reclaimed their old tables at Maxim's. The increasing availability of air travel, and the advent in the 1970s of wide-bodied jets, made it easier and cheaper for Americans to travel abroad, and soon it seemed that everybody was in Paris, a mixed blessing if ever there was one.

Levenstein's survey of all this is informative and readable; there's scarcely a hint of academic jargon in his prose, and he covers just about all the bases. With one exception: He overlooks the cleanup of Paris that Jacques Chirac undertook while he was its mayor. However Americans may feel about Chirac now, it's in large measure thanks to him that Paris isn't just the world's most alluring city but also one of its cleanest and safest. Merci, Jacques, merci.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company