Paris Was Ours, an anthology of essays by Penelope Rowlands, published by Algonquin Books on February 8, 2011, 288 pages.
Paris Was Ours is a unique and unpredictable collection of 32 essays by those who’ve made their first trips and stays in Paris, the French culture being one that seems bewildering to most Americans. For instance, one young woman, Veronique Vienne, found that Parisians don’t discuss money or financial affairs, deeming this distasteful; another woman, Valerie Steiker, goes to Paris to relive experiences she had there with her mother (now dead) when she was a child; a man, Jeremy Mercer, relates how he found free lodging at the Shakespeare Company Bookstore while aspiring to be a crime writer, and another man, Mark Gaito, gets a free view of the Eiffel Tower along with pigeon dinners in exchange for translating French children’s books into English for years. Unusual stories indeed!
In the introduction, Peggy Rowland writes that “In the following pages, some wondrously diverse writers parse their Paris moments, describing, in some cases, why they went there, in others what they found…..Together, their words add up to one picture, a multi-faceted one that, in the way of a cubist painting, is all the more descriptive for the disparate elements it contains. It’s an indelible portrait of an entrancing, at times exasperating, yet always fascinating place to live.” Ala Julia Child, essayist Diane John writes “When we moved to Paris, fifteen years ago, I trusted that all I had heard about Frenchwomen — their perfect clothes, dedicated cookery, and eleaborate wiles — would turn out on closer inspection to be untrue, and I would find they were just like the rest of us. Instead I learned that there’s a lot to these stereotypes…..Americans at their foodiest don’t employ fourteen ingredients to make stuffed courgettes.”
Delightful in scope and authenticity, Rowlands has gathered together stories you will not find in any other collection, allowing the reader to read an essay, set down the book for home and worldly pursuits, and then long to return, in the next possible spared moment, to this exotic land of another way of thinking. One woman, Caroline Weber, a recent college graduate, is surprised to find out that the suitors she takes on, over and over again, are already married and feel that there’s no reason to inform her of their status; and Samuel Shimon is told “keep your distance from Arabs if you want to be successful in this city.”
Some have cinematic preconceptions of Paris, as in The Tribulations Of A Cuban Girl In Paris, Zoe Valdes writing “I yearned to seem as melancholy as Catherine Deneuve, to feel loved by Jean Marais, and to be kidnapped by Alain Delon, though rescued by Jean-Paul Belmonde.” Others feel, like Marcelle Clements does, that “Paris is a great place to fall in love, to eat, drink and be merry. But it’s also the perfect city in which to be depressed, or, even better, melancholy. You don’t
have to be French to smoke a Gitane and notice the falling leaves drifting by your window.”
This provocative and realistic rendition of the City Of Lights is sparkling and illuminating in and of itself. The many voices in Paris Was Ours combine tales of travail and splendor. As Rowland writes, “For a foreigner living and working in Paris, the bar the city sets can feel impossibly high: to clear it is to feel as if you’ve conquered the world. The thirty-two writers in the following pages have done exactly that. They’ve entered a sophisticated, exacting, near-impenetrable society and been transformed by the experience.” An anthology that can be read over and over again and, hopefully, shared with many others.
Reviewed by Christina Zawadiwsky
Christina Zawadiwsky is Ukrainian-American, born in New York City, has a degree in Fine Arts, and is a poet, artist, journalist and TV producer. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Award, two Wisconsin Arts Boards Awards, a Co-Ordinating Council of Literary Magazines Writers Award, and an Art Futures Award, among other honors. She was the originator and producer of Where The Waters Meet, a local TV series created to facilitate the voices of artists of all genres in the media, for which she won two national and twenty local awards, including a Commitment to Community Television Award. She is also a contributing editor to the annual Pushcart Prize Anthology, the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association, and has published four books of poetry. She currently reviews movies for , music for , and books for .