'Paris' exposes the gritty reality of the City of Light

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 5, 2011 - 3:05 PM

Thirty-two essays and stories take the shine off the city's romantic sheen.

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands

If Paris isn't the most romanticized world city, I don't know which is.

Mention a trip to the French capital and the expression grows wistful as visions are conjured up of lovers along the Seine, café au lait and shopping on the Champs Elysées.

Sometimes these are part of the experience, but the reality is, of course, much harsher. It rains a lot in Paris, Starbucks is everywhere and the proliferation of chain stores on the Champs Elysées makes the shopping experience not so different from being at the Mall of America (Sephora, Gap, H&M).

In "Paris Was Ours," Penelope Rowlands culled 32 essays, stories and poems, some original, some previously published, from writers who include professors, single mothers, gay men, a homeless woman, a wealthy Iranian and a poor young Cuban. The collection takes some of the shine off Paris but not the allure -- not unlike the pull of a troubled but passionate lover who could never be more than a fling.

In his essay, Walter Wells described what he called the "dangerously seductive" "vacation syndrome" of Paris. His wife, Patricia Wells, was not yet a best-selling cookbook writer when the couple found themselves together, often in tears, during their early days in France. Wells said the reality of living in Paris hit him while stuck in traffic on the way from the airport.

"My previous trips to France had lasted days or weeks and had been marked by an epiphany at some museum or cathedral and a lot of feel-good time at sidewalk cafes or strolls in the long summer twilight," he wrote. "You actually believe that this magical place you have come to allows you to be the contented, stress-free person you really are."

He and others dismantle the romanticism with stories of "La Vie Boheme" in a seven-story walk-up apartment without running water, the unreliability of just about everything, the grim workaday life of a chef, and a stern approach to child rearing. (Dogs are more welcome in some Paris restaurants than children.)

Every writer offers a nugget of perspective on the city, but Roxane Farmanfarmaian's "Out of the Revolution" is haunting for the picture of life as a young Iranian on vacation in Paris. She tells of the eerie uncertainties of leaving Iran for Paris and trying to return to Iran in 1980.

Ultimately, the writers fall in love with Paris, a city that embraces sorrow, depression, snarkiness, human frailty and living in the moment no matter the menial task that entails.

In dismantling the dream of Paris, they reveal an infinitely more complex city and people. What could be more French than rendering complications from mere adoration? As Alicia Drake wrote in "The Sky Is Metallic," "Parisians do not assume a moral zone of black and white. Nothing is unequivocal, absolute or indisputable."

Rochelle Olson is a writer at the Star Tribune.

  • PARIS WAS OURS

    By: Penelope Rowlands.

    Publisher: Algonquin Paperbacks, 279 pages, $15.95

    Review: These essays, stories and poems about life in Paris may rub away some of the city's romantic sheen, but underneath is a more complex and interesting place.

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