Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Finding the American Diaspora in Paris

Americans have been coming to Paris since since Americans stopped being, well, Brits.

Benjamin Franklin arrived in 1776.  He was a bit advanced in years but he still managed to have a pretty good time.  He was very popular and was probably the best ambassador the Americans have ever had on this side of the Atlantic.  He was also a long-term resident - he lived in Paris for nearly 9 years and at least some of that time was spent in my old neighborhood, Passy.  If you walk from Passy to Trocadero you will see a fine statue of him sitting in, of all things, Square Yorktown.

There were other waves of American migrants who came in the 19th and 20th centuries.  There is a very good book published recently by David McCullough called The Greater Journey:  Americans in Paris which is well worth reading.

In addition to the Josephine Bakers and Ernest Hemingways there have also been a fair number of regular folks who came for business or because they married French citizens or because they stopped by for a few years and just never left.  When I arrived in 1989 I met an American woman who had been in France since just after World War II.  To say that she had some interesting stories would be a serious understatement.

The numbers have never been very large.  Today the American population in Paris is about 75,000 people.  Since there are also lots of American tourists in the city who come every year, it is understandable that long-term residents pass nearly unnoticed by the French.  I've been here a long time and I am still taken for a tourist on many occasions.  This has good and bad implications.  The good is that in nearly 20 years I have never been asked for my papers.  Just call us stealth migrants. :-)

So, where would you go if you wanted to meet permanent or semi-permanent American migrants in Paris?  There are a few institutions that have been around awhile where some of us tend to congregate at one time or another to "drink from the well" so to speak.  The following is not an exhaustive list but it will give you an idea of a few places where some of us can be found:

The American Cathedral:  This Episcopal church has been around since 1866 and almost every American migrant I've met has been here at least once.  They have lots of events, good music, seminars on various topics and a counseling center which are all oriented toward serving the American/international  community here.  They are located near the Pont de l'Alma.

The American Church:  Another place almost every American migrant knows and it's just down the street from the American Cathedral on the Quai d'Orsay.  It was founded in 1857 and is interdenominational.  They have a very well-known (to us anyway) program called "Bloom Where You're Planted" and "Bloom While You Work" run by the Women of the American Church which helps recent English-speaking arrivals to Paris get oriented.  I never went  but I should have.  If nothing else I would probably have had less trouble opening a bank account in my first few years here

The American Library:  This is a wonderful place very close to the American Church and Cathedral.  I've spent many hours here cruising the stacks. I've been a member several times over the years though I let my membership lapse when we left for Tokyo.   It has a fascinating history.  Back in World War I libraries in the United States launched a program called The Library War Service to get books to American soldiers fighting in Europe.  When the war ended there were a lot of English-language books floating around.  The American Library Association gathered them up and used them to found the American Library in Paris in 1920.  Some very famous names, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, were among the first trustees of the new library.  The library is still around and going strong in the early 21st century.  I personally owe them a large debt since I used to take the Frenchlings there often when we lived in Paris and made sure that they stayed for "storytime" in the Children's section.  Good TOEFL scores aren't manufactured out of thin air in a world where English is definitely a minority language.  Their help was really indispensable for making my daughters truly bi-lingual.

The American University:  This university was founded in the 1960's so it's fairly recent.  It's an international school with all kinds of programs (BA, Master's and so on) in English.  It's very small - about 1000 students.  I know people who already had undergraduate degrees from U.S. schools who, after having landed in Paris, decided to go on and get their graduate degrees here.

A diaspora can be defined as a minority residing in a foreign land who show a continuing attachment to their place of origin.  It's not just language and culture, it's also trying to be a part of the nation while not being physically in the nation.  If you look at the September schedules for both the American Church and the Cathedral you will see that 911 commemorative events figure prominently in their programs.  This should not be taken to mean that Americans don't integrate into French culture and life here.  On the contrary, these institutions encourage integration by helping Americans get oriented so they can function within French society which is, I think, to everyone's benefit.

Ben Franklin once said,  "All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move."  I'd like to think that, if he were alive today, he would approve of his heirs, those "moveable Americans," in Paris.

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