With his “charming, hilarious account of la vie Parisienne,” Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, about to hit bookstores, Rosecrans Baldwin set off on a two-week tour of U.S. towns (and one Vegas casino) named Paris. His assignment was to find out what Americans really think of the French; his full write-up, “Our French Connection,” has just been published in the Morning News. But we were curious what this chronicler of “the real Paris” made of its American counterparts – if, perhaps, any of them had eclipsed the City of Light, and if it’s truly possible to get tired of Paris.
Paris, France has a reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. How does Paris, USA measure up?
The Paris, USA that I saw was down-at-the-heels, struggling, beautiful in parts, isolated, and a little behind the times. The towns each had their own treasures. But I wouldn’t pick them out as vacation destinations. The people who would, of course, would be the French. The French I know love gritty America, Larry Clark, Tulsa’s drug addicts. In Paris, France, I had coworkers all the time asking me about the vacation pleasures of Detroit, of North Dakota, of urban Albuquerque.
Paris, France has also long been an artistic and cultural center – poetry, painting, fashion… Again, is Paris, USA stepping up?
One night near Paris, Kentucky, my uncle took me to an art gallery to see “the crankies.” I thought we were going to see a punk band. Instead there were two young women, old-time music performers, performing with what looked like a puppet booth. It turns out a crankie is an old-fashioned movie—a piece of fabric or paper that’s “cranked,” unspooled with a light behind it, and so revealing a story while a narrator talks, sings or plays music to explain what’s happening. It’s very neat. I got two little snitches of video, which don’t really do justice to their art.
Do the residents of the various Parises, USA feel competitive? With one another and with the real Paris? Would they take offense at the phrase “the real Paris”?
I ran into lots of people who knew “Parisians” from other states—e.g., Parisians in Kentucky who knew Parisians in Tennessee, Parisians in Idaho who’d been to Paris, Texas. But any feelings of competition or fellowship were mostly stoked by the Chambers of Commerce. E.g., let’s see who can build the largest fake Eiffel Tower. Most people didn’t care, they didn’t feel any more connection with the other Parises of America than they did Paris, France.
But people did like talking about Paris-related trivia. Specifically trivia about place names. I got into a lot of bar conversations. Like how, as of August 2011 by my research, the most common town name in America is Midway (212 occurrences), followed by Fairview (202). And the longest community name in America with a hyphen (according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names) is Winchester-on-the-Severn, Md.
Also, the longest community name without a hyphen is Mooselookmeguntic, in Maine, which is tied with Kleinfeltersville, Penn. I don’t think I can’t pronounce either of those.
The longest place name in the United States as of press time with 94 characters is University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute on Narragansett Bay Conference and Visitor Center in Rhode Island.
To satisfy my curiosity I telephoned the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute on Narragansett Bay Conference and Visitor Center in Rhode Island—because I wanted to see how the receptionist answered the phone. I got Judith Swift, director of the institute. She said, “Hello?”
Ms. Swift explained that she and her colleagues refer to the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute on Narragansett Bay Conference and Visitor Center in Rhode Island as “The Visitor Center.” She said she didn’t believe anyone at the institute knew about the place’s geographical infamy. “You can bet the next time you call and I answer the phone, you’re going to get a mouthful.”
So I called her back the next morning to see if this was true. A different woman answered the phone; she said, “Hello, this is Laurie.”
You did much of your reporting by handing out surveys. How did you come up with that idea? Did you get most of your insight from the surveys or from conversations? Can we see what the survey looked like?
It was an idea born from a panic attack. Why would these strangers speak to me? Who was I, the weirdo, wandering around begging for information? The day before I left, I was in a CVS stocking up on deodorant when I saw a clipboard. From there I went home, wrote up the questionnaire, ran back to a print shop and had them run off 100 copies. The insights of the story, what there are, came from conversations, but the clipboard got me those conversations.
Did you spend any of your time in Paris, USA working as an ambassador for Paris, France – talking up fresh croissants and natural deodorant?
France didn’t really need my help. Almost everyone I met had only good things to say about the French, France, Paris and so on. People knew their history. They knew France and America have a long relationship. The only person who brought up “freedom fries” was a Kentucky academic at a symposium who told me she figured that most people (by which she meant those who don’t qualify for academic symposiums) had been brainwashed by Rush Limbaugh into declaring war on France. But the “most people” I met were smarter than that.
The most heinous example I’ve found of clichés regarding Americans and French people was a 2002 movie called “Slap Her… She’s French.” The only two things you need to know about the movie are that, one, it’s exactly what you think already, i.e., a film in which stereotypes go bezerk (a clichéd American bimbo teenager’s life is ruined when a clichéd French foreign-exchange student arrives and steals away her boyfriend) and, two, it was never released in America. It was made for foreign audiences. And not even French ones—the joke was on both of us. As far as I can tell from IMDB the movie had foreign money and played in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Spain, Bulgaria and Iceland. But not here. So the freedom-fry and natural-deodorant clichés about American and French people, and each country’s feelings about the other’s clichés, are a source of entertainment for everybody else. But I still think they’re more figment of imagination than reality.
Did Paris, USA make you more or less fond of Paris, France?
More. Almost everyone I met around the States had swell feelings about Paris, France; all of us wanted to hop in a jet. The American inclination for things French is still powerful.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. His series on Paris, USA was published by The Morning News.