- We'll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France Since 1930
Republican lawmakers recently rebuked France for refusing to endorse America's planned military adventure in Iraq by ordering congressional cafeterias to rename French fries as 'freedom' fries. Ditto French toast. That Russia and Germany also did not support the United States didn't dampen the gung-ho lambasting of the French. Absurd? Yes. Nonetheless, the visceral sentiment it revealed has a long and discernible history. To pay attention to that background is to discover, among other things, that the congressmen, even in their would-be rebuff of the French, paid a backhanded compliment by deeming France so relevant a target. These stuntsmen are only the latest Americans to acknowledge France's importance by simultaneously admiring and reviling all things French.
In America's twentieth-century popular imagination, France manifests chiefly in rather cartoonish form as a snooty place of exquisite rudeness, magnificent beauty and refinement, avant-garde art, intimidating cuisine, mystifying plumbing, smelly locals, and ribald moral laxity. Moreover, while that caricature may have changed in certain aspects over the course of the last century, its resilience and complex texture are discernible in the reports of and by American tourists in France. Or, perhaps it's necessary to describe their rendezvous as with 'France,' for the country, culture, and people that Americans met in Europe were an emulation of America's own predispositions and insecurities at least as much as they were a reality in their own right. The best tour guide to the topic, Harvey Levenstein, assorts and digests an astonishing range of tourists' personal letters home, shipping line promotional campaigns, government directives, popular press accounts, airline memoranda, and more in this second volume, picking up where Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age (University of Chicago Press 1998) left off. France and its glittering capital come into focus here as the multifaceted fantasy projection of America's self-regard, as the target of America's anxieties, and as an imperfectly understood host, long-suffering, often unsmilingly ambivalent towards its guests, and perennially conniving to wring American visitors of their last franc.
Levenstein's chronological account limns the vibrancy of American cultural and sex-adventure tourism in the 1910s and 1920s before charting the downs and ups of the Depression-struck travel market, noting well the ways in which financial pressures threw the differences among elite and middle-brow tourists and their expectations into stark relief. Efforts, some vigorous, some inadvertently funny, some half-hearted, and many doomed from the start, by French officialdom to discourage gouging and other mistreatment of visitors run counterpoint to every spasm in the tourist trade. [End Page 420] Even if the country's hospitality workers occasionally found it agony to smile at them, France's economy depended upon welcoming American tourists. France's vexed bonhomie was tested in the wake of Paris's liberation by the hordes of drunken gis who stuck around, molesting the city they saw as a de facto bordello. Levenstein's accounts of the often violent cross-cultural souring during the postwar period will be an eye-opener for readers reared on legends of purely delighted French, embracing their wholesome liberators. The Cold War period aligned the gradual end of stately ocean crossings by ship, the rise of air travel, and the burgeoning of a crasser, shallower form of package tourism powered by American prosperity with French misgivings about 'Coca-Colonization' and American leeriness about de Gaulle. Levenstein brings us to the end of the century via his richly suggestive anecdotal approach - usually more impressive for its controlled presentation of a bewildering array of facts and stories than for a satisfying assessment of their meanings or reliability - collating the recent fates of French cuisine and fad diets, high-cultural museums and back-road trekking, haute couture and tourist drag, the shifting of French remoteness from American-style racism, and the destinies of French sexiness in the American cinematic imagination. And that's just a soupçon of...