Thursday, April 15, 2010

Just Another Parisienne in America

When you travel, you notice the stuff that's different from home and you spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand the routines and rituals of new places. Do I order first and then pay? Do I get my food at the counter or do they bring it to me? Do I need to leave a tip? How much is the right amount? You know what I mean.

From time to time, I've scanned travel guides for French visitors to the U.S., and I've even spent some time lurking in a few on-line travel forums where the French pose their pressing questions about U.S. travel. I thought there might be a post in it but, since most of the questions appear to be about how best to structure a three week RV vacation in the great American West, something I've never done or even contemplated, I pretty much dropped the idea. I mean, I'd like to see the Grand Canyon sometime (although preferably not from the window of a Winnebago) but I'll leave that to another time and place.

Enter the request from the University of Illinois Press to review their latest, a new translation by Vanderbilt professor Mary Beth Raycraft of a turn of the century Parisienne's travelogue about her visit to the U.S. A Parisienne in Chicago: Impressions of the World's Columbian Exposition is not going to make any best seller lists or get picked up by Oprah for her book club, but it is a pleasant dip into cross cultural exploration. Madame Leon Grandin spent about a year in the U.S., most of it in Chicago, where her sculptor husband had work for the great universal exposition in 1892 that marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage. During her stay, she visited the fair multiple times but she also made her way into schools and factories, museums and the Chicago stockyards, and even took a train trip to witness a great fire underway in Milwaukee.

Much of what she saw delighted her: the manners of school children and their love of learning, the independence of American women and the loyalty and support they enjoyed from their husbands, and the can-do spirit that we still today think of as particularly American. And then there were the things that saddened her (treatment of Native Americans), frustrated her (no wine with dinner!), and yes, even grossed her out (public spitting and nose picking, which she mentions more than once). At the end of her journey, she is looking forward to returning home to France but full of regret at leaving a place she has learned to love.

Recommended for: those interested in social history, Chicago natives, anyone obsessed with the differences between French and American societies. It's available for purchase at Amazon and perhaps by special order from your favorite independent bookseller.

7 comments:

debbie in toronto said...

it would be interesting to read a French perspective on North America from current times as well....

Corine said...

I agree with Debbie....it would be interesting to read what a French persons challenges with America is. As an American its challenging just moving within the States.....

jonnifer said...

There are so many expat-in-France books, it would be surprising if the same wasn't true for French people living in the US. And if there aren't as many, why not?

Starman said...

Most of the things I've read by French visitors to the US tend to be in two parts: surprised and delighted at first, then unhappiness at the huge cultural differences.

MJ said...

This reminds me of my husband's trainer here in Paris who is planning a trip to the U.S. this summer. (His first trip to the U.S. ever)

He's going to visit New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and San Francisco. When we said, "Wow, big trip -- are you going to rent a car or fly?" He got really excited and said, "No, no, no -- there's this other thing they have and it's really cheap. We're going to use this thing called GREYHOUND."

My husband and I then spent much time saying, "Oh no, no, no, no you can't do that, no no no." I betcha he'll be able to write a book when he gets back -- and he's going to see a side of America not many tourists see. Good luck, trainer man.

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

What an interesting book! Thanks for writing about it.

I'm dying at MJs comment, hahaha! Ohhh, poor trainer man. I'd love to hear his stories when he gets back!

Anne said...

MJ: That's a hoot.

Those of you who can read French reasonably well may enjoy a series that ran in Le Figaro last summer: Voyages dans l'Amerique d'Obama. They sent a reporter around the country to write a series of pieces about the U.S. I read most of them: some are well done, some made me insane (especially the one about American women). See for yourself:

http://www.lefigaro.fr/voyages/2009/07/21/03007-20090721DIMWWW00375-voyage-dans-l-amerique-d-obama.php

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