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.