Meeting the Neighbors

How can you ignore history when you’re living down the street from it? My husband and I were walking down Rue de Varenne, where we’re living for another few days, and noticed a marker.

It commemorated Edith Wharton, who, as it turned out, used to live down the street. Edith Wharton! We only missed her by a few blocks and 77 years. I tried to imagine her coming and going on the narrow sidewalks, then bent over her desk writing masterpieces. I was betting she had the exact same kind of ancient casement windows we do, with beaucoup de charme and zero d’insulation.


We kept going several blocks to the museums at Hotel des Invalides. There, you can see Napoleon’s tomb — so lavish that half the tourists in Paris seemed to be posing for selfies in front of it. Selfies aside, it’s odd to see such reverent treatment of a guy whose name mostly makes the rest of the world think of Trafalgar, Waterloo, and short guys with big ideas.

But then — as has already been noted more than once — the French are diffferent from you and me. We skipped the selfies and moved on.


The adjacent museum about World Wars I and II was subtly overwhelming. My husband and I walked through the exhibits of uniforms and weapons, maps and photos and videos.

Here, we had personal ties. My grandfather, a midwestern farmboy, fought in the first World War. Both our fathers were in Europe in World War II.

Blinded for a month by poison gas, my grandfather came back a harsher, angrier man, my grandmother had always said. He was never the same. Both our fathers –well, who really knew about men of that generation? They rarely talked about the war when we were growing up. Now, at 97, my father-in-law speaks of it often. But he has almost no one left to remember it with.

These were American war stories, though. Going through a European museum about those same wars, you quickly realize how different the perspectives were when warfare rages on your own continent and blood stains your own dirt — when you aren’t protected by a broad ocean.

During the first world war, France suffered more than 1.3 million dead. This number was larger than for any other country, except Russia, with its far bigger population. Then, Hitler came to power and began threatening aggression less than two decades later. No wonder France was so ill-prepared for another war.

How does France explain World War I? World War II? That’s what we’re trying to understand coming here. How different are their stories and histories from our own?

Traveling, I think my husband and I try to be less American and rooted in our own pasts and biases. We try to be more open to others’ perspectives. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes, I never feel more American than when I’m out of the country. Maybe you only think you can take off your own skin.

“Look at this!” my husband hissed from a nearby exhibit. “Look at this!”

He pointed excitedly to a description, translated into English, about the Nazis’ occupation of much of France. Up to that point, the English translations had been well-done and smooth. Here, command of the other language faltered.

“It’s like they forgot how to translate,” he said. “Like it was too upsetting for them to continue.”

Here it is:




We talk about it later, sitting in the museum cafe and drinking coffee. How honest are our own museums? What do they say about slavery, the genocide of the American Indians, the War in Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq? What glaring omissions do foreign visitors find in our historic sites?

That night, we ate at a nearby rstaurant, A La Petite Chaise, which claims to date back to 1680, making it the oldest in the city. Musset, Georges Sand, and Chateaubriand all dined here, according to the back of the menu. Even Colette was once there, admitted to a rowdy writing group of men who published the satirical magazine “Le Crapouillot.”

Colette, it was emphasized, was admitted to the group only in her capacity as a writer –and not as a woman. After missing her at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, how nice to find her nearby in whatever capacity she had to assume.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)


7 comments… add one
  • It’s amazing how big Napoleon’s tomb is – compensation? That whole place was odd I thought. I hope you can get to Normandy – that is something to see. What is fascinating to me is the different perceptions there are about things we perceive as facts which differs by nationality. A friend was India was visiting and he knew about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson but didn’t know some of the dirty facts (slaves, etc.). Turns out the same is true about Gandhi – we revere him but our friend had a very different opinion. I also feel very American when I travel abroad. It is impossible to shake, but I think that spending time in other countries helps us get to know other people, but also to see ourselves more clearly.

  • Barbara Fox Link

    Always interested in Americans traveling in France. I think that, if we, as Americans, can be open to different cultures we will learn much more and appreciate our differences, whether good or bad. We have traveled to France on 7 different trips and enjoyed each one. And on those trips, only ran in to one irate shop owner. My husband had touched a hat and was immediately scolded by an angry madame. Other than that one incident, our travels went well. We traveled the back roads and never stayed in an American-like hotel. B & Bs were our favorite because we could talk to the owners and consequently learned many things we might not have. We tried to blend in, but they could pick us out every time. Still, many good times…

  • bonehead Link

    Nice article and taking another viewpoint on history is an excellent activity for travelers! Two books, if you haven’t already heard of them, “History Lessons” how textbooks from around the world portray U.S. History and “History Making” how American history has changed in the telling over the last 200 years.

  • Chris Link

    I am definitely enjoying these posts from Paris and hope there are more, though I am aware you are not staying there indefinitely. But, until then, I am looking forward to a few more.

  • I, too, am enjoying your Parisian posts. Napoleon, well, yes. He’s big in France. I have never been to the war museum, so I will look forward to exploring it the next time I’m in Paris, where I lived for 25 years. I agree that it is hard to fathom how the French felt when their own country was invaded. They surrendered mighty fast in World War II, but brave Frenchmen and women started the Resistance. I’m researching it now for a short story I intend to write. It makes you wonder if you would have had the courage, had you been in their shoes, or, in this case, chaussures.

  • It’s amazing that with all my round the world travels, I’ve never really visited Paris, except to get stuck in their Metro one very late night before hitting the airport. That’ll change in June when I’ll finally be in Paris for a few days before heading to Brittany. I love your posts on your travels in Paris. It’s always fascinating to see how citizens of other countries view Americans and American history.

  • Fascinating to think about the historical things in museums around the globe. It’s like no one really tells the truth about anything. It’s all one big, glossed-over reality TV show.

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