Paris, by Renée Bess

Hi, all. Hope this day treats you well.

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Author Renée Bess stopped by to share some thoughts about Paris with us, in the wake of the horrific events of last week, which we are all still trying to wrap our brains around even as we continue to grieve and wonder what this world has come to. Many of us are still reeling from other losses, and I hope that we can find some solace, support, and comfort from our communities.

Renée has traveled quite a bit, and has a particular love for Paris, as she expresses here. Let’s join her for a bit.

By Renée Bess

When you study French, France, particularly Paris, becomes a state of mind. If your mother has majored in French and a few years later teaches you little phrases when you’re too young to read your English language Little Golden Storybooks, Paris becomes a place that silently owns space in your head. If that same mother gives you the gift of foreign travel with all of its wonders, Paris becomes embedded forever in your mind.

Le Sacre Coeur
Le Sacre Coeur

The city is always there, even if you don’t think about it consciously every day. Each morning you don’t routinely hear the muffled clatter of small café tables and chairs being set up for the day. You don’t relive habitually the sweet surprise you feel upon passing a narrow street that rises to meet a hill and ends with the magic vista of the Sacré Coeur Cathedral. Although you try repeatedly to find a local bakery that sells genuine Parisian croissants, you cross off your latest futile attempt and know you’ll await your next visit to Paris when the simplest of hotel breakfasts will include that heavenly taste. Surely there will be a next visit to Paris. There always has been a next visit. Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 7.52.31 PM

By the time I graduated from Temple University, I’d visited Paris with family or friends four or five times. I was a Spanish language and literature major, but it was Paris and not Spain that called me. The language, the food, le jazz hot, the blue and white boxes of Gitane cigarettes, the new wave film directors with their fascinating movies all spoke to me. Some will read this and accuse me of being bourgeois and not genuinely black. I’ll own that I’m bourgeois, but I hasten to assure anyone who would challenge my authenticity that I am genuinely black. Nothing affirms one’s ethnicity and nationality like foreign travel.
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Paris, like London, was a place where I experienced my blackness differently than I’d experienced it in the United States. Parisians didn’t pay me any particular attention. The city that never claimed to be a melting pot greeted me with an absence of negative, frightened, or suspicious attitudes, especially when I tried to use my high school and university French.

Certainly, Parisians identified my nationality via my accent, clothes, and maybe the way I walked. I believed my walk changed when I was in Paris. My pace was more assured. I planted my footsteps firmly on the sidewalk, not tentatively in an effort to be less visible. Parisians showed me no hostility, veiled or open. They knew I was different, but they seemed to appreciate my difference, not revile it. At once I understood why Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin were able to live and revel in their creativity in France. Paris and Parisians gave them breathing space. They were able “to be.”

So, what will happen now? The fruit of extremism has been harvested in the Paris that was used to absorbing so many differences. Far-right politicians are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of regional victories during the approaching elections. As I write my thoughts, they are prepping their “told-you-so” flyers. Fear is not pretty. It breeds racism and xenophobia. How will the ordinary Parisian storekeeper react when the next darker skinned shopper enters his/her shop? How warmly will hoteliers welcome darker hued guests from Middle East nations? How safe will families feel when they return to their favorite restaurants?

What and whom will I find when I return to Paris? Surely there will be a next visit, because the city still calls me. It always will.
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Renée Bess is a Philadelphia bred former high school teacher, who has been writing fiction, in one form or another, for many years. Her novels are available through Regal Crest and include The Rules and Leave of Absence. Her short stores have been published in the “Labyrinth Newspaper”, Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology, and Ma-Ka Diasporic Juks: Contemporary Writings by Queers of African Descent. She is thrilled to have had the opportunity to publish her novels. Renée is dedicated to the act of writing about African-American lesbians.

Twitter (@reneebess1)
List of her books at Regal Crest

Interested in more Renée? She recently participated in an Ylva Publishing panel discussion about women of color in lesfic. Here’s the link.

Thanks, Renée, for your thoughts and words. May we all find comfort in the communities we build and maintain.

Happy Friday, all.



  1. Thanks, Renee, for these observations and reflections on Paris. I have only been there twice and I, too, feel the city call to me. I never had thought to go there, but was invited by friends to join them about ten years ago. I fell in love and dream of being back there. Thanks, again!


  2. This was beautifully written, Renee, and brings back many memories (oh la la, les Gitanes!) A long time ago, I spent my junior year in Provence, France, and traveled many times to Paris. I was awestruck to place my feet on the same cobblestones where Napoleon and Josephine once walked. Its history, its beauty, and so many other things combine to make Paris a magical city. But you captured it best when you described the “breathing space” that draws artists of all stripes to Paris. It is exactly that, a place where you have room “to be.”

    My heart is breaking over these tragedies, and I fear for the welfare of innocents in the aftermath. But I have hope. As fiercely as the French fought for liberte, egalite and fraternite, I believe they will not bow to this assault, and not let these events change them. With the eyes of the world watching, I am hopeful our politicians will learn something as well.

    P.S. When I asked, back then, how the French could identify Americans so readily, even when they hadn’t said a word, a majority of Parisians pointed to their faces and said “les dents.” We Americans have good teeth!


  3. Elegantly said, Renee. I have never been to Paris, yet comprehend the state of mind you describe so well. A French grand-mere, French literature, make the country, especially Paris, feel like a homeland to me. I cannot imagine what our French and Belgian friends must feel right now, though probably it’s akin to what a New York City friend expressed the other day. She wasn’t giving terrorists an inch. NYC is hers, not theirs. Paris, it seems, is yours.


    • Thanks for responding to my blog, Lee. I don’t know if I can claim Paris as mine, but I do know it is a state of mind as much as it is anything else. I hope to be able to return.


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