It would be hard for an American today to imagine what it was like to grow up in Germany after the war. Life was dominated by silence and lies about the past, the Holocaust, the fascist leanings of basically the whole generation before us. Plenty of Nazi criminals were still hidden and flourishing in the new, “clean” Germany. (Read John Le Carré’s new memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: what he noticed as a spy in Germany during the time of my youth is still shocking to me today.) Escaping from that white-washed, puritanical “fatherland” and leaving my oppressive family behind was essential for my survival as a would-be writer, for my longing for freedom and self-expression as a person, a woman.
I can only hope that the new fascist leanings of Trump-Republicans won’t come to remind me (and everyone) of that monstrous Germany of the war and post-War: women once again seen as “handmaids” and breeding machines, back to Kinder, Küche, Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church), queer people getting disappeared from view, silenced, and worse. Can you imagine?
Paris was a radically different culture. The shame over the Nazi occupation and collaboration was still festering in the background, but did not eclipse this deep-rooted culture of extroverted brilliance and liberalism. Women in post-war France were encouraged to be both intellectual and sexual, an attitude that has prevailed throughout the centuries—from the women-guided Troubadours to the cultural Salon tradition and the power of highly educated courtesans. Paris was everything I needed to grow into my own mind and body. Paris was my chosen exile, an ideal exile—as the American language pioneer Gertrude Stein found out early on, when she established herself in Paris, at the turn of the 20th century: “After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.” (Paris France)
Stein, who was my earliest muse, was right. I found out that strangers in Paris were generally ignored and left to themselves, which was a considerable form of freedom. After my strict education and the tight German morality control, I relished being on my own and pursuing my passion for Paris and women without any supervision and critical interference. I had left Germany at age twenty-three, with nothing but two metal suitcases, one with clothes, the other with books and diaries. As I remember in my memoir:
Did it matter that I didn’t have a penny? I paid for my classes with jobs paid under the table. My attic rooms in different quartiers looked out over the city, up six or seven floors on narrow back stairs with automatic lights that clicked off between floors, so you had to grope along grimy walls for the next switch. There was a primitive WC at the end of a hallway, but I always had a friend or lover with a big tub in a white-tiled bathroom. A lover to squeeze through the Metro stile together on a single ticket. The vendors at my neighborhood street market let me negotiate for parched greens and bruised fruit. Making do without meat didn’t matter as long as I could hang out in cafés and write about my love affairs. I was proud of my freedom, proud even of my deprivation. Every now and then I had a feast: fatty, over-sugared sweets I loved to pine for in the window displays of mid-Eastern bakeries—thick, roasted almonds in beds of golden-green jelly squares.
Wasn’t this the life everyone wanted? The bohemian romance of unheated garrets, beautiful women, and broken hearts that turns artists into Artists?
For a Good Girl from Germany, taking up a bohemian life and breaking rules was an essential part of liberation. I had dropped out of literary studies in Hamburg and taken up ballet in Paris, gone on to underground theater, and then switched sides to write about ballet and theater as a freelance cultural correspondent for German media. I set my memoir about ten years later, when I had honed my bohemian skills and felt I had come of age, intellectually and also sexually. The book starts with my sneaking into the Paris Opera without a ticket, and being “rewarded” for this act of disobedience with sexy adventures during Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, falling in love with a mysterious stranger dressed in red, and flirting outrageously with an usherette, an ouvreuse.
Sexual freedom and adventure have always been in the air in Paris. France had its permissive sexual culture to begin with, but the rebellion of the women’s movement in the early seventies threw over anything and everything that was still left to corset women and sexually hold them back. From the start, lesbian and bi-sexual writers, artists, and intellectuals were at the forefront of this gigantic wave. Many of them, like Monique Wittig or Hélène Cixous (and Simone de Beauvoir before them) were attractive, beautiful women, neither butch nor femme (or equally both), setting the tone and style of the movement in a romantic, erotic androgyny that was seductive and irresistible. It was irresistible how Parisian women challenged the famous “male gaze” by turning their desiring gaze on women. This was a whole new education for me in terms of becoming the subject, instead of the object, of desire. It was a time when I took up walking Paris by night dressed as a boy.
If my mother could see me now, I used to think. It was as if the city took me in and peeled my old skins away. Still, there was always another remnant of the Good Girl to be shed—an obliging smile, a readiness to turn my eyes away. Don’t look! The classical motto of so-called innocence as soon as there is anything interesting to see. Anything sexual, louche, forbidden. How is a girl supposed to take her place in the world if she isn’t allowed to see the world? I found out soon enough that a woman who can’t look also can’t desire. She can only entice in order to be desired. Women’s eyes are passive eyes; they wait for something to enter them and blow their minds.
By the end of the seventies, the time of my memoir, women were in fashion: every Parisian woman, gay or straight, fell in love with women as if it were the most natural thing in the world. This collective erotic “folie” felt like a revolution that would change the world forever. (The French word folie is a perfect term for it, meaning folly, caprice, inspiration, madness.) Recalling this inspired moment in time, when every empowerment for women seemed in reach, brought back the dream that we will turn the clock against today’s backlash; that women will go free and be in fashion, again.
Renate Stendhal is the award-winning author of the photo biography Gertrude Stein: In Word and Pictures. After growing up in Berlin and Hamburg, she lived in Paris for almost two decades, pursuing ballet and underground theater, translating American women authors and writing cultural reviews for the German radio and press. Stendhal has published several books in Germany and in the United States, three of them co-authored with her life companion Kim Chernin. Her articles and essays have appeared internationally. She has a passion for country living with Kim, two dogs, and a small orchard, and she still loves to opine about opera and ballet, reviewing culture for diverse magazines. Visit her website at http://www.renatestendhal.com.