Brooklyn Born, French at Heart

Remember the day you opened your frayed and dusty history textbook, which rarely contained information that you cared to read, and discovered a stunning picture of Josephine Baker? And then, you fell in love with her unique and unbeatable ‘rags to riches’ story that carried you all the way to her happy ending in France.

So began the first day of my journey to loving everything French. I wanted to be Josephine Baker, or one of her backup dancers. Didn’t they have those back then? I wanted to read everything about her beloved France. The more I read of African-American artists traveling to France in the 1920s and 30s to gain notoriety and critical acclaim—that they would never get from their own country at the time, purely because of their race—the more I developed a curiosity for French culture.

I’ve learned that it celebrates other cultures by fusing their traditions or practices with its own. Perhaps a sneaky but pleasant way to achieve world domination? Of course with my first taste of decadent but easy-to-eat and nothing-like-it-in-the-universe creme brûlée, French cuisine won my heart.

By the way, I’m sure that initially happened when my mother took then fifteen-year-old me for one glorious week’s vacation in Montreal. The diverse French-Canadian big city fed us non-French speaking Americans really great food. It didn’t matter where we went—or didn’t go as mom is an expert at ordering room service—amazing French bakeries, chocolate, rich and buttery sauces over perfectly cooked salmon were everywhere, and so was extreme kindness.

For instance, we didn’t get kicked out of a wedding that we inadvertently crashed while touring a beautiful, old church. Instead, we were able to congratulate the bride and groom briefly. Sure that the food would be amazing, we were tempted to find the reception, but chose to avoid getting arrested and continued our tour.

I am proud to be a self-proclaimed Francophile, not just because of France’s exquisite and sometimes adorably funky food, culture, and happily multi-culti people, but also because of the current politics of the day in France, the side that long ago came to and still proudly adopts many ethnicities, religions and cultural influences.

But I am aware of the indirect reason that I have easy access to my absolute favorite French guilty pleasure (at the moment) foie gras confit from Bedford Stuyvesant’s L’Antagoniste, is due to France’s colonization of Algeria, eight West African nations, Haiti, and Vietnam, among other former French colonies. The direct reason that you can catch me at the Senegalese cafe around the corner, eating my picture-perfect Nutella crepe garnished with strawberries, and thankfully decorated with more Nutella, is that once-disenfranchised French-speaking people turned entrepreneurs have come and are still coming to live in New York City, in order to take advantage of the many opportunities for success, while sharing their native cuisine.

Eight years ago, when I finally found myself in Paris, it was surprising to see for myself the amount of culture and cultural love represented in the City of Light. So many beautiful and big, in-yo-face curly manes. So much love for Africa, for Asia, for Europe and for America. The rude Parisian stereotype? Nil. The food? The smell of fresh authentic croissants is forever etched in my mind. The metro? Fantastically on time to the minute. How’d they do that?!

That was the only way that Paris didn’t reminded me of New York. I know that they’re called sister cities but witnessing the harmonious way that cultures live intertwined in Paris, not just side by side in a modern-day version of segregation, was like a dream. I, a black girl from Brooklyn, NY, was flattered to be mistaken for a Parisian. I was hit on by businessmen and messengers and asked for directions multiple times, probably because I was good at pretending to know where on earth I was going—a native New Yorker trait. It didn’t occur to me until half way into my week in Paris, that my ethnicity was not the remotest clue of my nationality. How different an existence it is to not feel judged automatically by my race.

My secret, though, was no longer a secret the second that I opened my mouth and attempted to speak French. Then it was certain, to everyone else, that I was an American tourist and that I should never attempt to say Bonjour again. But when I got lost and couldn’t communicate a lick in French, I felt at home at the top of Sacré Coeur. I felt like Paris could be my hometown when meeting a friend of a friend for dinner in the Bastille neighborhood and at an almost dive bar of starving artists just before that dinner, where they played live piano while insisting on speaking English with me. I felt a feeling of belonging that I miss while traveling in certain areas of Brooklyn.

Having been to Paris once more since then, I realize how much “The City of Light” has in common with my hometown. The quiet, multicultural family-friendly neighborhoods (and the opposite, hipster-loved ones), the loving acceptance of many forms of art and the unusually amazing artists who create them, the sense of a real community and all the power and love that comes with knowing, respecting and sharing with your neighbors.

So I understand and am thankful for the recent influx of French and French-speaking immigrants and tourists into Brooklyn. Because of it, I can and will continue to explore contemporary French culture, to learn the language, to make French friends, to savor reading articles about France’s progressive laws and politics, and most of all, to indulge in over-the-top delicious French cuisine, here in Brooklyn.

Michelle Wright