American cities have never interested me much. Though I was born in Chicago, have spent most of my adulthood in Seattle, and have visited most major U.S. cities, I’ve been less taken with American places than European ones. There’s nothing really wrong with American cities, Americans are friendly, hopeful people. They’re resourceful, they’re scrappy, they believe their lives will get better and better. But they’re not mysterious. History doesn’t matter as much as the future does. Just because you were born into a certain kind of family with a certain level of wealth or lack thereof doesn’t mean you can’t be someone different or richer later in life. Whether that’s true is debatable but Americans believe that. It’s ingrained in our spirit.
In Europe, the past matters. It’s not everything, but it means more to people than it does here. More of the architecture is ancient. Tradition is important. Because of the tiered school system, fewer people believe they can grow up to be whoever they want to be. But with this way of life comes reassurance. Comes less pressure. Of course, Europeans are also forward-thinking. Many people create new ideas, new art, new science every day. The culture changes with the times. Immigrants are drawn to it. And some cities are very modern, but most, simply because Europe is the birth of some ancient civilizations, have an old look and feel America can’t match. And because America was founded by intellectuals with a vision for a new kind of culture, a democracy free of royalty, its nature has always been to jettison the past in the name of what might lie ahead.
When I wrote my first novel, several years ago, I set it in Paris. I thought, “Well, I’m going to satisfy myself. I’m going to immerse myself in a story in a place that I want to dream constantly about. A place I always want to be.” I wrote that book, then rewrote it from scratch in graduate school, and then revised it a hundred times. The constant in all of it was Paris. I never got rid of that setting. I couldn’t. I love that city too much.
My current novel is set there as well. When I started this book, I asked myself some tough questions about why I was setting a book about horticulture there instead of in Seattle where the surrounding area is full of incredible, natural beauty. The answer was because the city of Seattle didn’t interest me. If there’s a city without a soul, it’s Seattle. And Seattle is changing so fast with so many people moving here, I barely know what Seattle people are like anymore. They’re not the granola, earthy types I knew in the early 1990s when I moved here. Things are corporate, people are educated, buildings (more and more being built every day), are aesthetically boring.
But I felt I knew the people of Paris. Not everyone of course. But I felt I could put my finger on the soul of Paris more than any other city. I’ve visited there several times. I worked in a French office. I commuted to work, schlepping every morning on the train, like everyone else. I mixed with residents of all ages. I lost the romantic vision I (as well as many Americans) had of it and learned firsthand the mundane side. Worked with French people in a suburban office. Lived in a tiny apartment. Spoke the language a bit.
It was an experience that never left me. The way I see Paris isn’t the way most people see it. The sheen has worn down. And of course, with its problems and complexity, that’s what Paris is. A large, multicultural city with great wealth and chronic poverty and unique traditions. It has a contradictory nature in some ways. But it’s not like in the movies. It’s just a city — but as far as cities go, it’s the most fascinating and beautiful one I know.