In 1930, Josephine Baker, one of my heroes, stepped onstage and sang, “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.” (“I have two loves: my country and Paris.”) Parisians knew American and resident performer Baker exclusively for her exotic looks and frenetic dancing, but the song soon became one of her other signatures.
A few years ago, signs started popping up around Paris. Written, not in the Art Deco lettering of Josephine’s heyday, but a currently stylish electronica-type font, they read, simply: J’ai deux amours. Around the same time, a poster for an exhibit called “Paris en Chansons” (Paris in Song), tracing the history of songs about the city, features a photo of Josephine holding a microphone and smiling, perhaps singing her famous tune.
I walked home through the heart of the city, taking in its sights and sounds, and thinking, too, of the trip I was going to take in a few days — a visit back to my first home, America.
Spring had come to Paris. The streets were more crowded. Every type of Parisian could be seen on the sidewalks, seeming to linger in in this new, gentle warmth: perfectly-coiffed bourgeois women, smelly bums, cane-bearing seniors hobbling slowly but happily along, kids just out of school, people-watchers sitting smoking at café terraces, grinning dogs, city workers trailing their green plastic street-sweeping brooms as they take in the view. Buds were blooming on the trees, and in the hours before dawn you could hear sparrows’ sweet twitters in the midst of pigeons’ throaty coos. There was a new, fresh smell in the air, and monuments and Haussmannian buildings shone soft gold in the slightly stronger sunlight.
It’s hard to leave when the city is like this. It’s always hard to leave Paris, in fact. But as I prepared for that two and a half week trip to the States, I found those posters strangely fitting. They reminded me that I also have two beloved places in my life. America is where my family and childhood friends are. It’s where I can eat some of my favorite foods, connect to my history, catch up with loved ones. It’s a place where I can walk down the breezy streets of New York again and feel that incredible energy mixed with nostalgia for my college days, when friends were like family. It’s a place of easy comforts, air conditioning everywhere, cheap mani-pedi’s, and free bathrooms in just about any big store.
I don’t love America the way I love Paris. I love America for who and what is there, but I love Paris in its entirety. Josephine Baker had her ties to her home country, as well, but she loved France with a fierceness I can understand. During the Second World War, Baker slightly changed the lyrics to her famous song. Now, it became “J’ai deux amours, mon pays c’est Paris.” (“I have two loves, my country, it’s Paris”).
Paris is my beloved place and my country. I’m happier here than anywhere else in the world. But those posters’ bold colors stood out in the pastel air of early springtime, drawing my eye. J’ai deux amours.
This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on my Open Salon (RIP) blog in March, 2012.