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.”) Until then, 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.
Here in 2012, signs have started popping up around the city. 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. Additionally, 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.
Spring has come to Paris. The streets are more crowded. Every type of Parisian can 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 are blooming on the trees, and in the hours before dawn you can hear sparrows’ sweet twitters in the midst of pigeons’ throaty coos. There’s a new, fresh smell in the air, and monuments and Haussmannian buildings shine 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 prepare for a two and a half week trip to the States, those posters are strangely fitting. They remind 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, 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 stand out in the pastel air of early springtime, drawing my eye. J’ai deux amours.