Patricia Laplante-Collins: The Furthermuckin Expat Q

Back in the early 00s days of Savoy magazine, I copped an issue featuring “Paris Noir: A Former Expatriate’s Guide,” an article on where to go to unearth black Paris. The opening ’graphs described Studio des Islettes, a jazz music workshop with a secret password requirement, cheap red wine, and a speakeasy vibe. When I later heard of the more well-known Paris Soirées of Atlanta-born hostess Patricia Laplante-Collins, I initially took one for the other.

After five years here, I finally stopped in on a summertime Soirée in 2009 with Moms in town; writer Janet Hustrand lectured about champagne. Moms loved the atmosphere: the free wine, free food (free après the 20€ cover charge), and a blessedly English-speaking crowd after struggling with her French for weeks. I was a featured guest in April myself, reading from French Like Me, selling copies of Scars…

Patricia Laplante-Collins holds her Paris Soirées every Sunday these days, equal parts meet-and-greet and happy hour, with writers, filmmakers, painters, photographers and the like as featured speakers midway through. Known as Paris Connections till 1999 (and the African-American Literary Soirée before that), Paris Soirées is at least 11 years old in its current form. Each weekend, the Sarah Lawrence grad (by way of Spelman College) brings together a multicultural, international group of locals and tourists soaking in a night reminiscent of the famous Paris salons of the 17th century.

With Eve (her trusty black Labrador) attacking fleas underfoot, Patricia and I spoke for a while last Friday at her local fifth arrondissement’s Café du Métro.

How long have you lived in Paris?

Appearances to the contrary—because I look like a young girl [laughter]—I’ve been here for 27 years: August 1, 1983. That’s hard to say, because you always want to give the impression that you’re a young girl, but I’m not.

What made you choose Paris?

Well, I always liked Paris. I had a fascination with it because my Atlanta friend’s older sister went through an exchange program in Paris. She talked about the cafés and the Latin Quarter, and it fascinated me. I said, “Well, one day I’m gonna do that.” I did many other things. I knew it would come, but I didn’t know when. I didn’t think I would stay here forever, I didn’t think I would settle here. I thought I would just pass through.

The first place I ever visited was in Italy, and I liked Italians. They reminded me of African-Americans. I had worked at an advertising agency, and I got fired from my first job. It was so overwhelming—there was something I didn’t succeed at—that I decided I should go out and see the world and try to recover from this, figure out what to do. And it wasn’t easy, because it’s much easier for a man to go out in the world than a woman. So I had a lot of boyfriends, fiancés and all this stuff.

I spent a great amount of time in Italy, between Florence and Rome. I lived in Stockholm, I lived in Rome for a year. I lived a little bit in Berlin, but not much. You can’t keep floating around. I was gonna go to graduate school, and you have to be able to read in French or German—I was gonna do art history. German turned me off so I said, “It has to be French.” And when I took my first French course, it really turned me on. I mean, I memorized all the words right away. I was an A student in French; it inspired me.

So I already had the equivalent of French 1 and 2 under my belt when I got here. The only contact I had was a French guy that I had known for a long time who lived in America, who was moving back to France. And I could already speak French, so that helped a lot. I came and he helped me get all these working papers. I had a student visa, because I was enrolled with the University of Paris as a graduate student. You have the right to have part-time work, and he helped me transform these papers into a green card, full-time papers.

Can you draw the through line from the famous Paris salons of American writer Gertrude Stein to your own Paris Soirées?

Paris was a lot different before the Internet. It was much more simple-life. There weren’t places to go to meet people, and you were stuck with French people all the time. [laughter] It was hard to make friends. Now it’s easy, ’cause there’s and all these kinds of things. These days, everybody wants to meet people, so it’s got a different angle.

In Gertrude Stein’s day it was about just the material; learning about art, for example. And meeting the other expatriates, which is a very limited community. Back then, you came over by boat, and you stayed for a long time. Now, it’s people coming and going constantly. You kinda wanna get some sense of community. And there’s all kinds of people from all origins: from Spain, from South America, from Africa, from Belgium. Everywhere. So it’s a bit different.

I communicate information about culture. People want to meet each other and have a feeling of community, that’s really important. The link is, probably, she was very impassioned about the art of her era. Me, it’s just having this community, this expat community. But expats are different now.

We’re from different generations—

Unfortunately. [laughter]

It seems like there’s a wave of expats here from your generation. Were you ever all close-knit?

I would say about the early 90s, there was a kind of flow or control over it, before all of this coming and going for two or three months and everything started. Like, I’m not into AARO [Association of American Residents Overseas], ’cause I have a French passport and I don’t need them. But the other people were into AARO and Democrats Abroad and things like that. And we all interacted through those organizations. But now it’s much bigger than that, and actually, I never go to these American organizations anymore. Because all of the interesting people are outside of them. Like you. [laughter] You don’t belong to any of them. There’s no reason to go over there.

You had to belong to the American organizations because that’s how you could find Americans. They had the FUSAC [France USA Contacts magazine]; they didn’t have any Meetup or Internet or anything. So the only way you could find the people was at the organizations meeting. Now it’s all over the place with the Internet, you don’t really need these organizations. They have happy hour over here, and “buy your drink” over there, and different stuff all over the place. And actually, it’s better, because you meet such interesting people.

What I notice about the new expatriate is that many of them are not your traditional idea of people who went to Morehouse or to Spelman. They have another, “I’m from Los Angeles, blah blah, and I’d like to stay in Paris three months of the year.” And it’s just different.

I saw Paris Blues at the Forum des Images last week. Diahann Carroll argued with Sidney Poitier in the film over turning his back on his blackness by moving to Paris in 1961. How do you feel your self-identity as a black person changes by living in France?

One of the big problems in America is that, since we had slavery, you had to constantly come up with some justification. So one of the biggest justifications is that, “Well, blacks aren’t the same as whites. They’re less or something. That’s why they can be slaves, because, it’s not like us and everything.” There’s something that lingers through the generations about that, and I wonder when it’s ever gonna play out.

In France, they don’t have to do that, so they can just look at the person. They didn’t have slavery. They were involved in it financially; it was just like a business, like your share of the market or something like that. It’s the slavery thing that’s the difference.

The thing in America that you have to be careful about, no matter who you’re friends with, is that with each person there’s this thing of “I like blacks” or “I don’t like blacks” or “I’m a liberal” or “I’m not a liberal.” It’s some kind of position you have to take. And here, they don’t have to take a position. You’re just a person.

France is not the greatest country in the world, but a person is a person. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. If you’re a street cleaner, you’re a street cleaner. Each person has a kind of dignity. And this thing about separating the races because one is better isn’t here. That’s not what they’re about. They’re about class, they’re not about race. It’s hard to overcome class. In a way, it’s easier to overcome race than it is to overcome class. That’s the big difference to me, and it hasn’t changed. Barack Obama, through some miracle, got to be president of the United States; I still don’t understand it. [laughter] But a black could never be president of France, because of the class system. There’s nobody who’s up there enough, in this era anyway, to get there.

How long before the first black president of France?

It’s so complicated, because you have to go through the political steps that they have. And I think you can’t get started. I mean, how many black mayors of French cities do you know? So that’s the first step. And then you have to be in the network. How do you get in there? It’s from school, but then you have to be the mayor of something or have some kind of political office. And I don’t see how you get in there. And like, Obama came from outside. He went through the ol’ boys network and everything. He just came from outside and he won, on intelligence. There’s no way to do that here.

Rama Yade [33-year-old French-Senegalese Secretary of State for Sports] couldn’t be president?

She might be a good lay and a good date, but I don’t think… [laughter] And she’s intelligent and everything, it’s not about that. It’s about the network. I think the network has to be really strong.