Invented histories

Streets of ParisWhen I was about ten years old there was a television ad that featured a woman in a fur coat and beret rushing through the streets of Paris to meet her lover for an instant coffee. She wore fabulous red lipstick and the soundtrack was Piaf. After one viewing Punky Brewster was knocked off her perch as my role model and replaced by an anonymous woman with a taste for Parisian men and scant regard for animal rights. I decided I would learn French and began by writing a list in my diary of all the French words I knew – bonjour, merci, croissant, ballet, Yoplait. It never occurred to me that the ad wasn’t shot in Paris, but more likely on a soundstage in Reno or someplace.

Almost twenty years later, I finally made it to Paris and there I discovered that in Paris one is likely to see a) Parisians b) people pretending to be Parisians c) crepe vendors, and d) a large monument that one has already seen in movies, books or on the telly. There are several such monuments to choose from, all equally enjoyable to experience while gnawing at a baguette and muttering the words ‘tres bon’ in a feeble attempt to make it appear that one is not a tourist (sorry, traveller) but hangs out around the Eiffel Tower all the time.

I also found something unexpected happening as I wandered the streets of Gay Parry. (Oh come on, why is it perfectly acceptable and charming for French people to pronounce every word with a French accent, yet a total fox pass for an Australian to do the same?) Every time I looked upon The Seine, or the Arch d’Triumph, or a stylishly dressed mother and daughter sharing a cigarette, I could not help but think of Sydney and how bloody young it is.
Arc d'Triumph

You see dear Overlanders, prior to my recent transcontinental adventure, I had experienced but two cities in my entire life. Two. (Sydney and Melbourne, in case you’re interested.) While most twenty-somethings were making lattes to finance their overseas treks, I spent my footloose, fancy-free years writing essays on postmodernism and participating in dodgy performance-art pieces about the crushing weight of capitalism. You’ll never believe it, but this didn’t pay terribly well. Thus my imagination was given a lot of time to build on my fabled fantasies of Paris.

My imaginary Paris grew more and more embellished with each new Jason Bourne movie. In my dreamy mind Paris was lit by fairy lights and peopled with slender folk in real cashmere, leading poodles and air-kissing. (Also a lot of car chases and handsome men carrying concealed weapons.)

I walked down the aisle to the Amélie soundtrack, for goodness sake – slightly romantic notions? Check. Yet when I finally arrived there all I could do the whole time was make comparisons with Sydney: the water, the sky, the smell (contrary to my preconceptions, Paris does not smell like vanilla). It was (of course) in reality different to my imagination. Not better or worse, just different. There was also a point of contrast with Sydney that went beyond the superficial; I felt that Paris, unlike Sydney, had a certain authenticity about it. It didn’t feel contrived and I suppose that has something to do with the age of the place. Fittingly enough, it was an artwork at the Centre Pompidou that finally nailed it for me. (Louvre shmouvre people, the Pomp is where it’s at).

Dreamlands is an exhibition that explores the way in which amusement parks, world fairs and utopian ideals have influenced cities and become realities. To borrow from the exhibition’s curators:

The dreamlands of the leisure society have shaped the imagination, nourishing both utopian thinking and artistic creation, but they have also become realities: pastiche, copy and artifice now provide the environment in which real life takes place, their normality dissolving the boundary between dream and reality.

One artwork in the exhibition was a video installation by Pierre Huyghe. Titled Streamside Day, the film documented the festivities held by the newly established New York community of Streamside. Streamside is in fact a sort of housing estate, which uses the architectural style of much older New York suburbs in an attempt to disguise the fact that it is brand new and that a lush forest was partially flattened to make way for it. In other words, Streamside has a very short history and it’s not a very noble one. The artist approached the community with a proposal for a celebration day, through which the residents might be able to build a sense of history and belonging. ‘I was interested in creating a ritual that the people in the town would actually celebrate because it’s based on what they share,’ said Huyghe.

Still from Streamside DayThe artist proposed that the community’s origins should be identified and celebrated, thus residents – both adults and children – dressed up as the animals whose habitat they now lived in, or cardboard boxes, to symbolise the way everyone ‘moved’ in. People also decorated their homes and nature strips with bubble wrap and fairy lights in the shape of boxes. A procession was held and everyone ate fairy floss and hotdogs. The video of the celebrations could quite easily have ridiculed residents, but it didn’t; it was, instead, a strangely endearing portrait of a community endeavouring to own its origins and build something authentic from them.

Huyghe’s work could not help but make me think of Australia and the kind of make-believe identity constructed for its inhabitants. Our history is not something that can be remedied by dressing up as Captain Cook and popping an Aboriginal elder on the two-dollar coin, and yet our governments continue to behave as though this is the case. I arrived back home to be greeted with an election campaign, which has Labour promising to ‘manage population growth’ and the Liberals vowing to ‘stop the boats’. It’s enough to make one wonder that if in fifty years time, there won’t be a national Sorry Day for asylum seekers. Everyone living in this country who is not Aboriginal is a ‘boat person’. The sooner Australia owns up to its past and starts having street processions with everyone dressed up as sea-faring vessels or jumbo jets the better. We must allow ourselves to change, rather than desperately trying to maintain an imperialist vision of Australia that is no more authentic or real than Streamside’s pre-fab brownstone condos.

And perhaps we should embrace the idea of crepe vendors on every corner while we’re at it.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Here here Claire. So much of our celebrations are tokenism. Not to say we shouldn’t celebrate our histories, indeed we should, but they need to be part of a broader acceptance of who and what our ‘young’ colonised country is. I like the saying that ‘white Australia has a black history’.

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