The capital of chic feels une grande passion for la Texanité—from fajitas and pickups to country couture, a Texan in Paris reports on France’s Lone Star love affair.
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THREE HUNDRED YEARS AFTER LA SALLE first landed on these shores, the French have rediscovered Texas. The state and its icons are France’s dernier cri. Parisians in particular have embraced all things Texan, as evidenced by the city’s ever-growing number of Tex-Mex cafes, country music concerts, and high-fashion designers who are wild about the West. As a lapsed Texan living in Paris, I’ve seen the Texas craze spread from Paris’ Left Bank all the way to Provence and the Côte d’Azur. Today oodles of Texans manqué enjoy queso instead of Brie, listen to Bob Wills instead of Bizet, and stride down the Champs Elysées not in pumps but in pointy-toed boots. Every day brings new revelations: A new McDonald’s ad campaign features cowboys and cowgirls seeking a “McWanted” hamburger; Le Figaro is planning an article titled “L’Art de Vivre à Austin”; and I just happened upon a new boutique, Abilene, in the Marais garment district. Paris and Texas even share many identical zip codes.
Still, to the French—as to many Americans—Texas is more fantasy than reality, an attitude that often produces comic results. At the Texas Blues restaurant, for example, the rugged vista that graces the menu cover is, in fact, a picture of Arizona’s Monument Valley. Some Parisians aren’t even sure what Texas is: “Ah, yes, Texas,” a worker at one Mexican food restaurant told me. “Like the city in America.” (L’état, c’est quoi?) But if their information is dubious, their admiration is not. Herewith is a guide to the booming metropolis of Texas, Paris, a mystical region of chic kickers, beaux gestures, and friends and faux. Read on—and vive le Texas, y’all.
In Paris, the capital of the world’s most culinarily smitten land, the fastest-growing food trend is Tex-Mex. The city’s penchant for enchiladas, tacos, and such began a decade ago when imitation Tex-Mex appeared on the menu at Le Studio; equipped with the Lone Star flag, “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper stickers, and English-speaking servers, it is a favorite of Americans in Paris. Today well-established restaurants include the Del Rio Cafe, the Tequita Cafe, and Susan’s Place (noted for chile con carne). A stone’s throw from Notre Dame Cathedral is the Texas Mexico restaurant, where one Southwest delicacy is “ears of corn.” And adjacent to Paris’ most famous art museum is I. M. Pei’s “new Louvre,” a subterranean mall where crowds of shoppers nibble on guacamole and nachos at a fast-food cafe, El Rancho. Parisians seem reluctant, however, to embrace beer with equal fervor; most prefer red wine with their fajitas or nachos.
Unfortunately, most Tex-Mex joints are make-a-quick-buck imitations of the real thing where platters come out looking like colorful, prefab automobile consoles: laminated cheese welded onto an enchilada flanking a square of refried beans. Part of the problem is that most restaurant laborers in Paris have never been anywhere near an authentic Mexican eatery; most are from India or Africa. For example, so many natives of a certain Indian state work at the Del Amingo restaurant that locals refer to it as “the home of the Tamil tamale.” Why “Del Amingo”? Explains one cook: “We added the n because somebody already had the rights to ‘amigo.’”
Besides Tex-Mex, the French also love other traditional Texas culinary fare. Le Texas, a roadside restaurant on the Côte d’Azur, offers the likes of T-bone steaks, “chili con carne maison,” and “le véritable hamburger américain.” Onion rings alone set you back 35 francs (some $7). Near Antibes, the Texas Truck restaurant is a semi converted into counter seating, surrounded by a display of classic American cars. Carhops also serve food on window trays to drive-in customers. Even wholly non-Texan fare benefits from the myth: One grocery store offers a frozen “pizza texane,” topped not with jalapeños or barbecued chicken but plain ol’ bell pepper and sausage.
The French love boots, hats, belt buckles, and other cowboy paraphernalia. Paris’ priciest and most venerable western clothing store is El Paso Booty, on Rue St. Denis. Its clients include actor Mickey Rourke, somewhat of a has-been in the U.S. but a media megastar in France. El Paso Booty offers a panoply of boots (which the French call “’tiags,” short for “Santiago”—a locally popular boot company); embroidered rodeo shirts (advertised as “chemises fancy”); blue jeans (a household phrase to Frenchmen—after all, denim was their country’s invention); and—in an odd crossover of gangsters and gunslingers—even brass knuckles, known as poing américain (“American fist”).
In the higher fashion world, “la mode western” is haute-hot. A cowgirl graced the cover of last October’s French Vogue. Designer Christian Lacroix’s fall collection was inspired, he confided to a television reporter, by “Texas women pioneers from the beginning of the century.” (His ensembles include full-length leather “slickers,” suede cowboy hats, and stiletto heels with boot-style toe caps.) Other designers jumped on the bandwagon too: The adored actress Catherine Deneuve, exiting Jean-Paul Gaultier’s fall 1995 show, commented breathily, “I loved it. The themes I saw…North Africa and le Texas.” And a December fashion shoot by Nino Via for designers Patrick Cox, Sophie Sitbon, and Chantal Thomass was titled “Dreaming of a Cowboy” and included a rangy male model with George Custer locks and goatee, leather duster, and Marlboro Classic jeans.
On the other end of the economic scale is Texas Fan, on the dank, narrow Rue de Montmorency in a neighborhood of Asian-owned sweatshops. Texas Fan purveys ersatz cowboy-and-Indian regalia such as faux Stetsons and louche Longhorn skulls. Other stores listed in the 1995 Paris phone directory include Dallas Couture, Texas Cuir (“Texas Leather”), and Texas 501 (yes, a source for Levi’s).
Among a handful of Paris social clubs dedicated to la texanité is Les Amis du Far West, a group of a hundred or so members who don the requisite jeans, hats, and square-dance flounces to pursue country and western dancing. A regular course in “le danse country western” covers dances “en couple et en ligne,” such as the Texas two-step, “cowboy cha-cha,” “tush push,” and cotton-eyed Joe. One teacher, Nathalie Menu, is a former ballerina whose professional repertoire includes a cabaret act of lasso tricks. The dancing class is clearly vigorous: Students must bring a note from a doctor attesting to their health.
Texas and Aristocrats
France’s titled elite boast their own phone book, the Bottin Mondain. Several Texans have appeared in its listings, but the best thing about the Bottin Mondain is calling up the company that compiles the directory, being put (inevitably) on hold, and listening to the recording offered during the wait—an interminable rendition of “Home on the Range.”
Parisians love Texas music—honky-tonk, bluegrass, Western swing. Texophile musician-actor Jean Sarrus hosts Country Box, a weekly country music show. Sarrus, whose daily attire includes boots and a cowboy hat or gimme cap, filmed last year’s Halloween show at Texas’ legendary rug-cuttin’ venue Gruene Hall. He notes that “people here still think of Texas as oil fields and J.R., but increasingly they’re beginning to know Texas for its many styles of music.” Last year Sarrus’ annual country music festival in Marmende featured Texas musicians Junior Brown, Monte Warden, Rosie Flores, Kimmie Rhodes, and High Noon; 80,000 fans showed up. Another Western extravaganza is scheduled for summer in, of all places, the elegant Riviera resort city of St. Tropez.
A prominent Parisian country and western band is the Bunch, whose eleven members wear genuine Stetsons and chemises fancy and essay Bob Wills tunes and other Texas classics. “Since the Western style is very fashionable right now in France,” says band member Patrick Vrolant, “our record company wants us to write words about fashion models, to cash in on la mode western while it lasts.” Here’s a couplet they should try: “She makes more in a day than I make in a year / She’s taller’n me, but then I’ve got a rear.”
Even tejano music is creeping into Paris cabarets. Oswaldo, a single-moniker singer-accordionist, is currently recording an album of tejano tunes, including Flaco Jiménez covers.
The nation’s most aggressive promoter of Texas music, however, is country singer Dick Rivers (born Hervé Forneri in Nice), who raises Appaloosas on his French ranch, sports boots tooled with the Texas flag, and installed a satellite dish so he could tune in to Country Music Television. Rivers adores Texas and Austin in particular: One of his videos was shot in Austin at the Travis County jail and the now-defunct Black Cat club, and his 1991 CD, emblazoned with the shape of Texas, is titled Holly Days in Austin. The twenty songs are all covers of Buddy Holly tunes with new words; a sample lyric, sung to the tune of “Oh Boy!,” is “Met tes bottes, sautes dans tes jeans / Cette nuit on dé-barque à Austin / Oh boy!” (“Put on your boots, jump into your jeans / Tonight we’re going to Austin, Oh boy!”)
Right up there with France’s beloved Jerry Lewis is the country’s favorite television drama—Dallas. Since the prime-time sudser debuted in 1978, the French have adored the show, especially les texanes—the Ewing family women. The scheming Sue Ellen and Lucy in particular provoked beaucoup d’ooh-la-las. Dallas has been off the air since 1991, but it was such a hit here that French television still airs reruns, and one French scholar wrote an essay titled “Homère et Dallas,” in which she likened the soap opera to Homer’s Iliad. Dallas also gave rise to two French expressions in common use: “brushing” (“big hair”) and “C’est completement Dallas!” (“That’s completely Dallas!”). The latter can refer to something vulgar and ostentatious—say, a teased-out-to-there brushing—or something ruthless and cutthroat—perhaps a J.R.—style business deal. A final tribute to the TV show has come in yet another form of American pop culture: the car. The Dallas, equipped with a Peugeot-manufactured engine, is a jeeplike vehicle that converts to a mini-pickup.
Another French darling could out-Ewing the Ewings. Dallas murderess Joy Davis Aylor bore all the hallmarks of les texanes: blond, rich, spoiled rotten. Indicted for arranging the grisly death of her husband’s girlfriend, Aylor fled to Canada, Mexico, and finally France’s Côte d’Azur, where she was arrested and jailed in 1990. Texas authorities may have thought the chase was over, but French officials were so smitten with the pretty prisoner that they fought her extradition for two and a half years, capitulating only after the American ambassador and the Dallas district attorney agreed not to seek the death penalty. French newspapers and magazines trumpeted the Aylor story for years; some were sympathetic (JOY RETURNS TO HELL, blared one headline after her transfer to Texas), but others remained skeptical, labeling her “une femme psychopathe” and “une autre femme qui va affronter la justice texane.” Succeeding Aylor as the most titillating and talked-about texane is white-trash titaness Anna Nicole Smith.
Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992, includes one thousand hotel rooms and an entire Wild West town—complete with blacksmith, general store, and more. Perhaps figuring that Europeans knew no better, Disney took a highly creative approach to geography: The Hotel Cheyenne purports to sit on the “right bank” of the Rio Grande. Farm implements, Navajo rugs, firearms, and lanterns bedeck the Chuckwagon Cafe, which delivers “une cuisine abondante à la manière texane” (“big generous Texas-style portions”). Other attractions include a stockade playground for les enfants, an Indian village, and the Red Garter Saloon, which “transporte ses visiteurs au temps du Jesse James”—although that famous outlaw never made it anywhere close to the Rio Grande.