Passage to Paris

Article excerpt


It's noontime.

And Robin Mitchell, in her suede boots and black skirt, is strolling across the Boulevard St. Michel, a grand, bustling strip in Paris'Latin Quarter.

Mitchell, 43, is on her way to meet a family on vacation. She's giving them a walking tour of the haunts where Black American expatriates lived and worked in the City of Light.

"Bon-jour monsieurs, mademoiselles''' she says, handing each traveler a pocket-size souvenir booklet as she shakes their hand. "Welcome to Tar-ee.'"

"Y'all gonna learn so much stuff today, by the time it's over, you're going to be throwing your books at me."

With that warning, Mitchell starts the tour in the Latin Quarter and soon the group is romping through the lives of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and others. Each left the United States and lived in Paris for at least a year. In the first half of the last century, they came to escape racism and to fulfill their dreams of writing, making music, painting and dancing.

Today, a fresh crop of Black Americans is calling Paris home. They're chasing dreams, too. But this new generation is made up of students and entrepreneurs as well as artists, all enchanted by Paris' history, culture and business opportunities. Some have French spouses who ease the transition into their new environment. For others, it's a big adventure to swirl about the world of French art and academics, increasingly creating a scene all their own.

A year ago, Mitchell planted herself in the French capital, and she's never looked back.

"I was determined to live here," she says, stopping the group in front of the gallery where artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) - the first Black painter to have his art permanently hang in the Louvre and the White House - found some of his fame.

To get used to her new world, Mitchell did "at least one scary thing a week" - a doctor's visit, research trip or post office stop.

Now the doctoral candidate from the University of California at Berkeley, who is studying 19th-century representations of Black Parisian women, meanders these streets like a pro for her work with Walking the Spirit Tours, which showcases Black American and African life in Paris.

Mitchell lives in old Montmartre, near the Sacre-Coeur, the brilliant white basilica on one of the highest hills in the city. Her neighborhood, once called the Harlem of Paris by Hughes, is a long way from Fort Collins, CoIo., where, nearly 25 years ago, Mitchell, then a psychology student, flunked out of Colorado State University.

After working as everything from receptionist to an administrative supervisor, Mitchell at age 32, went back to school at Mills College in Oakland, Ca., and graduated with honors in ethnic studies with an emphasis in 19th-century African American literature.

But nothing could shake her first lessons about Paris when she was 5. Even then, she had made up her mind to see the place where so many Blacks found artistic liberty. Toward that end, she earned a master's degree in later modern European history with an emphasis in France at the University of California at Santa Cruz and, in 1991, finally went to Paris.

The visit only fueled her wanderlust. She took vacations in Paris and, in summer 2002. came back to study. It wasn't enough; she knew that one day she'd have to live here.

She got that chance in September 2004, when she moved to Montmartre hilltop. She has survived on academic grants, help from her parents and jobs secured through a network of friends she's been able to cultivate. She's fought her way through the visa process and gushes over reinventing herself - she's lost 50 pounds from walking everywhere - and is beginning to enjoy (and understand) French reality TV.

Sure, she misses shopping at Target and grilled chicken burritos from her favorite Mexican restaurant, but she gets over it. …