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From AJR,   May 1995  issue

Paris Blues   

It sounds like a glamorous world of outdoor cafes, wine and romance. But for expatriate freelancers struggling to find work, the writer's life in Paris is no pique-nique.

Related reading:   The French Gravy Train

By Deborah Baldwin
Deborah Baldwin, the former editor of Common Cause Magazine, is now a freelancer in Paris.      

What reporter, sitting in a paper-strewn cubbyhole surrounded by fools and ringing telephones, hasn't had a dream?

It's more like a black-and-white movie, starring The Writer. In it, journalists are lean, attractive people who wear trenchcoats, live on baguettes and cheap wine, and ply their trade in a romantically heady ambiance. Long days at the typewriter give way to long nights in smoky cafés. No more heart-numbing coverage of school-board meetings and sewer-line extension hearings. We're in Paris now, writing lyrical essays about art, music, travel and food.

And wine. Lots of it.

Mark Hunter remembers the feeling. An expat who once filed, by his count, "40 to 50 articles a year" out of Paris, Hunter recalls leaving the States in the early '80s with a very specific image in mind. "I had a fantasy," he recalls, "of a sophisticated world with beautiful women where writers were important."

He laughs – but it comes out more like a strangled cry.

These days "you can't make a decent living doing only magazine work," says Hunter, who has since turned to book writing and teaching. "If you're doing it full time," Hunter says, "you'll go out of your fucking mind."

Ah Paris! Its museums, its restaurants, its women in elegant evening clothes.

Its writers, begging to be paid!

Ever since Hemingway and Fitzgerald met for drinks at the Dingo bar in the literary quartier near Montparnasse, Anglo-American writers have been fleeing their philistine homes for a life on the banks of the Seine. Trouble is, the life of a freelancer, or pigiste – pieceworker – as they're known locally, isn't what it used to be, and probably never was.

"People think Fitzgerald and Hemingway had these great lives," says one curmudgeonly magazine writer who requested anonymity. "The truth is, they didn't." Forget "the trenchcoat image people have from Hitchcock's 'Foreign Correspondent' " – these days desk-bound editors can get spot coverage off CNN, and corporate cutbacks have slashed editorial budgets overseas. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'm bitter this morning."

Freelancers everywhere, of course, are singing the blues. It's hard enough living without health insurance or access to free office supplies, but to make things worse many magazines and newspapers haven't raised their rates in 15 years; the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, pays its Paris correspondent, Alix Christie, $200 per story. (Christie, who pays the rent by writing for obscure publications and taking on a variety of other editorial chores, cheerfully refers to her newspaper work as "charity.") Other papers balk when their correspondents submit modest requests for expenses. Saying no is "easy because freelancers have no political influence and are not appreciated," says Sharon Waxman, special correspondent for such heavyweight publications as the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.

What makes Paris an interesting symbol of trends in freelance journalism is the way it straddles two worlds: the romanticized one that existed before the invention of E-mail and Lexis-Nexis, and the cold cruel world we know today, in which there are far more writers than there are newspapers and magazines to support them.

Even the profitable Paris-based International Herald Tribune is less of a freelance market than the average newly arrived writer might think. It's not that the paper is using less freelance material than in earlier years, says News Editor Walter Wells, but rather that it is seeking more news from outside France. "We're not a local paper," he says. "That market dried up in the '50s." Pigistes who do make a sale to the Tribune can expect about $300 for their trouble, unless they receive a feature assignment, in which case the rates and chances of recovering expenses increase.

Still the unwanted slush keeps coming – a "colossal" amount of prose, Wells says, delivered by mail, fax and that tool of contemporary self-expression, the Internet. "They're good, hardworking, honest folks," he says of these anonymous scribes, "and we'd like to be nicer to them. But we have other responsibilities." And other choices. Thanks to joint ownership by the New York Times and Washington Post, the Tribune can skim the cream from two of the world's finest newspapers.

Beyond the tribulations of trying to compete in the big time, Paris-based freelancers may be today's journalistic canaries – the first to feel the pain as the media move from print to electronics.

Symbolically, the Associated Press launched a global video division in November, following the lead of Reuters, whose far-flung correspondents once filed their stories by carrier pigeon but whose financial TV correspondents can now inject footage directly onto the computer screens of high-paying Wall Street subscribers. APTV uses some freelancers, but don't get excited. It's not old-fashioned writing and reporting talent they're looking for, explains a spokesperson at the London headquarters, but "multi-skilling" – '90s-speak for low-cost, one-person "crews" somehow able to singlehandedly report, film, edit and produce compelling video for a penny-pinching multimedia world.

If Paris' pigistes seem particularly piqued, it may be because many arrive with diehard fantasies – the same ones that can propel otherwise intelligent individuals out of their sinecures back home and into one of the most intensely competitive environments imaginable. There are at least 400 English-language expats in Paris who call themselves journalists and every year it seems the ones who leave are replaced by droves of others.

"To a degree they have to look at reality," says Theodore Stanger, who as Newsweek's Paris bureau chief hears from more than a few stringer wannabes. "France doesn't generate much world news except as a financial center... If they think they can sit back and write about the latest turn in parliamentary politics, they're wrong. Wine and cheese? There's a limited appetite." Conversely, when he was bureau chief in Bonn, Stanger says he "couldn't find a stringer to save my life, even though it's the capital of a major European power."

Could it have been the food?

?hatever the original draw, conversations with American transplants suggest that some of the romance has gone out of the journalistic equivalent of playing one's guitar on the subway. "If I came over this year, I'd go back," says the curmudgeon quoted earlier.

Let's start with the fact that Hemingway's Montparnasse is no longer the quaint little neighborhood that attracted writers during the 1920s. According to Oriel Caine, a guide-lecturer who does walking tours of the area, editors used to drop by a popular bistro called the Dôme to assign articles in person. But today the ambiance has changed. Towering over the still-popular Dôme is a hideous, early-'70s-Americana high rise, complete with ground-level shopping mall. A bite to eat? Count on spending about $75 for dinner at the Dôme.

It was Prohibition that inspired serious writer-drinkers like Fitzgerald to make their homes abroad, Caine says. Many, including Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Jean Rhys and Henry Miller, lived cheaply near Montparnasse – though not necessarily well; Caine has tracked a peculiar obsession with bedbugs in the writings of Miller and others.

But if the '20s were a heyday for American writers in Paris, the bohemian myth took root a lot earlier. The book that inspired the Puccini opera "La Boheme," Caine points out, was based on the gritty lives of artists and writers who lived in leaky Parisian garrets during the 1840s; before the curtain comes down, the heroine dies of tuberculosis – as did the author, who reputedly burned books to keep warm on the top floor of a building not far from the Place Pigalle.

Other "writers wrote about and romanticized the artistic condition," says Caine, and no doubt exaggerated their connection to the artistic community. In a city renowned for its chilly reception of outsiders, the real community they formed was with each other. As Jean Rhys observed in a letter to a friend, "The Paris all these people write about, Henry Miller, even Hemingway, etc. was not Paris at all – it was America in Paris or England in Paris. The real Paris had nothing to do with that lot – As soon as the tourists came the real Montparnos packed up and left."

But today's lost generation has more to complain about than bad architecture, expensive drinks and sniffy French people. Editors not only don't drop by to buy a round, they sometimes forget you're there at all – until they suddenly need something.

"They want the world, immediately, and for no money," says Waxman. "...Freelancers cost peanuts, and to cut back on peanuts is unjust..especially in a city like Paris, where it's terribly expensive."

E-mail? Editors should be glad a freelancer has a phone. And little do they realize how hard it is to use one in Paris, says Claire Wilson, who is entering her eleventh year as a freelancer in Paris and who recalls times when trying to pry information out of the notoriously phone-contemptuous French literally made her cry. They never return phone calls, she says. "It would take away part of their soul. It's like taking a photograph of an Amish person."

Stuck at the bottom of the food chain, freelancers are rarely in it for the money. What they want, says Wilson, who has written for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, is a little respect.

Sure, freelancers get to work in their bathrobes – and it's hard to feel sorry for Wilson, who lives in the kind of Left Bank apartment that has made "charme" and "caractère" two of the hottest words in French real estate. But the typical New York editor doesn't seem to realize what a copy of the Sunday Times costs in Paris ($12), or how hard it is to eat out without ordering a bottle of wine. Between November and March, when the weather's lousy, most writers can't even afford to seek solace in the corner café: Wilson stopped frequenting the nearby Café de Flore, where Sartre used to scratch out his thoughts over coffee, after a dip in the dollar's value drove the cost of a cup of café au lait up to $5.

It's no wonder she got miffed when a well-known magazine once agreed to pay her $200 for research, stiffed her for $50 – then spent the same amount Fed-exing her a copy of the magazine!

Indeed, if there's a recurrent theme among the dwindling ranks of freelancers in Paris today, it has little to do with self-realization through the arts and a lot to do with Darwin. If endangered species could talk, this is what they would sound like.

Once upon a time – maybe five years ago – there was a degree of esprit de corps in the expat community. But good vibes evaporated during the media retrenchment of the late '80s. "Colleagues who were open won't even tell you what they're working on," says Wilson. They're too busy comparing their miserable digs with the nicer apartments of their competitors to share the details of their sordid commercial lives.

The depressed outlook of the average stringer helps explain why some turn pale at the sound of Sharon Waxman's name. A former wire service reporter and Washington Post intern, the 32-year-old writer blasted onto the scene five years ago, immediately started speaking perfect French and in no time at all lined up a contract position with the Post Style section. That job alone is to die for, but she also managed to forge relationships with five other newspapers in addition to a contract with the Japanese edition of Newsweek. "I don't do purely commercial work," she says airily, which is something like standing in front of a pâtisserie and saying one never eats empty calories.

Other – one is tempted to say older – writers seem a bit hungrier. "A few years ago, during the go-go years, it would have been a joyful experience to talk to you," says one Paris-based travel writer who recalls the '80s as a time when she "practically didn't know the meaning of rejection." Now she's trying to remember the meaning of "yes." "The market has changed radically," she says.

ühe average arriviste can find the mood a little unsettling. Christie remembers calling on an established English-language reporter when she came to Paris three years ago. "You know, we're competitors," the older woman said icily. Underscoring the isolation and tension, Christie says, is the absence of a foreign press center where writers could read the wires and drink cheap coffee.

Sensing the quiet desperation all around them, two veteran freelancers persuaded the local Anglo-American Press Association to host a workshop in February devoted to trends in the freelance business ("all bad," in the words of one panelist) and such fresh hell as freelancers' loss of copyright protection on the infobahn. In an elegant high-ceilinged chamber near the Champs-Elysées, an overflow crowd clamored to share horror stories about craven editors who assign articles then kill them, and publishers who lose invoices. A rousing discussion followed about how to negotiate "electronic rights" – a strangely fascinating topic for journalists who have yet to figure out how to get paid at all, much less in cyberspace.

Christie nonetheless has developed an enviably upbeat approach. First, dispense with all the fascinating story ideas a hundred others have pitched before – you know, "like dog shit on the sidewalks," she confides. "You think you can make a life of it but you can't."

"Those who aren't panicking constantly have found weirdo gigs," she says. Christie covers French business for the London-based Guardian and writes about the oil industry for the OPEC News Agency. A twice-daily news service that covers oil industry lease negotiations and the like, it's a far cry from what she pictured when she abandoned a successful career in advertising to earn her master's degree in journalism, but – hey – they pay on time.

And another thing. No one who lives in Paris has a right to kvetch, as Christie put it in an article for the Berkeley journalism school alumni newsletter. "The romantic fantasies associated with this most beautiful of cities forbid it. Those of us who live here are constantly assured by homebound Americans that we're either blessed or uncommonly lucky."

Of course the jealous ones are right. When the light glances off the tops of the trees that line the slow-moving Seine, it's enough to make a homesick American dream about staying forever. Besides, writers have always reveled in their roles as outsiders, making snooty Paris the ideal enabler.

Why else do people stay?

"I like what I do," says the curmudgeon, suddenly sounding sweet. "In the U.S. you write sports or gastronomics. Here you can be a journeyman reporter..and to convey some sense of the culture... That's a challenge – to explain that things go differently here."

Anyway, he adds, "I like the food." l