Beth Arnold is a journalist and award-winning writer living in Paris. She is from Arkansas, of all places, but has adopted Paris with gusto. She has written on politics, Paris, travel and people for Salon, GQ, Vogue, Rolling Stone, InStyle and Self, and frequently writes a Letter from Paris column for the Huffington Post. Her recent post on museum shows on her blog is spot on as far as which shows to see this spring in Paris. She loves Paris and politics—truly a girl after my own heart. Oh, and did I mention she also wrote a book with her husband, Chasing Matisse?
We really enjoy your blog. How long have you been doing it?
Actually, I started blogging in 2002. When my husband, James Morgan, and I came to France to follow in the footsteps of Henri Matisse and research a book called Chasing Matisse (published by a division of Simon & Schuster), I became one of the early bloggers. I had a gut feeling that websites were going to become more and more important. I knew as a writer that it was important for me to have one—and that it was important for this project to have one. I must’ve bought the domain betharnold.com around 2001 or before. It went through various incarnations. I’d spent so much time on Chasing Matisse, I was burned out on blogging for a while. When the Huffington Post went online, I was thrilled to see a liberal and progressive news and commentary outlet go head-to-head with conservative sites like Drudge Report. I started blogging for them in May 2007 and revved my column-writing back up.
When did you become a writer, and what inspires you? Besides your blog and website, where else do you write?
In some sense, I was always a writer. As a child, writing stories and essays came easy for me. English and literature were some of my best subjects. I loved to read. Hated math and science. I started writing poetry in high school and moved on from there. When I was in college, I took writing classes but ended up with a MSW (master of social work). I burned out on that and gave myself permission to be a writer when I was 29 years old. That’s a big year for everyone, I think.
I’m inspired by all kinds of things, big and small. Could be a name, a moment in time, an atmosphere, an injustice, someone’s story, a line someone says, a lie, a place, a movie or book, someone doing something noteworthy.
You’re from Arkansas. What took you to Paris and when did you arrive?
My husband and I came here to research and write Chasing Matisse.
You are a woman after my own heart, loving politics and Paris. Tell us more about your political involvement.
I was born into politics. My father was a card-carrying Yellow Dog Democrat (would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican) who involved us children in the campaigns of his candidates from the time we could stand outside the voting polls. He was the youngest state legislator elected in Arkansas and was planning to run for governor or senator of Arkansas, but he died tragically when I was a teenager. My family ate and drank Democratic politics at every meal. After my father died, my uncle was a powerful lobbyist in Washington, D.C. I worked for Senator John L. McClellan the summers of 1972–73, which was during Watergate. I got a real political education working on Capitol Hill. You can read more about my father here.
What do you make of this first year of the Obama presidency?
Obama changed the world the instant he was elected president of the USA. The whole world sighed with relief. It was a stunning political moment, and one I will never forget. Amazingly, he out-politicked Bill Clinton, who is a master himself. (Hillary was never a great politician. Brilliant—but never charismatic like Bill. She tried to rewrite history in this regard.)
I still believe in Obama. The man has vision. He made every right move in his campaign. Put a brilliant team together, too. The hole he’s had to dig our country out of went about near down to hell. I know he believes in the democratic process. He maybe needs to come to believe more in kicking some Republican (and rabid conservative) butt.
What are your favorite haunts in your neighborhood?
I still sort of look at the 2nd Arrondissement as my neighborhood. I know so much about the center of Paris. Every time I left my apartment, it took my breath away.
I’m just getting to know my new neighborhood—the 20th. I love Père-Lachaise. That cemetery provides endless visions. Lots of spirits floating around. What would happen at night?
The rue des Pyrénées is a great food street! The shops up and down the rue provide wonderful gastronomy every day, and the market on Sunday is lovely! Excellent food energy up here.
What I’ve discovered about the 20th is it’s a secret world. There are hidden streets where people live in houses and have yards. Who knew? There’s lots of green space, and almost everyone has a balcony or terrace. It’s really like living in a village inside the boundaries of Paris. The Parc des Buttes Chaumont is like you’re in the country. I’m digging Belleville more and more, too.
The right bank is my ‘hood (not that I don’t love the left bank). Sooner or later, people choose one side of the river.
What is your favorite French food or snack?
Man, that’s tough. These are the kinds of questions I could have a zillion answers for. Today I’m going to say Ladurée macaroons. Bites of heaven is what they are.
What do you do to relax in Paris?
I love going to movies, wherever I am. Also, going for walks. You never know what you’ll find or see. There are always beautiful scenes, surprising buildings! I also love to read books about Paris and France—or books from French writers. I’m now reading Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris. His writing is so descriptive. Love it.
What are the three biggest differences between your life in Arkansas and your life now in Paris, and do you miss “home”?
My life is much more international and diverse in Paris. Paris is more urban, a much bigger city than Little Rock, which I love. Life isn’t arranged to be as convenient here, which has its good and bad points. Clinging to outdated procedures, or resisting change because things have always been done a certain way, is a real problem in French culture.
The big thing is I miss my children, family and friends. There was a period when I didn’t feel the need to spend time in the US (but to see them). But I enjoy the time I have there now—and I appreciate the advantages that we have that the French do not. I’m happy to see American land. Happy to feel my Arkansas roots.
Who or what do you find most inspiring in Paris?
The grand architecture stuns me every time I come upon it, especially with bright blue skies or gray threatening clouds outlining, for example, the Louvre. I love reading about French history and America’s founding fathers and seeing the places these historic personages lived and the places they frequented—or reading The Three Musketeers and walking down the same streets as the dashing musketeers. I love the markets, the Seine, looking into shop windows that are always decorated so beautifully. The design of France is impeccable.
What is the one store you cannot live without in Paris?
BHV—I love the hardware downstairs, and I’m a nut for being organized.
Let’s imagine a woman (of any age) is heading to Paris. Where would you suggest she stay?
I love boutique hotels, and my dream hotel to stay in now would be Hotel du Petit Moulin, which Christian Lacroix designed. Great spot in the Marais—if you know Paris well.
The Hotel de Saint-Germain is a wonderful hotel on the left bank. It’s a great location for monuments, shopping and the 6th Arrondissement cafés and restaurants we love. The owner and staff were fantastic when we were chasing Matisse!
What things should she be sure to see?
I always tell people that a great way to see Paris when they don’t have a lot of time (and haven’t been before or not in a long time) is to take the l’Open Tour buses. You can get tickets for one or two days for a totally reasonable price—and see all the biggies—almost as if you had a car and driver. The rest of your Paris time can be spent on details like checking out small museums you haven’t had the time to visit (the Maillol is my favorite, the Musée de la Vie Romantique is another), hanging at cafés, taking beautiful walks. Occasionally, I love to go to Galeries Lafayette Gourmet and have a lunch of Spanish ham and a good glass of rioja at the counter. If you haven’t been to Ladurée, it’s simply divine. My favorite place for a cocktail? The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz (pricey but a worthy treat)! Paris is a wonderful place to hear music—opera, jazz, classical, popular—anything you can think of and in all kinds of settings. We just saw Lyle Lovett (whom we’d seen twice in the US). Terrific show! One of the venues I love is the Olympia.
Where should she shop? What souvenir should she be sure to bring home?
For perfume, definitely go see the jewel box that is the upstairs of the Guerlain shop on the avenue des Champs-Élysées. You will find fragrances there that aren’t marketed anywhere else. I’m a lover of Frédéric Malle’s Editions de Parfums on rue du Mont Thabor (also one on the left bank). There’s no other perfume experience like it.
For one thing to bring home? All Parisian women (and men) wear scarves. You can find them everywhere. Le Bon Marché would have a grand selection.
Describe the one cultural difference between French and American women.
French women are more conservative.
Describe your ideal Parisian day.
Oh, I’d get up about 9:00. Go for a great walk along the Seine. Stop and have a cup of coffee, perhaps on the Île St.-Louis. Walk back up along the left bank and weave in and out of the streets close to the river. I’d end up at the Place Dauphine and sit outside on one of the restaurant terraces for lunch. A friend would meet me there. After lunch, we’d walk up to the Musée des Arts de la Mode et du Textile to check out what’s on there. Then we might hit the Jeu de Paume and whatever fab photo exhibition is showing—or we could go to Themae and have a lovely massage and then stop at By Terry to treat ourselves to some new makeup. About 6:30, I’d step into the Hemingway Bar, where I’d meet the Lone Wolf for a crispy cold martini, and my daughters would have flown in and surprised me there! After that, a car and driver would pick us up and take us to the Palais de Tokyo, where we’d have dinner in the sky at Nomiya with a group of my friends. After dinner, the driver would take us on a tour of Paris, so we could see the monuments in all their lit glory.
If Paris were one film, piece of music or piece of art, what would it be?
The statue of Louis XIV on his horse at the Place des Victoires.
Do you have a favorite French word or phrase?
“Oh la la!”