Back in the U.S.A., With the Whiff Of Paris Still on Me

French feminists took to the streets last week protesting the professional striptease lessons being offered to female shoppers by the new lingerie department at the Galeries Lafayette, Paris’ version of Macy’s. That they cared at all would come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time in the French capital in recent years. This fall, Paris bus stops are, as usual, emblazoned with eye-popping super-size ads for bras and underwear. This year the ad agencies seem to have entered some kind of porn-challenge Olympiad, competing to see which could create the most titillating but still legal ad. One company has plastered a barely adolescent girl, her buttocks at eye level, pulling down her shorts to reveal a thong string above the words: Je suis vierge. Et vous? (“I am a virgin. And you?”)

Lingerie stores are ubiquitous in Paris, where there is often more than one situated on the same market street, almost like Starbucks in New York. An expat Parisian friend of mine believes that these shops are actually laundering money for the Corsican Mafia or Al Qaeda. She can’t accept the possibility that most French women-from the teenagers flinging their long hair around to the world-weary middle-aged women scowling behind their cigarettes-are D.I.Y. porn stars, sporting seductive smalls beneath their clothes, their tender flesh chafing against the stiff lace and strings.

In the midst of all this voluptuousness, at the tables of the American expats in France, the conversation remains severe as ever. There are the endless rants about George W. Bush, his Iraq folly and the moronic American masses who support him. Shared over and over, the whole topic grows moldier with age but is still savored like a choice morsel of unpasteurized cheese. No one asks the obvious: If we care so passionately about the mess at home, why aren’t we all back in Dubuque going door to door for the Democrats?

And so we came home, although not exactly for that purpose. The United Airlines flight touched down at Dulles in an eye-burning Washington noon last week. Herded off the jetway, we found ourselves corralled inside a long gray corridor that stretches for several city blocks. It’s just wide enough for two people abreast, and lined with closed doors with ostentatious keypad locks. The thought crossed my jet-lagged mind that were I to open one of those doors, I’d fall down a chute that leads straight to Gitmo.

In the limbo of this endless corridor-you’re in America, but not quite-you just know legal representation and the Bill of Rights are second to security. If gait and eyeballs aren’t under scrutiny on that walk, I don’t know where they will ever get a better chance to be digitally analyzed. The corridor finally ends at the international baggage-claim area. Luggage found, we faced more X-ray machines. I hadn’t heard that I might have to take my shoes off on the way into the homeland, but I was asked to do so and complied with cheer. It was good to be home.

Customs was the final hurdle. I was carrying an undeclared French object in my suitcase, and while not quite in the same league as Jeb Bush’s wife, I was technically breaking the law. I hadn’t reported the glass bottles of walnut oil and Dijon mustard I feared were broken and oozing inside my luggage. I was hoping this concern didn’t register in my face.

The U.S. Treasury officer-a trim, graying and otherwise visually unremarkable man with the name Lemon on his badge-wasn’t at all interested in my bags, though. He wanted to know about-me.

Holding my passport in his hand, and with my bags already situated on his side of the magneto machine, he looked me up and down. In my jeans and T-shirt, hair pulled back in a ponytail, face newly splashed with handfuls of cold American water, I was looking as much like the fresh-faced American girl I am as I ever have.

The eau de vie of French socialism still clung, though, and the inspector’s nose picked up the scent. “What do you do?” he asked, glancing from the passport in his hand back to me. I wonder why he thought I had a job? Was there something about me that said I was not a suburban soccer mom coming back from a fall tour of Europe?

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“What do you write?”

“Books.”

“Books,” he said, leaning back in his chair behind the small dais, surveying me with a squint. The airport security team stood nearby, listening and at the ready. “What kind of books?”

Not one to let pass a chance to increase my Amazon.com ranking, I gave him the title of my own latest, adding that if he hurried, he could probably still pick one up at a Borders or Barnes and Noble at any mall in the Virginia suburbs.

He looked at me without any expression at all.

“I’ve been reading a great book,” he said. “Called While America Slept . I started it last night and I couldn’t put it down.”

Jet-lagged as I was, the title registered as one in the right-wing canon laying the blame for 9/11 at Bill Clinton’s feet. I returned his gaze with a questioning, ignorant look.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that about?”

The book that was keeping him awake, he said, was written by one of the “top military men around Bill Clinton,” a guy clearly in a position to know exactly how the Democrats had left our nation vulnerable.

Here I was being presented with my first chance to preach to the unconverted. On the other hand, this federal official did have my passport in his hand. Furthermore, there was a red line on the floor with me and those creepy doors to Gitmo behind me on one side, and the full benefits of citizenship in the home of the brave on the other.

I told him I’d like to read it, but that meanwhile, he ought to have a look at my book.

This mini-literary salon concluded, he handed me back my passport and waved me through, into this sweet land of roaming buffalo and few discouraging words. We may never meet again, U.S. Treasury Officer Lemon and I, but I do wonder where my luggage and passport would be if I’d asked him about the things that keep me up at night. What would have happened if I’d asked him why the White House didn’t want to turn over briefings supposedly read by our current President that warned about the probable use of hijacked passenger jets in terrorist attacks just weeks before Sept. 11? Or suggested that he add books by Al Franken or Michael Moore to his bedside-reading list?

Home again a week now, I am no longer unsettled by the little intellectual vetting I received at the portal to the land of the free. It is good to be back in a nation so firmly in the post-pornographic age that our government isn’t as concerned with what’s under our clothes as what’s in our heads. We’ve got X-rays for the underwear anyway, and beagles for the agricultural contraband and now, Lemons sniffing out our politics on the way in. That’s a step in the right direction, in my view. Those French lefties and Bush-era exiles who think Americans are oblivious to ideas have no clue how cerebral we’ve become.