La Belle Époque

Toulouse-Lautrec, Training of the New Girls (Moulin Rouge), 1889

Toulouse-Lautrec, Training of the New Girls (Moulin Rouge), 1889

Are you drawn to another era – a time and place that feels like it belongs to you?

  • Do you picture yourself travelling west across America on a covered wagon, cooking on an open fire, clearing land and building a log cabin?
  • Are you the plain-spoken sister in the grey dress whose father wants to marry you off to a country vicar – but a dashing count rides through town and is driven wild by your aloof ways?
  • Do you imagine sailing the high seas, being blown onto tropical islands and cataloguing new species of birds and lizards? (um, probably that’s just me?)
  • Are you the toast of the town – with invitations every night of the week – in New York’s Gilded Age  or La Belle Époque in Paris or Weimar Berlin in the 20s?
  • Do you picture yourself a writer, an artist or a musician, part of a group of like-minded souls –  Bloomsbury or Dada or Harlem Jazz?
  • Do you wish you were a sharp-dressed Mod zipping around on your scooter in 1964?
  • Are you a peacenik who hitchhiked to Haight Ashbury in 1967?
  • Would you be at home in the Tudor court – keeping your head, of course?
  • Can you imagine being celebrated like Josephine Baker or Ziggy Stardust or Charles Lindbergh?
The infamous CBGB. Yes, I know it's closed :(

The infamous CBGB. Yes, I know it’s closed 😦

I have a favourite “scene” but my part in it is very vague. I like to picture myself in NYC in the early-to-mid 1970s in the proto-punk era, going to see bands like Television, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls and The Ramones at cheap and gritty clubs any day of the week, living in a little walk-up and (in advanced versions) maybe earning a modest living as a rock critic.

Never mind that in real life, I was in the 6-12 year old age range back then! It seemed very romantic to me to live in poverty in a big city and live for your art. Especially to live alone. Interestingly (and maybe discouragingly), I never imagined myself a musician or an artist. Just more of a scenester!

An intense longing for another time and place must say something about our desires and who we are.

As a child I was always told I could be whatever I wanted to be, and it was always assumed I would have a good education and a career. But people in my real life, especially women, had only traditional women’s jobs. So I learned from their strength and determination, but not necessarily their ability to break the mould. As a result, I think I put caps on my own dreams. I wasn’t always the subject who went out into the world and did grand things. Sometimes, even in my dreams, I was just the girlfriend. I was the one who followed my dreams “as a hobby” while making a life at something else.

Of course, there is a difference between achievable dreams and time travel 🙂

The more I read and watch about another era, the more I picture its shortfalls – the realities of poverty and abuse and discrimination, the lack of rights for people of colour and women and LGBTQ people. So I can’t really romanticize freely any more. Reality intrudes.

I’m not really one to dwell on my own past – things I should have done, paths I should have taken. In fact, I often cringe at my youthful self and would rather not overanalyze me! And although it’s taken a good long while, I have come to like my life as it is.

Nevertheless, I will be visiting a few rock-and-roll haunts when I visit New York this Fall.

And if Pitchfork or Stereogum want to hire me and send me on the festival circuit to review up-and-coming bands, hey, I’m all ears!

Wait…would I then be the Festival Grandma? Gaack!


  1. EcoCatLady

    Wait… CatMan really WAS a peacenik who hitchhiked to Haight Ashbury in 1967! Well sorta. He was in the army (got drafted) and was stationed not far from there. But he did hitchhike to Haight Ashbury and spent time hanging out and preparing for his post-army hippie days!

    Anyhow, I’m totally with you about the realities of another epoch intruding on the fantasy, but nevertheless, I have a real thing about turn of the century Mexico. Probably comes from watching Like Water for Chocolate one too many times, and my obsession with Corazon Salvaje (Mexican soap opera) both of which are set in that era. It just seems like such a beautiful time and place… corsets and revolutions notwithstanding!

    • That’s a good one, Cat! About which I know very little.

      I don’t know anyone who travelled to The Haight back in the day, or Woodstock either, but the idealism is appealing.

  2. Gam Kau

    I’m much too pragmatic to romanticize the past. Antibiotics, indoor plumbing, birth control, human rights…all too big to put out of my mind. However, I do relate to the hippy culture of the 60s even though I was only a young child at the time. I read somewhere most of what we think of as the 60s took place in the 70s anyway. IRL I’m very much a product of the time period anyway.

  3. Juhli

    Wow, the “put caps on my own dreams” sentence really resonated with me. I too was told I could be/do anything but then when I wanted to fly off to college in NYC, etc. my parent’s fears were raised and they pulled me back. They wanted more for us than they had but they didn’t know how to make it happen except through traditional college education in “safe” places. I also love the list of possible lives – each one could be a great short story or book; time travel included. BTW, I just watched a documentary about Josephine Baker and her life was much more complex (spying during WWII, bankruptcy averted by Princess Grace, adopting many children, etc.) and also more sad than I had imagined. Very interesting if you get a chance to see it on PBS.

    • Yes, that’s it exactly – I wasn’t able to navigate all the education and financial requirements to “be anything,” and of course, parents of that generation didn’t have any experience in those matters, either. We didn’t have the Internet, so information-gathering by mail happened at a snail’s pace. Underneath it all, there was an assumption that all grown children, but especially girls, would stay close to home and be there for their parents as they grew older.

      I saw a TV movie, The Josephine Baker Story, a long time ago, and would be interested in the documentary. Although I’m not a big Owen Wilson fan, I enjoyed the movie Midnight in Paris, which is about an alternate life in Gay Paree!

  4. Wow I really don’t know – I do enjoy reading about the holocaust, but I can’t imagine being back in that time, dealing with the hate, and I can only wonder what media reported in countries. How would I react? How would I resist, and would it really be possible? I suppose I enjoy reading about people who survived, against all odds, but more, the charity and kindness of strangers to other strangers – THAT’S what I want to live, and I try to live it.

  5. Love it. Have you seen “Midnight in Paris” one of Woody Allen’s best movies? The premise is the male protagonist fantasizes about Paris during the 1920’s and he goes back in time after midnight to that era as he walks the city. Ironically, he meets a woman from that era, who fantasizes about Paris during the 1870’s. I think the operative word in the fantasies is Paris, so I am ready for a visit now. BTG

    • You bet! Enjoyed it very much. I think every era believes they missed out on a golden age. Currently reading a history of Greenwich Village – the residents who came after WW1 were very aware they had missed the heyday of the 1910s – not realizing there were more glory days to come!

  6. Festival Grandma, Gran of Rock, Nana Punk, what ever you want to be sounds good to me! I do have a strong nostalgia for times past, I wonder why, hmmm, probably don’t want to analyse myself here!

    • It’s funny, I used to have that nostalgia, but it went away – I think I live more in the present now, and have fewer regrets. I will adopt one of your titles 🙂

  7. I always imagine what it’ll be like to live in the future, way off in the future, than I do to go back in time. I wonder about the technology, the music, if the robots have taken over. I hope not!

    • My fear of the future is that advertising will be even more prominent than it is now, like in the books “Super Sad True Love Story” and “LoveStar.” Hardly seems possible, but the authors of those books imagined it!

  8. I love reading about life through the war, the camaraderie but I think that’s a romantacised view.

    When I was young I lived in London and was in the middle of the Golden Jubilee procession with all the carriages and Princesses. Kissed many a frog for years after that.

    • I like to read about life on the home front during WW2, and I’m sure my view is nothing like the reality.

      Hmm, I have never experienced a procession with carriages and princesses. What is my excuse for the frogs, then 🙂

  9. Fiona

    I can really imagine you in that ‘scene’! I do like reading biographies of that time and imagining being there at that moment in history.

    I can’t pick a specific era I really relate to being in, though that line that we could all ‘be anything we want to’ has been frustrating of late. In reality, there were so many limitations on that. Many of us did still limit our expectations to traditional female roles, even with the expectations of education. Probably not surprising really as the first generation of women ‘post-pill’ with real options outside the home.

    • So true. I am in a pink collar profession. I would have had family support if I had wanted to become a doctor or lawyer, but not so much a police officer or a forest ranger. The money aspect was a factor then as now. But at least it was better than 20 years earlier when women were still going to university to meet their future husbands and their degrees were jokingly called an M.R.S.

  10. When I read the title and the first few sentences of this post, I thought you’d watched “Midnight in Paris” (which by the way is a good film if you have a chance to watch). As for me? Honestly, no. I get nostalgic over things from my childhood. And I do like certain dynasties in China and I love hearing about Hong Kong in the 1960s, but I’m not drawn to it in a “I rather be there” sort of way. My life’s motto (or aspiring one) is the song, “Happy Baby” by Shaye. So I’m just trying to enjoy the here and now.

    • I’ve never felt that I would rather have lived in a different time and place, but a visit would be nice! I am ever-so-grateful for all of our modern conveniences.

  11. I absolutely romanticize the past and I think we live in a marvellous age that allows us to do that! Media allows us to catch glimpses into different times and the beauty of today is an understanding of what is good for us, as well as the world, and being able to live any life we want within that understanding. I totally love dressing in vintage florals and knitting and baking like my Nanna used to in war time England. But, I love the lovely internet and mod cons . It is a wonderful world!

    • Excellent point! In earlier times, it would have taken a lot of reading to find out about other times and places. Books were rare and expensive and only for scholars. People would know the oral history of their own family and town, but most would never have travelled (unless emigrating). And here we are with film and video and recorded music and Internet, with over a hundred years of media at our disposal. It is a wonderful world!

  12. I enjoyed Midnight in Paris. My romantised favourite period is the Little House period – in a little cottage stuck in the snow. My favourite “dream” to help me get to sleep. I don’t want to go back there and know it would be hell – all the hard physical work. But as a relaxing image of peace, quiet, escapism, it helps.

    My other period is a big house in the image of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. OK, I’d probably have been the maid but it would be nice to be the female ladies of the house who had no work to do. For a little bit, until the monotony hit.

    Tellingly, as bgt has commented above, one of the characters from the period that Owen Wilson visits thinks the Belle Epoch is “it”. We all dream of an idealised time or place.

    Where/when would I live? Here and now. Because of the points you point out – discrimination, sexism, poverty of past times.

    • I think we really cling to first impressions and to our first exposures to a time or place that’s new to us. If we’ve read a romantic historical novel about an era, we’ll keep that view and it’s unlikely to be replaced by an authentic historical view unless we purposely try to dispel our illusions. One of my co-workers visited Paris in April a couple of years ago, and didn’t like it at all because it was “stinky” and had grey weather. Go figure!

  13. I can’t say that there is a particular era that I romanticize about, but there is a country, I’m absolutely and totally in love with England, it’s been that way since I was a young girl, and then I found out that I’m adopted and that my birth grandmother is British… quite odd eh?
    I hope you have a great up coming weekend!
    Much love,

    • Hi Tammy, I bet most of us don’t have to go back too far to find a British relative! I haven’t had a life-long love affair with another country, but now that I’ve been to London, I can’t wait to go back each time.

  14. Gemma Ptolemy

    I always thought of the past eras I would have liked to live in but unfortunately, this time period is probably the best time to be a black person. Who knows what would have happened to me.

  15. As a kid, I tried to convince my parents to do a pioneer day (with candles, cooking dinner over a fire, etc.) but that never happened 😉 Of course, when I think logically about changing to a different era, I realize modern living has a lot of conveniences that I’m not fully prepared to give up voluntarily (pens and washing machines come immediately to mind). Plus this is where my friends and family are and they would be even more difficult to leave behind.

  16. Hubby swears I have been reincarnated from the 1800s. I just like order (proper manners, proper dress), and the romance of the Georgian/Victorian/Edwardian eras (although these ideas come from historical romance novels which conveniently leave out all of the gritty details of chamber pots, lack of antibiotics, and social injustice on a huge scale). But it is nice to think about anyway (as long as I get the Duke’s daughter role and not the scullery maid role….eekkk).

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