Book: Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
I seem to be reading backward in time through my pile of French books. First I read A Sweet Life in Paris, released just this year and about an American in Paris in the present. I have just finished Paris to the Moon, published in 1999 about..well read on.
Soon I will be reading the expanded version of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, about life in Paris in the twenties.Although I read the original years ago, I did not think about getting a copy of the expanded version in time for the publication today, unfortunately. My recollection is that the book is more about Hemingway and the Americans who hung out with him than it is about Paris, but from what I read in Christopher Hitchen’s review in the Atlantic, the new sections may relate more strongly to the other two books.
I found it very interesting to read two such different books about Paris (Lebovitz and Gopnik) and come away with the same general definition of what it is to be French. David Lebovitz simply shows us the culture through his experiences with minimum comment, whereas Adam Gopnik philosophizes at length on the exact same observations.
- Parisians worship bureaucracy and filling out the correct form, the way we worship the rule of law and hiring lawyers.
- Parisians don’t like to stand in line.
- Parisians sound rude to Americans because Americans say things that sound rude to them.
- Paris does not represent the whole of France, instead it is even more insular than Washington D.C.
- Everyone dresses well, even the garbage collection men, and particularly the apartment owner carrying the garbage out to the curb. In short, appearance counts.
- Eating is an appreciation of food in the way that museum attendance is an appreciation of art.
- They are inclined to sympathize with a strike by workers or students or anyone.
Lebovitz takes food as his theme, naturally, since he is a chef. Gopnik’s book revolves around the raising of his child. He and his wife moved to Paris when the child was born to keep him away from American TV and Barney in particular. (Of course that did not work.) They stayed five years and when they had a second child, a girl, they said a sad goodbye to Paris in order to enroll their boy in an American school. (The pieces were written for the New Yorker originally, and the direct appeal to the narrow, upper middle class liberal private-school obsessed Manhattanites means there are frequent references that go right over my head.)
We all hang on every amazing development of our first child. For Gopnik, his first child is a foreign culture within a foreign culture, and he observes and analyzes both with intellectual acuity worthy of the French intellectuals and journalists he pals around with. He also uses the ever-so-clever statements of a three-year-old to illustrate his truths, in the way, according to Hitchens, Hemingway uses his son in one of the restored sections to Moveable Feast.
Gopnik, with some very fine, evocative writing goes deep into the history and traditions that shaped today’s Paris, and tries to puzzle out the answers to “Why are they the way they are?” I like his eventual conclusion that instead of comparing them to us, we need to just say, “this is what they are.” Perhaps a good guideline for dealing with all of our culture shocks.
Photo obtained by Creative Commons license through Flickr by photographer Shawn Duffy.