Happy Bastille Day July 14
Book: Paris I love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin (New June 2013)
I might find it annoying to read a book about a guy from America who has always loved the idea of Paris, who gets a job in Paris and gets to live in the Marais and go to lots of parties with his wife and an interesting assortment of ex-pats and co-workers. He lives the dream of an American writer in Paris. I might find it even more annoying if he pointed out that his life was not perfect.
However, Rosecrans Baldwin writes with such charming self-deprecation and delightful insights, that I can’t totally hate him. (And that link to his name back there leads to an entertaining interview in GQ that I think you’ll enjoy.)
Well, maybe I hate him a little bit, but as with the books At Least You’re in Tuscany, and The Sweet Life in Paris, I find it refreshing to get the inside scoop on what life is REALLY like for an expat in Paradise.
Andrew Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon probably most closely parallels Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, as a model of American writer in Paris, but Gopnik is more domestic and takes his stay more seriously.
Baldwin, like all American writers in Paris, wants to channel Hemingway‘s experiences in Moveable Feast, but of course Paris in the 21st century is very different than Paris in Hemingway’s day. Baldwin does manage to become the American writer in Paris who writes a novel and sells it to a publisher (whoops, another reason to hate him) while he yo-yos between ecstasy and disappointment in the City of Light.
Here’s what happened. He fell in love with Paris on a family vacation at 14. After college he worked at a New York ad agency to support his novel-writing habit. So when a Frenchman he had met in New York invites him to go to Paris and work for an ad agency there…Voila! But of course! His wife and he find a minuscule apartment in not the most fashionable area of the Marais, but at least more affordable than Hemingway’s left bank is nowadays. But if Hemingway ever had the hilarious encounters with French bureacracy that happen to Baldwin–the duplicate triplicate applications and the waiting and waiting– he wasn’t telling. And Hemingway surely did not have to put up with construction in the apartment building that gradually surrounded the Baldwins on six sides.
They got physicals and applied for a health insurance card. He applied for a work permit. They jumped through hoops to open a bank account and a cell phone account.
And do we ever hear whether Papa could speak French so that anyone could figure out what he was saying? No, but we learn a lot of French vocabulary as Baldwin tries to cope with office etiquette, (who gets a kiss on both cheeks, vs. just a hearty Bon Jour when you arrive in the morning?), personal expression (is it ever safe to express a viewpoint that will be dismissively labeled “pay-say”–P.C.–“Too American!”) and partying with complaining expats (they work too hard, the French are not friendly, they can’t wait to leave).
And the language barrier. How could give a favorable impression when he couldn’t speak well?
Living in another language and speaking defectively, I could not be clever. At best, I was genuine. Accidentally funny, but never funny on purpose. Earnest. not savvy.
Every time the book sinks into the ‘poor me, how tough this is’ mode, Baldwin pulls it right out again with his deep infatuation with the beauty and charm of Paris. Everything is astonishing and amazing. He loves the velibs (rental bicycles). He loves the BVD a gigantic home and hardware store that also carries lingerie.They love Picard, where you can buy gourmet frozen food.
Through the windows came fragrances from the trees outside and Asif’s vegetable garden. We heard only birdsong. I remembered a letter Edith Wharton wrote about Paris in 1907…”The tranquil majesty of the architectural lines, the wonderful blurred winter lights, the long lines of lamps garlanding the avenues & the quays–je l’ai dans mon sang!” (I have it in my blood!“)
At the time, I thought I knew what she meant, Baldwin continues. But now I knew.
He and his wife go to the farmer’s market, of course
We gazed on rotisserie birds that butchers displayed on the sidwalk, and sniffed melons like we saw old women do, at the stem. We admired men walking around with bags on their shoulders, like enormous straw purses, with leeks poking out of their armpits.
Baldwin excels at painting word pictures of people. The French were tentatively trying jogging in the 90s when he was living there–not quite getting into it like Americans. Here’s one example of runners in Buttes-Chaumont, a park well-loved by Parisians but undiscovered by tourists, by the way.
His running companion wore black tights, a black cashmere sweater, ballet flats, enormous black Chanel sunglasses, makeup, and a gold pendant necklace. Both of them were chatting while jogging a ten-minute mile.
A beautiful woman jogging in jeans and suede loafers, while swinging an oversize handbag.
And for every puzzling or irritating or insulting exchange with a French person, the American writer in Paris finds a behavior that he admires. Flirting. Outspoken honesty. The belief in taking time to enjoy life–and food. The passionate interest in food. Sexual openness despite cultural conservativism.
Paris, I Love You is a fun read and also contains food for thought for travelers as well as those planning to stay long term in Paris. It definitely belongs on the shelf of a traveler’s library.
When Baldwin sends off his finished novel and gets word that his agent has sold it to a publisher, it seems like time to go home. After just over a year in Paris he and his wife prepare to leave.
Then their health care cards arrive. C’est France.
Note: This book was provided by the publisher for review, but my opinions are my own as usual. Most links to book titles in this post lead to other articles and reviews I have written. All photos belong to me or to Ken Badertscher. If you want to reuse them, please ask permission. The links to the cover of the book and the title of Paris, I Love You will take you to Amazon. If you shop through my links, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library, since I’m an Amazon affiliate. Thanks for your help.