The Bewildering Art of the Air KissReported by Slate on Saturday, 5 May 2012 (on May 5, 2012)
Early in Rosecrans Baldwin’s droll and well-observed memoir *Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down*, Baldwin’s looking for an apartment in the Latin Quarter, and in the shadow of the Pantheon, he reflects on all that has happened since the days of Hemingway. He goes on to list some of these things: “Luke Skywalker had happened. Supermarkets happened. Hip-hop happened and Joan Didion happened. Email happened.”
Sans blague. The Paris of today is no longer your parents’ Paris, Midnight in Paris Paris—the city of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and later Julia Child, of 20-franc hotel rooms and 5-franc bistro lunches. Paris has grown up, learned English, globalized, and gotten expensive. Meanwhile in America: Espresso has happened, Chez Panisse has happened, Napa Valley has happened. In both places, 1968 happened. Paris has sushi restaurants and immigration issues, and America has Whole Foods, which evokes such reverence in the French people in Baldwin’s book that they call it “unbelievable” and “so beautiful” and declare—crazily, to American ears—that “we have nothing like Whole Foods ... show me where in Paris food is sold like art.”
So who is talking to whom here? Has America become more French, has France become more American? Baldwin, like many Americans, harbors fantasies about life in Paris—there he would discover his true artistic self, shed the banal skin of Americanness, and rediscover himself as a European. Perhaps he would learn to appreciate wine. He moves to Paris in 2007 to take a job as a copywriter for a big French advertising firm. He and his wife rent an apartment in the Marais, and when Baldwin isn’t writing copy, he’s studiously working on a novel, in another grand tradition of American writers.
It’s a little ballsy at this point to write an American-in-Paris memoir, given the genre’s deep bench. Since moving to Paris 18 months ago, I’ve read Hungry for Paris, The Sweet Life in Paris, Paris to the Moon, Lunch in Paris, and—most recently, after having a baby here myself—Bringing up Bébé. Every publishing season seems to bring its own Paris memoir, and every season I (and plenty of other Americans, in Paris or America,) snap these stories up. But what makes Baldwin’s book particularly enjoyable is that it engages with the clash of our American idea of Paris and Paris the modern reality. In Paris the global city, Baldwin continually runs up against his provincial and romantic fantasies, and then asks himself why he has them in the first place.
In many ways, Baldwin and I are in the same cohort: thirtysomething, college-educated, upper-middle-class Americans with jobs in media. We both moved to Paris from New York City with our spouses. Both of us first learned to revere Paris from our parents. Baldwin remembers visiting the city as a child and watching his mother transform into a woman over a bowl of café au lait. Similarly, I’m named after Éric Rohmer’s film Claire’s Knee, and my parents fed me escargot before I turned 10. Both of us were raised on the Paris of our parents’ expectations, a place where everything was a little more beautiful, more cultured, more intellectual, more delicious, more right.
Against this shimmering ideal, modern Paris can be a bit of a slap in the face, sometimes feeling designed to sabotage all romance. The quaint bistro down the street from Baldwin is run by Australians, serves ostrich steak, and is wallpapered in pornographic cartoons. The Metro is crowded, the coffee is terrible, and it rains as much as in London. The most delicious and affordable food comes from the local frozen food retailer, Picard.
It may seem naive or even insane to cling to a romanticized image of a city when its full-blooded reality is staring you in the face. But Paris encourages such paradox because of how heavily it trades on its own romantic mythology. More international tourists visit Paris each year than any other city, and Paris knows what they come for: not just the Eiffel tower key chains but the quaint bistros, the sidewalk cafes, the Louvre, the croissants and the baguettes and the boules. Though a lot has happened since Hemingway, it’s still selling that story.
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