May 03, 2012
Expatriates, I’ve found, don’t necessarily get along. Meeting someone from home who’s navigating the same foreign country as you are can be a source of mutual suspicion or rivalry just as often as it’s a springboard to friendship. Other times, there’s only that superficial common ground to briefly stand on, making it all the more apparent you likely would have nothing to do with one another back on native soil.
But then there are those moments that you do find a fellow expat, someone you wish you’d known back home before you left for this new place, and the person can become a long-lost life raft.
Rosecrans Baldwin is that kind of expatriate you want to meet. In his new book, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, he proves to a good-natured narrator and a sharp observer as he recounts his two-year experience of living and working in the City of Light, France.
Even if I wasn’t residing in the country he chronicles and hadn’t explored much of his same cultural territory, I have the feeling I’d engage with this American bon vivant. But as I am and have, his writing resonates all the more.
In quick succession, the chapters of his book can be hysterically funny (with his Parisian coworkers: “They frowned at me with their whole bodies, leaning forward while exhaling poofs of air. What had they done to deserve this American?”), but just as often they end on notes of surprising sweetness, as in a moment when his wife comes home crying and explains that she just walked back and the city is so beautiful.
Even if you’re not over the moon for Paris, have never ventured into France or couldn’t tell a baguette from a Depardieu public urination incident, Baldwin’s book is worth checking out. It offers an honest recounting of a new generation reconciling the dream with the reality of this storied city.
I had the chance to speak with Rosecrans a week before the release of the book. He met me on a video chat after I sent him the message saying “salut.” He replied that he just needed to grab a “coca light” (Diet Coke, as it’s known for the extremely unsophisticated).
I’m here in Dijon, France. The flowers are blooming, it’s raining at the moment outside my window and the sounds of the city-wide new tramway construction have finally died down for the night. Tell me about where you are?
Well, I am sitting in my home office. I live in Chatham County, North Carolina which is kind of on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, where you find the University of North Carolina. The nice thing about living here is that you can be in the midst of a college town and then you drive for ten minutes and suddenly you’re in a semi rural, agrarian area. North Carolina is famous for being very green. So if you like that, it’s pretty magnificent. We’re semi-isolated. We live on a little private road and I can see out of one window my neighbor, who is sort of a hippie nurse, and her log cabin. We have a fig tree that’s as tall as our house. It’s just sort of an acre of land, mostly in the woods.
A slight change from Paris then?
A slight change. There’s actually town within Chapel Hill, called Carrboro, which likes to refer to itself as “The Paris of the Piedmont.” So I’ve gone from one Paris to another.
So, I once heard celebrity French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, BHL as he’s known over here, tell Jon Stewart on an appearance on the Daily Show that “a wall of clichés” exists between France and America. There does seem to be truth to his point. It seems that few national stereotypes are allowed to flourish as much as those held by Americans of the French, and vice versa. Did you feel like you ever fully scaled this wall, as he called it?
Yeah, those clichés and stereotypes abound and they aren’t going away. But I disagree with BHL in that I think his metaphor is off. I don’t think there’s a wall and I don’t think they get in the way of people understanding one another. But I do think it’s more like…oh, let’s say it’s a perfume. It’s a perfume that’s in the air and people are reluctant to open the window to air out the relationship. And I don’t think that’s all that unnatural or even odd. I mean, BHL himself has an identity and a stereotype that he promotes and doesn’t want changed. I would bet you the summer harvest of my fig tree, that during that appearance, BHL was wearing a white button-down shirt with at least two or three buttons popped (fact check: yep). That BHL look, his tan chest and hair flowing to the shoulder, has been there since the late-sixties protest. He does it, and he knows it. At the same time, Americans do it and we know it. So people who have been to Paris make a joke about French people having stinky armpits and the French joke about Americans being stupid bullies. The details are mushy clichés, but they don’t come from nowhere. Those ideas represent two countries that like to talk about their own ideas and their own national identity. In France, you’re French before you are anything else. In America, you’re free before you’re anything else. And we don’t shut up about either of those things.
So as an extremely long answer to your question, I didn’t feel judged. I didn’t feel like people thought of me as George Bush. If anything I was more likely to be the one who was apologizing, or making jokes at my own expense.
Did you get the sense, as you were saying with BHL, that people were playing up their Frenchness to you, to try to meet your preconceptions?
(laughs) I don’t think so. Shit. Maybe I just didn’t notice.
There’s the story of Jacques Chirac on visits to the States kissing women on the hand, something you never see people in France doing, but he later admitted he thought that’s what Americans expected him to do.
I don’t think it happened at work, because the people I worked with were in a global marketplace. There’s a global business mentality that’s turning everyone into the Borg. That gets its coffee to go, you know.
But in real life, I ran into numerous French dudes who played up their Frenchness, mostly to get laid. We ran into this guy at parties who would buy his T-shirts in Greenwich Village that had wacky sexual phrases on it, in order to get girls to talk to him. There was this macho Frenchness that was sort of highly insecure, while being aggressive.
On the flip side, did you feel yourself exaggerating or somehow playing to a certain kind of Americanness?
No. I’m the tourist who doesn’t want anyone to know I’m a tourist. When I travel I hate standing out, though it’s impossible not to. For example, most of my coworkers spoke a little English. But I insisted on speaking French from the get-go, even if that made the communication much worse. Because I thought it would be so stereotypically American of me to expect them to speak English in their own country, in their own city, in an office where they’re supposed to be speaking their own language. So I bent over backwards to be more French, so that I could pass or blend. Of course, the whole time A: it’s making it worse B: there’s no question what my nationality was.
But at the same time, in Paris, if you say bonjour or you ask for something with a “s’il vous plait,” you’re more likely to get a smile at the other end of the exchange.
Luckily, that does go a long way. You come out with a “s’il vous plaît” and people are surprised, where they were expecting an American tourist but here’s someone making an attempt.
People assume the stereotype in a stereotypical exchange. If you’re a waiter serving an obese man in a fanny pack, things will likely go a certain way.
But the joy of moving to another country, and also the terror, is how unique most every situation is at every second. The discovery, the confrontation, constantly having to solve things that at home were never problems. It’s great and I miss it now. I miss being provoked. Of course, it also drives you mad, and I don’t miss that part of it. But really, you feel alert and alive all the time. It’s so easy to be complacent.
Especially surrounded by a new language, you’re constantly challenging your entire world-view just with the new words themselves.
Yeah, the language part is really interesting. It makes you aware of how you create sentences. You start noticing the way that conversations are built. It doesn’t even have to be on a linguistic, philosophical level, but it’s more about what does conversation mean to them and what does it mean to us. There’s the French style of conversation, the idea that you can be at a table for six hours and it’s gossipy and sexy and angry and deep and very shallow for long stretches of time and there’s going to be one or two fights, but it goes on forever. It’s so rare in the American style of conversation where I’m going to communicate my information, pause, and then you’re going to communicate your information.
And you often get the sense in French conversation that the focus is on the enjoyment on the words themselves, which is a strange place to be when you’re the one learning the language.
Exactly. Well, let’s just wade into gross stereotypes. In some ways, the French can be disappointed if you’re not up to the banter of conversation. They seem to enjoy so much the back and forth, the interruption, and the jokes, and the referential jokes, that you can just keep bouncing off of one another. And if you don’t speak the language, let alone if you come from another style of discourse, you’re as wet a blanket as can be thrown on the situation.
And it’s not just for dinner, though if you watch French movies it does seem like it. For instance, the office where I worked was a lot sexier than anything I’d ever experienced in America. There’s was so much flirting, with much more fun and teasing to be had between the sexes in the office than I’d seen before in the United States, along with the sense that this was how it should be. Obviously, it can lead to other things, not all of them good. But it was remarkably different.
Let’s talk about the writing of the book. Americans writing about Parisian life has quite a history, with plenty of pitfalls of cliché. Did this present obstacles for you as you wrote?
I was determined to be anti-cliché. It really was part of the motivation to write this book. Not that there was some sort of record to set straight, but there are so many books about Paris, and memoirs about people living in Paris, particularly who are involved in the arts. So the story’s been told. The trouble is that the story has been told poorly many more times than not.
I mean, I grew up loving the ex-pat books. Some people just made the city come alive. One example for me would be The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. And in college I read the letters from Paris by Adam Gopnik which then became Paris to the Moon. I thought those were fantastic, just lively and crackling. Then there’s other writing about Paris from Colette and André Gide…we could go on. But the point is all those writers were so great that if I wanted to jump in with a book- frankly to be lucky enough to do it- I wanted to at least tell my story as honestly and with as much close observation as I could.
The way it came about, at the time, I was keeping notes, just because certain moments were so sharp and vivid I had to write it down. I had no intention at that point of doing a book. But I would write down these little notes to myself as text messages and send them to my email account because the dialogue I overheard was so funny. Then I just started keeping a diary. When waking up in the morning to write my novel, I would warm up by transcribing the text messages I’d sent to myself the day before. I just had to write the story that I knew that was my own and if I stuck to the truth as closely as I could, cliché wouldn’t be possible. Then you go back to editing and you go “cliché, cliché, cliché” and end up ripping a lot of stuff out.
Or then you just write A Moveable Feast across the top and are done with it.
You know what’s funny, I just had a conversation with someone the other day, Allan Gurganus, a novelist and an incredible writer, and we were talking about how fucking great that book is. I mean some of the Hemingway I can’t stand to read again, but that book, just the style of the thing is blazing. Of course, its historical accuracy has been questioned. The clichés crop up.
In the book, you describe your inability to be funny when communicating in French and instead come across as earnest. Did you ever feel earnest became a role or persona you adopted?
(laughs) Yeah, as you’re acquiring vocabulary, you have to speak in baby talk- I love this. I like that. This no good.
Some of the comic timing is lost.
Right, the punchlines just don’t sound as good when they each have one-syllable words. The earnestness was unavoidable if I wanted to communicate at all. There’s also a feeling, you know, if you’re an introspective person, it’s hard to slip into yourself when you’re required to be constantly figuring things out. But you don’t have the chance to be introspective, because if you’re not paying 100% attention to what someone is saying you’re going to look like an idiot, or you’re not going to get dinner, or get home. All these little moments of daily survival hinge on you being an extrovert. I remember just feeling exhausted at the end of the day.
Yes, it forces you to fully engage, to focus completely in the moment, or on that person.
And if there’s any place to be in the moment, Paris is pretty highly ranked. But then you need to go home and take a nap.
Tell me then about the period immediately following the book, your reentry. As someone who’s been away for awhile, I’m always just as interested in hearing stories of readjustment back to home. Is repatriation as bad as they say?
Well, when we came back, we moved to North Carolina. I went and voted for Obama, my dream president, and he goes on to win. The same season the UNC men’s basketball team wins the championship. But also when we came back, we moved in with my in-laws. It turned out to be a good thing, but on the surface- I moved in with my in-laws. I wrote an article for Salon about the experience. The other thing is it was a crippling economy and work was hard to find, so there was definitely some difficult reintroduction.
So then does Paris still have a draw? And if so, is it now even stronger?
Oh yeah, for sure. Even stronger now is the desire to move to Paris and not have to work. I don’t think it’s happening anytime soon, but when it does I very much look forward to it.
Sometimes I think the more you’re away from Paris, the more magical and appealing it becomes. And even when you’re there, the action always seems to be just one block over. Or as you say in the book, “There should be a name for the syndrome that occurred when you were in Paris and you already missed it.” In that case you were speaking of your goodbye to the city, but you summed that up well, I think. It’s that sense that the true Paris is always not quite here, always just up ahead.
I think it’s absolutely true. And not only that it’s the place that if you haven’t been there, you should be trying to save up all your money to go there next. Ever since I had an idea about what Paris was, that’s where I wanted to be. I mean you walk around in a constant state of immersion in beauty. How could you not go?
I realize I sound like a tourist brochure. But I say that, I think, as a reaction to feedback I’ve gotten. I was talking to someone who’d heard of my book but didn’t know anything about it and he said “So it’s sort of a depressing book about Paris then?” No, that’s not what it’s about.
But of course it’s also a burden to carry for the city, having to cultivate that kind of beauty. Paris can at times collapse under its own weight.
They sacrifice a lot for it. Whatever is not being a theme park, that’s what it’s like. I knew a lot of young people at work who were angry about that. They would look at places like New York or London or Berlin, places that have seen upheaval, but also sort of seek out upheaval. Because if there’s one thing Paris doesn’t do is tear anything down. But the problem is if they don’t let in a little rawness, they’ll end up like Venice- an island of wealthy ex-patriates from other countries that is sinking.
Then I wanted to ask about the election. This is an election year in both countries, with France’s happening right now. My question is, what’s your prediction on which is more likely: a Sarkozy loss in France or an Obama loss in North Carolina?
Holy crap, I never would have thought of putting those two up against one another. I think I’ll have to say, unfortunately, it’s more likely that Obama will lose North Carolina. It was an extremely close contest last time. But a lot of changes are happening that are not looking good for Obama, I’m afraid to say. I mean, my view is basically French- I’m left but also kind of cranky. So yeah, I’m gonna say a Sarkozy win.
Yes, Sarkozy is the candidate this country loves to hate. So much so that sometimes I think they may not be able to vote against him. With the problems coming for the country, they may need someone to hate.
We can say this, if the country elects Sarkozy, it will be the Frenchest thing they could have done. To publicly denounce the guy, argue about him, protest against him, but in the end, give him another term.
Ok, one last question: do you ever wake-up in a cold sweat after a dream that you’re still biking around the Arc de Triomphe?
(laughs) It hasn’t happened yet. But it definitely could. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been on a bike since my time in Paris, possibly for that reason.
Well all that is to say, you’re a braver man than I.
ROSECRANS BALDWIN’s debut novel, You Lost Me There, was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2010, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and a Time and Entertainment Weekly best book of summer 2010. He is a cofounder of the online magazine The Morning News. Learn more about him at his website.
Excerpted from PARIS, I LOVE YOU BUT YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN, by Rosecrans Baldwin, to be published in May 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2012 by Rosecrans Baldwin. All rights reserved.