July 25, 2012
What’s the difference between New York City and Paris? “New York is fried, Paris is baked,” Baldwin tells us. When he leaves Brooklyn for a two-year stint in Paris, he hopes for more of a contrast than that. What he finds is that the world is smaller than even Disney could have imagined. “The Great French Dream didn’t sound much different than the Great American Dream, only with More Vacation Days.” Even the costumes are the same. “Hey, is it me,” he asks, “or did Parisians ditch berets for Yankees caps?” All the Parisian men he knows dress like him, in jeans. Shockingly, two-thirds of his ad agency colleagues lunch on McDonald’s (albeit in courses, with chicken nuggets serving as the entrée). Even the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, is an American-style leader, all flash and bling.
The expat experience in Paris is a perennial favorite subject for books and movies. There’s The Paris Wife, “Midnight in Paris,” Almost French, Paris to the Moon, Dreaming in French, and the phenomenally—but weirdly—popular Bringing Up Bébé. What makes Paris I Love You stand out is its wry, self-deprecating, often slapstick humor. When Baldwin tries to ask a female French co-worker for some of her time (tes temps), his mispronunciation turns the phrase into a request for her nipples (tétons). Proper nouns are indecipherable. “I’d think someone had conjugated a verb in the subjunctive,” he says, “but they’d simply mentioned an eighties French sitcom I didn’t know.” Baldwin is funnier than Woody Allen and edgier than Adam Gopnik. I couldn’t restrain myself from interrupting my husband repeatedly to read him passages aloud so we could laugh together. As I write this, I hear my husband cackling in the next room, while he reads the book himself. I’ve lived in Paris before and am leaving for a one-year sojourn there soon. All you have to do is say “French fry” and my whole family cracks up, so I’m probably the perfect audience.
“Living in another language and speaking defectively, I could not be clever,” Baldwin says. “At best, I was genuine. Accidentally funny, but never funny on purpose.” Lucky for us, our hero is highly accident prone. When he tries to set up his cell phone voice mailbox he accidentally programs it to operate solely by voice command, no buttons, in fluent French. The next day he has to ask his boss to unlock it. He tries rendering American idioms into French, but his coworkers “stand flamingo-still” when he casually drops, “Moi, je ne donne pas une merde (I don’t give a shit).” Within a month, he blows three projects’ deadlines due to giant bloopers of miscommunication. “Account supervisors frown at [him] with their whole bodies, leaning forward while exhaling poofs of air. What had they done to deserve this American?”
Paris, I Love You has received much acclaim, including being named one of the top ten travel books by Publishers Weekly. But it is more than a travel book: it’s a memoir about work, written by a novelist with serious literary chops. Baldwin does nearly no touristing. Instead, he gives us the inside scoop on the infant nutrition account he is, ridiculously, supposed to write informational booklets for without any information. He takes us along to London and San Francisco and The Bahamas, where he works with a film crew to interview celebrities for the Louis Vuitton luggage account. He shows us the day-to-day workings of an ad agency, where he is told that he is working too efficiently and making his partner look bad and where he is asked to make a presentation to a visiting Texan during his third week on the job.
We meet some wild characters, including “a Frenchman the size of an Oscar statue” who “wore a blue T-shirt with a penis on it jutting from a banana peel.” There are even some celebrity cameos, after Baldwin is sent to interview the likes of Sean Connery and Sophia Coppola for Louis Vuitton commercials. His descriptions are deadpan and dead-on. “I couldn’t take my eyes off Karl Lagerfeld,” Baldwin says. “He resembled a short, dead Iggy Pop.” But the most fully realized and endearing character is Bruno, Baldwin’s “work wife,” the graphic half of the creatif team. Bruno drives home on his scooter to lunch with friends over a bottle of wine but longs to emigrate and become an entrepreneur, claiming it is impossible to start a business in France.
Like a true New Yorker, Baldwin can find the underside even in Paris. “The Interior Ministry reported 144 cars torched in the suburbs,” he says, “a smaller number than in previous years . . . a protest that was seen and heard by almost nobody in the city center.”
At the end of Baldwin’s two-year stay, he has learned to speak French, but much of French life remains a paradox. How do Parisians stay slim, with a rich diet and dismissive attitude towards exercise, for instance? “My co-workers said the best thing to do if you wanted to lose weight was catch une gastro, an intestinal bug,” Baldwin says. “They were only half joking.”
I’m a French-book junkie, so some of the truths Baldwin tells are familiar to me, like this one: “In France there was still a wide affection for the myth of cowboys and Indians.” But others are astonishing, like this one, my favorite: “Yassine asked me for travel tips for Detroit. Detroit? I said. Yassine longed to photograph the auto factories and hard streets—“The ‘grit,’ you say in English?” He told me he was planning a family vacation there soon, he’d take his wife and children. I said I’d never been to Detroit. Yassine only had pity for me. He looked past me the way addicts do, with far-seeing eyes, as though I couldn’t appreciate what he sought.” Now there’s a twist.
Paris, I Love You is episodic, a series of essays and impressions, without a grand epiphany at the end. If you’re looking for a soul-searching or gut-wrenching odyssey, the kind readers often expect from memoirs, Baldwin is not your man. But if you’re up for a cross between “The Office” and the New Yorker, with French techno-pop club music in the background, pull up a chair, fill your glass, and enjoy.
I first heard of Baldwin through the smart, edgy, and topical online arts and cultural magazine he co-founded, The Morning News. It features such literary luminaries as Anthony Doerr and John Warner as columnists, and sponsors one of my favorite annual literary events, the Tournament of Books, a March Madness-inspired playoff for best novel of the year. Anyone who follows the Tournament of Books knows that Baldwin is a delightfully erudite critic who writes with generosity, verve, and what the French might call panache. He has deftly translated all those skills into a tour de force of a travel-book-work-memoir-personal-essay-collection that is well worth your time. (Or even your nipples.)