Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

Reading between the lines.
May 5 2012 12:14 AM

The Bewildering Art of the Air Kiss

An expatriate's memoir explains how this is no longer your parents’ Paris.

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Susie Post Rust

And it quickly becomes Baldwin’s job to sell it as well, because at his ad-agency job he writes copy for Louis Vuitton and other French brands. As one executive at a French brandy concern puts it, the agency’s chief dilemma is to “reconvince the world to love France” (p.196)— specifically, France the unquestioned authority on luxury, not only to Americans but to a larger world market, most notably China. Chinese nouveau riche are buying French liquor as a prestige brand, drinking cognac with their meals like wine. Despite gasps and exclamations of “But that’s not normal!” from the French people in the room, a market is a market, and if it’s the Chinese who now have the money to support the French luxury industry, then it’s China that France will market Frenchness to.

The most well-observed passages in Paris, I Love You come from Baldwin’s time in this very French office, where his colleagues eat their McDonald’s lunches in courses (McNuggets, then fries and a burger, then salad, then dessert), and he can never figure out when to kiss people on both cheeks. Here, cultural assumptions break both ways—while Baldwin seems fascinated by the sad, confident sexiness of most Parisian men, he’s also an object of fascination to many of his co-workers, who are dying to move to New York. One of the Web designers starts calling him “my nigger” until Baldwin tells him it cannot continue, and another takes him to lunch to furtively confess, in a Paris filled with indignant union workers constantly on strike, her secret capitalist leanings.

When Baldwin seeks his own idea of Paris, rather than focusing on that of his parents or on selling it to Chinese businessmen, he—and we—are often disappointed. Though he takes pains to explain that his neighborhood in the Haut Marais wasn’t yet hip in 2007, it’s still essentially Paris’ West Village, a picturesque quarter that feels like a small town, but where your neighbor just happens to be a millionaire film star. It’s where the cool globetrotting kids hang out, where you may hear more English spoken than French. The other expats he meets seem uniformly obnoxious, particularly those connected with A Small World, an invitation-only networking group that goes global with the cliquishness of high school. His descriptions of Small World parties—populated with trust-funders who exclaim “I don’t think I even know a Parisian, isn’t that appalling?”—made my teeth ache. Eventually he drops this group, tired of their rarefied bubble, but not before I’d heard way too much from them.

Baldwin is more interesting when he’s being a plain old immigrant and attending his Jour Civique (Civic Day), a course in French history and government required of all foreigners living in France. He’s the only American in a class populated by residents of former French colonies like Algeria and Senegal, and his fellow students fully grasp the irony of their former colonizer now instructing them on equality. In a lesson on laws about assault, the teacher asks the class if it’s legal for him to hit them; a young Tunisian replies, “I’m an Arab, so you probably can hit me. Maybe it depends where you hit me.” This Paris isn’t just a romantic luxurious dream, but part of a powerful country in its own right, with deep-seated problems of race and class that are different from our own.

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Americans aren’t the only ones who go through profound Paris disillusionment; as Baldwin mentions in his book, there’s a psychological phenomenon called Paris Syndrome which strikes Japanese tourists when the reality of Paris doesn’t live up to the fantasy. As many as a dozen have to be repatriated each year when their disillusionment brings about nervous collapse. Even Parisians are sometimes happier thinking about Paris than living in it; one confesses to Baldwin, “I would not want to live here if I could choose a different history.” This sentiment is echoed by many of his coworkers, who feel trapped: Paris is far too expensive/crowded/elitist to live in, but it’s Paris—how could you leave?

Gradually, Baldwin’s fantasy Paris is replaced by reality, and he finds he loves that city, too. As in falling in love with a person, true love with a city only comes in accepting its faults, and for those of us who tough it out, the irritants of Paris can become badges of honor, and small triumphs. (In that way, it’s not unlike New York, the city celebrated and excoriated in the LCD Soundsystem song from which Baldwin pinches his title.) Baldwin finally knows he’s fluent in French when he can get the telemarketer from his mobile-phone company to stop calling him every day. I knew I’d make it here the day that, cut off by a monstrous Parisian scooter, I cursed in French. (Seriously, why drive a three-wheeled scooter with a windshield? Just buy a car already.)

There’s a weird kind of joy in figuring out how to get past, around, or through the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the endless dossiers and C’est pas possibles that make up life here as either immigrant or native son. It may not be the Paris of Miller or Hemingway, but it’s our Paris—where they review novels on the evening news, and where you can still buy a great bottle of wine for 10 euros and drink it on the banks of the Seine. Pas mal, non? Pas mal du tout.

Read all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Claire Lundberg is a writer, literary scout, and former New Yorker now living in Paris.