Rosecrans Baldwin (You Lost Me There, The Morning News) had a dream of living in Paris since he was a little kid. He visited once as a child and remembers not only how magical the city was but its equally wondrous effect on his parents. I'd never seen my mother as a woman before, he writes. He takes French in school and lets himself be charmed by the idea of a city and a life. "French" becomes a synonym for things I liked before I knew why I liked them. He then gets the opportunity of a life-time and is offered a job as a copywriter at a French advertizing agency that needs someone who can write English copy and help with client pitches. He and his wife are on a plane before you can say Bonjour!
What follows is an expat memoir and I know that some of you can't see anything already because your eyes are rolled way back in your head. But, you've got to trust me, this is GOOD book: well observed and funny but also very, very kind and self-effacing in a way that won't make you feel like the author is fishing for compliments. Yes, some of the subject matter will sound familiar– French bureaucracy, culinary (mis-)adventures, butchered slang, and comparative studies in hygiene– but Baldwin's observations won't bug you because they ring... well... true.
When discussing his linguistic deficiencies, for example, Baldwin doesn't apologize. Instead, he describes the experience as living in "round-the-clock therapy".
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. I'd worked this out, that it was difficult for me to influence other people's impressions of me favorably when I didn't speak the language well, and apparently this was something I needed, people having favorable impressions of me based on what I'd said.Living abroad, he concludes, is not unlike psychoanalysis.
You know where my mind is going with this. I can't help it. Been there, done that. I've lived through the awkwardness of barely being able to express myself and still can't forget that overwhelming feeling of when you slowly start to recognize that the person you are interacting with is getting all relaxed as they begin to think that they got you all figured out and you realize exactly how they are thinking of you and they are wrong, wrong, WRONG but you don't speak their language well enough to actually be able to clear things up so you end up letting it go. You let it go over, and over, and over again. Until you realize that you are slowly becoming that very same person you so adamantly insisted (to yourself, anyway) you were not.
Baldwin is genius for putting his finger on this particular experience as I think that's really at the core of the expat/immigrant experience– this intense conflict between wanting to change in order to fit in and fighting the change as a lot of it happens without your direct involvement. And, consequently, the constant sense of fragility that brings into your life and the ease with which your miniscule triumphs just up and disappear:
Bridges sparkled. Cashiers smiled. The girl at the patisserie took an extra minute to wrap up your eclair like it was a present for the king. But when you didn't know the words for Shit, I forgot my wallet, any moment could implode.
Now. Don't think that this book is some toothless kiss-ass ode to a city that we all already know is pretty great. Baldwin does take some jabs at Parisians. Most notably, he documents his co-workers stand against the grand evil that was political correctness:
Tolerance was high for sucking black dicks like a Jew, but there was no room in the office for political correctness. Never. None. It needed to be fought actively, and if that required telling anti-Semitic jokes while pretending to gag on a client's cock... However, should you seem uncomfortable, or protest the appearance in conversation of a black dick, a stingy Jew, or a thump on fags, well, watch out. By doing so, you were curtailing that joke teller's personal freedom to be open-minded about causing offense, and the freedom to offend needed protection.Oh. My. God. I've been fighting this fight FOR YEARS with friends back home. As I read that passage, half-way through the book, I experienced the reader equivalent of meeting someone at a party and realizing they are your best friend's third cousin. High-fives and I'm buying the next round!
My most favorite bit, however, is the author's Scottish co-worker explaining why it sucks to work in advertising in France:
You do the pitch avec ton idee, yeah? And they say no automatically. They say, absolument fucking pas. Because they say 'no' all the fucking time, it's become a natural response. The national response. The French are on a team, see: the bloody team of refusal. Only they don't know they've signed up en masse. So each Frenchman thinks he's unique in refusing to ride on the conformity train. He just doesn't realize he's one of the millions on the even bigger train of 'No'.I can't vouch for the accuracy of that observation (I've never actually been to France). BUT, I am very much willing to report that it's Americans' precisely opposite tendencies that make being an immigrant in the United States a very joyful experience, for the most part and can imagine how hearing no all the time would be terribly dispiriting for an expat. Or a copywriter, for that matter. Salon excerpted Paris, I love you and I was reading through the comments (read all 83!!! of them) only to burst out laughing at the indignation of what seemed like mostly American expats who live or have lived in France. How dare he?! The Ugly American! Make fun of the French?! He should have just adapted better! No, no, Non!!! Errr... y'all. Just think about it.
I am fully aware that my particular life situation– being an immigrant myself, having lived back and forth between Europe and the United States, having been able to observe the experience of my American husband in Europe and here– makes me very likely to feel sympathetic to the type of story that Baldwin wants to tell. But even if I weren't already interested, I think I would still have really liked this story that is so sweetly American in its optimism but also so very cosmopolitan in its ultimate refusal to apologize for an experience that is as unique as it is common, as sincere as it is funny, and as magical as it is trite.
This book was provided to me for honest review by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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