I know what you’re thinking – ANOTHER travel book? Shake it up a little! And I will. Next week. This week, I’m on vacation and I’m a little travel-obsessed.
This was not the book I expected it to be when I picked it out at random during my anniversary book binge last month. My husband wanted me to buy a couple of books outside the genres I usually read (I took that to mean fiction as a whole), and I obligingly dove into the travel section. Who am I to argue with a man who wants to buy me more books? Plus, I actually do have an undernourished love of memoirs, autobiographies, and travel writing, so I was pretty excited. So how could I possibly resist a book called Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”? I couldn’t. It so perfectly summed up how I feel about the City of Lights that I was powerless against it.
Here’s the short(ish) version of my relationship with Paris:
In the summer before seventh grade, we were asked to choose a language – either Spanish or French – to take for at least the next two years (once in high school, you could swap, or choose Latin instead). My mother begged me to take Spanish, perhaps intuitingthat I would not live close to the Canadian border forever, and might, in my travels, find myself living in a state where the unofficial second language would be español. I ignored her; I loved baguettes and the Eiffel Tower – I even had an inkling I might look good in a beret – and there was no way I would trade romance for practicality. So I didn’t.
Instead, I began five years of French classes taught exclusively by French Canadians, who apparently have completely different ideas about pronunciation than the French who live in France. And unfortunately, it turns out I was terrible at being bilingual anyway. Every day, the idea of going to class and trying to understand and respond appropriately filled me with dread. Every teacher I had seemed to subscribe to the same method of torture – never call on the student who’s raising her hand – instead wait until she’s cowering in her seat trying not to cry, then make sure you humiliate her for as long as possible. It was awful, and I really never got any better at oral comprehension, but I did slowly gain some traction in understanding the written language. Against all odds, I managed to nurse a love of France through it all and held the country and its people in no way responsible for my demented training.
In college, I studied abroad and was given the opportunity during that time to go to France several times. On my only visit to Paris though, I was still smarting from a break-up, and my two closest friends were in a horrible fight that culminated in a screaming match outside of Notre Dame, where we were supposed to be preparing for a presentation to our art history class. I think I described the city after that visit as a place of “diesel fumes and rage.” Yet somehow, I was not deterred; in fact, I was pretty sure that Paris was fine, but there was something wrong with me.
So I gave it a few years, then went back with my husband and the best friend ex-pat I mentioned on Monday. Turns out, Paris can be pretty great. Terrifying, of course, because nobody French understood what I was trying to say unless I was ordering from a menu, but I could read enough signs to get by, and the food and history alone were enough to make me swoon all over the place.
In retrospect, my mother was probably right about learning Spanish. It would come in handy every day now (and I would probably embarrass myself less when trying to pronounce California street signs), but I can’t help it – somewhere in my DNA I am programmed to love France even if it doesn’t feel more than ambivalence about me back.
And that’s exactly what this book is about. Baldwin captures an experience I can only imagine and tremble at – he takes a job in an advertising agency in Paris without knowing much more French than the average seventh grader. He accepts it knowing that the transition is going to be hell; that he is going to be ridiculed for months as he batters French customs and language; and that he and his wife are going to have to adapt to all that is less than glamorous about Paris when you aren’t rich. Honestly, it sounds like hell. I don’t think I would have the guts to jump in the way he does, but I understand why he wants it as badly as he does.
For some people, France just has this hold on the imagination, and for all its faults (and it really has no more or less than anywhere else), it can be difficult to resist the ideal. The name of this blog alone will tell you that I choose not to resist (for all that the French are too sophisticated for me, as well as far too obsessed with dairy in my lactose intolerant opinion), but I also love to see the gritty underbelly – the side of Paris (and Parisians) that the guide-books forget to mention. In his book, Baldwin manages to capture both the all-forgiving school boy crush we have on France and the reality we can’t quite ignore – that Paris is a city even the locals love to hate.
To find out more about Rosecrans Baldwin, click here.