(Another) American in Paris

Continuing an American tradition that goes back to Hemingway--and even earlier, as Franklin and Jefferson were regular haunts of the city--Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon is a memoir that narrates the five-year adventure of an American (and Canadian ex-pat) in Paris (1995-2000) with his wife, young son (and later a daughter that was the fruit of their time in the City of Light). This is one of those books that have been on my "to read" list since it was first released, but never made it onto the nightstand--due in no small part, I think, to just sheer jealousy. Gopnik was living the (my!) dream.

Making a commitment to reside in Paris, this isn't just another travelogue--though a persistent theme of the book is just how much he feels continues to feel like an outsider. The closest he ever feels to being an "insider" is when he becomes part of a protest group committed to keeping open a local restaurant in danger of being gobbled up by the homogenizing forces of globalizing cuisine. Connoisseurs of the world unite! But in the midst of their sit-in protest, Gopnik sees a problem with the revolution:
We were building up to an impressive pitch of indignation, but at that point the waiters began to serve the dinners that we had ordered while we were waiting to begin our protest, and this weakened the revolutionary spirit a little. There was, I sensed, a flaw in our strategy: If you take over a restaurant as an act of protest and then order dinner at the restaurant, what you have actually done is gone to the restaurant and had dinner, since a restaurant is, by definition, always occupied, by its diners. Having come to say that you just won't take it anymore, you have to add sheepishly that you will take it, au point and with bearnaise sauce.
The book is witty and warm, while also having the rather pedestrian virtue of being informative. Gopnik's chapters on French cuisine and couture are some of the best in the book for the way they respectfully and charitably peel back the layers of Paris for foreign eyes. His chronicles of the adventures of navigating French bureaucracy seethe with frustration, while the annals of a daily life lived in tiny, banal rituals provide a sense of the depth of the world. In these descriptions, the mundane habits of a walk in the park are seen as portals to hidden worlds--as if worlds upon worlds were tucked away in corners of the Luxembourg Gardens (found especially in the chapters that constitute his annual "Christmas Journals"--Journal 3, "Lessons from Things," being the best of the bunch).

Gopnik's pen is agile and tender, issuing in a flourish of similies ("Alice had found frisee and watercress and was looking at them raptly--not with the greed of a hungry man seeing dinner but with the admiration of William Bennett looking at a long marriage," p. 244) as well as on-the-money "capturings" of experience. My favorite in the latter category is when he describes storytime with his son, in the late evening:
Paris is a northern city, on a latitude with Newfoundland, as New York is a Mediterranean one, on a latitude with Naples, and so the light here in the hours between seven and nine at night is like the light in the hours between five and seven in New York. The sun is still out, but the sounds have become less purposeful--you hear smaller noises, high heels on the pavement--and though it is a pleasant time to lie in bed, it is not an easy time for a small boy to go to sleep (pp. 196-197).
The conjunction of light and sound, and the playful suggestion that the bend of the sun somehow dulls the air through which sound travels, crystallizes in the "high heels on the pavement" observation, which transports one to just that kind of evening and sound. Great stuff.

As is usual--one finds this alot with students who study abroad--the cross-cultural experience makes possible a reflection on one's own culture that wouldn't be possible otherwise. As Gopnik observes, "There are certain insights that can come to an American only when is abroad, because only there does the endless ribbon of American television become segmented enough so that you can pay attention to its parts," for instance. Gopnik is at his best in this mode of Paris-based reflection on American culture in his chapter "Barney in Paris" (yes, that Barney!) and some reflections on football (soccer) by a lover of baseball and hockey.

Gopnik's prose had so welcomed me into his world that I, too, felt the sting of his family's departure for Paris, just as I felt a sting of disappointment in the book's coming to an end.