[Click here to read this article in French]
Sometimes being an American in Paris feels like the biggest cliché in the world. I’ve lived here seven months and I still swoon over the parks, the markets, the cheese (my God, the cheese). I complain about the bureaucracy as if each French bureaucrat were out to persecute me personally and I make my pilgrimages to Hemingway and Miller’s former haunts. Seemingly, every great American has had a Parisian experience of some sort (see Barbie: A Fashion Fairytale, particularly if you plan to move to Paris with a four-year-old girl). It’s enough to make me want to poke myself in the eye some days, except then I wouldn’t be able to people watch at my favorite café.
The only cliché that seems to top being an American in Paris is writing about being an American in Paris. But, as Jorge Luis Borges proves, the retelling of stories can make them compelling. With this in mind, I downloaded my first e-book on my husband’s Kindle to read Rosencrans Baldwin’s Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, the story of an American’s year and a half working at an ad agency on the Champs Élysées.
Like Baldwin, I superimposed a previously imagined Paris on the real Paris when I first arrived. My own father lived in Paris in the revolutionary year of 1968, having left his native Havana for good without a long-term plan for what came next. It was a time of unlimited possibilities for him, and made him later talk about Paris the way one might wax nostalgic about the true love that got away. Unlike Baldwin, I have never worked in a French office nor do I have any firsthand experience of French office politics. This was the hook that helped me look past some of the clunky sentences on page one of my screen, such as “The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine” and “For three hours, I mugged at a laptop, trying to figure out how the e-mail system worked.” Surely the veteran of a French ad agency was throwing me these curve balls so I would feel intrigued enough to keep reading, I thought. By about chapter seven, the bumps smoothed out and the writing took on a more natural rhythm.
Between scenes of wandering through “wet nights in Paris [that] were simply black and tinsel,” Baldwin writes copy for breastfeeding informational brochures and hopes to keep his wife Rachel from breaking down due to the non-stop construction occurring on all sides of their Parisian apartment. He tries to navigate a system that simultaneously confounds him with the complicated system of whom to kiss hello in the morning and rewards him for being an outsider by promoting him to work on a luxury account.
Baldwin’s tales of office life in Paris are amusing and his characters are worthy of a TV drama or sitcom. Their pathos is distinctly French, and this firmly anchors the book geographically in and of itself. Baldwin embellishes it by adding some of his own pathos, when he reflects on a coworker’s speech, “It made me a little uncomfortable, Pascal’s English. Did my French come across so bald and vulnerable?”
However, for all the late nights working at the agency and the never-ending obstacles posed by French bureaucracy, I didn’t find a Paris to be that down about in Baldwin’s book. His non-working days and nights are spent gliding from expat party to expat party, park to park, and restaurant to restaurant, all named as if to anchor the book even more firmly in Paris, although the meals themselves are rarely described. In one passage, Baldwin meditates,
Living in a country that had been loaned to you, there were plenty of moments when you were grateful. Bridges sparkled. Cashiers smiled. The girl at the pâtisserie took an extra minute to wrap up your éclair 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.
While reading Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, I kept waiting for the moment of implosion that never came. In fact, the closest thing that comes to it is Sarkozy’s public divorce, which occurs during Baldwin’s time in Paris, and even he gets Carla Bruni in the end. For his part, Rosencrans Baldwin sells his first novel, drinks a bottle of 130 Euro champagne to celebrate the occasion, and quits his agency job before going home to the United States. The book ends with this optimistic turn of events.
Any extended period of city living results in the accumulation of things that wear one’s spirit down, little by little, leaving emotions raw and nerves frayed. This can happen as easily in Paris as it does in New York or London or São Paulo. Certainly, it pushes away some of the very same people who arrived in these places with stars in their eyes a year or five or a decade before. However, in Baldwin’s case, his love for Paris does not become noticeably tarnished over time. Right up until his last moments in the city of lights, he writes, “There should be a name for the syndrome that occurs when you’re in Paris and you already miss it.” His greater dissatisfaction seems to stem from that oft-cited source of all evil that many can relate to: the daily grind. In this sense, Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down does add a novel twist to the American writer in Paris narrative. But I was left wondering about all the negative thoughts and feelings about the city that Baldwin didn’t express. Perhaps if I sat next to him at a Parisian dinner party, I could ask, but who wants to be brought down before the brie de meaux is served?
Anna Kushner is the translator of the novels The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales, Jerusalem by Gonçalo Tavares, The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes, and the forthcoming The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura. She lives in Paris, and is promiscuous but sincere in her love of various cities, including Lisbon, Havana, Marseille, and Philadelphia.
Paris Photo: Carl Flanigan