Friday, November 23, 2012

Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin

Despite having no experience and not speaking French very well, Rosecrans Baldwin landed a job in an advertising agency in Paris. He and his wife packed their stuff into duffel bags and left New York to spend a year and half living in Paris. I love that city so much and wish I could live there. Since that isn't likely to happen, I lived vicariously through Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down. The magic and the merde -- Baldwin is adept at capturing the whole baffling experience of life in a foreign culture. (LCD Soundsystem's "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" plays in my head as I write this. Baldwin's book is funny, but it also feels wistful, like the song.)

"'French' became an umbrella term for me, describing things I liked before I knew why I liked them. but Paris was different. Paris was an umbrella, a dream I carried around in case the weather turned bad."

Parisian bar service.
Baldwin's first assignment was to create breast feeding pamphlets. His office mates shamed him out of eating at his desk, so he ate his lunch in a park most days, surrounded by other "office workers picnicking, students smoking and chatting, and college girls who would undress down to bikinis and sunbathe on the lawn while men gazed from their benches, eating their sandwiches with two hands. Not me, though. I was married. Plus I was fed up with breasts. I'd think, Oh, cover up your functionality already."

Pears at Luxembourg Garden
greenhouse display
During his lunch break, Baldwin worked on his own writing. Like me, he was curious about what books other people were reading. "The big book on the Metro that season was Millenium, a trio of crime novels by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson. At that point, the books were still unknown in America, but they were everywhere in France. Coworkers lugged their copies to the office each morning, walking through the front door with their noses buried deep. I wasn't feeling very hopeful about the future of books. The novel I was writing appeared to be going unhurriedly backward, sliding toward the trash."

When Baldwin asked his colleagues what symbol said France most of all, they were quick to reply. "The baguette. Or the Eiffel Tower. But this is a recent development." This pretty much sums up the Parisian preoccupation with food and cultural heritage. I wish I was there again.

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