For every Francophile there are a few Francophobes; and for every hundred of these, there is one Franco-failure. Someone who tried shoving off for Paris in search of the café life only to discover the coffee is, by and large, atrocious, the croissants quite stale, and while the city is beautiful, it is impermeable to love. It doesn’t need you. In fact you get the sense as a visitor that, like a host putting away the dinner party china, it would rather you leave.
PARIS, I LOVE YOU BUT YOU’RE BRINGING ME DOWN
Rosecrans Baldwin was one of these unlucky souls. Following a childhood trip to Paris, he dreamed of returning. In 2006, at the end of the stock market bubble, he got a chance. An advertising firm that promoted luxury goods needed a copywriter, one who wrote in English. A struggling novelist paying his bills by writing for American Express, Baldwin needed a job. How about Paris, the employer wanted to know, how did he feel about it? “J’adore Paris,” he replies. “Who doesn’t?” the man replies.
Tales of Americans out of their element in Paris are so familiar they could constitute a genre.
This exchange marks the beginning of what will be a thorny one-year relationship with the city. “Paris, I Love You” proceeds through the seasons like a richly appointed diary, tracking a quartet of major and minor storylines: Baldwin’s hilarious and baffling time in advertising; he and his girlfriend’s zigzagging attempts to find a social life; Nicholas Sarkozy’s ups and downs in the tabloid press; and Baldwin’s struggle to finish a novel.
This last narrative is the only dud. The only thing quite so boring as living through the fits and starts of writing is to watch someone else do it. One comic scene after another ends with Baldwin returning to his novel in progress and always the story loses ballast. There is a cunning metaphor here, however. To write is to apply oneself entirely, religiously, to a task no one else cares about, and to learn, sometimes at the end of the job, that you have failed entirely. To survive as a writer one must embrace failure.
The same goes for living in Paris. Every step of Baldwin’s stay is mined for gaffes. He tries to get an apartment, and the real estate brokers show him pied-à-terres where he can conduct a secret affair. He signs up for a mobile phone and locks himself out of it. He learns that he must kiss people on the cheek upon arriving at work and kisses all the wrong people. Baldwin tries to prevent a colleague from splashing himself with water and mangles the language so badly he accidentally comments on his own orgasms.
Baldwin’s portrait of his office life is funny, filmic, and shocking: a Judd Apatow film in the waiting. The workers reflexively mock Americans but eat daily three-course lunches at McDonald’s. The men watch pornography at their desks, and one of them blithely greets Baldwin each day with a faux, unintentionally offensive, hip-hop salute “What’s up, my [n-word]?’’ In the middle of this frat house, Baldwin somehow manages to fail upward — becoming a kind of secret weapon in pitches to Sofia Coppola, and even the directors of Louis Vuitton.
Tales of Americans out of their element in Paris are so familiar they could constitute a genre. But Baldwin writes better than most. His sentences are crisply-made beds, with just the right amount of ruffle, cinched by self-deprecation. “[T]he reason I said ‘so’ a lot was because I love the way the word sounded in French, donc, and how the French used it. Donc was pronounced with a hard ‘c.’ It sounded like a rock being chucked into a creek.”
And he’s very, very funny. Baldwin and his wife join a select society of salons and discover it packed with trustafarian ex-pats and Frenchmen so naked in their desire to get laid one of them shows up with male genitalia cartooned on his shirt. On a business trip to London, Baldwin tires of French banter (and its endless circles) and starts a quiz with his co-worker. “Imagine it’s you and one hundred five-year olds. You’re locked in a gymnasium. The children are overcome with a desire to kill you. How many could you put down?”
“Can I use one of them,” the man asks, “as a weapon against the others?”
As the year drags on, and his French improves, Baldwin and his girlfriend still catch glimpses of Paris’s magic. Mixed in with their hard-won victories or stalemates with the language, these moments sparkle like jewels on a bed of coal. One day at lunch “[c]louds filled the sky like they were blown in from a horn” and it snows. Walking home one night Baldwin notices how the lights glint off the cobblestones: “wet nights in Paris were simply black and tinsel.” The two of them buy ice cream one day after a long week and discover it has herbs and salt in every bite.
“Paris I Love You” is full of a kind of traveler’s wisdom. Even when you live there, a country which is not your own will remain a mystery. So it is the little things that redeem. That keep you going in a state of unknowing. Ultimately, Baldwin and his girlfriend have had enough. They stay long enough to complain with fondness, rather than bafflement. And that is the moment you realize a place has become a sort of home.