I recently finished this book by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. It is a collection of essays reflecting on the idiosyncracies of French culture, written during the author’s expat stint with his wife and pre-school age son. Described in Le Monde as a “witty and Voltairean commentator on French life,” Gopnik has a knack for extracting the essence of French sensibility from everyday encounters…
In a way, Gopnik’s writing is like an “amuse-bouche,” a French culinary term that could be liberally translated as “mouth tease,” a carefully selected hors d’oeuvre that primes the diner’s palate. His anecdotes touch on essential truths of French culture, but it’s a controlled sampling, inviting the reader to savor the details and imagine the rest.
In part, Gopnik’s Paris is so charming because it proves to be so stereotypically French. For example, Gopnik’s pursuit of a gym membership yields a comically French result. It is called Régiment Rouge, where elegantly coiffed women in red tracksuits arrange several one-on-one meetings to ensure the thorough completion of his dossier (file), throw a crèpe party to celebrate the installation of “high intensity” machines, and then grant him the right to use his membership as frequently as once a week, advertising le régiment as “‘très New Yorkais.’”
(In my experience, Non-Parisians live up to their stereotypes with equal flair –accordion players on cobblestone street corners, men in berets, baguettes in hand… They don’t disappoint.)
Perhaps the singularity of French culture is best articulated in the last chapter of the book, preceding Gopnik’s move back to New York, with his wife, son, and now Parisian born daughter. He is standing on the Concorde Bridge with his son, Luke, watching Christmas lights on the Eiffel Tower. Luke says that the tower “‘looks like champagne,’” which gets the author thinking philosophically about the century-old, recycled symbols of France, such as champagne and the Eiffel Tower. Should he be depressed that these worn out emblems of French-ness are being incorporated into his young son’s consciousness? Is that what France is reduced to?
Then he recalls another writer’s argument that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a greater invention than Isaac Newton’s Principia, because
“‘the principles of physics have a permanent general existence outside ourselves… while the tower, in all its particulars, could have been built only in Paris at Eiffel’s moment by Eiffel…’”
Whether you love or hate the French, chances are that your feelings are partly directed toward this possession of a singular, idiosyncratic sensibility that is as stubbornly French as the Eiffel Tower is Eiffel’s.
From an airplane window, the Eiffel Tower looks oddly large, as if it were randomly plopped onto Paris like a mismatched toy. This sounds like France’s relationship with much of the world: surrounded by many other sprawling cultures, the French uphold their French-ness in glittering, upright, iconic glory. It’s hard to hate them too much for it — after all, we Americans understand this notion of being true to one’s character.
Besides French-ness, there is another culturally rich set of ideas running through Paris To The Moon, that is, the reality versus the fantasy of displacing yourself, of choosing to be a foreigner, of watching your young child construct his own five-year-old Parisian existence before his parents transplant him back to New York to continue growing up.
The liberation and joy that come from being a willful outsider is in a way, less interesting than the ennui that sets in at the end of the five years, prompting a move back home, the growing desire to be an American in…America. Do the same forces propelling someone to travel propel him to return home? This gets at the meaning of home, the role of the traveler in defining his destination. Gopnik quotes his wife at the beginning of their stay:
“She felt, she said, as if she had died and gone to heaven — but with the strange feeling that that dying and going to heaven mean parting, leaving, and missing the people you left behind on earth” adding that “the loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped…”
Like the arc of many stories, the falling action of Paris To The Moon leads its characters from whence they came, across the Atlantic and back to New York, decidedly not to the moon, whatever the title suggests. Perhaps there is inherent wisdom in that.