Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

I can’t say enough about Rosecrans Baldwin’s new book, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). This memoir is witty, charming and laugh-out-loud funny (make that snort-out-loud, while I was reading in a Paris restaurant, no less), based on the eighteen months Baldwin and his wife spent in Paris a couple-few years ago.

It’s a perfect romantic comedy, like a cross between The Office (Paris Edition) and Midnight in Paris (without the time travel). I’m already doing the casting in my head.

Baldwin tells his Paris story with a smart and fresh spin. He worked crazy hours at a Champs Élysée advertising agency, writing copy and making sales pitches to luxury clients like Luis Vuitton, while she attended immersion French language classes, played the part of a femme au foyer and tried to write screenplays in a dark and dismal apartment surrounded on five sides by construction. Americans have no simple love affair with Paris. But that revelation isn’t enough to make this book unique. It’s the complexity of Baldwin’s voice: he’s tender, wise, and smitten, but also droll and irreverent. Who knew the French were so darn funny?

Baldwin’s tales from the office sound more like the reports of an American mole secretly planted in a Parisian workplace. Baldwin’s primary source is a rough-around-the-edges colleague, a “stocky and morose” Parisian who loves nothing more than his cigarettes and his Yamaha scooter. It’s a point of view most Americans never get to see, a bit like having a disgruntled French Danny De Vito as your tour guide.

Baldwin’s riffs on French anti-P.C. office politics are hilarious:

Either Murphy Brown never aired in France, or Paris was stuck in the early nineties. . . . In meetings, if someone called your idea P.C., pay-say, there was no possible recovery. The label was nuclear. Anyone accused of pay-say during un brainstorming would be shouted down – Don’t be so American! . . .

Baldwin’s inside knowledge leads to surprising discoveries, like the French affection for McDonald’s: a French colleague, confused, “You don’t go to McDonald’s in the United States?” Baldwin can deal the scoop on their Frenchified Mac-attacks (a multi-course meal, starting with McNuggets as an appetizer, a sandwich, then a salad and finally dessert). Who knew? And now that we know, won’t it be a fun fact to remember the next time a stuffy French waiter gives you the stink-eye?

Baldwin already spoke some French when he arrived, thanks to his beloved seventh grade French teacher Madame Fleuriot, from whom he learned how to pronounce kir royale. Madame would say it dreamily, fondly: “just the word ‘Paris,’ she was undone a bit.” About the same time, Baldwin’s family took a one-week vacation to Paris, where he watched his mother swoon over her café au lait, tres noir. Says Baldwin, “‘French’ became an umbrella term for me, describing things I liked before I knew why I liked them.”

So when Baldwin and his wife Rachel had the chance, off they went to Paris. Like all good expats, they felt humbled by their inadequate French, and worked hard to improve it. Nevertheless, their language faux-pas (is there a plural for faux pas?) make for absolutely delightful stories. We’ve all been there, but never quite like this.

One time Rachel was picking out some champagne to celebrate the sale of Baldwin’s first novel, un roman in French (You Lost Me There, Riverhead Books 2010). The Frenchman gave her a strange look. He thought she said her husband had sold his first “Roman,” like some kind of Italian slave trader. Yah, that’s right, monsieur, you know us crazy Americans – we always pop the champagne for our first slave trade.

Like many Americans, the Baldwins had a love-hate list for Paris (love: walking across the Alexandre III Bridge, food from Picard, men who read in public; hate: long grey winters, the bureaucracy, construction noise, stores that close on Sundays). And inevitably comes the question, “so how long do you want to stay here in Paris?” And no matter how idyllic it can be to take a nap in a field of tulips on a daytrip to Giverny, they realize that they are ready to go home.

Ah, yes, home.

So obviously, I loved this book. I think you will too, whether you love or hate Paris, or maybe a little of both. You can read an excerpt here.