Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
The expat Paris memoir is a hallowed literary tradition, with everyone from Ernest Hemmingway to Julia Child to David Sedaris having shared their tales of life in this fabled city. There is something magical about Paris, a force that extends across the globe and attracts individuals to its storied streets in search of love, inspiration and life experience. The latest to embrace this time-honoured tradition is writer Rosecrans Baldwin who moved to Paris with his wife in the later years of the 2000s ostensibly to work as a copywriter, but with an eye to soaking up some of the joie de vivre on which Parisians seem to have a monopoly. His experience, which he recounts in Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, is a very personal tale, yet his acute observations shed light on Parisian culture in the 21st century, and what emerges is a place that is very different from the one that exists in the fantasies of foreigners.
The Paris that Baldwin encounters is one of a very particular historical moment. It’s a time just before the global economic crisis and immediately after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president, an instant when rampant globalization had lined Paris’ famed Avenue des Champs-Élysées with shops identical to those on New York’s Madison Avenue. Baldwin’s Paris is one fraught with tension and baffling contradiction; his coworkers prefer McDonalds for lunch though insist on ordering three courses since anything less would be uncivilized. This is a far cry from the Paris of the Lost Generation, a romantic and idyllic time when the city was at the centre of world culture. As Baldwin attempts to navigate ancient social customs, office etiquette and seemingly endless layers of bureaucracy, he is frustrated, perplexed and completely enchanted by Parisian culture, at times simultaneously. This is a new Paris, a distinctly 21st century creation, and Baldwin seamlessly weaves the story of France’s attempt to construct a contemporary identity with his own quite personal experiences.
Essentially a standard fish-out-of-water tale, Paris I Love You is at its most charming when Baldwin describes his struggles to fit in at his workplace. His limited grasp of the French language, confusion over what appears to be a very complex social system of bises (kisses) for greeting, and lack of comprehension of France’s very unique office etiquette peppered the narrative with laugh-out-loud moments. His description of ad pitches where he butchered the language or when he was chastised for eating his lunch at his desk were some of the most enjoyable – and relatable – moments in the book. His depictions of his coworkers – from the womanizing Bruno to the sensitive and temperamental Lucas – are wry and cutting and are among Paris I Love You’s best moments and it’s a testament to Baldwin’s skill as a writer that he is able to portray his acquaintances with such vivid clarity.
While Paris I Love You may not be a literary revelation, it is a welcome addition to the expat cannon, one that captures a Paris very much in transition, a city that can bring you to tears simultaneously for its sheer beauty and its crippling inefficiencies. Baldwin’s memoir is an engaging read, one with a cast of characters and amusing anecdotes that make it seem more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. At its heart though, Paris I Love You is about that sense of melancholy that emerges when reality fails to live up to your expectations.