In honor of that most French holiday, Bastille Day, here is the most French book by an American author you’ll ever read. Lauren Elkin reviews Rosecrans Baldwin’s Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.
Rosecrans Baldwin has an unabashed, lifelong fascination with France that it’s not generally considered “cool” to admit to: “French” was “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.” You’ll never catch Geoff Dyer loving Paris like that. (Maybe you have to be American.) But it’s sincere in a way you have to respect.
It’s this slightly unhip love that leads him to move to Paris with his wife to take a job at an advertising agency in 2007; it’s a pilgrimage of sorts, though Baldwin knows he’s not walking into the Paris of legend. “A lot, I thought, had happened since the days of Hemingway,” like smartphones and Star Wars and Joan Didion and 1968 and Serge Gainsbourg. But Baldwin’s writerly life doesn’t actually sound so different from what Hemingway described in The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast; while there’s no Gertrude Stein to befriend (instead there are members of the social networking website A Small World) and Baldwin, though not wealthy, is far from starving, he diligently works on his novel in the early mornings and takes a red pen to it during his lunch breaks, traveling for work to various exotic locales, and reporting Hadley-like scenes with his wife Rachel.
Baldwin and his wife explore the 21st century American expatriate’s Paris: Vélibs, Picard, the Tektonik dance craze, the rue de Bretagne— Baldwin provides a pretty good chart of Paris in the last half decade, pausing to make on-the-nose observations about Americans in Paris (you shall know them not by their sneakers but by their perfectly shampooed hair). He is confronted with the roadblocks a foreign language places on your personality: “Living in another language and speaking defectively, I could not be clever. At best, I was genuine. Accidentally funny, but never funny on purpose.” This is true as well for his French colleagues, whose non-English is so awkward it makes Rosecrans “uncomfortable (…) Did my French come across so bald and vulnerable?”
As happy as he and his wife are to be living in Paris, they run up against a predictable array of everyday bureaucratic troubles. “The French are on a team, see," Baldwin’s Scottish coworker informs him, "the bloody team of refusal.” And if someone says yes, well, you should be very suspicious, as Baldwin learns when a postal worker tells him sure, you can mail wine to the US, and the bottles end up languishing in a hangar in Brest. The dream and the reality share space: thus the dialectic of the title, Paris, I Love You, but You’re Bringing Me Down. Eventually, he becomes inured to the everyday epiphanies, and after a year in Paris, Baldwin writes, “I found it harder to tell the difference between bullshit and poetry.” This is his cue that it’s time to go home.
Paris is “over,” his friends tell him from the get-go. But after two years there, he knows they’re wrong: “I knew too many Parisians now” to agree. “The day that Parisians stopped being so Parisian, then maybe. But the Parisians I knew were far from being done.” Being in but not of the culture, Baldwin is perfectly positioned to analyze, and enjoy, the texture and speed of present-day Paris. Baldwin’s writings on Paris are saturated with a bittersweet nostalgia for the present, living in a place he loves that he is fated to leave. What could be more French?