4 Books for Experiencing France for Any Length of Time
Part of the joy of visiting any given destination is seeing oneself living there. But living in Paris carries its own special dream. I imagine it is like living in New York, but just a little bit better. Before I lived in New York City, I imagined what my life in Manhattan would look like: a loft apartment, black clothing, and a writ-large writing career. By the time I finally made it to the Upper East Side, the reality looked a little different than my fantasy: those big apartments in every film were way beyond the family budget. I did manage to score a wardrobe full of my favorite color along with a writing career. It’s just that the glam factor was not quite as high as I thought it would be.
And so it is for Rosecrans Baldwin, the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. In short, his Paris experience is like living in New York City but with a language barrier. Affordable apartments are hard to find, and the ones that fit within a budget do tend to be ever-so-slightly flawed. In Baldwin’s case, he was unlucky enough to be experiencing plenty of construction and renovation all around him. Even if one is fortunate enough to find a dream space in the City of Light, the work hours required to afford it might quickly suck some of the joy out of the experience. Paris is still Paris, of course, and readers will delight in living vicariously with someone who actually did get to live one of our dreams. I like that Baldwin, in addition to confessing his challenges with the language, reports on some surprising quirks of Parisians—an odd affinity for H & M clothing and for serving high-end frozen appetizers. Even those born in Paris can’t all be fashionable versions of Julia Child.
Where Baldwin provides the gritty reality of Parisian living, Janice MacLeod in A Paris Year seems to living a Hemingway-esque ex-pat existence—replete with writing and drawing sessions in cafes—during her time in France. Her work is both a picture book and a journal and I love it as much for her take on Paris and the way she notices what’s going on around her (sometimes focusing on colors, or authors, or cats) as I do for getting a guilty feeling that I am peeking in someone’s journal as I am reading it. Both Baldwin and MacLeod make parts of Parisian living seem a bit more bureaucratic than what most visitors likely imagine. MacLeod’s photos and watercolors leave me wishing for a second volume, for another year there.
Paris: Wish You Were Here!, edited by Christopher Measom, is both picture book and teaser, giving readers, or flippers, a taste of Paris both broad and specific. We go arrondissement by arrondissement to learn what’s where. Along the way, readers get tips on places many tourists might overlook and tidbits about famous Americans who have been there in the past. Measom offers just enough history in a pleasingly illustrated work (the book was designed by Timothy Shaner) to make it informative and tantalizing without any hint of dullness—sort of like Paris itself.
Camille Aubray’s novel, Cooking for Picasso, involves Paris only very tangentially, but the story of a granddaughter seeking to learn about her grandmother’s liaison with one very famous artist brings the reader to 1930s France as well as to a present-day experiential vacation focusing on French cooking. Readers get some lessons on life in France (albeit not Paris) both back then and now.
In the end, the takeaway is what we’ve known all along: day-to-day existence tends not to be minute-to-minute thrilling as vacations are. Nevertheless, getting to know a place in depth by managing to live there for any period of time has merits all its own.
Planning a trip to Paris? You might like these posts:
- The Book to Carry while Cruising Paris
- Macarons and Macabre All in One Morning
- Quality Time at the Eiffel Tower
- Can You Really See a City unless You’ve Been beneath It?