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A Review of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, by Rosecrans Baldwin
Rosecrans Baldwin has written a funny book with the arc of a love story. He and his wife desire Paris from afar, they move to Paris in rapture when his friend Pierre invites him to take a job writing advertising copy, and eighteen months later, depleted, they leave Paris.
This book might have been called “Journal of Life Inside a Paris Advertising Agency.” The adventure that draws the reader in is Baldwin’s learning his new job writing luxury ads in an agency on the Champs Elysées. In the beginning, his French embarrasses him. And every morning fills him with dread, as he guesses whom to kiss on each cheek, and whom to ”Bonjour!” “Here in Paris,” he says, “there were rituals beyond my understanding.” The adventure winds down as Baldwin, now fluent, flies around the world working on those ads where celebrities pose beside Vuitton luggage for Vanity Fair photographer Annie Liebowitz.
Baldwin’s report on the French sub-culture of bling gives readers a week-end of laughing out loud. He is a good writer and a skilled craftsman. He rhapsodizes sweetly about walking to work during a transit strike, “through the highlights of Paris–along the Seine to the Tuileries, past the fountains and windblown chairs; past chauffeurs idling outside the Ritz; up the Champs-Elysees to my desk,” calling it “the world’s most pleasant commute.” Annie Liebowitz’s producers are “long-haired women who appeared to have grown up riding horses, born to multitask in heavy winds.” He meticulously weaves in sub-plots about finishing his first novel, getting French health insurance, talking to an agent from the phone company, and living in an apartment surrounded by construction projects with his wife Rachel.
The one scene in which Baldwin goes outside his Champs Elysées office for a full day and reports on what present-day Parisians say is the best in the book. A letter arrived telling him to take a day off work and attend a formation civique. It would be “a day of civil training to present the fundamental rights, principles, and values of the French Republic.”
He and about twenty of his fellow immigrants take their places around a conference table in northern Paris. He was the only American, the others being mainly African, mostly from Morocco and Senegal. What follows is a colloquy on equality before the law and being French before all else. Two women are expelled for being late, because to be equal before the law, everyone obeys the same rules.
When a boy protests that then the group should have been able to vote whether the women could stay, the instructor says, “Hasan, do you think if I came over and punched you right now, the class should be able to vote whether or not I am punished?
“No, because you can’t hit me.”
“That is exactly correct,” the instructor said. “That is exactly the law.”
“Actually, I’m an Arab,” Hasan said, “so you probably can hit me. Maybe it depends where you hit me.”
Baldwin reports the group’s conversation with gentle humor. Topics included whether the laws are the same for everyone, the difference between law and custom, whether everyone is free to have an opinion, and whether a husband can beat his wife. He says it took ten minutes to work out the distinction between genital mutilation, which was not permitted in France, and genital piercing and shaving, which was permitted, “assuming the genitals’ owner wanted them pierced or shaved.”
My chief reservation about this book is that Baldwin’s theme is too broad for his cloistered life in the trendy industries. He says that Paris has changed since Hemingway. “A lot, I thought, had happened since the days of Hemingway. Luke Skywalker had happened. Supermarkets happened. Hip-hop happened and Joan Didion happened. . . .”
Yes, Paris has changed, point taken. But Baldwin is alas not the man to prove that point, because he meets so few French people. “Somewhere,” he says, “French people in Paris were doing French things, but how to find them?” Instead, he joins an invitation-only group called A Small World, which is “mostly Parisians and expats speaking the universal language of hedge fund.” Couldn’t he have talked to people at the local cafe? Played soccer?
Since Baldwin’s life with his coworkers occupies most of the book, it’s unfortunate that their behavior is less attractive than his writing. Baldwin is paired with an intense French graphic designer named Bruno, the most fully realized and sympathetic of his colleagues, a man who often tries too hard, but who always means well. Although early on Bruno tells Baldwin that cursing isn’t cool in Parisian office culture, in fact, his coworkers’ language is coarse. “Among men, references to sex as a form of punishment were part of business.” The language he quotes is too crude for a family web site. And his colleagues’ constant preoccupation is sex on the internet. “Men, and plenty of women, would get up from their desks to cluster around whatever nude flesh was trending on the Web.”
Baldwin is capable of assessing character and making judgments. After one Small World party, he says, “I hated everyone in the room, myself most of all.” And in the end he knows that “After a year of advertising in Paris, I found it harder to tell the difference between bullshit and poetry.” For most of Baldwin’s coworkers, however, he tells us little more than what they say when they make sales presentations and what they say about sex. Perhaps not painting his coworkers as individuals, and never judging them, is Baldwin’s attempt to guard their privacy. As he says in his Acknowledgments, they did not expect to wind up in a book. But without a moral context they come across less as human beings than just as randy specimens. Baldwin might have shown them more respect if he had judged them.
At the end of the book, Baldwin loves Paris again. For eighteen months, he says, “people had told me Paris was finished, a city fading, cauterized by tourism and a reluctance to change.” But now he knew too many Parisians–he must mean his coworkers–to believe it.
His book has not in fact been about Paris, let alone about how Paris has changed, but he ends movingly. He could not bring himself to say goodbye. Saying goodbye “was something a person did when he knew he was dying. Otherwise,” he says, “Paris was forever one day soon.”
I hope Rosecrans Baldwin gets to go back to Paris. And that he writes about it.
Photo credit: Susie Post-Rust