Paris to the Moon

In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife Martha, and their baby son Luke set off on a grand, and perhaps crazy, adventure: they left New York for the glamour of Paris. Why? Gopnik is never entirely clear about that. Having a baby seemed to make certain parts of American society less tolerable — Barney, for instance — and they felt they needed to escape. Gopnik had been to Paris as a child and an adolescent, and had always loved it. Both their jobs were flexible and portable enough to survive the move. And besides… it was Paris! What more reason did they really need?

For the next five years, they lived in the City of Light, surviving finding a decent apartment (nearly impossible), exploring the restaurants of the neighborhood (delightful, but tricky), learning how to use French Christmas lights (harder than it looks), and having another baby (a whole different business from the United States.) Gopnik wrote about these personal matters, along with more global, political, financial, and cultural ones, for his “Paris Journal” in the New Yorker. Paris to the Moon is a sort of condensed version of those years, his reflections on the way we can see the big, important things about culture in the small, apparently unimportant stuff of everyday life.

Reading this was a really interesting experience for me, since I have just returned from a month’s stay in France and had the opportunity to observe some of this culture firsthand. The action of Paris to the Moon takes place 15 years ago, and much has changed in France’s political and economic scene. There were many of Gopnik’s journalistic observations that were no longer applicable. Today, the European Union affects daily life in a way it still didn’t 15 years ago, and old habits and ways of life have responded to the pressure in ways no one could completely have foreseen.

Gopnik also readily admits that he’s not a Francophile, he a Paris-ophile, which means that he makes many statements such as, “France is a totally centralized country.” Of course you would think that if you only lived in and studied Paris. Having spent most of my time in Alsace, one of the things that surprises me most about France is its regionalism. Strasbourg and Marseilles might as well be from two different planets. “French culture” is largely a myth, in my view (which is why Sarkozy’s recent talks on French identity have been so interesting, politically and epistemologically speaking.) It’s Alsatian culture, Breton culture, Parisian culture, Franco-Algerian culture…

Still, even though Gopnik sometimes irritates me with his constant wide-eyed expatriate stare, and even though I think he sometimes reaches wrong conclusions or places too strong an emphasis somewhere, overall the book was lovely. That expatriate gaze serves him well when he walks through a tiny, unassuming gate, just stroller-wide, and straight into the great Institut de France. He talks about joining a group of French people who are trying to save a neighborhood restaurant they love from being corporatized, and even though he knows he’s an outsider, at the same time he truly feels he belongs. He practices for two weeks, calling a taxi for his pregnant wife and calmly asking it to do a U-turn in the street, because French cab drivers are unpredictable and if you appear flustered will take advantage and refuse your request. He finally realizes, in shock, that his son is five years old and knows no home but France:

He ate a hamburger for the first time on July 4. He took three bites, pushed it away, had some ice cream, his normal routine, but the next morning he said, “I liked the hamburger” — decisively — “but I did not like that sauce you served with it.”

“What sauce?” I said, puzzled. I hadn’t made a sauce.

“That red sauce,” he said, disdainfully, with exactly the expression I have seen on the face of Jean-Pierre Quelin, the food critic of Le Monde, when he gets a corked glass of wine. “I did not like that red sauce.” He means, of course, the Heinz ketchup, bought at La Grande Epicerie, in the American specialties section.

Moments like this are frequent and beautiful. He perfectly captures the things you miss about New York, and the things you love about Paris. While his political commentary is a bit of-the-moment, his personal love for his family and a great city are enduring.

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14 Responses to Paris to the Moon

  1. I fully expected to love this book, but I have a hard time getting into it. I read (and liked) some of these pieces when they were first published in The New Yorker so I guess at some point I will get into this book and enjoy it. But for now it is somewhere in the TBR pile.

    • Jenny says:

      Thomas, I understand why this might be hard to get into. It’s not exactly straight memoir — too political/ cultural for that — and I wanted more of his personal observations. But I did enjoy it in the end.

  2. Eva says:

    I have this on my TBR shelf somewhere! Now I can’t decide if I want to read it or not. lol

    • Jenny says:

      Eva, your tastes are so omnivorous (and yet beautifully choosy) that I couldn’t begin to guess whether you’d like this. I had mixed opinions, but wound up enjoying it on the whole, so take that for what it’s worth! :)

  3. JoAnn says:

    This is on my shelf, too. I’m reading Zola now and A Moveable Feast next. Maybe I’ll stay on the Parisian theme and follow up with Paris to the Moon!

    • Jenny says:

      JoAnn, this would be a great way to follow those books — a more modern view of Paris! You could also read some MFK Fisher. While she doesn’t always write about Paris, when she does, she’s inimitable.

  4. litlove says:

    What a lovely and interesting review. It’s so many years now since I lived in France that I expect the country has changed out of all recognition. I’d love to have a month there! And this sounds like a most intriguing book – although I’d also willingly read anything you had to say on the topic of your own travels!

    • Jenny says:

      The last time I lived in France for any real length of time was close to the time Gopnik is talking about. They were still using francs, the country was suffering economically, etc. Things have changed a LOT in many ways, and not at all in others — mindsets and cultural biases take longer to change than economic hills and valleys. I loved my trip. A month was a long time to be away, but it was great to renew my acquaintance with France.

  5. gaskella says:

    This sounds a great book. I adore Paris having been there lots over the years for work and pleasure, and when we took my daughter there for her first trip (aged 8) she adored it too.

    What I didn’t adore though was EuroDisney which for me (and my OH) was the biggest waste of money ever (approx £110 for the three of us to get in to just one of the two parks and thus only see half the ‘good’ stuff for starters). This transplantation of theme-park USA to France didn’t work at all for me. Two years later and I’m still grumpy about that experience!

  6. Jenny says:

    Paris is wonderful, isn’t it? As I said, I normally spend most of my time in Alsace, so I often forget what a truly wonderful city it is. It was good to be reminded. I’ve never been to EuroDisney and have no plans to go (not a fan of amusement parks.) But thanks for the warning! :)

  7. Colleen says:

    I really enjoyed this book – it is interesting to hear your comments considering your recent visit to France. I haven’t read Gopnik’s book that followed Paris to the Moon – Through the Children’s Gate – it focuses on his and the family’s life in NY after returning from Paris. I live in NY and wonder what I will think of his perspectives on it!

  8. Dorothy W. says:

    I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a while, but I can’t decide if I really want to read it. I’ve enjoyed Gopnik’s essays before, and my love of the essay genre is the main reason I’d want to read the book, but I worry about the datedness you describe. Well, maybe I’ll keep it on the list until conviction strikes me one way or the other!

  9. ebodeux says:

    I have this book on my shelf too, and need to pull it off. Thanks for the reminder!

    Concerning your comment: “Gopnik also readily admits that he’s not a Francophile, he a Paris-ophile, which means that he makes many statements such as, “France is a totally centralized country.””

    He was referring to its administrative and political structure which IS extremely centralized, especially compared to the US. The central government in Paris dictates and controls governmental entities and policies. For example, schools are controlled from Paris, not regionally. Teachers are government employees (not employees of a local school district like in the US), all school curriculum is decided at the national level and imposed on every school throughout France (even private ones), etc. This centralized control started with Napoleon and has continued to modern times. The word comes down from “Paris” as they say.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi ebodeux! Thanks for stopping by. I think I know both what he meant, the partial truth of it, and the essential falseness of it. France is administratively centralized, certainly, compared to the United States, but what always strikes me when I go there is regional difference. Someone from Alsace can feel that Lorraine is another planet. If he never left Paris, he’d never know that.

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