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 There were many of Gopnik’s journalistic observations that were no longer applicable.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.