In Rosecrans Baldwin's new memoir, reality gets in the way of trying to live the expat dream in the City of Light
“For a long time I thought Paris had the world’s best everything. Girls, food, crumble-down buildings.”
So when writer Rosecrans Baldwin (You Lost Me There) was offered a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency in Paris, he jumped at the chance to leave New York and live the expat dream: walking along the Seine, afternoons in the Pompidou, sipping champagne at sidewalk cafés, and finishing his novel.
Except he was greeted by modern Paris, where his coworkers ate McDonald's (albeit in three courses), construction surrounded his apartment on four sides, and he spent his days writing copy about how to breast-feed. His new memoir, Paris I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down, chronicles his sojourn in the City of Light.
“I expected to find my way into Paris faster,” Baldwin said in a phone interview from his home in North Carolina. “I had been there before. I thought I spoke the language pretty well, but I didn't.” He had studied French in high school and thought he could pass muster because he was used to conversing with other people who spoke high-school quality French.
In the book Baldwin (pictured left; photo by Susie Post-Rust) describes “the letdown of feeling like I was on the outside,” which lasted not just a couple of weeks or a couple of months but the entire year and a half he's there. The Parisian version of friendliness is not akin to the American, he learned: no fast friends from the office.
And in office life he was surprised to find that the 32-hour work week wasn't the dream schedule he'd imagined, and in fact wasn't how most people worked anyway. “I expected a less driven environment. I was surprised by the hours but also the expectations that it would be anything different. People would get to work at nine or ten and would stay till seven or eight to smoke and hangout and have a drink—even people with families.”
Paris, he said, changes at a different—slower—pace than New York. “In New York City, one of the defining characteristics is it's being torn down and rebuilt.” Paris, on the other hand, is the world’s number-one tourist destination whose culture and economy is tied to the city’s preservation. “I am being grossly stereotypical, but [the French] are dedicated to holding onto the image of themselves, this idea of French greatness. The trouble with preserving yourself is that it's a deadening thing to do. Paris is full of plenty of exciting young people and a huge immigrant population, but downtown, the Disneyland of western civilization, doesn't necessarily reflect that.”
He started taking notes early on in his stay mostly because things were so new and strange. His alertness was “on eleven,” he said. He’d send himself text messages or emails with his observations and musings from work and socializing, and also wrote a series of letters from Paris for The Morning News, the website he cofounded. In the early mornings, when he was getting to work on his novel, he got into the habit of looking at what he had recorded the previous day. Eventually those notes became the inspiration for a book.
Office life in Paris included a special champagne refrigerator reserved for parties and a morning ritual of kissing everyone—les bises—hello that Baldwin could never master. "September found me frequently biseing inappropriately. Male clients, I.T. support workers, freelance temps. Any female who came within ten feet. They'd return my weird kisses reluctantly, or else back away and attempt to ignore the gaffe."
Paris I Love You is filled with characters from Baldwin's office, people who didn't necessarily know they were being written about, let alone that their cubicle life was about to be published in the United States. The French rights for the book haven’t been acquired yet, though one of Baldwin's ex-coworkers did read an excerpt that featured him (albeit with a different name).
“He was like, ‘Fuck it, I don't care, you should make it more entertaining,'" Baldwin said. "'The point is to serve the people who are reading.'" Getting that positive feedback was a relief for Baldwin. "These are people I really liked working with. I wanted to at least do it accurately. So many books about living in Paris are so clichéd: every child has a baguette and every old man has a beret. That didn't make sense when I met people who were unique and funny and strange on their own merits.” His version of Paris rings true to anyone who's spent time living in the city. But he also manages, despite his situation, to make the city seem romantic and, maybe more importantly, real. But the French way of being in the world took some time to understand.
“In a lot of interactions—the post office, work, movies, grocery store—the default mode is flirtatious and confrontational. I am stereotypically American, reasonably polite, relatively nonoffensive, not going to be so frank as to let you know exactly what I'm thinking all the time. It’s refreshing, but it throws you for a loop. Wow, you're really getting in my face. It's about them and their unique perspective they feel obliged to share with you. They’re forthright and no bullshit.” Though Baldwin did, ultimately, learn to make friends (and who to bise and who not to bise), and found himself invited to dinners and parties lasting well into the night.
Eventually Baldwin got promoted out of the breast-feeding gig and into working on the glamorous Louis Vuitton account. So with a good job, steady invites to dinner parties, and a chance to stay in Paris forever, why did he end up leaving? It came down to working too much, he said. Between long hours at the office and working on his personal projects, he and his wife never saw each other. She didn’t have a great deal of social interaction on her own. And “the great sense of being confronted and provoked can be exhausting.” Baldwin, who has not been back to Paris since he left, decided he wasn’t really a city person and wanted peace and quiet and isolation in the woods.
Baldwin has been working on a new novel for the past year and a half since coming back to America. “It was: get off the plane and go to the Apple store to buy an iPhone, go vote for Barack Obama. Everything was great except for the economy and moving in with my in-laws.”
But Paris will always remain, as he writes in the book, “an umbrella, a dream I carried around in case the weather turns bad.”
Rosecrans Baldwin will be reading from his new book at Greenlight Bookstore, in conversation with Volume 1 Brooklyn, on May 14; at KGB Bar, with Paul Ford, on May 15, and at McNally-Jackson, with Sloane Crosley, on May 16.