May 2012

The city of lights, love and hate

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When Rosecrans Baldwin, author of the critically acclaimed novel You Lost Me There, landed a gig with a French ad agency, his longtime dream to live in Paris came true. Though his French was iffy—and his wife Rachel’s was nonexistent—they packed up and traded Brooklyn for the third arrondissement.

In his funny and candid memoir, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, Baldwin learns that life in the City of Light isn’t all croissants and berets. Sure, Paris can be beguiling, filled with exquisite food, art and history. But living in France has its drawbacks. It means dealing with endless bureaucracy: Rachel had to provide an application, two photographs, a copy of her passport, a copy of a recent bill, a copy of their lease and a notarized document proving international health insurance to join the neighborhood gym. It also means struggling with the finicky language and enduring notoriously melancholic winters. “Cold in Paris was both a physical and a mental state,” Baldwin writes. “It explained why Parisians wore scarves in June, because winter haunted them.”

Still, Baldwin is not immune to the enchantments of Paris. On a return trip to Manhattan for work, he is stricken by its size and noise. “Every cliché ever lodged against New York percolated inside me, and my acquired French radar went bananas,” he writes. “New York smelled fried where Paris smelled baked. It was a totality, an expression of many cities. Paris, on the other hand, was a village. Perhaps I’d become a village person.”

Although Paris has a starring role, the book is as much about big life choices—work, family and purpose—as it is about a place. Baldwin just does his navel-gazing in a slightly better setting than most of us. “Was my dream now to rise in French advertising?” he writes. “I didn’t know how long it would last. I didn’t know how long I wanted it to. Every day was an improvisation. I was so tired.”

Ultimately, Baldwin and his wife move back to America, but they can’t quite leave the city behind. “Saying goodbye to Paris was something a person did when he knew he was dying,” he writes. “Until then, Paris was forever one day soon.”

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