Saturday, June 16, 2012

In Love with Paris

With mon amie Martha in the Latin Quarter.
I've been in love with Paris since at least eighth grade. That's when, while wandering around the campus of the college where my parents teach, probably waiting for a ride home, I saw a poster for a summer abroad program at the American University of Paris. I wrote down the web address in my journal, and six years later found myself in Paris, studying in that exact program. I was alone to have adventures in the City of Light, with no expectations, just that I'd read, explore, learn and fall in love with Paris. Which of course, I did. I wandered the city on my own agenda all day long, staring up at architecture and tripping over my own feet more times than I had since I was two, avoiding lecherous French men, sampling delectable pastries, and soaking up the culture of that fabulous city. 

So naturally, I'm a big fan of the Paris memoir. I can vicariously relive my enchanting experience through the words of other travelers. The following are my recommendations and reviews for excellent Parisian memoirs.

1.   I'm just now finishing Paris in Love by Eloisa James. James is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University by day and a romance author by night. She and her hunky Italian husband, Alessandro, her precocious daughter, Anna, and her reticent teenaged son, Luca, depart for a year of adventure in Paris. This book is essentially a publication of James's Facebook posts from their year abroad. The paragraphs are disjointed and short, each capturing a singular moment or experience. Let me get this right: you can't buy a cell phone anymore without a ridiculous $30 monthly data plan, and a memoir has been reduced to a regurgitation of social-network posts? It's hard to connect with a writer, with her story, when all she shares are three-sentence reports. 

2. You may already be aware that I'm in love with this next book: A Moveable Feast. Now this is what I consider the original memoir of Paris. As usual, Hemingway's spare prose captures his feelings about Paris beautifully, in timeless and classic ways. He spent his days in cafes writing. How's that for a life? Pencil in one hand, cafe au lait in the other. This is what he writes as he looks around a cafe and sees a beautiful girl sitting alone (always that wandering eye, Ernest!):

I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never you see again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

3. Almost French was the first memoir I ever read about France. An Australian journalist goes to Paris on business, meets a Frenchman named Frederic, falls in love, and never goes home. This is kind of what I thought would happen to me in Paris, minus the never-going-home-part... Until I realized that I could never be seriously attracted to a French guy. I like American muscles, American patriotism: good old Ohio country boys. 

4.  You can't write about France without writing about its food. Julia Child's memoir about living in Paris after World War Two, My Life in France, more than does justice to Parisian culinary delights. I love Julia Child's exuberance about cooking: it seems to translate into her exuberance about life. The opening lines of the introduction:

This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating. 

OK, Julia. You had me at hello.  

5.  I read Paris to the Moon in Paris. One day I was sitting by the Seine, swinging my legs over the water, probably munching a fresh baguette, and reading Gopnik's observations about les Bateaux Mouches, the sightseeing boats that take visitors on river tours of Paris, having just been on one the night before. Nothing is more exciting than this: when real life intersects simultaneously with literary life. 

I've read several more Parisian memoirs, but these last three are the best. For inter-cultural romance, pick up Almost French. For adventures with food, Julia Child's your girl. If you're feeling nostalgic, dig out A Moveable Feast. If scholarly is more your cup of cafe au lait, Paris to the Moon should do the trick, with essays and observations about the practical side of Parisian expatriate life.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young [wo]man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.  
                              ~Ernest Hemingway