Thursday, June 22, 2006

Paris to the Moon (Adam Gopnik)

In his book Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik recounts the five years he, his wife, and their young son spend living in Paris in the late nineties. In the chapter "The Rookie," he recounts trying to teach his three-year-old son about baseball while living there, where baseball is almost nonexistent: "Luke and I tried playing a little catch in the Luxembourg Gardens but gave up after about five minutes. For a present, around that time, he asked us to make him his own carte d'identite, marked with a metier de journaliste---a press pass from the government---so that he could pretend to cut through red tape. We made him an impressive-looking fake government document, with a black-and-white photo and lots of cryptic, official-looking stamps. At bedtime now before the Rookie story starts, he likes to act out a French bureaucratic drama: I play a functionary guarding an entrance to something or other who scowls until he haughtily flashes his carte, and then I let him pass with many apologetic, ah-monsieur-I-did-not-recognize grimaces and shrugs, while his mother acts out the role of the irate bystander, fuming in line as the priveleged functionary serenely passes by. I suppose it is about time we took him home."

I actually minored in French, not for the love of the language so much as the amount of credits I had. I got to a point where I could carry on a somewhat prolonged conversation ("I do very much like the music, and do you? Do you like to hear the music at the same time that you are dancing at the discotheque?"), but only with a Canadian (I was far too terrified to converse with a native).

I also think the little French, Russian, and German kids we see shopping with their parents at Trader Joes are the cutest things ever, and lucky for me there were a few adorable little French girls in Gopnik's book, such as Jolie and Armandine, who discover (much to Gopnik's horror) Barney: "Then we decided to hold a party to celebrate the coming of spring, and I went out to Mulot to get a four-part chocolate cake. When I came back to the apartment, half an hour later, the roomful of lively children whom I left drawling in haute French was silent. They were all in the bedroom. I walked in . . . and saw the three girls spread out on the bed, their crinolines beautifully plumped, their eyes wide, their mouths agape. Barney was in France, and the kids were loving him. The three perfect French children looked on, hardly able to understand the language, yet utterly transfixed. I held out cake. Nothing doing. . . . It was too late."

Gopnik also explores the intricacies of French government, and I had a hard time getting through those parts. Not that they weren't interesting. It's just that, as Jim put it when I pointed out to him that his beloved chessboard was (gasp!) covered in dust, you come home from work where you spent most of your day thinking really hard (in Jim's case, of servers, and all things techie computer having to do with servers), and to me, exploring the intricacies of French goverment right then doesn't sound too appealing.

So it took me longer to read this book than I expected, but it was a wonderful book, truly, in the end. Paris is so different from the United States, even their "New York--style" gym is Parisien New York style: "Best of all [the health club saleswoman] went on, they had organized a special 'high-intensity' program in which, for the annual sum of about two thousand francs (four hundred dollars), you could make an inexorable New York--style commitment to your physique and visit the gym as often as once a week." "We asked her if we could possibly come more often than that, and she cautiously asked us what we meant by 'often.' Well, three, perhaps four times a week, we said. It was not unknown, we added quickly, apologetically, for New Yorkers to visit a gym on an impulse, almost daily. Some New Yorkers, for that matter, arranged to go to their health club every morning before work. She echoed this cautiously too: they rise from their beds and exercise vigorously before breakfast? Yes, we said weakly. That must be a wearing regimen, she commented politely."

Next book up: Yankee Magazine's Living Well on a Shoestring

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