One night when we lived in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Julie and I were walking back from a restaurant dinner, pushing the stroller with baby Matthew in it along, and we got to talking about how things would need to wind down for us in New York. “It’s funny,” she said, “but New York is a lot like Disneyworld. Everything is way more intense and fun than real life, and it costs five times as much too.”

She was right about that. We loved, I mean loved, our life together in New York. But it wasn’t sustainable, not on my salary, not if we wanted to have more kids. I literally cried more than once when we left, but I never regretted it. A few years later, when we visited again, this time with three small children, we were pretty miserable. Trying to negotiate the subway, previously a breeze, with those children was a massive pain in the butt. The whole New York experience, which we’d once found so vivifying, was instead utterly, completely exhausting. New York City is one of my favorite places in the world, but I cannot imagine any salary I might be paid that would make it worth living there again, at least not with kids.

Having said that, our five years as New Yorkers might well have been the best time of our lives. I can’t remember ever having a serious case of hating New York and the hassle of living there, but that’s probably because we were so enthusiastic about living there, and I had good jobs (= jobs that were enjoyable and paid us enough to get by comfortably, though not save much — which was the main reason we had to move). However, if we had had to live in a worse part of the city, or had to struggle with unemployment, our New York experience would likely have been much different.

Last night we stayed up till the wee hours drinking wine with some old friends visiting from out of town (see the picture below; they came bearing wine, including a 2005 Grand Cru Bordeaux, the remains of which you see there). The husband and I are both Francophiles, and he lived in Paris for a while (he’s also a reader of this here blog; chime in if you like, Monsieur), and he made the point of saying that the Paris we see as tourists is not the same Paris that people live in — or that he lived in. He loves going back for tourist Paris, to be reminded what a fantastic city it is, but it’s also the case that the Paris most Parisians live in is rather different.

All that comes to mind just now, having read, at Sam M’s recommendation, this Slate review of Rosecrans Baldwin’s memoir of how the reality of Parisian life beat up his romantic ideals. Excerpt from the review:

It may seem naive or even insane to cling to a romanticized image of a city when its full-blooded reality is staring you in the face. But Paris encourages such paradox because of how heavily it trades on its own romantic mythology. More international tourists visit than any other city, and Paris knows what they come for: not just the Eiffel tower key chains but the quaint bistros, the sidewalk cafes, the Louvre, the croissants and the baguettes and the boules. Though a lot has happened since Hemingway, it’s still selling that story.

And it quickly becomes Baldwin’s job to sell it as well, because at his ad-agency job he writes copy for Louis Vuitton and other French brands. As one executive at a French brandy concern puts it, the agency’s chief dilemma is to “reconvince the world to love France” (p.196)— specifically, France the unquestioned authority on luxury, not only to Americans but to a larger world market, most notably China. Chinese nouveau riche are buying French liquor as a prestige brand, drinking cognac with their meals like wine. Despite gasps and exclamations of “But that’s not normal!” from the French people in the room, a market is a market, and if it’s the Chinese who now have the money to support the French luxury industry, then it’s China that France will market Frenchness to.

The most well-observed passages in <em>Paris, I Love You</em> come from Baldwin’s time in this very French office, where his colleagues eat their McDonald’s lunches in courses (McNuggets, then fries and a burger, then salad, then dessert), and he can never figure out on both cheeks. Here, cultural assumptions break both ways—while Baldwin seems fascinated by the sad, confident sexiness of most Parisian men, he’s also an object of fascination to many of his co-workers, who are dying to move to New York. One of the Web designers starts calling him “my nigger” until Baldwin tells him it cannot continue, and another takes him to lunch to furtively confess, in a Paris filled with indignant union workers constantly on strike, her secret capitalist leanings.

I don’t think this is so much a brief against Paris as it is a warning against indulgent romanticism. My niece Hannah was disappointed — really disappointed — to find that Hemingway’s Paris doesn’t really exist any longer. I had tried to tell her that, but her desire to believe in it was so strong that she didn’t take me seriously, and had to see for herself. I don’t fault her for that; the belief that there is a geographic cure for one’s restlessness, frustration, and disappointment with the particulars of one’s life is common. It’s telling, though, that so many of the Parisians in Baldwin’s book want to go to New York. They probably think whatever bothers them about life in Paris doesn’t exist there. Maybe they’ve watched Woody Allen movies, and think that’s what NYC is like. Many of us want to be somewhere else, and think we’ll be better, more interesting, less anxious people elsewhere. When I was 14 years old, I wrote to pen pals all over Europe, imagining that their lives were infinitely more interesting than my own life in a small Southern town. It was an escapist fantasy, but one they also shared. A few years later, when I visited one of those pen pals in the Netherlands, she told me that she too nurtured these foreign pen pal friendships as a way to escape the humdrum reality of life in her village. Grass, greener.

What I tried to convey to my niece when we were in Paris is the truth of Hemingway’s famous observation that “Paris is a moveable feast.” Most places are, if by “moveable feast” one means taking into one’s heart the essence of what it means to live in that place, and trying to live it out wherever you may go. For me, I told Hannah, “Paris” is both a place and a way of seeing the world. It means a particular way of approaching beauty, and of living as a kind of art. It is the belief that beauty, however humbly expressed, can and should be a part of everyday life. For me, living out “Paris” means drinking a bottle of cold Sancerre on the front porch in the middle of the warm afternoon, because a friend dropped by, and it seemed agreeable to you both. “Paris” means taking extra time to figure out how you can make something taste better. Last night for dinner, I had some baby yellow squash from our local farmer’s market. I planned to cook it down in onions, garlic, and olive oil, but it needed something else, I thought. “I have lots of basil in my garden,” Julie said. “Maybe some of that torn up in the squash?” Yes, that sounded good. I added fresh basil to the dish — and it was terrific. One of our guests said, “There’s something in this dish that shouldn’t be there, but it’s really, really good.” He was exactly right; it was the basil. It was so simple, yet it made something elegant of a simple country dish.

That’s “Paris” to me. A mindful aestheticism. That, and the way the French language tastes in my mouth. The French do things that we don’t do, things I admire and wish to emulate. There is nothing wrong with taking what is good from their culture and making it part of one’s own perspective. The other night, I bought some of the first cucumbers of the season from the St. Francisville farmer’s market. They were so green and wet and cool. My favorite way to eat them is peeled and sliced, with a few drops of balsamic vinegar, and sea salt. There I was with my bowl of West Feliciana cucumbers, delicious on their own, made even more so by vinegar from Italy and salt from the North Atlantic, gathered in France. I thought: in this bowl is my approach to life.  That is one reason I travel: to see how people live in other places, to learn what brings them joy, and how I might share in that when I’m there, and back home.