Paris to the Moon

Paris to the Moon

3.6 30
by Adam Gopnik

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Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafés, breathtaking façades around every corner—in short, an exquisite romanticism that has captured the American imagination for as long as there have been Americans.

In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife, and their infant son left the familiar comforts and hassles of New

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Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafés, breathtaking façades around every corner—in short, an exquisite romanticism that has captured the American imagination for as long as there have been Americans.

In 1995, Adam Gopnik, his wife, and their infant son left the familiar comforts and hassles of New York City for the urbane glamour of the City of Light. Gopnik is a longtime New Yorker writer, and the magazine has sent its writers to Paris for decades—but his was above all a personal pilgrimage to the place that had for so long been the undisputed capital of everything cultural and beautiful. It was also the opportunity to raise a child who would know what it was to romp in the Luxembourg Gardens, to enjoy a croque monsieur in a Left Bank café—a child (and perhaps a father, too) who would have a grasp of that Parisian sense of style we Americans find so elusive.

So, in the grand tradition of the American abroad, Gopnik walked the paths of the Tuileries, enjoyed philosophical discussions at his local bistro, wrote as violet twilight fell on the arrondissements. Of course, as readers of Gopnik's beloved and award-winning "Paris Journals" in The New Yorker know, there was also the matter of raising a child and carrying on with day-to-day, not-so-fabled life. Evenings with French intellectuals preceded middle-of-the-night baby feedings; afternoons were filled with trips to the Musée d'Orsay and pinball games; weekday leftovers were eaten while three-star chefs debated a "culinary crisis."

As Gopnik describes in this funny and tender book, the dual processes of navigating a foreign city and becoming a parent are not completely dissimilar journeys—both hold new routines, new languages, a new set of rules by which everyday life is lived. With singular wit and insight, Gopnik weaves the magical with the mundane in a wholly delightful, often hilarious look at what it was to be an American family man in Paris at the end of the twentieth century. "We went to Paris for a sentimental reeducation-I did anyway-even though the sentiments we were instructed in were not the ones we were expecting to learn, which I believe is why they call it an education."

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Editorial Reviews

Le Point Magazine
Without doubt the most influential translator of French culture to the United States.
Who wouldn't want Gopnik's job? Take your family to Paris for five years, watch your infant son become fluent in French, spend your days eating and drinking and interviewing chefs and fashion models, then write up an occasional report for The New Yorker. Gopnik's collected essays about his five years in Paris are filled with delight. While predictable in his appreciation of Parisian beauty and charm, Gopnik is several cuts above many others writing about Europe's romantic appeal. Gopnik knows cuisine, haute couture, politics and sports, and he uncovers larger cultural truths through simple domestic experience. His comical effort to join a Parisian health club, where women on treadmills move at window-shopping speed, leads to his realization, "The absence of the whole rhetoric and cult of sports and exercise is the single greatest difference between daily life in France and daily life in America." An elegant stylist and master of metaphor and description, Gopnik's observations are incisive and original. Such as when he links his feelings about his first delectable meal in Paris, when he was a teen, to those of Stendhal after his initial visit to a brothel: "I knew that it could be done, but I didn't know there was a place on any corner where you could walk in, pay three dollars, and get it." Some might find Gopnik's touch too light, too boureois, perhaps even too self-satisfied. Still, this is an eloquent book about an American's romance with Paris, that seductive city which lures us in, yet excludes us from its inner circles.
—James Schiff
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this collection of 23 essays and journal entries, many of which were originally published in the New Yorker, Gopnik chronicles the time he spent in Paris between 1995 and 2000. Although his subjects are broad -- global capitalism, American economic hegemony, France's declining role in the world -- he approaches each one via the tiny, personal details of his life as a married expatriate with a small child. In "The Rules of the Sport," he explores the maddening, hilarious intricacies of French bureaucracy by way of a so-called New York-style gym, where his efforts to become a member encounter a wall of meetings, physical examinations and paperwork. Many of the entries, such as "The Fall of French Cooking," focus on how Paris is coping with the loss of its cultural might, and look at others of the inexorable changes brought on by global capitalism. "The Balzar Wars" describes a mini-revolt staged by a group of Parisians (including the author) when their local, family-owned brasserie is purchased by a restaurant tycoon. Throughout, Gopnik is unabashedly sentimental about Paris, yet he never loses the objectivity of his outsider's eye. His "macro in the micro" style sometimes seems a convenient excuse to write about himself, but elegantly woven together with the larger issues facing France, those personal observations beautifully convey a vision of Paris and its prideful, abstract-thinking, endlessly fascinating inhabitants. Although the core readership for this book will most likely be loyal New Yorker subscribers, its thoughtful, funny portrayal of French life give it broad appeal to Francophiles unfamiliar with Gopnik's work. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In fall 1995, Gopnick, an art and cultural critic for The New Yorker, moved to Paris with his wife and young son, Luke. His reports from the city, published regularly in the magazine, proved to be fluent and witty, delightful fodder for anyone who loves Paris or has ever dreamed of living abroad. Those pieces, collected here, constitute more than a memoir of one American's struggles to adjust to French ways (though Gopnick was not completely out of his depth, having lived briefly in Paris as a child). True, the essays take the intimate and everyday as their genesis, covering, for instance, Gopnick's attempts to sign up at a "New York-style" health club, taking Luke to puppet shows and the carousel, visiting the new Bibliotheque National or the "dinosaur museum," struggling with French Christmas tree lights, and fighting to keep a favorite restaurant alive. But these are just starting points for deeper reflections on what it means to be French, to be American, and simply to be alive at the close of the 20th century. Gopnick's essays do what the best writing should do: they inform as they entertain. Highly recommended.--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Alain De Botton
[T]he finest book on France of recent years. . . . The distinctive brilliance of Gopnik's essays lies in his ability to pick up a subject one would never have imagined it possible to think deeply about and then cover it in thoughts . . .
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A talented essayist for the New Yorker pens a love letter to the City of Lights, praising Paris to the moon (though that's not the original meaning of the title).

Seattle Times
Gopnik is an artful reporter, dapper in his prose, sharp in his sense of absurdity. . . .
Entertainment Weekly
From the Publisher

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Random House Publishing Group
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Not long after we moved to Paris, in the fall of 1995, my wife, Martha, and I saw, in the window of a shop on the rue Saint-Sulpice, a nineteenth-century engraving, done in the manner, though I'm now inclined to think not from the hand, of Daumier. It shows a train on its way from the Right Bank of Paris to the moon. The train has a steam locomotive and six cars, and it is chugging up a pretty steep track. The track is supported on two high, slender spires that seem to be anchored somewhere in the Fifth Arrondissement (you can see the Panthéon in silhouette nearby), and then the track just goes right up and touches the full moon up in the clouds. I suppose the two pillars are stronger than they look. The train is departing at twilight—presumably it's an overnight trip—and among the crowd on the ground below, only a couple of top-hatted bourgeois watch the lunar express go on its way with any interest, much less wonder. Everybody else in the crowd of thirteen or so people on the platform, mostly moms and dads and kids, are running around and making conversation and comforting children and buying tickets for the next trip and doing all the things people still do on station platforms in Paris. The device on the ticket window, like the title of the cartoon, reads: "A Railroad: From Paris to the Moon."

The cartoon is, in part, a satire on the stock market of the time and on railway share manipulations. ("Industry," the caption begins, "knows no more obstacles.") But the image cast its spell on us, at least, because it seemed to represent two notions, or romances, that had made us want to leave New York and come to Paris in the first place. One was the old nineteenth-century vision of Paris as the naturally modern place, the place where the future was going to happen as surely as it would happen in New York. If a train were going to run to the moon, that train would originate from the Gare du Nord, with Parisian kids getting worn out while they waited.

But the image represented another, more intense association, and that is the idea that there is, for some Americans anyway, a direct path between the sublunary city and a celestial state. Americans, Henry James wrote, "are too apt to think that Paris is the celestial city," and even if we don't quite think that, some of us do think of it as the place where tickets are sold for the train to get you there. (Ben Franklin thought this, and so did Gertrude Stein, and so did Henry Miller. It's a roomy idea.) If this notion is pretty obviously unreal, and even hair-raisingly naive, it has at least the excuse of not being original. When they die, Wilde wrote, all good Americans go to Paris. Some of us have always tried to get there early and beat the crowds.

I've wanted to live in Paris since I was eight. I had a lot of pictures of the place in my head and even a Parisian object, what I suppose I'd have to call an icon, in my bedroom. Sometime in the mid-sixties my mother, who has a flair for the odd, ready-made present, found—I suppose in an Air France office in Philadelphia—a life-size cardboard three-dimensional cutout of a Parisian policeman. He had on a blue uniform and red kepi and blue cape, and he wore a handlebar mustache and a smile. (The smile suggests how much Art, or at any rate Air France, improves on Life, or at any rate on Paris policemen.)

My younger brother and I called the policeman Pierre, and he kept watch over our room, which also had Beatle posters and a blindingly, numbingly, excruciatingly bright red shag rug. (I had been allowed to choose the color from a choice of swatches, but I have an inability to generalize and have always made bad, overbright guesses on curtains and carpets and, as it turned out, the shape of future events.) Although we had never gone anywhere interesting but New York, my older sister had already, on the basis of deep, illicit late-night reading of Jane Austen and Mary Poppins, claimed London, and I had been given Paris, partly as a consolation prize, partly because it interested me. (New York, I think, was an open city, to be divided between us, like Danzig. Our four younger brothers and sisters were given lesser principalities. We actually expected them to live in Philadelphia.)

My first images of Paris had come from the book adaptation of The Red Balloon, the wonderful Albert Lamorisse movie about a small boy in the Parisian neighborhood of Menilmontant who gets a magic, slightly overeager balloon, which follows him everywhere and is at last destroyed by evil boys with rocks. Curiously, it was neither a cozy nor a charming landscape. The Parisian grown-ups all treated Pascal, the boy, with a severity bordering on outright cruelty: His mother tosses the balloon right out of the Haussmannian apartment; the bus conductor shakes his head and finger and refuses to allow the balloon on the tram; the principal of the school locks him in a shed for bringing the balloon to class. The only genuine pleasure I recall that he finds in this unsmiling and rainy universe is when he leaves the balloon outside a tempting-looking bakery and goes in to buy a cake. The insouciance with which he does it—cake as a right, not a pleasure—impressed me a lot. A scowling gray universe relieved by pastry: This was my first impression of Paris, and of them all, it was not the farthest from the truth. To this set of images were added, soon after, the overbright streets of the Madeline books, covered with vines and the little girls neat in their rows, and black and white pictures of men in suits walking through the Palais Royale, taken from a Cartier-Bresson book on the coffee table.

Pierre, though, being made of cardboard, got pretty beat up, sharing a room with two young boys, or maybe he was just both smaller and more fragile than I recall. In any case, one summer evening my parents, in a completely atypical display of hygienic decisiveness, decided that he was too beat up to keep and that it was time for him to pass away, and they put him out on the Philadelphia street for the trashman to take away.

I wept all night. He would sit out with the trash cans and would not be there in the morning. (A little later I read about Captain Dreyfus and his degradation, and the two uniformed and mustachioed figures got mixed up, so perhaps he had been sent to supply intimations of the other, darker side of French life. They were certainly there to be intimated.) What made me sad just then was the new knowledge that things changed, and there was nothing you could do about it. In a way, that was a Parisian emotion too.

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What People are saying about this

Francine Du Plessix Gray
The chronicle of an American writer's lifelong infatuation with Paris is also an extended meditation--in turn hilarious and deeply moving--on the threat of globalization, the art of parenting and the civilizing intimacy of family life. Whether he's writing about the singularity of the Papon trial, the glory of bistro cuisine, the wacky idiosyncrasies of French kindergartens, or the vexing bureaucracy of Parisian health clubs, Gopnik's insights are infused with a formidable cultural intelligence, and his prose is as pellucid as that of any essayist. A brilliant, exhilarating book.
John Updike
Adam Gopnik's avid intelligence and nimble pen found subjects to love in Paris and in the growth of his small American family there. A conscientious, scrupulously savvy American husband and father meets contemporary France, and fireworks result, lighting up not just the Eiffel Tower.
Malcolm Gladwell
Adam Gopnik is a dazzling talent--hilarious, winning, and deft--but the surprise of Paris to the Moon is its quiet, moral intelligence. This book begins as journalism and ends up as literature.
Jeffrey Toobin
Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon abounds in the sensuous delights of the city—the magical carousel in the Luxembourg Gardens, the tomato dessert at Arpege, even the exquisite awfulness of the new state library. But the even greater joys of this exquisite memoir are timeless and even placeless—the excitement of the journey, the confusion of an outsider, and, most of all, the love of a family."

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