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Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafes, breathtaking facades 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. For Gopnik this was above all a personal pilgrimage to the undisputed capital of ...
Paris. The name alone conjures images of chestnut-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafes, breathtaking facades 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. For Gopnik this was above all a personal pilgrimage to the undisputed capital of everything cultural and beautiful. So, in the grand tradition of the American abroad, Gopnik walked the paths of the Tuileries, enjoyed philosophical discussions at his local bistro, and wrote as violet twilight fell on the arrondissements.
Yet, at the end of the day, there was still the matter of raising a child and carrying on with the day-to-day, not-so-fabled life. As Gopnik describes, 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. Weaving the magical with the mundane, he offers 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.
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 firstplace. 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.
|The Winter Circus|
|Paris to the Moon||3|
|The Winter Circus, Christmas Journal 1||36|
|The Rules of the Sport||61|
|A Tale of Two Cafes||78|
|Distant Errors, Christmas Journal 2||86|
|Papon's Paper Trail||106|
|Trouble at the Tower||123|
|Lessons from Things|
|The Crisis in French Cooking||144|
|Barney in Paris||166|
|Lessons from Things, Christmas Journal 3||174|
|A Machine to Draw the World|
|The World Cup, and After||215|
|The Balzar Wars||228|
|Alice in Paris||239|
|A Machine to Draw the World, Christmas Journal 4||253|
|A Handful of Cherries||271|
|Like a King||296|
|Angels Dining at the Ritz||312|
|One Last Ride||331|
1. Questions for Dis cussion
1. Throughout Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik seems to be writing about small things—Christmas lights, fax machines, children’s stories—but he tries to find in them larger truths about French and American life. Can the shape of big things be found by studying small ones? Is it really possible to “see the world in a grain of sand”? What overlooked small things in our American life seem to resonate with larger meanings?
2. Although composed of separate essays, the book follows a thread toward a larger meaning: that the “commonplace civilization” of Paris is beautiful but its official culture is often oppressive. What kinds of evidence, small and large, does Gopnik collect to illustrate this idea? In “Papon’s Paper Trail,” how does this lighthearted observation turn serious? In the chapters about the Balzar wars, how are the author’s feelings finally resolved?
3. Can we find a similar distinction between “civilization” and “official culture” in America? Do you agree with the notion Gopnik alludes to in “Barney in Paris” that media culture is our official culture? Do you think his urge to “protect” his child from the “weather on CNN” in favor of the “civilization of the carousel” is admirable or foolish?
4. Although Paris to the Moon is not a novel, it has a novelistic shape, with characters we come to know. Are there “secret stories” in the book? Does Gopnik want us to sense something about the development of his feelings about his child? About his wife? Has the narrator changed or matured by the end? In what way are “all chords sounded” by the birth of a new child?
5. “The Rookie” is one of the most popular stories in the book. Why do you think this is so? The author seems to be saying that American life gives the “gift of loneliness”; do you agree? If you were away from home for a long time, what elements of American culture do you think you would miss?
6. Throughout the book, Gopnik compares France and America. What are the most frequent points of comparison? Where do you think he favors America, and where France? Which do you favor?
7. At the end of Paris to the Moon, when the family decides to return to America, Martha says, “In Paris we have a beautiful existence but not a full life, and in New York we have a full life but an unbeautiful existence.” The author has said that this distinction is central to his experience of being an expatriate. Do you think it’s a valid distinction? Given the choice, which would you prefer?
Books about Paris and France stretch out to the end of the horizon, and fill libraries. But the subcategory of books about Americans in Paris is smaller, and still choice. Of twentieth-century books, A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals:AnAppetiteForParis is pure gold, as is his The Road Back to Paris. Janet Flanner’s Paris Journals are collections of her letters from Paris for The NewYorker, and are full of condensed, stylized French history.Henry James’s A Little Tour in France is the classic literary guidebook, and James Thurber’s wonderful stories of his mishaps in France are included in MyWorld andWelcome to It and in The Thurber Carnival, particularly the stories “A Ride with Olympy” and “Memoirs of a Drudge.” Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is probably the most famous twentieth-century Paris memoir, though it is more aboutAmericans than about Paris.
Novels about Americans in Paris make up an even longer and richer list. They include Henry James’s The American and The Ambassadors. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is the classic story of American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s, and in Irwin Shaw’s Collected Stories there is many a glimpse of American expatriates in the 1950s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” is probably the saddest and most beautiful story about an American in Paris after the crash—and the fall.
Finally, George Gershwin’s great tone poem “An American in Paris,” which is heard often in the background of Paris to the Moon, has been recorded many times. The best version is Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 recording, made with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra; it is available on CD. Gershwin’s piece was the basis for a not-bad Gene Kelly movie directed by Vincente Minnelli, widely available on video.
Posted January 19, 2001
Being Parisian myself, and in US for 5 years it is a great pleasure to read about my hometown and its way of life, seen through the eyes of an outsider. It is a delight of truths about the city's synergie, about the french culture, and about a foreigner who wants to understand and integrate a new world, but will always be on the edge of it. Believe me, the challenges are incredibly similar whem you are a Parisian living in Boston, or New York!! This book gave me a lesson of humility about my culture and let me know that the same confusions, frustrations and joys are shared by anyone who has the chance to live in another culture.
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Posted October 5, 2011
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The book certainly has its charms. As does Mr Gopnik. It's fun reading of his dilemmas regarding his kids, because they edge towards being more French as the years go by while they live in Paris, and while Gopnik likes the breadth that gives them, he also realizes they have to go back to the US eventually. It's interesting to watch the balancing act. One image that sticks with me from this book is how if the French had a magazine akin to "The New Yorker," (for whom Gopnik wrtites) they'd have theory-checkers rather than fact-checkers. This is because Gopnik thinks the French see facts as mutable depending on one's point-of-view, so what really matters is the consistency of one's theories. The ironic thing, of course, is that by this measure the George W. Bush Administration was far and away the most French in American history.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2010
The author is the kind of traveler who makes other American
travelers cringe, and in just a few years, he has evidently become
the kind of self-absorbed New Yorker who is unloved everywhere.
Instead of embracing the experience of living in a new country,
he is a rude guest, constantly commenting on his hosts' shortcomings.
This is an irritatingly self-indulgent story on an old subject,
done before by many other better writers. There is nothing new
or original here. I cannot understand the reviews.
As for the pretense of being a concerned parent wanting
to get his child away from American culture...PLEASE...if he was
tortured by his son's obsession with Barney, it's because he
brought Barney there in his suitcase!
This family eventually leaves France, commenting that they do
not "live a full life" there...Not surprising, they live outside,
and stay outside Parisian life.
I kept hoping for some real contact with the French, some insight.
Something other than an experience with a local shop keeper
or taxi cab driver. But this is someone whose first actions in Paris
included hooking up American cable in his apartment. He learns
that you can get a wonderful apartment in Paris...it just takes money
and connections. He winds up with a beautiful place on the Left Bank...
a typical expat experience...
I have met these "journalists" before. They live in Paris, Rome,
Beiruit, Bejing...yet somehow manage to never leave their comfort
zone. How very boring.
1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2009
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Paris to the Moon was only marginally enjoyable for me. Travel memoirs are my favorite genre, French/Parisian travel in particular, so I appreciated the book to that extent. But overall, the writing style and choice of topics left something to be desired. Gopnik writes in an irritatingly halting fashion that left me frustrated and wishing that he would just get to the point of his every sentence. Also, as someone who knows a bit of French from high school and college, I was able to understand his occasional use of the language, but I imagine his frequent failure to include translations would prove quite cumbersome for anyone unfamiliar with French. To be perfectly honest, the book was just flat out boring at points...maybe because I'm not all that interested in French soccer or politics. I did enjoy the culinary descriptions and first-hand accounts of European health care. But on a scale of one to ten, I'd give its page-turning factor a three.
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Posted May 1, 2001
I have lived in Paris for the past ten years. I have lived in every district excluding maybe three, I, along with other American and British friends have worked in restaurants, bars, temp work, and in major corporations. Every neighborhood has a different atmosphere and every work place as well, Mr. Gopnik's book is a very typical New Yorker's view of the world, which is narrow minded. NY is not the center of the world and everything does not need to be compared it it, especially by a man who lived in the same area all five years of his stay and never lived or worked with French people. Sorry, not only is the book boring, with its chapters on a fax machine and fax paper, but the fatherhood thing was common as well and how rude to come install your self and critize a place that never need your opion. Paris is a little hop over the Atlantic, NOT the moon! To relish over the differences without end it maybe interesting for someone undertravelled, but as for the rest of us, it is relly a disappointment and I will try to get a refund at the boutique I purchased it from.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
One of my favorite books of all time. Wonderfully written and blissfully on target, with an excellent understanding of cultural clashes and idiosyncrasies of the Parisian society.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2009
Posted March 11, 2008
I absolutely loved Paris to the Moon! It was an amazing book with an extraordinary dry sense of humor. It didn't glamorize Paris and told Paris as it is romantic but sometimes confusing charming and frustrating. I had some trouble at the beginning when the topic was French politics and I didn't know the people involved so found it difficult to relate to. However once I gone pass that bit the book was thoroughly enjoyable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 24, 2007
As a college student I lived in Paris for a year and have been a frequent visitor to Paris before and after my year of study. I was hoping this book would take me back to my life that I long to return to. At times it does, but most of the time is spent reading about redundant gibberish. It was not worth reading and frequently skimmed through it hoping the writing would improve.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 19, 2004
I cannot believe how many books there are out there about seemingly well-to-do journalists (Susan Turnbull Almost French) and others such as Gopnik, who either move here (to Paris) with family, meet a RICH French boyfriend, or live here with relatives or friends who have already lived in Paris for many years. I came to Paris on my own accord, found my own place, landed a job on my own and experienced the REAL Paris, not the cliches described in most books. Being alone in a big city gives you real insight, because you cannot come home to your boyfriend/wife/husband or take refuge at a friend's or relative's house. I came here after grad school because I wanted to experience something I had never done before and the only way to really do that is alone, something most of these writers don't seem to have a clue about. Glad to see there are readers out there who obviously can see through the self-indulgent dravel and cliches published about a city that is a huge conglomeration of people that are as complex, rude, funny, friendly and distant as those of any other western metropolitan city. Sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but Paris is really just another very big city with perhaps more museums and history than some other cities. The magic is in the experience and when you bring the family along you can't claim a true Paris experience. And as far as his toddler son being fluent in French, well, I was fluent in 4 languages by the time I was 8. Kids are fast learners, what's the big deal?
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Posted November 25, 2004
I picked this book up at a Parisian English bookshop. I read it in bits and pieces during my 6-week stay. Any American who has spent any time in Paris will appreciate this true life tale. Using his son's birth & growth as a backdrop for his story, Gopnik weaves a tapestry of his own complex attraction and involvement in Paris life and culture (from joining a gym to becoming embroiled in labor dispute at his favorite restaurant to the French birthing experience). Gopnik highlights the cultural differences and challenges using his son's years-long attempt at merry-go-round ring chasing as a metaphor for his own growth and understanding of that growth. The book is about a love affair of sorts with a city and a people that Gopnik does not always understand or like but that he loves and appreciates for adding dimension - not only to his life ¿ but also to that of his family. Ultimately, Gopnik's decision about whether to remain in Paris revolves completely around his decision to either raise a French child or an American one who speaks fluent French and eats croissants and lox instead of Cheerios. A delightful read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 23, 2003
Adam Gopnick moves his wife and infant son to Paris from New York City. He works for the New Yorker so all this is possible. And although the book at times is just hilarious, funny, and insightful, many of the chapters read like they were separate New Yorker articles. There is a wonderful story of his trying to first find a gym to join, and then joining process and then the discovery of how the French use the gym. This little gem may be worth the price of the book alone. But later I found an ¿article¿ on the fashion industry just boring. I found the book to be a very uneven read that I could only recommend to persons going to visit or live in France.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 4, 2002
If you find Gopnik's toddler son as relentlessly fascinating as he apparently does, you might like this book. But if you're not an immediate family member, the 'ain't-my-kid-cute' stories will quickly tire you, as may Gopnik's tendency to pull forced French-American comparisons out of every last croissant crumb. While there are some good and pointed insights to be found, much of it comes off as a smug Manhattan boor holding forth, instead of a witty and knowledeable correspondent who learned to live with the French. And as a chronicle of someone who spent a whole five years in Paris, it's oddly insular and remote: one wonders why Gopnik's relations with Parisians never progressed past the most fleeting casual kind (a taxi driver, a waiter) that any one-time tourist could have had. Want a real feeling of being an American living in Paris - read Janet Flanner.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2001
The most pretentious and self-aggrandizing essayist in the US takes on Paris. It's like mixing arsenic with hemlock. This is drivel from the first word to the last. Read Janet Flanner instead. THAT is the real McCoy, and this is French hogwash.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 21, 2001
I was simply transported by this beautiful memoir. As a former (American) au pair/student in Paris, I recognize the places, the emotions, the thoughts, the feelings, and the questions which Gopnik writes about. As a subscriber to 'The New Yorker', I recognize that wonderful writing style that is Gopnik's: every paragraph is its own little essay, and not a sentence should be missed. The book is now (sadly) put away on a shelf, but I still envision little Luke saying, 'ça va, Swimmy??'... and understand exactly why he said it. A great book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 9, 2001
Posted November 27, 2000
This is a delightful collection of vignettes of life in Paris. Great insights and very sweet observations about his son - a really charming book. Avoids the usual Europhilia that some American writers adopt.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 25, 2000
do we come upon a book so thoroughly satisfying. Gopnik writes with an intimacy that makes both his Paris experience and our own vicarious one particular. These stories are often funny and full of charm,and they also reveal an intellect that makes them meaningful as well as memorable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 3, 2011
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Posted October 6, 2011
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