By Nona Nelson
It’s springtime in Paris and it seems that publishers are anxious to remind this poorly traveled book reviewer that she has yet to experience it firsthand. Three books about life and travel in France have landed on my desk since late April, inspiring me to dig out my barely used passport, make excellent use of the English-to-French translate function on Google and spend hours daydreaming about jumping on the next plane bound for Charles De Gaulle.
First on my reading list was a memoir, “Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by Rosecrans Baldwin about the 18 months that he spent living in the City of Light, toiling for an advertising agency by day while working on his first novel by night.
Baldwin is lifelong Francophile who did not hesitate to accept a job as a copywriter in Paris despite barely speaking the language and never having worked in advertising. In 2007, he and his wife Rachel sold their belongings in Brooklyn, packed 10 duffle bags and began a life of sweat-inducing anxiety caused by the constant construction around their apartment, the high cost of living and the crude, politically incorrect coworkers at Baldwin’s office.
The biggest impediment they encountered in Paris was the couple’s lack of language skills. While polite with tourists, it seems the French have little patience for resident foreigners who cannot converse in their native tongue. It also seems they harbor great disdain for Canadians who speak fluent French with a twangy accent.
Baldwin retells his expat experience in a series of essays that gives an American perspective on life as a Parisian. The French are hard workers, even if they are not very results-oriented. Baldwin’s first assignment was to create brochures about infant nutrition and, despite putting in long hours on research and writing, when the deadline for six completed pamphlets arrives, the first one was still unfinished. Many of his pitches to clients, holders of accounts that are worth millions of euros to his firm, were rejected out of hand. His bosses didn’t seem to mind.
Lunch is an art form in France and they even eat American fast food in courses that can take more than an hour to complete — first course is McNuggets, followed by fries, a burger or two, salad and finally, a melted fudge sundae. Much time is spent debating President Nicolas Sarkozy’s divorce, his jogging and his third marriage to Italian supermodel Carla Bruni. Bureaucracy, Baldwin maintains, is France’s number one sport — he was ticketed for using a metro pass without the proper French-issued identification card, even though no one asked for identification when he purchased the metro pass.
Baldwin is a vibrant and keenly observant writer, and this charming diary is both tender and funny. He writes about what was often a frustrating experience without ever becoming whiny or judgmental. The book gives readers an inside view of a complex society and presents a realistic appreciation of the city for both its beauty and its flaws. My takeaway from this often hilarious, often poignant tale is that is Paris can be a wonderful experience for an extended visit, even if it may not be the ideal place for the typical American to live and work.
A long visit is exactly what travel writer and artist Vivian Swift enjoyed on her 28-day honeymoon trek through France with her husband, James Stone, in 2005. She chronicled their journey in her book “Le Road Trip: A Traveler’s Journal of Love and France.”
The couple visited Paris, Normandy and Bordeaux with many stops along the way. Swift starts her illustrated book making clear what it will not do: provide hotel phone numbers and addresses, recommendations for fine dining, nor a game plan for seeing all the typical tourist sites. Swift aims to inspire the reader to find his or her own French adventure, and indeed she does this by encasing solid travel tips in whimsical anecdotes placed among vivid watercolors.
“Every road trip has its ups and downs, just like a love affair or the stock market,” Swift writes. “But more like a love affair.”
“Le Road Trip” is like a delightful picture postcard loaded with practical advice for navigating France (or almost anywhere, actually): Expect that there will be tension even among the most devoted and loving couple while road-tripping. Plan to pack for a month in one carry-on size roller bag. Beware of unexpected holidays that can leave a traveler stranded without mass transit or access to a bank.
It can take up to three hours waiting in line to spend only a few seconds gazing at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Decide accordingly whether it’s really worth the investment of your vacation time. (My answer would be no.)
Swift shares a touching story of a Scottish immigrant (the father of her neighbor in Long Island) who gave his life as a U.S. soldier fighting the Nazis on June 16, 1944. While the lights of Paris and the vineyards of Bordeaux are something I definitely want to see, a visit to Normandy is a tribute I now feel compelled to make.
While “Le Road Trip” awakened my vagabond heart and made me restless to wander, “The French Dog” appealed to my other loves in life: dogs and photography. This gorgeous book from photographer Rachel Hale is loaded with pictures of a variety of pooches (only one poodle) in French castles, cottages and countryside.
The photos are stunning: some with crisp definition and precise composition, where the lens truly captures the soul of the dog. Others are soft and fuzzy as fur, reminding me of an Impressionist-era painting.
My only gripe is in the text, in which Hale waxes poetic about the nobility and unparalleled excellence of French dogs, reminding me of the thesis of a recent best-seller that promoted French children as the very model of good manners and proper behavior. While I am sure Hale encountered many well-behaved dogs in her travels through France, I think every country has its share of gentle and sweet — as well as mean and cranky — canines. Somehow I doubt the French have cornered the market on great dogs.
Now pardon me while I pack my camera bag, start perusing the Internet for bargain fares, and dive into my next book, “French for Dummies.”