Monday, October 4, 2010

Paris to the Moon

Oh, faithful readers, I owe you a big round of thanks for suggesting I try Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon when I was becoming convinced that I was done reading autobiographical essays. They are exactly the kind of essays I like most, full of small observations that add up to a description of a place and time. And, of course, they're for anyone who has ever loved Paris: "the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafes, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards...."

Gopnik says that his aim is to look for "the large in the small, the macro in the micro, the figure in the carpet, and if some big truths passed by, I hope some significant small ones got caught. If there is a fault in reporting, after all, it is not that it is too ephemeral but that it is not ephemeral enough, too quickly concerned with what seems big at the time to see what is small and more likely to linger."
Perhaps the circumstances under which I was reading this book contributed to how much I loved the way Gopnik notes the small things as they go by. I was finishing it while I spent the weekend with Walker at a chess tournament, and he had a very good tournament indeed, full of one victory after another, culminating in first prize for his section and a likely promotion to the next, top, section. And what I will remember, I think, is the way he rested one foot on the other knee as he sat with some of the adult chess players gazing at a football game between rounds, after lunch. The way his breathing slowed within a minute of his head reaching the pillow. Finding the hotel lotion bottle on the rim of the tub once again after he got out of the shower.

One of the little things I love best in the story of Gopnik's life in Paris with his pre-school-age son, Luke, is what happens after about a month of their weekly visits to a cafe with a pinball machine in the back:
"When we began to play, I would always discreetly drag a cafe chair over from the table and put it alongside the machine for Luke to stand on. But after we had done this five or six times, over five or six weeks, I noticed that someone had quietly tucked that small cafe chair under the left flipper. The chair, the little bistro chair, was permanently pushed under the pinball machine on the left, or Lukeish, side. There was no talk, no explanation; no one mentioned it, or pointed it out. No, it was a quiet, almost a grudging courtesy, offered to a short client who came regularly to take his pleasure there. Nothing has changed in our relation to that cafe: No one shakes our hands or offers us a false genial smile; we pay for our coffee and grenadine as we always have; we leave the tip we have always left. But that chair is always there."

And, of course, Gopnik talks a lot about food and restaurants. I think he's right when he says that "most people who love Paris love it because the first time they came they ate something better than they had ever eaten before, and kept coming back to eat it again." He lists the dishes at his favorite brasserie:
"There are leeks and tomato salad and herring for starters--foie gras if you're in an expansive mood--and then the same five or so plats: steak au poivre, roast chicken, grilled sole or salmon, calf's liver, gigot with white and green beans. The wine list is short, and usually the best thing on it is the Reserve Balzar, a pleasant red Bordeaux. The only sauces are the sauce au poivre on the steak and a bearnaise for the grilled salmon. The pommes frites are fine, the creme caramel is good, the profiteroles the best in Paris."
This short menu makes me contrast the extensive one at a Parisian-style brasserie we went to last spring in Philadelphia. They had excellent food and wine, but somehow none of it quite measured up to our memories of real Parisian brasserie fare.

I also enjoy hearing Gopnik's thoughts on the differences between American and French people, especially in terms of soccer:
"Soccer was not meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to be experienced. the World Cup is a festival of fate: man accepting his hard circumstances, the near certainty of his failure. there is, after all, something familiar about a contest in which nobody wins and nobody pots a goal. Nil-nil is the score of life. This may be where the difficulty lies for Americans, who still look for Eden out there on the ballfield. But soccer is not meant to be an escape from life. It is life, in all its injustice and tedium."

Gopnik explains the French to his American audience so well because he sees them from the American point of view: "I don't believe that something can be horrible and beautiful. I am too American for that...." He even concludes that some of what we love about Paris is the difficulty:
"Perhaps in the end this is why Paris is 'romantic.' It married both the voluptuous and restricted. It is not the yeses but the noes of Paris, not the licenses it offers love but the prohibitions it puts in its way, that makes it powerful. All the noes of French life, the way that each gate to each park is bounded by that endless ten-thousand-word-fine-print announcement from the government dictating all the things you are absolutely not allowed to do in the park, contribute in some odd way to the romance of Paris."

There are so many lovely ideas and turns of phrase along the way that when I got to the end of the book, I felt kind of lonesome, as though it was time for someone whose company I had been enjoying to go home.


Care said...

I only spent one rainy day in Paris but the handful of memories I gathered were small and yet momentous. Lovely post.

FreshHell said...

Interesting. If I ever get to Paris, I'll have to read this.

bermudaonion said...

I adore Paris so I bet I would love these essays too. They would remind me of all the little things I've forgotten.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Mr. Spy gave me this book for my birthday a number of years ago, as he knows I adore Gopnik. If you liked this, you might try Through the Children's Gate as well. I don't think you need to have gone to Paris to enjoy this, Claudia. I think wanting to go to Paris is enough. Actually, I have a whole list of books to read when I wish I were going to Paris. This is one of them, along with Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and the extremely bizarre mock guidebook, Paris Out of Hand. All to be read while listening to Piaf, of course.

Amanda said...

I don't believe I've ever read autobiographical essays. I love those quotes though.

Ron Griggs said...

For me, most large cities have their own flavor. Paris has one as rich and robust as any--livable and dangerous, metropolitan and neighborhood-y at the same time. So few compare: London, of course. Boston, Chicago, and New York, too. But Philadelphia and Dallas are vanilla pudding to me, while Baltimore and Denver are spicy and strong.

Occasionally you experience a city that seems totally soulless and bland, like Houston. Meh.

Jodie said...

I wonder what the part about football says about the Britsih reaction to the game (and to sport in general). Maybe we're half between the two approaches - always hoping for that Eden (which would be a replication of 1966) and bitterly disappointed when we don't reach it, but sure somehow that we're not meant to reach it ever again because that's British life. Fascinating sounding essays and oh French food, I love people who can describe it well.

Congratulations to Walker by the way. It's funny what we do remember about big events, but I'm a big believer that it is the little details that stick, usually different little details for everyone.

Jeanne said...

Care, on our one rainy day in Paris, we saw the gargoygles at Notre Dame, which was worth it. Gopnik describes the rosy shades of gray in the winter, the way the light is so different.

FreshHell, I echo what Harriet says--this isn't just for reminiscence, it's to whet your appetite!

Harriet, I might have to try another by Gopnik. Any book about France--Hemingway included--makes me hungry.

Amanda, the autobiographical essays to start with are David Sedaris'. Read "Six to Eight Black Men"!

Ron, would you say Washington D.C. is like vanilla pudding with chives--one of those odd recipes at a nouveau restaurant?

Jodie, yes, I think as a comic generalization it works well to say the French are fatalistic, the British resigned, and the Americans optimistic.

And yes, different details for anyone. Luckily my kids have stopped paying much attention to this blog, because I know he'd be embarrassed and take issue with the things I mention.