Paris Was Ours

Even if you’ve never been to Paris, it’s obvious that the city has a special allure that no other city in the world has, and a multitude of books get written about Paris by past and present residents. Readers look for answers to how French women miraculously stay so slender, or offer guidance for mastering the eternally sun-drenched foods of Provence (which don’t hold back on the lavender, although I’ve never seen anyone eating lavender anything in Provence), or promise to unlock the secrets of how Parisians have so much flair and maintain their certain je ne sais quoi.

I was thinking about those when I was reading Paris Was Ours, a thoughtfully edited anthology of thirty-two stories written by writers who live in Paris, or whose lives have been somehow profoundly affected by their time here. While those topics have their audience, there’s many sides to Paris that aren’t often broached, which is why I found myself so caught up in this book.

Unlike books by single authors, disparate voices were to compiled in this book to demonstrate the complicated relationship many people have to Paris, not just one person telling their story. Most of chapters are recounted by adults who have come here usually filled with bright hope and ideals, although a good number of the stories are memories of people who came in their youth, and are now reflecting back on how their years in Paris affected their lives. There are stories of immigrants that recall lives and countries left behind; an Iranian woman detained at the airport before leaving her country, denied boarding to Paris because of bureaucratic snafus, and a Cuban woman whose husband was exiled in Paris, who barely had a clue as to what Paris was and was afraid to go shopping or even take the métro because “the Communists said women were raped and murdered there.”

To those who think all French women are slender and gulping down crème brûlée at Café de Flore, there’s the fleeting life – told in a series of thoughts and emotional outbursts – by a homeless French woman who lives on the outer fringes of Paris. And while it makes people elsewhere envious to think that French students are dining on frog’s legs, camembert, and les escargots, a young man attending a university reminds us of a running joke amongst French students that the food they’re being served in the cafeterias is punishment by the government for the student riots of 1968 which seized the entire country and brought it to a halt. The stories bring you back down to reality the Paris, while being “The City of Light” to so many, is also just another big city once you look beyond the pastry shops and take the métro a few stops away from the twinkle of the Eiffel tower, and has the same problems and issues of other urban areas.

In one chapter, Alicia Drake wrote, “The sound of Paris is not laughter”, an observation which captures the somber morosité that pervades the city: the beige sameness of the buildings whose balconies are trimmed by dark ironwork, the gray skies that overwhelm Paris on a daily basis, and the street sweepers with their heads down, washing away soiled remnants and cast offs of households, cafés, cigarette smokers, dogs, and other sorts of detritus left behind. Paris is constantly cleaning itself, and as history has shown, is a city that has has to brush the past aside (not always comfortably) to clear room for the present.

Paris

Paris is full of wonderful things – the Louvre, Hermès, sprawling boulevards, chocolate shops, and pristine parks – although one of the first essays in the book details the shock that a newcomer has when faced with the reality of life in that pricey paradise shortly after she arrives: “Living in Paris is priceless, but it will cost you.” And Judith Thurman gets a good scolding when her very young son has the temerity to step on the grass in a park; “You know very well, madame, that the lawns are off-limits.” Guilt is often assumed, and Paris – first and foremost – must get your respect. A reader wrote to me a while back, “Paris will kick your ass” which gave me a good chuckle, but is true: you’ve got to really toughen up if you want to live here. If you’re looking for someone to hold your hand or take pity on you—or even cut you some slack, you won’t make it.

Those writers who immigrated here and subsequently left, took with them impressions that lasted long enough so their stories formed a deep impression on them and affected their lives, which surfaced years later when they went to write about them. Some remember details, like the long, drawn-out months of dreary rain and how the simple act of slipping into a shop to get out of the deluge and finding a pair of shoes can transcend the act of “shopping” and because a critical turning point in the life of a young Arab étrangère.

But surprisingly, my favorite essay was by journalist Judith Warner, which broached the uncomfortable (and somewhat timely) subject of the way women are treated in France, in business as well as in their position as child-bearers. She finds that the social programs which at first glance appear to be overly generous to outsiders, when she moves back to the states with her family, make her realize that those social benefits fill in the parity between the sexes. When she returned to America as a working mother she discovered the constraints women with families have when trying to find a job and was told repeatedly that certain jobs weren’t for her, often hearing – “That’s for a young person, without children.”

The French system offers childcare possibilities which are part of the social benefit structure of France, and allow women who want to work and have children to be able to do both, whereas women in the states have to face the decision of whether to have a family or to be a working woman, a dilemma she had to face when she returned. But the beauty of an anthology is the mix of voices and opinions, and some of those ideals are later refuted by Stacy Schiff, who claims that in France, “The school week is cleverly configured to keep mothers from working” as kids are “home for lunch”, school is “half-day on Wednesday”, and there are “four-hour birthday parties”, (although later offers that “the last thing any French school administration wants to encounter in its hallways is a parent”) which proves that Paris, and France, are sometimes rife with contradictions and paradoxes.

While reading through the book, I wasn’t sure if my own essay, that was more topical and self-effacing than the others, (which I wrote for The Sweet Life in Paris), was going to be the right story to wrap-up the book. Then I reached the end and realized why Penelope Rowlands, who edited Paris Was Ours, used my story to place a bookmark at the end of this collection of stories. Not to mark the end, but to sum up the good as well as the infuriating – and all the things in between – that fascinate people about Paris.

Re-reading it made me see the optimism embedded in the observations about the quirks I found in Paris and in the Parisians, which permeates some of these stories as an undercurrent. It wasn’t truly evident until it was summed up by someone who finds humor here (See? There is some laughter in the city..) and it made me glad to have rounded things up in a lighthearted way, but one that still acknowledges that Paris is a real city, and those who come sometime leave their mark, and sometime it leaves a mark on them.

Ms. Rowlands opens Paris Was Ours by astutely observing, “For a foreigner living and working in Paris, the bar the city sets can feel impossibly high: to clear it is to feel as if you’ve conquered the world. The thirty-two writers in the following pages have done exactly that.” It all sounds a bit lofty, but as Alicia Drake later explains – “When I came to Paris, I believed in queuing, apology, duty, ideals” which seems to sum up a lot of life for any foreigner living in Paris. What you thought you believed is no longer true and you have to face obstacles that you never imagined you’d have to face. You have to re-write your own rules using the specific, and sometimes rigid, guidelines set by Paris. We may not have conquered the world—or Paris, but many of us do remain here, making the city somehow ours.



paris


90 comments

  • Thanks David, I enjoyed your review. Will keep an eye out for the book.

  • Thanks – I was looking for a book to bring with me to Paris this summer. Sounds wonderful!

  • I am exited to read this book. Thank you for the heads-up.

  • I’ve got to read this book — perfect book to take with me on vacation this summer….thanks!

  • Thank you for putting this book on my radar. Will go to Amazon right now.

  • Thanks so much for this review. It’s difficult to sort through the too-many titles published on Paris every year, but you make this sound like a must-read for some very solid reasons.

  • materfamilias: There certainly are quite a few books on Paris and everyone has a different take and/or something to offer, but it’s nice to get the viewpoints of 32 people in one book for contrasting experiences. Plus what I really liked about the book was the honesty – there was little sugar-glazing and it was nice to read honest stories about living in the city and how the experience changed the authors.

    There were positive and negative, which proves that no matter where you live, there’s going to be the good and the not-so-good. Paris is a place that draws strong reactions from people and I really enjoyed every story in this book.

  • I love books that are a collection of essays from different authors. You really get a complete picture of a topic when it is discussed by many voices. And if your voice is included, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.

  • This collection struck a lot of chords with me. I studied in Paris for a semester and the first month really kicked my ass. A lot of tears and adjusting. Then through the saline came a complex love for an even more complex city. These essays really hit on all the dichotomies that exist in Paris– a lot of beauty and a lot of rigidity. Instead of a flowery or over romanticized series of tales from Parisians or temporary Parisians the very essence of the city is expressed so well.

    I’m glad you wrote about this so your readers might check it out. You do a wonderful job of writing about the realities of the city in The Sweet Life so hopefully anyone who has read your work won’t find these essays too shocking about The City of Light.

  • Thanks, David. Sounds like the perfect book as I prepare to move back to the States after more than a decade in Paris.

    This line really resonated with me: “Living in Paris is priceless, but it will cost you.”

    So true!!!!

  • Agree with LWS…. and you David. A wonderful, thoughtful review of a(nother) book on Paris. I have a small collection of English and French books on Paris, living so close by and having so many different visitors to my house. They also read different types of books and I shall be happy to add this one as it looks like the kind of book I would enjoy myself.
    You are a priceless and pretty amazing man; you can tell us about anything and it’s always interesting, informative, good reading and then you add those great photos too.
    Shall look into this book and get my friends to do the same. Thank You

  • David,

    I purchased this book several months past and completed it a few weeks ago, and I found that it’s really an exquisite compilation of voices and moments. My question is about the two images that appear in this post (excluding the book cover). Might I ask where they were taken and the time of year captured in the first one?

    Cheers,
    NYS

  • Merci! I just ordered my very own copy. I love Amazon and their prices. Thanks for making it so easy. And, BTW, I’ve eaten lavender in Provence with real Provençaux. Lavender ice cream, lavender crème brûlée, herbes de provence with lavender sprinkled on lamb. Granted they are not quite as taken with it as Americans, but that’s understandable considering it practically grows wild everywhere and I have to baby my one plant to keep it alive. Wish I were in the middle of a lavender field or staring up at the Eiffel Tower. I love them both.

  • Teresa: It’s funny because the people I know who are from Provence complain that the Parisians come down and put lavender in everything. And I know a lot of Americans like it as well. To me, I like the flavor (especially paired with honey) but a little goes a long way.

    Natalie: The first picture was taken last weekend when I was walking home from the Marché d’Aligré and the second was a few months ago in the Bastille, looking down off a rooftop.

    LWS: The book is really full of spot-on observations such as that. I quoted a few in the post so folks got the idea, but I enjoyed all of them.

    Kiki, Gretchen & Mary: Thanks! : )

  • “Even if you’ve never been to Paris, it’s obvious that the city has a special allure that no other city in the world has…”

    Absolutely. It’s called irrational exuberance and exquisite marketing.

    This is clearly seen in the latest 11/2 hour ad called Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen. As 99.9 percent of the audience will never have that Parisian experience.

  • One more for the shelf, thanks for the heads up… Lived there nine years (you can’t call living in Neuilly living in Paris)…but, walked often across most of the town two or three times a week. Like any city it’s made up of tranches, life in your bubble, then everyone, everything else. Wonderful time though and turned out to be a great guide for all my American friends who visited, which was satisfying. Don’t miss it if you have the opportunity…gritty or otherwise it’s unique and full of surprises, most of them memorable in a good way.

  • So timely … my flight to France is Sunday. Now I’ve got a great read for the plane. Thanks!

  • Douglas: It’s funny, because I just saw that film the other day and wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. And I doubt even .01% will have that experience ; )

    Part of me made thought the movie was a bit of playing into the stereotype but the other part had me thinking that perhaps it could be seen as a statement about people who have certain fantasies about Paris that may, or may not, come true.

    In spite of any marketing, there is something about Paris that continues to draw people, even those with a love-hate relationship with it.

  • we seem to be on the same page: i’m halfway through the book — and really enjoying it.

  • Great review – I’ll get it for the next plane ride…

    If you ever give up the food biz, you might have a future as a critic…But living in Paris does that to you!

  • I loved Alicia Drake’s the Beautiful Fall on YSL & Karl..
    I’ve been looking for more Drake since and this book sounds perfect.
    Anything about the REAL Paris wins my vote.

  • Just ordered a copy for me and one for my daughter! Thanks for the recommendation!

  • I have been coming to Paris for over 30 years, and it is one of the great treats for me. I learned to love it most when I stopped looking at it as someone visiting and comparing it to where I am from, and started relishing the habits and ways of the local populace, and participating in the city much as they do.

  • In 1962 I ran off to live in Paris at age 19. It was the age of the shiny black belted raincoats. You’ll have to wait for the movie version for the good parts. David, I became a devoted fan of yours two days ago when I happened across your very helpful review of the Acti-Fry, thanks to which nyet, nyet, nyet, vill not to buy! and you described it as being the size of a helmet for a medium-sized gorilla. Mit sotch a brilliant mind, I bet you’re a Litvak. I have never returned to Paris, I would rather keep my memories fresh, but I did make it to Lithuania. Your fan forever.

  • Great review. David, have you seen Woody Allen’s latest “Midnight in Paris?”

  • @David..Agreed. The interesting aspect for me with Paris is that as my comprehension/conversational skills grew the less I liked the city. The negativity, indifference, and incessant criticism is fatiguing.

    Nothing compares to the first time I was there and couldn’t conjugate a verb to save my life. Those were my best memories. But that’s always the case. Is it not?

    A+

  • Thank you for a very beautifully written book review. I just spent a week in Paris. What can I say? Paris is magical and beautiful through my tourist sunglasses. Now I have to read this book to get a more realistic point of view because I really loved the city. It felt like home to me. And the Parisians were so polite and friendly, and so full of humor… merveilleux.

  • Completely agree with Douglas.

    Living in Paris is truly priceless, but it comes with a psychic cost. Yes, you do have to toughen up to live here, but the tough person I’ve become is not necessarily someone I want to be. However, I often wonder if those negative aspects Douglas mentioned are truly specific to Paris or could be said of other large cities, too.

    David, as a fellow American living in Paris, I have truly loved reading your blog for the past several years and once I move back to the States later this summer I will surely continue to read it. Thanks for sharing your observations and recommendations with the world. You are great! Your WTF posts are some of the funniest I have ever read. Merci encore !

  • What a very wonderful review of a fine book – my one reservation is that the contributors are all the same age group. Surely there are Americans in Paris knowing that the sweetness of life is never as delicious as when no longer young?

    But young Americans are a marvel. Almost 30 years ago I was part of a group of international students at the Paris school for French and international relations, the Sciences Po. It is a rather elitist school where the French way to deal with privilege is to humiliate and crush all new students. Us Europeans all suffered but the tiny American group was given a really hard time as their French was pitiful. How they managed the incredibly hard demands of the school plus constantly sneering teachers is still a mystery to me.

    But they showed us all how to do it. They went on speaking their miserable French never cutting down on questions, they never allowed remarks to stick, they never complained they worked incredibly hard. They kept very much to themselves.

    Us European students were a hopeless bunch of bores, never taking initiatives for even a cup a coffee.
    So when the group split up forever they left unaware of how much everyone including teachers admired them and their unflinching courage. As if they would have given a damn.

  • Sonia and LWS: It’s not necessarily an easy place to live. I usually say that if people stay for at least two years, then they will say for much longer. But once the initial patina has rubbed off, and you have to start dealing with banks, the cable company, and government agencies and such, it really does take a certain amount of fortitude to put up with a lot of it.

    Yet somehow to many of us, it’s worth it all. I’m not sure why, but even Parisians (and other French people) have a complicated and tough relationship with the city. One of the writers in the book who finally left after having a child here and living together with her French boyfriend, felt something “sinister” about Paris, and described how she could feel the blood that ran through the streets of the city. The city has been through a lot and although it’s a little eerie to think about it that way, there is something vaguely foreboding about Paris, and I thought that was a pretty astute observation.

    Suedoise: For the bad rap a lot of Americans get, I think we’re an optimistic bunch and I know that French people always admire our “energy”, which is also a lot of our “drive.”

    In the book, there’s a great story about a young girl in Catholic school in Paris and she’s American, but grew up in Paris, and she details how the students (and her) were treated by their teachers – which was pretty terrifying. I think that has something to do with how people turn out, when they’re raised very strictly and individualism and creative thinking isn’t taught or encouraged.

  • I LOVED Midnight in Paris and think that it shows the beauty that makes a lot of the nonsense bearable and exactly what brings the love part into the love-hate relationship so many have with Paris. As difficult as it was as points to live there for a spell, ultimately my heart wrenches anything I think about the fantastical (yet real) times I’ve had in the city!

  • David and Douglas

    I saw Midnight in Paris the weekend it was released in Hollywood at the Arclight with my sister and then the following weekend with my mother. We all had traveled to France for the first time together in 2006 and I will say the first few minutes of the film with the views captured moments I missed most about Paris, France. My experience with Paris was not perfect by any means but there is a part of me that aches for that lifestyle. Seeing this movie captured everything to a “t” that I love about Paris, France and what I also miss most about it.

    David – I love your stuff and I love that you post photos of Paris and the rainy photo for Summer.. I’d kill to be there even if it were raining.

    a votre sante :)
    A Francophile trapped in Southern California
    Jacqueline

  • Love it. Will have to add it to my “must read” list for our upcoming trip to Paris.

  • My 24 yr. old son has been in Paris for the past week, the end of a month long European adventure. He loves it which is to be expected. He and his buddy spent an hour after dinner one night talking with an older French gentleman about politics and health care and who knows what else. Of course, as you noted, he is seeing the city through tourist eyes. This book is now on my summer reading list.
    p.s. While in Nice, he went in search of socca because you love the stuff. They finally found it and did not share your enthusiasm! Ice cream at Fenocchio, however, made the top 3 best.

  • A year after returning home, I am still trying to sort out what kind of mark Paris left on me after our half-year stay. I think it’s many different pieces of marks rolled into one. I left with a love/dislike relationship, yet long to return. What? I don’t really know how I feel! I’m hoping I might recognize myself in this book somewhere.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Cyndy– you DEFINITELY will.

  • I inherited from my mother her love of Paris and France in general, where she spent the first 10 years of her life. I have always yearned to be there, visit there, and live there. I have seized every opportunity to go to Paris, the last one over 20 years ago unfortunately for me.

    Certainly living in a place is fraught with pitfalls that are not apparent to a tourist. One could easily say the same about NYC where I grew up: we have homeless, we don’t all shop at Saks, the streets can be dirty, and who really wants to visit Wall Street.

    I am torn about reading the book because I do love the fantasy. But I think ultimately my desire to consume France and Paris in any form will be too tempting.

    Perhaps if I become too contemplative after reading it, I will just bake some Macarons…. and that will restore the yearn for “the sweet life”…

    Thank you for bringing my attention to this book!

  • Thanks for the review David. Literally walked into the next Waterstone’s after reading your review, but unfortunately they didn’t have it. To Amazon I go! I studied in Paris for a year, and can see the allure of the amazing City of Lights. It’s certainly my favourite city in the world. I’m going back for Bastille day, and hope to have the book with me. I can see myself settling down somewhere on the Pont des Arts, devouring page after page. *Happy sigh*

  • Very interesting post! I think I may have to get this book but not until next summer after school and after I finish reading my long list of books for this summer too.

    It is interesting when a person goes to a city where much is written about it and so that person brings with them presumptions and ideals of others, of their own, add on top of that the narratives of history and then they reach the city and something happens.
    If you allow it the city will not disappoint but moulds a new perception for each person. If you resist your visit will be terrible and uncomfortable…maybe even a let down.
    This is what I love about traveling and this is why I look forward to my Paris trip next year.

    The Wanderfull Traveler

  • When I was younger, I watched Gigi, over and over, and wanted to visit Paris to create my own dreams, but never did. Now, my only reservation is the many comments I’ve read about the rude way Parisians behave toward each other and foreigners, particularly Americans. I just don’t know that I have the constitution to deliberately subject myself to bad manners from people who I’ve heard are very tough, haughty, and unabashedly mean, to which I would end up literally paying a high price. Of course, bad things might not happen at all and my fears could be just that, fears. So, I’ll go ahead and read the book, sleep on it–under my pillow–and decide what to do in the morning!

  • Can’t wait to read this, thanks for the reading tip!!

  • What a wonderful review. I read Sweet Life in Paris from cover to cover when it first came out, laughing out loud at your so apt descriptions of living, for me, in a small town near Geneve for 2 years. Now I will read this book, dreaming of coming back to Paris again and again. There is always something new around the corner, and it seems to me that nothing is very easy here in the States either. Discovery is the breath of life! and you are always giving us all new discoveries. Thank you !!

  • Geez. This books sounds like it must a painfully depressing read. I, admittedly, neither live a financially constrained life here or that of a real year-round citizen, so I know there are many realities I’m not privy to. But it’s an impossibly beautiful city, full of very polite (if maybe not “friendly”) people, and magic/experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. I think, like any city, you need to be determined to take it by the balls, and then it becomes an incredible experience. I wouldn’t trade my life here for anything.

  • I read the book a few weeks back and totally enjoyed it. Recommend it highly. Enjoyed your review and agree totally.

  • I really enjoyed this book, although I wish I had found the authors’ bios in the back more quickly! It evoked many of my experiences living in Paris and elsewhere in France. It was less voyeuristic, and more introspective, than most books evocative of place. It reminded me of Edmund White. Dealing with French bureaucracy is part of everyday life, and not for the faint of heart. It requires the development of a certain sang froid, but oh is it worth it.

  • CCR: Yes, I found myself flipping to read the author’s bios after reading each story. I wanted to learn more about them, too.

  • Kind of like New York City Dave……….To the outsider, it has a magical appeal probably promoted by the movies !!! When you live here, it’s really just a hell hole… Sorry..

  • Dear David -

    So, it’s the Parisians responsible for the lavender in Provencial cuisine. A-ha! Someone to blame for food that can taste like lingerie sachets. . .

    There’s another book “A Year in the Merde” published a few years ago that is a fairly lighthearted approach to things French.

    It was my great dream to work in Paris so I took French classes in high-school, college, and twice a week at Alliance Française in San Francisco. And all for naught. The language part of my brain was too shriveled for anything beyond English. I have nothing but undying admiration for people whose brains accommodate two or more languages. (And that includes you. . .)

  • But… I am going to Border’s tomorrow to get the book… Want to find out if life in Paris is as miserable as it is in NY…….

  • Thanks David — Wow – how timely and how perfect! I always try to read something pertinent when I travel, and since I’ll be spending all of July in Nice, Paris, and the UK. this is perfect.

    Though I’ve been to Paris several times, as both a tourist & for work — this time my mission is more specific; to see Paris through my son’s eyes. He’s 18, has been living there for the last year, and probably will be for the rest of his life. He studies Modern Languages & Linguistics at The Sorbonne, and his french is nearly indistinguishable from a native, which is handy since mine is limited to a handful of nouns, and a (very) few polite niceties.

    So, after I finish the book, I can leave it for him to read, or (more likely) we will read it aloud to each other at night, or over each other’s shoulders on trains.

    He moved to Paris to live and study nearly a year ago and has steadfastly refused to tromp about seeing the sights (although his sister dragged him to a few when she popped down from Bristol for a quick visit) most people find obligatory while in the City of Lights. He prefers, instead, to dive into used bookstores, and scout cheap eats at the ethnic markets. He lives on lentils and pasta, which he cooks for himself on a hotplate in his rented room (which has a spiral staircase to a lilac covered garden so I hardly feel sorry for him), and splurges occasionally on cheese when he can find some that hasn’t been made with an animal rennet.

    I pay for all of this with a part-time job at Trader Joe’s.

    So far he’s lived in Asnières-sur-Seine, Ivry-sur-Seine & Clichy, but he’s just moved to Rue Trévise, in the heart of the 9e; a colorful place. He tutors a well known and lovely young actress to keep a little jingle in his pocket, and her younger brother, which ensures him a home cooked meal one night a week. So far he’s loving it, and seems quite well suited there. Maybe he’ll write of his experiences one day?

    His sister’s take on it can be found at the link I left for my website: she writes with grace, and she knows him well.

  • Hi David,
    I’ll order this ASAP for the trip back to the States. Sounds to be the perfect catalyst for reflection of the last four years of life here. I just gathered up my Sweet Life from someone who had borrowed it. Maybe I’ll re-read it too for some good belly laughs.
    Hope to see you one last time before we leave mid July.
    Bis,
    Suzanne

  • I am an American who has been living in Paris for about 3 years and feel like I am ready to go. The city is breathtaking and full of wonderful things to see and do, but the chaos and anger that are part of every day life here are not for me. I have adapted well thanks to my French husband and school-aged children, but I am not sure that I want to become Parisienne. It is a lofty goal with no prize.

    However, I am NOT EVER leaving France. France has so many lovely regions and cities and I think Bordeaux or Lyon will be my next home. I will look for you there :)

  • He went to Paris looking for answers
    To questions that bothered him so
    He was impressive, young and aggressive
    Saving the world on his own.
    But the warm Summer breezes
    The French wines and cheeses
    Put his ambition at bay
    And Summers and Winters
    Scattered like splinters
    And four or five years slipped away.

    Jimmy Buffett

  • Love your blog, and not just the recipes. It was one of two catalysts – the other being my friends – that pushed me over the top to put out my own blog, based on all these years living here… half my life actually.
    http://www.sandyschopbach.blogspot.com
    Keep up the fascinating e-articles.
    Sandy

  • I actually went right out and bought the book. Thanks for tell us about it.

  • Jacquie: Sounds like he is having a typical experience as a French student, living off a hot plate and eating lentils and shopping and eating at ethnic markets and restaurants, which I do as well.

    Stephanie: It can be a tough place to live and when you travel to other parts of France, like Lyon and elsewhere, it’s a whole different country. I do love Paris but I always tell people to get out of the city once in a while because after a while, like any big city, it can wear you down and it’s nice to go somewhere else and re-charge after a while. Parisians do that all the time as well, whenever they can. (Like New Yorkers.)

    Suzanne: I think you’d enjoy this book, especially because you raised a family here and got to see a lot of the side of Paris that involves the schools and parenting, which is quite different than elsewhere. We’ll miss you!

  • David,

    Your writing in this post has such a different tone. It is beautifully written. (Not to say that your writing isn’t generally wonderful – it is. Just used to your witty cynicism :)

    I set out to read Hemmingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ and, ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain’, before my visit at the end of August. Now before I even start those, I’m running out to buy this. (the reviews are fabulous btw)

    As someone who has been ticketed for sitting in first class on the Metro, spent TWO HOURS driving in circles around the Arc (my first time driving in Paris – I got pushed to the inside and was too afraid to do what the Parisians do: ignore all other vehicles, and without a blinker, veer right), and almost come to blows over a parking space, I find the dichotomy between charm and antagonism is a mysterious pull.

  • Your review reminded me of an occasion when my friend and I were walking over from the Place de la Sorbonne to my daughter’s apartment over near Bastille. Someone came out of a restaurant and started to speak to us in English. I later asked my daughter how he would have known we were American. She looked us up and down and said, “Well, for one thing, you are wearing running shoes. The French wear then for sports, but not for other occasions.” Then she said, “Oh, and you were probably smiling; Parisiens don’t smile.”

    Je vous remercie de votre blog.

  • a quick question… (okay 2 questions)

    Ijust ordered a copy of Paris Was Ours, and Sweet Life (how embarrassing I haven’t read it yet) and poked around to see if you had a “must read” list. I found the Zola, Belly of Paris – and ordered that up too. I soooo love Amazon.

    1) I want to order a copy of the Zola in the original french, for Scott, but I can’t tell if one edition stands out above the rest. Do you have an opinion?
    https://www.amazon.fr/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?__mk_fr_FR=%C5M%C5Z%D5%D1&url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Le+Ventre+de+Paris+&x=8&y=18

    2) On occasion (like birthdays) I order groceries from Waitrose and have them delivered to my daughter in the UK, who housemates survive largely off of dumpster diving at the Co-Op. I’ve nosed around, but I don’t speak french, so I’m not finding a Parisian equivalent where I might order some groceries and have them delivered in Paris. Do you know one?

    smiles, Jacquie

    bonus Q: anything else we should be reading?

  • Thank you for your insightful review on this book. It is already on my summer reading list.

  • David, loved the whole tone of your review (I’m glad it’s morning with coffee and not late with wine) as the thoughtfulness and introspection you wove around the stories you’d read told a whole story in itself. What is this blog if not small stories bringing us your Paris, almost every day? Whether food, or antique shops, restaurants or the bakery closing, we get a slice of the sweet life and a taste of the burnt edges.

    For some of us, a place we’ve not been to, for some a homeplace, we all seem remarkably on the same wave you set rolling. Paris is, as you say, like any ‘exotic’ destination, real. I call it standing behind the bar…the customers see one thing, the bartender and servers see something very different, even while knowing how good the drinks and food taste.

    Lovely review, thanks.

  • MJ: That’s a great analogy; the different between what the bartender sees, and the patrons at the bar. Whenever I go anywhere, especially sunny & tropical, I always say – “I could live here!” But I know when I go on vacation in Hawaii or wherever, I’m on ‘vacation’ and the reality is different. That still doesn’t stop me from searching for oceanside houses online in the Honolulu newspapers, though ; )

    Jacquie: Most of the French supermarket have delivery service, although not in English I don’t think. Try sites for places like Monoprix, Franprix, and perhaps La Grande Épicerie (which may be in English, too)

    Robert: I know, whenever I go back to the states it takes me a few days to get back into the habit of smiling. It’s definitely not a characteristic of Parisians and to fit in, one basically keeps a straight face, or one that shows a little disapproval. I’m used to it now. Americans also get out of the way of others, whereas the mode in Paris is just to barrel through. I do that too, although (once again) I need to curb that habit when I go back to the states so I don’t get punched out.

    Elaine: Ah, yes…the old days of “First” and “Second” class métro cars. Would be funny to imagine those today!

  • A thoughtful, well-balanced review. As always, your writing pulls back the curtain on all sides of the issue: the outsiders perspective, cultural mores, humor, and the commonality between folks.You tell us just what we can expect before buying this cool-looking book. thanks, David!

  • Hey David,

    I’ll go out and find this book. Sounds like a nice read. Enjoying your blog. ;)

  • Thank you for the stroll down memory lane. Once in Paris, it touches you forever. Now, I have to hunt up a copy of this book!

  • Sounds like an incredible book. Is Paris really “A Moveable Feast” and is it really as captivating as it seems in “Midnight in Paris?” Please tell me it’s not, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on this enchanted world I can only dream about visiting ( untill I have a job that could afford me the luxury of such a trip.)

  • Thanks a lot David for your blog, I love the way you write, thanks for sharing with us!

  • A wonderful addition to the summer reading list. Always a fan.

  • I just finished reading Paris Insolite by Jean-Paul Clébert, which he wrote in 1952. It is in French but with many slang type words – of that time. I usually read book on Paris and France in French. I shall look at Paris was Ours since you give it such a nice review.

    I am French and was raised in Paris, in the 9ème. When I turned 21 I could not wait to leave the city and try something new. I moved to San Francisco – in the 60s. I did not miss Paris then but now I live in Atlanta and I miss it. Of course I went back to see my parents twice a year for decades (went back about 52 times) but it’s not the same. I just came back not long ago for another 3 weeks in Paris. I tend not to go where tourists go but where I went to school, etc., so I can get the real feeling of the city. I have found many American blogs on Paris, but they usually only show the well-known areas and rarely talk about the not so nice places. As you so well say it is a large city with urban problems like any other. I get afraid sometimes that young Americans reading all the effusive blogs on Paris expect too much and get disappointed.

    I do tell my friends who travel to Paris for the first time and are afraid that Parisians will be rude to them because they are Americans – most French people cannot really distinguish between an Australian, American, Canadian or a foreign person accent speaking English. On my last trip I could not tell where some kids where from who spoke English next to me in the market, they were from Scotland (I could tell they were not from the US though.) In Atlanta I do miss the diversity that is in Paris, the Parisian sense of humour and the politeness. . What I miss the most though is to speak about intellectual matters, political and religious. I find that in the US if you have a different opinion people don’t like that, but in France you can agree to disagree a lot more.

    I have been reading your blog for a very long time, but this is my first comment.

  • it sounds like a wonderful book. i like that it includes some of the negative, dreary, and oppressive aspects of living in france. overly romantic takes on paris and france can be fun to read and dream about, but ultimately they are not honest and really, i think, can prevent you from seeing the beauty that actually IS there.

    and as a well-educated pregnant woman facing a significant fork in the road, i do envy those french mothers their social benefits, whatever lingering sexism the system may hold.

  • Kristin: Paris is as captivating as Midnight in Paris…if you can afford to stay at the Bristol Hotel (the hotel is offering a “Midnight in Paris special” of €2670, or $3700, for two nights at the hotel…but that includes 2 tickets to the latest Woody Allen film) and eat at Le Meurice. I looked at their menu recently and the main course of beef was €170 ($240) and a veal chop was €105 ($150).

    Luckily (for your wallet) you can have captivating experiences in Paris for a lot less. But that’s the tab if you want to experience the Paris of the film : )

    Vagabonde: I think a lot of people expect to read about how wonderful Paris is; the gorgeous parks, the romantic cafés, and the slender women, which seems to have become a cottage industry nowadays. But those images have their cost, especially for women because the pressure to stay slim means that (a lot) more are smoking and there’s been a noticeable rise in eating disorders. I also think it’s a bit irksome to French women to say they are all chic and trim – women (and men) come in all shapes and sizes.

    It’s interesting you mention about how disagreeing with someone in France is normal, but in America, people don’t like that. I was talking to some American friends here recently about complaining, which is a popular pastime in Parsi : ) and it’s not seen as negative – it’s just something that everyone does. But when Americans hear complaining, it comes off as negative, whereas to the French, it’s just expressing your opinion. And in some ways, is considered more ‘correct’ than keeping things to yourself.

    Anna: There’s sexism everywhere, it’s just that it hasn’t really been addressed in France to the extent it has elsewhere. But on the other hand, during the last presidential election, one of the two candidates was a woman.

    Another point is that the social services – including child care in France – are part of the government and aren’t regulated by private insurance companies. (Contrary to popular belief, in France, health insurance isn’t free; a percentage of your salary is taken out to pay for it, just like folks pay taxes in America for services like schools, police, and libraries.)

    And for all the ribbing the French take for going on strike often, the good thing is that when they feel their rights and benefits are being taken away, they hit the streets in in protest. You can’t really do that with a private insurance company when they take away benefits. Although when I hear stories about Americans being denied benefits even when they’ve been paying their premiums regularly for years, I don’t understand why that’s acceptable for that to happen.

  • Really, really can’t wait to read it.

  • Very good review, without reading the book i have a pretty good idea what it is all about but it actually makes me want to buy and read all of it!
    This review reminded me my observations and feelings about living in Istanbul then in South Carolina! Thanks David!

  • I think that Paris gets an unfairly hard rap because people’s expectations run so high. As David puts it so aptly, it is a real city, with real people going around trying to navigate stressful jobs, family imperatives and impossibly high standards in everything from personal appearance to mastery of the language.

    Moving to any different country as an adult is a harrowing experience. Running into an unfamiliar bureaucracy requires patience and a sense of humor, preferably both. This is true be it in China, the US or France.

    Most baffling to newcomers are the subtle social codes. They are constantly breaking unwritten rules, unwittingly trying the locals’ patience. In many countries, politeness dictates not holding foreigners to these transgressions. Parisians don’t see it this way: social order requires the transgressor to be informed of his transgression. It helps to be quick to pick up on these social rules (or read e.g. French or Foe, which spells it out very clearly) and impervious to the occasional ribbing.

    What I love about how you come across in your blog, David, is that you are a great advocate for being yourself. We both know that excessive, unwarranted smiling makes us look like idiotic fools, or worse, hypocrites, among Parisians for whom smiling is reserved for what they deem to be smile-worthy occasions. But if smiling makes you happy, for heaven’s sake, don’t forsake it entirely, you’ll lose yourself and be miserable. Just don’t expect the boulangère to smile back. She’s got loads of customers to serve and gratuitous smiling at strangers isn’t written into her script.

  • Thanks so much for what sounds like a great book recommendation – I am reading Adam Gopnik’s terrific “Paris to the Moon” – and have yet to see “Midnight in Paris” – this looks like a wonderful complementary read – thanks so much!

  • Last time, you recommended Blood, Bones & Butter, which I got and am reading right now, and am thoroughly enjoying, so I have put this new book on my amazon list and it’ll be in my next book shipment :) As I was born in Paris and spent most of my life going there every summer (after moving to Switzerland, the US, and Canada), I am sure that I will very much enjoy this book, too. Thanks!

  • I enjoyed the post, David. As someone who lived in Turkey, Egypt and now Mongolia, much of what you say about surviving and thriving in Paris remains true for ex-pats everywhere.
    As to blogging about it, you’ll probably appreciate this post, “Blogging for the Folks Back Home.” It’s specifically about aid-workers, but I certainly (with many a cringe!) recognized many of my own blogging-from-Mongolia posts! : )

    http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/2011/04/11/44-blogging-for-the-folks-back-home/

  • Well done to tag the other authors. I’m sure that was a pain.

  • Hi David!! Just a couple of days after reading this post about Paris Was Ours, I found The Greater Journey Americans In Paris by David McCullough. Both are on my list for this summer. I so enjoy your blog as it helps me pretend I am in Paris when I am not. Thank you many times over.

  • @ Anna: as Italian having lived in France, I do not really see sexism. Well, it’s true that there might be some inequalities between men and women at work, but, as everywhere, a career means long working hours and few or no absences which are not compatible with child care unless you can afford a nanny or you have family who can take care of your child for you. So, as it often happens in life, it’s just a choice: le beurre ou l’argent du beurre? By the way, France is the only European country with a rising population: 2,1 children per woman. Italians would love to have their system, which also include a favourable fiscal policy for families.
    @ David: And yes, health care is not free (a part of your taxes plus a complémentaire santé) but you can get good, complete health care even if you are unemployed or with a low income.

  • David,

    I have to thank you again for writing such a gorgeous review of Paris Was Ours. Your reach is simply amazing and I’m officially in awe!

    And your ‘Enfin’ chapter was such a great ending, summing up both the good and, um, less good aspects of life in the city.

    I loved reading the comments just now, as well. Such a lively, engaged readership!

    I’m altogether impressed…

    and grateful!

    merci mille fois, Penelope

  • The book arrived! I’ve perused it (saving it for the plane & sharing w/ the kids) it looks great. Along with it came the Zola, and Sweet Life, which I immediately attacked, and have been chuckling and outright laughing my way through. Love it!!! I’m at page 180.

    To aid the cause of improving customer service in Paris, I’m doing my small part: In my home I host more Parisians than the average bear, and I love taking them on a couple “cultural adventures” to 1) Trader Joe’s so they can sample, chat and learn how customer service is done in CA, (also so they can get cheese) and to 2) Wells Fargo. They are blown away by the banker in a suit who opens the door for customers and greets them; by the short, almost non-existent lines; by the free (albeit terrible) machine dispensing fake cappuccinos in the lobby; and by the way everyone is so helpful and accommodating.

    With a wink – I ask them what banking in Paris is like, and they groan. ;-) Once, a guest arrived before his sister and we’d already gone to do banking. When she arrived, he asked if it would be too much trouble to go again, with her.

    Sometimes, I also teach guests “to drive”, here, in the suburbs. That’s another story.

    Thanks for a great book! All of them.

  • Jacquie VW: Lol! As much as people gripe about customer service in America, the difference is truly astounding. Last time I went to my bank in the United States, there was a woman as a podium at the front door, and she immediately asked “How can I help you?” I almost started crying.

    She resolved my issue in about three seconds, something which would have taken days with my bank here (and I’m not kidding). Although if you get someone to help you in France, they do a stellar job. But even the French complain about the service in France, just as much as everyone else.

    And yes, I always bring French friends to Trader Joe’s. The dried fruit aisle is amazing and last time I brought Romain to a supermarket in America, he came back and was telling all his friends – “Pas de stresse!”

    (He especially was astonished when the cashier offered to get us an item that we forgot.)

    Penelope: Thanks for chiming in. The book was really great and as mentioned, I liked that it wasn’t just “Postcard Paris”, but talked about real things in the city. There’s the good and the not-so-good, but that’s what a great city what it is. Thanks again for asking me to contribute to this excellent collection of essays about Paris.

  • David, I’m a demo-goddess for Trader Joe’s. It pays my son’s rent in Paris.

    Many TJ’s shoppers don’t know that if you are curious about the new chunk of Delice de Bourgonne, or the seaweed snacks – you can take them to the demo-diva and they will open them up and let you taste, and share it ’round. This always makes Parisians eyes pop. Of course, if you like it, it’s polite to buy one. After the sampling, the crew will polish off the remainders in the break-room. Which has a tendency to endear them to you.

  • Thank you for this review, David! As someone who travels often to Paris for work and who has lived there in the past, I always like discovering books like this that remove the rose-hued patina from the city and expose it for what it is–a complex place, with its own codes and patterns of behavior. I have lived and studied in London and in various places in Italy, but out of all places (New York included,) none was more difficult to adjust than Paris. So, I confess that get somewhat impatient with the overly romantic accounts of the city, because they never give it true justice.

    A friend of mine wrote her dissertation on the way the Russian emigre community affected the French culture, from arts to politics. Since the topic was endlessly fascinating, I ended up reading many memoirs written by people who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution and came to France as refugees. Some of them are very poignant, and they all feature the spirit of the city in different ways. “The Italics are Mine” by Nina Berberova was one of my favorites. She was a young writer when she came to Paris with her husband, and she chronicles her life there and its struggles. Her Billancourt Tales (Billancourt being the place where most poor Russian exiles lived) is likewise fascinating. Perhaps, you might find it interesting. Both are available in English translations.

    P.S. I love the second photo in the post. My favorite time to visit Paris happens to be in the winter when everything is gray and somber. Somehow, that is my Paris.

  • Fantastic book–loved it. . My copy is starred, highlighted, underlined. 75% of the time I read online…so this was a sensual pleasure with the gorgeous paper quality and the perfect size to slip in a tote.

  • Hi David,

    I am a British born American who dreams daily of Paris. I have been 5 times and this christmas I will be experiencing the gray Paris that is so prevalent in stories I read.
    I find the people of Paris very lovely, formal but truly sincere.

    Thank you for your blog..great forum to read and your comments are always intelligent and well placed. I enjoyed your book. The sweet life..laughed out loud at your cleverness and wit. I typically don’t read books about food…but since your book… I have converted and have a string of favorites..i find it’s not just about food..food is the metaphor for everything else.
    i just finished reading Paris is Ours and was happy to read your chapter again. It was a perfect piece for this lovely book of amazing authenticity that makes it’s point in every single story.
    Thank you,
    Lynn

  • Yours was one of the few chapters I enjoyed after buying this book based on your recommendation. Too many of the essays were too bland, lacking energy or insight. Anyone who wants my copy can email me for it: indytallguy@yahoo.com

  • I look forward to reading this book. I have daydreams of what I think Paris and Provence would be like. I look forward to the experiencial stories.

  • I am looking forward to reading these essays that I have heard so much about. It is refreshing to know that some of the darker sides of city living in Paris are revealed. I have never really quite put my finger on why Paris is so seductive to me and to so many others…it must be more than her beauty….I guess the answer is in her elusiveness…However well we think we may know her, she always manages to surprise…or to shock….xv