Calm yourselves oh ye faithful Paris dreamers, after nearly two years and counting, MessyNessy can report that she is still, hopelessly in love and in no way tired of this city.
Okay, so maybe the metro I once thought was so charming smells more like rotting eggs every time I go underground, taxi drivers are getting on my last goddamn nerve, Parisian girlfriends that get my sarcasm are like gold dust and I may or may not be prematurely turning into a twenty-something wino/alcoholic. But other than that, I’m fine!
Right. Paris, I Love You, but You’re Bringing me Down is actually the title of a hilarious new book by Rosecrans Baldwin, about a New Yorker who moves to take an advertising job, despite his French being rather crappy and despite his knowledge of working in advertising, also being quite crappy. His up-close & personal insight of Paris and its Parisians is not your typical ex-pat novel, it’s both off-beat and laugh-out-loud, and despite it’s title, is not at all a cynical or off-putting account of an American in Paris.
I’ve managed to nab a pretty chunky excerpt for you to sample today from here. If you’re thinking, hoping, dreaming of moving to Paris one day, this book is for you. If you’re an Anglo ex-pat living in Paris, this book is definitely for you.
Oh, and I thought I’d accompany the book’s excerpt with some pictures of the Eiffel Tower I’ve been collecting for no particular reason on Pinterest and figured now was a better time than any to use them (who likes reading without pretty pictures?).
The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine. I bought copies of Le Monde and the Herald Tribune at a kiosk and climbed the stairs to my new office on the Champs-Elysées. For three hours, I mugged at a laptop, trying to figure out how the e-mail system worked. My fingers were chattering. I spent long, spacey minutes trying to find the @ key. They’d given me a keyboard mapped for French speakers, with the letters switched around.
For the rest of the day, strangers approached and handed me folders, speaking to me in French while I panicked inside. A sentence would begin slow, with watery syncopation, then accelerate, gurgling until it slammed into an ennnnnnh, or an urrrrrrrr, and I’d be expected to respond.
What did they want from me?
Why was every question a confrontation?
First day on the job, my French was not super. I’d sort of misled them about that.
The advertising agency occupied three floors of a building located a few blocks east of the Arc de Triomphe, next to a McDonald’s. Our floor might have been a wing from Versailles. Chandeliers everywhere. Gold-flaked moldings. Long rooms walled by spotty mirrors. There were fireplaces like cave mouths, and high ceilings painted with frescoes. A cherub’s little white gut mooned my desk.
For a long time I’d thought Paris had the world’s best everything. Girls, food, the crumble-down buildings. Even the dust was arousing. Coming out of the Métro that morning, I’d been so full up my throat constricted.
Basically, I’d been anaphylactic about France since I was ten.
So I was trying to seem cool and unruffled.
My new boss, Pierre, was an old friend. We knew each other from New York, where Pierre and his wife had lived before returning to Paris, their hometown. In March, I’d received an e-mail that Pierre had sent around looking for someone to join his agency who could attend meetings in French but write English copy.
We spoke the next day. Pierre said, “You’re good in French . . .”
I said, “How good in French?”
Around lunchtime, Pierre introduced me to André, his cocreative director. They shared an office. André was stocky, long-haired, orthodontic. He grinned like Animal from the Muppets. I liked him right away. Probably ate scissors for lunch.
“André doesn’t speak English,” Pierre said.
“Fuck that,” André said in English, staring at me. He added, smiling, “But no, do not.”
A computer monitor attached to André’s laptop showed two nude women sixty-nining. André had on a pink Lacoste shirt and a blazer with two lapels, one folded up. It was the first jacket I’d ever seen that included a constantly popped collar, suggesting, Dude, let your clothes handle the boil, you’re busy musing. At that moment, André’s boots were perched on an Italian racing bicycle. People informed me later that he never rode it—it was parked there only to keep beauty in near proximity.
I told André I liked his office. André grinned, then his Black-Berry began to chirrup. André ignored it and said in English,”So, where you come?”
“Come from,” Pierre corrected him.
“New York,” I said.
The BlackBerry kept ringing. André grabbed it like it was a burning club and screamed down the line while rampaging out of the room.
In a short while, I’d figured out the e-mail system and how to remap my keyboard; as long as I didn’t look too closely at what I was doing, it would perform like a QWERTY layout and communicate my intentions. Perhaps this will become a metaphor, I thought. Then my calendar program started making a boingy sound. It said I was late for a réunion on the sixth floor.
Getting my étages wrong, I wound up in a law firm. The receptionist was prickly: I was due for a meeting where? With whom?
On the proper floor, I asked an IT guy for directions. He said a bunch of things and gestured with his arm. Tried a hallway: dead end. Backtracked, tried another hallway. Oh, you’re dead, I told myself. Around me people were speaking French into headsets, wearing scarves despite the heat. Finally I found a conference room, took an empty chair, and apologized to a horseshoe of elders who were watching a PowerPoint presentation—”Désolé,” I said, catching my breath, “désolé.”
A woman wearing a white suit and white eyeglasses said in English, “Excuse me, who are you looking for?”
Kind of bold, I thought, matching your pantsuit to your glasses.
Finally, down the hall, in the right conference room, I met Claude, a senior account director, who assured me I was where I belonged.
“Dude, you’re from, like, New York? So cool, man,” Claude said in English. Claude was skinny and smelled of cigarettes, with arms sunburned to the color of traffic cones. “I love New York,” he said. “Why did you leave? You know, no one goes New York to Paris.”
Claude said he’d recently returned from the beach. “Just the total best, dude, Antibes. You haven’t been? You must go with me sometime.”
Behind me, a breeze suckled the blinds from a large open window. The view spanned Paris, one of those views that came with sunshine and clarinets, from the Eiffel Tower to the Grand Palais, to the fondant of the Sacré Coeur.
I wanted to levitate right out of the room.
Claude asked if I was married and what girls were like in New York. “They’re easy, right, easy pussy? Like you’re just going down the street”—Claude mimed a drum major swinging his arms; he found it hilarious and exciting—”and there’s one! And there!”
Slowly, about a dozen young French people turned up—art directors, copywriters, project managers, programmers—nodding with afternoon fatigue. They helped themselves to Coke and Coca Light from plastic bottles shaped like petite scuba tanks, and Claude began the meeting. “Okay, so hey, meet this guy . . .” Claude paused before saying my name. Truthfully it was a pain in French, all those “R”s. Claude asked in French if I had any introductory remarks. I said, “Excusez-moi?” People laughed, and I laughed too, a survival reflex or whatever. I said, “Non.” Claude explained to the group that I was there that afternoon only to listen. “Mais demain matin, nous aurons un brainstorming . . . with this dude.” Claude gestured at me and winked.
An hour later, I had no idea what my assignment was, what I’d be called upon to do, or when I’d be required to do it.
In the beginning of my job, I had a look: toddler struggling with digestion. I saw it reflected back at me in people’s sunglasses, absorbed by my coworkers’ eyes. They weren’t used to an American coming up so close, being such a worried listener—me pressing in with my nervous smile, my jaw clamped, my forehead rippling with humps like a Klingon’s.
Why couldn’t I have found a job in Sydney or Cape Town, where the surf brahs communicated by vibe?
What had I done?
At the end of my first day at work, around seven p.m., Pierre introduced me to my new wife, Bruno. In advertising, copywriters and art directors work in pairs. Bruno and I would be overseeing an infant-nutrition account together, Pierre said.
Bruno approached me with a chuckling grimace. I tried to kiss him. No doing. For months I’d get that wrong. All day, I’d watched coworkers greet each other with a peck, the kissing version of Hey, what’s up. But Bruno backed away. Instead we shook hands and grunted hello, bonjour, the way children do when one is new and the other has been asked to show him around school.
Still, Bruno offered me some madeleines he’d just bought from the vending machine.
No matter what happened, Bruno always meant well.
Bruno was a late-thirties Parisian, stocky and morose. Year-round, he was reddishly tan, with a rosy flush that became a glower the more he drank. Bruno was roughly good-looking. His lips were plump, and one ear was scarred from rugby. There was a good deal in Bruno—his sad confidence, his ponderous horniness—for women to get hooked on. Over time, we’d talk a lot about girls. Bruno liked a good time. He liked wine, photography, gourmet food, the sea, and the hours he spent on Sundays repairing antique furniture. For Bruno, cigarettes were life itself. Same for his Yamaha scooter.
In the beginning, Bruno’s English was even worse than my French. Pierre left the room, and Bruno tried to explain the project we’d be working on together. We didn’t get far. Finally he said something like, Drinks? You like a glass? Glass of wine?
Hot summer evening outside, brightly yellow. A very windy Paris twilight, with dust pluming from cars going around the Arc de Triomphe. Bruno led us away from the Champs-Elysées to nearby Boulevard Haussmann, a regal side avenue of shops, restaurants, and white limestone buildings. We took seats at a sidewalk café. Gorgeous people walked by, going home, talking on their mobiles. Bruno sat under a machine shaped like a palm tree that sucked up smoke. He lit a cigarette, unpopped a shirt button nonchalantly, ordered Sancerre, and began talking over my head. After fifteen minutes, I understood that he’d worked on the infant-nutrition project for eleven months, ever since he’d joined the agency. They’d gone through four copywriters in the same amount of time; I was number five.
Bruno said, Reservoir Dogs, did I know this film?
“Bien sûr,” I said, adding, “Mr. Pink?”
“Okay, good,” Bruno said in English. “Then, Mr. Pink . . . do not be this. Do not be saying in the office, ‘Fuck, f**k, f**k.’ “
Evidently Bruno had overheard me swearing. He wanted me to know that cursing wasn’t cool in Parisian office culture. It seemed to weigh on Bruno, speaking English like that, correcting my behavior. As though envisioning trials to come.
Bruno paid the bill in coins and wiggled out his cigarette.
Back in République, the day’s heat was trembling, about to drop. Just like me. After nine hours of French, all I wanted was to snort some Excedrin, eat a meal gargantuesque, and sleep for two months.
My wife Rachel and I decided on a café around the corner from our apartment, Café Crème on Rue Dupetit-Thouars. We managed to snag an outside table with a view of the blue market. But what a marvelous evening to be outside in Paris! Never-ending light. The buzz of apéritifs. Cafés full of disheveled girls smoking cigarettes and their boyfriends fluffing their hair once they’d set down their helmets. So many hello kisses—just another night in northern Europe. Back in the day, it might have been Le Dôme, or Deux Magots, only here everyone was twenty-first-century Parisian: dining on the Right Bank, and before they stacked their Camels and lighters on the table, first they laid down their Nokias.
After twenty minutes, a waitress turned up and propped a menu on the table. The day’s dishes, in addition to traditional fare, included three types of cheeseburger.
Afterward, at home, a neighbor across the courtyard waved at me while he smoked a cigarette on his balcony. In the next window, a woman was preparing dinner in their kitchen. Two weeks later, I’d see him screwing her there while they both watched a news show on TV, and I’d be reminded of a Joan Rivers joke about the benefits of sex like that, how a woman’s in a position to be productive and accomplish other things, like read a magazine.
Rachel and I both collapsed on top of the covers. I was asleep in two minutes.
A pattern emerged: whenever, wherever, I would glue my foot to the roof of my mouth.
Third day at the office, I was visiting the canteen to get two cups of water, one for me, one for Tomaso, who had the desk next to mine. The canteen wasn’t so much a cafeteria as a Beaux-Arts salon with an enormous white cube in the middle, a sleek modern design structure that puzzlingly contained restrooms and a kitchen. From a distance it looked more like a contemporary art installation. Basically it was a nine-foot-tall white Rubik’s Cube with secret toilets, situated in the middle of a ballroom. Anyway, it was where people got coffee and ate lunch.
“You must be delicate,” Tomaso had warned me; “the pressure from the water fountain in the kitchen is very strong.” So I slid into the kitchen—it was about the size of a closet—and carefully filled my two cups. I turned to find a man blocking my way out. We’d met that morning. He was senior VP of something. Systems administration? His name was Philippe. Philippe lurched past me into the closet, our chests scrubbing together while I said bonjour. Philippe grunted. Then he held out a cup and smashed the button—I guess he hadn’t talked to Tomaso—and the water fountain blasted his cup out of the closet, across the room.
“Wow,” I said. A second later, I said in French, “The water, it comes very hard.”
Philippe didn’t hear me. He asked me to repeat myself.
“The water,” I said, “it comes forcefully?”
Philippe still didn’t understand, so I tried louder, with my embouchure resembling a puckered “o,” per Pierre’s instructions—to sound more Parisian. I also gestured by waving my arms, which made one of my cups spill its contents on the floor.
The other cup went down the front of Philippe’s suit pants, filling one cuff with a moat.
Philippe stared at me. Incredibly, some water had gotten trapped in his trouser pleats, so when he bent over to look at his shoes, even more water splashed out. For a dramatic conclusion. I didn’t know what to do. What could I say? Some part of me decided to make a joke. It was my gut reaction whenever shame fluttered around my head. I stammered in French, “Well, when I come, I guess I come hard, too.”
It wasn’t until that afternoon when I wrote Rachel an e-mail that I realized what I’d said. Rachel replied, “I think you crossed a line in the workplace that even Parisians respect.”
At the end of summer, la morte saison finished and le rentrée commenced, when Parisians came home from their vacations brimming with satisfaction. All my coworkers turned up eight shades nuttier; they tanned splendidly well. Their first day back, I’d watch them step out of the elevator like so many show ponies, glistening brown stallions, frosted bronze mares.
The best French word I found for the most prevalent tone was bistre, same spelling in English: “A brownish-yellowish pigment made from the soot of burned wood.”
One lunchtime, an HR woman who was tanned to a Kit Kat told me that, when it came to sunbathing, she preferred the natural look. We were standing on a balcony while she smoked a cigarette—every étage of our building featured balconies overlooking the Champs-Elysées, where people would go to eat lunch or take smoke breaks. Some guys would ogle cleavage below, calling out like mountaineers when they spotted a deep crevasse.
“You see?” the HR woman said, indicating a girl below us on the sidewalk. “Around the eyes, how ugly she seems?”
Proper tanning was less a class issue, she suggested, and more a question of aesthetic commitment. The HR woman pointed out that fake tanning produced a Creamsicle glow. The bone she had to pick, between deep breaths, wasn’t whether to tan, but if a person tanned outdoors—in Provence, for a hide of crackling; in Brittany, where the ocean bestowed a speckled salt crust—or applied self-tanner, or spray-tanned, or visited a tanning salon.
The lesson being that fake tanners didn’t properly enjoy life.
In the beginning, people were always trying to give me lessons.
The creative department, all we créatifs—copywriters, art directors, graphic designers, illustrators, information architects, video editors, Web-animation mathematicians—sat in clumps. My unit had five desks pushed together, where I was one of two expatriates, me and Tomaso, the Italian, and the rest were French. My art director, Bruno, worked down the hall.
To start, I didn’t understand four-fifths of what was said. It was a bitch. But the problem ran both ways, which made it worse. Two neighbors of mine, Julie and Françoise, both Parisiennes, would peer at my lips whenever I spoke in French, then explain they hadn’t understood a word I’d said.
Julie was a twentysomething copywriter, wide-eyed and attractive, a romantic poet outside of the office. A poem of hers I found on the Internet was about flowers, the beauty of stars, and how she, any evening, might die in bed.
Julie asked one afternoon, “You said you live on Rue Béranger, is that correct?” She spoke perfect, if slightly formal English. “Béranger was a famous poet, you know,” Julie said. “In Madame Bovary, Flaubert made Charles read Béranger so he would seem of his era. Béranger is forgotten now. But that is life.”
Many days, Julie’s style was low-cut trousers with a visible, high-riding thong. All men in the office were Julie’s property to tease. She sang cheerily while she worked, except when her computer crashed, then she cursed—her computer being among the few things that Julie could not bend to her will.
But Julie was very nice. Frequently she helped me translate my electric bill.
Françoise, a graphic designer, sat across from Julie. Like Julie, she found my name ridiculous, all those Rs to roll. When someone said my name in the office, Françoise would parrot it by clearing her throat.
Next to Françoise was Olivier. Olivier was a jovial, bitter art director in his fifties, who’d worked at the agency for twenty-plus years. All day long, Olivier listened to electronica through headphones to scare away project managers should they fancy him to work faster. He was tall, bald, and droll. His laugh went hohoho, and to the rest of the office, Olivier was Father Christmas. Beautiful women—the building was full of them—constantly stopped by to visit and flirt and kiss Olivier’s cheeks.
For some reason, Olivier hated me from the start.
Tomaso was a handsome Italian from Venice who loved Paul McCartney and the Police. He had curly black hair and got along with everyone. In addition to French and Italian, Tomaso was fluent in English (he did a good Sting: “Rooooooooxanne“) and would help me when I couldn’t follow the gossip at our desks. For example, Julie was upset one afternoon, shouting in high-speed French, it having something to do with André and a new account she’d been assigned. I poked Tomaso, whispering, “What did Julie just say?”
“Ah, my poor Rosecrans,” Tomaso said loudly. He shook his head. “Julie say you are one sexy motherf**ker.”
I repeated my question. Tomaso repeated his translation. Julie was fuming, blushing underneath her tan.
“Come, it’s a nice thing,” Tomaso said, patting my shoulder. “A compliment for a beautiful gentleman. You know, maybe she will sleep with you this evening.”
“Tomaso,” Julie yelled, “please shut up!”
In a new office, you tried to play it clean. You kept your head down and went about your work while attempting to fit into the groove, pure and cool. Except here in Paris there were rituals beyond my understanding.
First off, I did not know whom to kiss.
Each day I’d wake up at five a.m. to work on my novel, eat a small breakfast with Rachel at seven, and be out the door in order to arrive at my desk by eight-thirty and be ready, fretting with low-lying dread, to give and to receive les bises (kisses).
Office culture in Paris held that it was each person’s responsibility, upon arrival, to visit other people’s desks and wish them good morning, and often kiss each person once on each cheek, depending on the parties’ personal relationship, genders, and respective positions in the corporate hierarchy. Then you moved on to the next desk.
Not everyone did it, but those who did not were noticed and remarked upon.
So first a polite bonjour, walking through the room and repeating it at each chair, bonjour, bonjour, salut, bonjour. If someone arrived late and needed to get straight into a meeting, they might let out a big bonjour for the group. For example, André did this a lot, blazing through the office at ten a.m. with his collar popped, shouting a giant, angry BON-JOUR, like a battle cry. And the room would reply in one voice, BON-JOUR, at the same time that he slammed shut his door.
But then there were the bises, which were conditional.
In French class, I did well in spoken tests, but my written French was appalling. The conditional tense confused me, and the French loved the conditional tense, French conversation practically being founded on relativity—perhaps, maybe, I don’t know. In kissing, some people were ripe, others were not. Whole groups could be off-limits.
It definitely wasn’t appropriate to kiss your boss, except when it was, though it was correct to kiss your underlings, except when it wasn’t. Young men generally didn’t kiss other young men, unless they were friends outside work. But older men did, sometimes. You never knew. Also, these kisses were intended not to touch the cheek but to glance it. People kept their eyes locked on the middle distance and seemed, while kissing or being kissed, very bored.
Honestly, I had no idea how it worked. There was one woman, an Italian down the hall, who visited us at ten-fifteen each morning, making loud smooching sounds even before she entered the room; then she’d deliver long-drawn, suction-fueled bises all around: on Julie’s cheeks, Françoise’s cheeks, Tomaso’s cheeks, Olivier’s cheeks. Even my cheeks, once we were introduced. But it wasn’t always done. Maybe four days out of five, but that fifth day . . .
September found me frequently biseing inappropriately. Male clients, IT support workers, freelance temps. Any female who came within ten feet. They’d return my weird kisses reluctantly, or else back away and attempt to ignore the gaffe. I asked Pierre how he knew whom to kiss, whom not. Pierre said there was no way of knowing this unless you’d grown up in France, then you just knew. He himself preferred to shake hands.
André overheard Pierre saying this and suggested, in that case, Pierre should move “the f**k” back to New York.
Gradually I learned to bise in the local mode. There weren’t any guidelines, just intuition. It required months of calibration. I mimicked Pierre and Chloe, the way other young people around Paris went into kissing each other: regretfully, with a forced, resigned air, as if playing out an obsolete ritual. The procedure by which teenage athletes in America lined up to shake hands: nice game, kiss kiss, whatever.
One evening, there was un pot, an office party, organized for an employee who was leaving us, a tall man named Guy who wore flip-flops. Around seven p.m., about forty people assembled in the canteen around the cube of toilets. There were towers of salmon sandwiches, and terrines, and small cakes. Plus champagne from the office champagne refrigerator. I hadn’t seen it yet, but a refrigerator just for champagne was kept upstairs, in a small room off the agency’s terrasse. Anyway, André was standing at a counter, grinning at me while he squeezed a lime wedge into a cocktail, his smile a bank robber’s bandanna. I saw Keith, a Scottish copywriter I’d come to know, across the room and started threading my way toward him. Then I slipped in a puddle and went down in a split, and knocked a small cake off a bench while my drink shot out of my hand and exploded rum on the feet of Guy, the guy in whose honor we’d gathered, the one in flip-flops.
I picked myself up and shrugged. I knew just what to say to him, because nothing else fit: “C’est la vie.” There you have it, that’s life in Paris for us bumblers, what could we do?
No reply from Guy.
For months, I’d feel like an infant wandering into rooms that filled with tension the moment I appeared: What is the giant baby doing here?
Rosecrans Baldwin lives in North Carolina with his wife. His first novel, You Lost Me There, was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2010, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and a Time and Entertainment Weekly best book of the summer of 2010. He is a co-founder of the online magazine The Morning News.
Excerpted from Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin, published May 1st by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Rosecrans Baldwin. All rights reserved.
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