An American in Paris reflects on fantasy and reality.
When journalist von Sothen moved to Paris with his pregnant French actress wife, he counted on staying only a few years in the legendary city of beauty and sophistication. Now, 15 years later, he makes his book debut with a deft, shrewd, and entertaining take on his adoptive home, a place far different from how it is conveyed in winsome movies like Amelie and books like Peter Mayle’s sun-dappled A Year in Provence. Living in the multiethnic, economically diverse 10th arrondissement, von Sothen has observed at close hand homelessness, vagrancy, crime, and the plight of undocumented immigrants and refugees. Yet his Parisian community has felt safe, without the “palpable aggressiveness” that he sensed on his visits to America. In France, social programs provide for free or subsidized child care; free health care, including a doctor who will come to your home 24 hours a day; a good local public school; and laws that ensure affordable housing even in areas that are being gentrified. Although in some Parisian neighborhoods “streets were cleaner and ruined lives were less in your face,” the author prefers the gritty 10th to posh arrondissements that he once assumed were “the embodiment of French wonderfulness.” He skewers some of the customs that also once seemed enviable: long, frequent vacations and long, highly choreographed dinner parties. Every six weeks, schools have two-week breaks, during which working parents sign their children up for some extracurricular activity that will occupy them—or else depend on grandparents, “flown in like the Army corps of engineers,” to supervise. The summer break requires “planning as early as Christmas time” and vacationing—sometimes awkwardly—“en groupe” with assorted other couples. The presidential race between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen gives the author a chance to ring in on the “disenchantment and disillusionment” of French voters, who, he reports with admiration, “in the end, found their true north.”
A witty, incisive portrait of contemporary France.