Before Rosecrans Baldwin became a novelist, he got what he thought was the opportunity of a lifetime—the self-proclaimed Francophile got a gig working as an ad man on the Champs D’elysee.
With half-baked French and dreams of the City of Light, Baldwin arrived in Paris to discover that life as an expat is not always what it seems, remembering the experience in Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. Here, the author of the acclaimed 2010 novel You Lost Me There recounts the development, surprises and lessons learned writing the unusual and very funny memoir. In a starred review, we said it was "a charming, hilarious account of la vie Parisienne as experienced by an observant young American."
Read more new and notable nonfiction this April.
You lived in, loved and left Paris. What can we expect from the book?
Paris, I Love You But is a memoir about the 18 months that my wife and I lived in France. We were there because I got a job working for an advertising company in Paris. But I barely spoke the language, didn’t know anybody and had no real idea of what we were getting into. So I went in to my first day with high hopes and romantic expectations—and ran headfirst into contemporary Paris. Which is about 2 percent Amélie and 98 percent strange, exciting and unlike anything I would have expected.
Did you plan to write this book when you moved to Paris, or did it emerge out of your tumultuous experience living and working there?
Writing this book didn’t really occur to me, not while I was there or even when we first returned to the States. In Paris, I was working on a novel in the mornings before I went to work. I’d start by writing down whatever I’d seen or heard the day before, I kept notes throughout the day by sending myself text messages.
So a book about Paris wasn’t on my mind, but I was collecting material for it. And a little bit of that material became a column I wrote at the time for TheMorningNews.org. Later on, my book editor—the one who published my novel You Lost Me There, Sean McDonald—and my agent, P.J. Mark, encouraged me to think about using the column as inspiration for a book.
What were the essential components of life as an expat that you wanted to address?
When you’re abroad a lot stands out. Things pop out from the scenery—details that wouldn’t seem remarkable at home. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, and to do justice to the people I met. I thought of the book as being a tribute to Parisians, how Parisians live now—with romance via text message, and dinner parties until 2 a.m. But I couldn’t exactly escape my own perspective, so I guess the expat components just fell into place.
There are always stories that necessarily get cut because of time or relevance. Were there any experiences that didn’t make the cut?
On my first day at work, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said in French, “I adore beef.” She had a lisp, pronouncing the word shadore. I told her in French that I did too, I loved beef from cows, it was super. Which made her freeze, then start laughing. She explained in English what she’d said, that she’d been working late recently and felt like she was sleeping standing up—je dors debout. Which I’d misinterpreted as her saying she loved meat—j’adore du boeuf.
The same woman asked me one day what type of food I liked to eat. I said I liked to cook, I’d grab some carrots, onions and some meat, and I’d throw it all in a big pair of panties. Panties being culottes, Dutch oven being cocotte. But if all the stories like that were included, it would’ve been a much bigger book.
There are a lot of big personalities in the book. Who sticks with you from your time in Paris?
My coworkers. They went out of their way to include me, welcome me and show me their side of Paris. Without them, this book would be flat.
Was your experience living in Paris disappointing or merely surprising?
It wasn’t disappointing or miserable, if anything it was constantly extraordinary. But that could mean extraordinarily frustrating, extraordinarily different. But definitely never boring.
What do you suppose would surprise people most about culture shock and the differences in living somewhere as opposed to visiting?
Probably what it teaches you about your own culture—what you take for granted back home, e.g. customer service, and what’s considered normal but is considered incredibly strange to outsiders, e.g., food portions that weigh three pounds.
What do you hope readers respond to in the stories that emerge from Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down?
I hope that a version of Paris is imparted to them that’s different from what they know, whether they’ve seen Paris before or not. Because we’ve all seen Paris, even if it’s just on TV. So I hope they get to see it, hear it, discover it for themselves—not just the city, but its people.
Clayton Moore is a writer and a photographer based in Boulder, Colo. His work can be found at claywriting.blogspot.com.