During Rosecrans Baldwin’s first week at work as a copywriter in Paris, he forgets that in French buildings the first floor is what we consider to be the second floor. Summoned to a meeting on the sixth floor, he blunders into two different meetings before he finally reaches his destination. This could just be a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire experience living and working in France with the exception that, far from being a blunderer, he is the quintessential fair-haired boy.
Having landed a job with a French ad agency despite the fact that he can’t really speak French, Baldwin begins a stint as a working stiff in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Not for the faint of heart his grueling schedule, which begins before dawn so he can work on his novel before he heads to the office until 6 or 7 pm, frequently to return to his laptop and the online newsletter he edits. Truly, Baldwin is one lucky guy—his meteoric rise in the ad agency (he quickly moves from a breastfeeding account to one for Louis Vuitton luggage, rubbing elbows with celebrities like Keith Richards and Sean Connery) parallels the improvements he makes to his fluency in French and to his first novel, leading up to its acceptance for publication.
What I like about Baldwin’s book is the innocence and tenderness with which he regards France and the Parisians. Even while recounting events that resemble X-rated episodes of The Office, there’s no sarcastic undertone; he likes his colleagues for the most part and explores their idiosyncrasies with affection. His ironic descriptions of the struggles he and his wife Rachel (who speaks even less French than her husband) encounter with bureaucracy are humorous without being snide or cliché. For example, Baldwin inquires at the Post Office to see if it’s legal to ship wine to the U.S. and an indignant clerk tells him, “Sir, this is France,” in a tone indicating oui, but of course, wine can be shipped to the States! Soon after, informed by another postal clerk that his wine has been impounded because it’s illegal to ship wine to the U.S., Baldwin’s self-deprecating dialog makes as much fun of his attempts to communicate in French as it does the absurd situation.
Like any of us who’ve ever taken a job at a tourist destination thinking how romantic it will be to work in paradise, Baldwin ultimately realizes that work is work, no matter where you are, and it’s eating into his ability to live as he wants. Rachel spends a lot of time home alone while Rosecrans jets off to exotic locales for Vuitton, they are eating a lot of frozen food, noisy remodeling has expanded from the floor above their apartment to the floor below and the apartments on either side so, on a rare day together at Giverny, the couple decide to return home. His colleagues can’t decide which is more difficult to believe: the fact that Rosecrans will be moving to North Carolina (rednecks, woods, guns) or that he has managed to get a novel accepted for publication while working full time.
Anyone who’s ever wanted to live in France will find Baldwin’s book and its sparkling details as refreshing as a chilled Perrier after a long, dry walk.
More of My Favorite Books about Paris, In No Particular Order:
Robb peels back the layers of time in the city of light—we’re present for Napoleon’s first encounter with Paris (and the notorious Palais Royale), we navigate the labyrinth of limestone quarries beneath the city and meet the man who saved Paris from collapsing, we see how a place changes character over a century. The appeal of this book is that instead of feeling compelled to read it from beginning to end, chapter by chapter, you can dip in and out, at last able to travel through time.
Paris can be a sinister city, perhaps never more so than during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Serial killer Marcel Petiot murdered and stole from his victims in almost plain view of the police while he continued his medical practice. As King makes clear in this true-crime page turner, the Nazis weren’t the only force the French had to fear. Highly recommended for fans of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.
An entertaining tell-all by a Brit who also took a job in Paris; far more hostile and sarcastic than Baldwin’s book, but still good for a laugh.