Once you’ve gotten used to seeing the Eiffel Tower on your commute every day, and living among centuries-old buildings, what is daily life actually like in Paris? Adam Gopnik’s famous memoir Paris to the Moon provides a peek.
Gopnik made the move to Paris in 1995 with his wife and baby son and spent five years there, hoping to raise his child away from American cartoons and surrounded by beauty. His book is a portrait of everyday life in Paris, but also a sharp commentary on French psychology and a memoir of life as an expat dad.
Perhaps the most comical cultural clash comes when Gopnik tries to sign up for an “American-style” gym. The staff are shocked when he suggests that he might want to come more than once a week, and they have to invent a whole new membership category for such frequent visits. Sweaty after an intense first cycling workout, Gopnik discovers that they have no towels.
“The absence of the whole rhetoric and cult of sports and exercise is the single greatest difference between daily life in France and daily life in America,” he comments.
While Americans are quick to punish themselves with exercise (and feel guiltier after rewarding themselves with pastry), they also approach leisure much differently from the French. “Fun is the magic American word,” he writes. “Our motto ‘Let’s have fun!’ is met by the French motto ‘Let’s be amused.’”
That helps explain why, in his observation, the French don’t quite get Halloween. For Halloween, you dress up and look kind of ridiculous; it’s fun. Amusement requires a bit more detachment, a bit more distance; the intellectual French are suspicious of naive American gaiety.
Near the end of his stay, what Gopnik begins to miss about America is not the friendliness, but the solitude and privacy. In America, we accept that busy friends will miss phone calls or cancel lunches; but in Paris, these minor snubs can cause tension and demand explanation. “In Paris, no relationship, even one with a postman or a dry cleaner, is abstract or anonymous,” he writes:
“On your way down the street in the early morning to run with all the other Americans in the Luxembourg Gardens…you hear footsteps coming after you, and you worry that you have violated some ordinance, stepped on some forbidden grass. It is the fishmonger. ‘The wild salmon went well?’ he demands anxiously. You find a cafe where you feel at home—and then become reluctant to go there, since it will involve such a wearing round of handshakes and ‘How is Madame?’”
The anxious fishmonger hints at another key difference that Gopnik observes: “Most Americans draw their identities from the things they buy, while the French draw theirs from the jobs they do. What we think of as ‘French rudeness,’ and what they think of as ‘American arrogance,’ arise from this difference.”
As an American, I might chafe at this judgment, but I can’t deny the elegance of the interpretation. When I studied abroad in France, I learned to say “Bonjour” when entering a shop and “Merci, au revoir” when leaving one—and that the absence of such greetings was why the French found us rude. But Gopnik’s theory points to the root of these different customs: In the American store, the customer is king, and can come and go as he pleases; in the French shop, it seems, the owners and workers are the ones who deserve (or at least desire) respect.
After the millennium, Gopnik and his family (with the addition of a newborn) move back to New York. “We had a beautiful existence in Paris but not a full life,” his wife says. Certain aspects of Parisian life are closed off to foreigners, and their family and friends were back home—but as they hoped, they did spend their time in Paris surrounded by beauty.
With enough intellectualizing to make a Frenchman roll his eyes, Paris to the Moon may take some time to sink your teeth into—with chapters on politics and economics preceding those on fitness and food—but, like its subject, it may ultimately charm you.