The Other Side of the Seine

 

A witty look at working in Paris, by Rosecrans Baldwin ’99

By Erika Mailman '91
 


Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
Rosecrans Baldwin ’99
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)

As the title of his new memoir suggests, the latest book by Rosecrans Baldwin ’99 is no rhapsodic recounting of the joys of fresh baguettes, big-legged wines, or sun glinting off the Seine. Instead the book is a realistic and witty look at working (not vacationing) in one of the world’s most famous cities.

Hired at a Paris advertising agency, Baldwin found his inability to communicate posed problems. “First day on the job, my French was not super. I’d sort of misled them about that,” he writes. The first stop-reading-to-laugh moment happens just 13 pages in—an anecdote about an absurdly misunderstood conversation between Baldwin and French friends at a party.

Baldwin is a wordsmith. His first line is simple but evocative: “The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine.” With his language rich with metaphor and his identity so reliant on fluency, Baldwin’s move to France took words out of his mouth and reshaped his perceived personality:

Living in another language and speaking defectively, I could not be clever. At best, I was genuine. Accidentally funny, but never funny on purpose. Earnest, not savvy. I’d worked this out, that it was difficult for me to influence other people’s impressions of me favorably when I didn’t speak the language well, and apparently this was something I needed, people having favorable impressions of me based on what I’d said. So moving abroad was not unlike psychoanalysis.

By day he pitched clients and worked with celebrities like Sean Connery and the Coppolas on Louis Vuitton’s dime—uh, euro—and by night he and his wife, Rachel, explored nightclubs and bonded with other Americans. But the Paris he’d hungered for since childhood never truly evinced itself. He describes rare transcendent moments, but the book generally chronicles frustrations, like how their landlord gradually added construction projects in adjoining apartments until the noise battered them from all sides.

The memoir gives the impression that the couple ultimately left because Baldwin worked too many hours and because his wife was alienated by Paris and at loose ends without funds to continue French lessons. In an interview, though, Baldwin says the decision was more about urban life. “We were tired of big cities. We were craving being back in the woods,” he said. “We could’ve been in Mexico City and the same feelings would’ve drawn us to leave.”

Today they live in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he’s working on a second novel. His first was You Lost Me There, which he wrote in Paris. The scene in which he gets his first book deal shows up in this memoir; he used the prearranged code, “We need to get champagne,” to deliver the news to Rachel. That 2010 novel was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice.

He credits English professors Peter Harris and Ira Sadoff (for whom he “churned out some horrible poetry”) for teaching him the value of writing daily. And he notes that Professor Cedric Bryant’s class on Faulkner (Baldwin’s favorite at Colby) led to an unforgettable perk. Baldwin sat next to one of Faulkner’s few remaining family members at a dinner, and “based on what I remembered from Cedric’s teaching us about sanctuary in cold-ass Waterville, Maine, I talked my way into a personal tour of Rowan Oak.” There, at Faulkner’s Mississippi mansion, Baldwin got to peruse the phone numbers scrawled on the pantry wall because the novelist eschewed address books.

Clearly, listening to professors pays off—sometimes in unexpected ways.

 
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