Bien sur, Paris is a city of sophistication, romance and beauty. But if you've ever lived there, you know it can also be impossibly frustrating, judgmental, monotonous and maddening. From nonsensical lines and impassive clerks at the prefecture to the eye rolling and insincere smiles of cafe waiters to indecipherable office politics, these three books delve into the less than sweet side of Paris living.
When Rosecrans Baldwin is hired by a French advertising agency, it comes with a required civic education class. There he learns that "in France, we say we are French before we are anything else." And just what constitutes being French is fodder for his keen observations about the City of Light. Although he and his wife experience bureaucracy everywhere — they have to submit copies of a recent bill, passport, apartment lease, residency application, proof of health insurance and photos just to join a gym — most of the anecdotes take place in Baldwin's new office. There, he must figure out whether it's appropriate to double kiss superiors in greeting as it is his peers, and, when it comes to said peers, if he should work slower to accommodate their video-game playing. Baldwin shows how the subtlest nuances can be the most important in the great cultural divide, and brilliantly conveys how even the most mind-numbing antics can't tamper one's true love for Paris.
After the unexpected death of his partner, and with over a decade of experience as a pastry chef, David Lebovitz decides it's time to change course in his life. Looking for the inspiration and awe he first experienced in Paris just after college, he sells off everything he owns, save for three suitcases, and finds himself a wee Parisian apartment in the Bastille. Lebovitz's first taste of the mystifying workings of Paris is the painter his landlord hires, who still shows up for touch-ups and other duties weeks after the job is done and paid for. The list of perplexing behavior that peppers the more than two-dozen subsequent chapters of this memoir-with-recipes includes bank tellers who don't have change, stores that are closed when they should be open, locals who eat bananas with a knife and fork, and all those blatant line-cutters and nose-pickers. Everywhere Lebovitz turns is more puzzling French behavior — which is never a match for his witty takedowns.
In 2008, Frenchman Olivier Magny started a blog in English. Each post was devoted to the ticks and predilections of true Parisians. "Parisians love South America," "Parisians want to be great and in pain," "Parisians love Paris. But they hate Parisians." His witty, dead-on observations spawned such a huge following that, while Magny is also a successful sommelier and wine tour operator, he landed a book deal. The result is a collection that builds on the blog entries, with each chapter devoted to a topic — macarons, jeans, L'ile Saint Louis — that any self-respecting Parisian should be well-versed in. He also adds useful tips and phonetically sounded-out expressions so that we, the readers, can consider ourselves vraiesParisiennes.
After living there myself for nearly two years, I have my own love-hate relationship with Paris. And yet it's all but impossible not to forgive the magnificent city because, well, it's Paris.
Amy Thomas is the author of Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate)
Three Books...is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman, with production assistance from Andrew Otis.