Adam Gopnik’s Paris To The Moon

Paris To The MoonIn the fall of 1995, Adam Gopnik and his wife arrived in Paris, new-born son in tow, eager to explore one of the world’s most famous and romanticized cities. Gopnik, a New Yorker staff writer since the mid-’80s, succeeded in doing something all writers dream of: he managed to persuade an editor that his personal curiosities were of general interest, and therefore should be subsidized. Paris To The Moon is a collection of 23 essays, originally delivered for publication to the New Yorker, covering life in Paris, from the poetic (the cooking, art, architecture and people) to the prosaic (the bureaucracy, the officiousness and inefficiency of the service industry, the impenetrable cliques that dominate the cafes). In his own words, it is the “story of the private life of a lucky American family living in Paris in the last five years of the century, less a tour of any horizon than just a walk around the park.”

That phrase “in the last five years of the century” is monumentally important, for that short span encompassed a number of significant events. Gopnik is on the scene to witness a sustained terrorist bombing campaign, conducted by Islamic militants, and then a student strike that precipitated a general worker’s strike, the largest since the famous May ’68 strikes (striking is a rite of passage in France). In 1998, France not only hosted the FIFA World Cup but managed to win it as well, and Gopnik, never more American than when he is watching soccer, does a wonderful job not only making the beautiful game relatable but showing what it has done to bridge the divide – or at least ease tensions – between the Algerian descendants in France and the mainstream of French culture. Two events, in particular, dominate the book, and demonstrate its charming mix of personal and political. The first is the purchase of the Balthazar restaurant, one of the oldest and most beloved in Paris, by – horror of horrors – a restaurant group, one that has no obligation to continue the restaurant’s traditions, uphold its standards or even retain its service and cooking staff. Gopnik belongs to a group of dedicated Balthazarians, men and women of discerning palettes and a stubborn resistance to change, who stage a sit-in and issue formal demands, all in the vain hope of preserving their favourite restaurant. The second major event is the 1998 trial of Maurice Papon for crimes against humanity for his role in deporting French Jews during World War II. This is a period of history that the French have still largely not come to terms with, and so the trial took on larger dimensions than the guilt or innocence of one man.

Gopnik covers all of this with aplomb, and a prose style worthy of Paris. “What truly makes Paris beautiful,” he tells us at one point, “is the intermingling of the monumental and the personal, the abstract and the footsore particular, it and you,” and he captures this intermingling, this juggling between the cultural and the private, perfectly. From my perspective in 2016, it seems much has been omitted, or perhaps overlooked. The famed banlieus, where most of France’s immigrant population are housed, are referenced but not explored, giving a modern reader little hint of the tensions that would erupt in 2005, when cops and poor immigrants clashed in a series of violent demonstrations, or, indeed, of the sustained campaign of terrorism and intimidation France has lately suffered, leaving its morale low, its citizens timid and potential tourists wary. And yet, in a sense, this omission doesn’t matter. Paris To The Moon is comforting because it so perfectly captures the eternal attractions of the City of Lights: “Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look.” I like that phrase, a “commonplace civilization.” It’s perhaps not the wording a Parisian would prefer, but it suits Paris splendidly.