Paris Was Ours is a collection of 32 essays by writers who have at some point lived in the City of Light. A sucker for poetic covers, this one really drew me in. The black and white photo of Paris in the rain with people huddling under insufficient awnings, a lone woman with an umbrella and a lone man without one walking a ways behind is the kind of scene you try to burn in your memory when you’re in a place and you know you can’t stay.
The collection itself is a mixed bag of life, love and some loathing. Many of the writers obsessively compare Paris to New York and other U.S. cities, which I found pretty annoying. It’s impossible not to compare the places you live in, but like dreams, these are interesting only to the person doing the comparing, not the reader. Me thinks.
Many of the essays do deliver the goods and completely immerse you in time and place, sometimes just a moment. David Sedaris’s essay on improving his French through books on tape is at the “Me Talk Pretty One Day” level of funny, but over too soon. Other highlights include Patrick Kuh’s piece on coming into his own as a chef at Parisienne restaurants, and commuting to the city, working on Paris rather than in it because like most chefs he couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhoods he worked in.
Loved Lily Tuck’s essay on earning her masters in literature at the Sorbonne, and the art of reading novels with a technical eye. In ‘A Mild Hell’ Edmund White ponders why so many in Paris are so melancholy when they’re surrounded by such history and beauty. As one of the occasional melancholics, he speculates. David Lebovitz’s essay provides some perspective from a pastry chef’s POV. It only takes, oh, 500 visits to a shop before the owner will give you more than a grunt, but once she does you know you’ve made it. That is, until you move again.
There was a time in my twenties when I almost bought a one-way ticket to France, but real life stopped me as it will if you let it. So there is some vicarious living in reading a book like this, some curiosity to see what it would have been like, but mostly validation that it’s not the right place for moi.
My expat city of choice is Budapest, but have you ever tried to learn Hungarian? I’ve tried to teach myself for years, but teacher me sucks and student me gets on teach me’s nerves. I’m starting a course next week, so these next few days I’ll be standing too close to sick people on the subway again. Reluctance is how I learn best – perhaps that’s why I didn’t ride a bike till I was 21.
In any case, I think you’d like Paris Was Ours. It’s a skinny book, and most of the essays are brief so it’s good to have on hand when traveling. Do read the Sedaris essay in public. You’ll look a little mad. Then again, the title is printed in all caps so maybe it’s not poetic, maybe it’s meant to be shouted with delusion: “PARIS WAS OURS”.
Here’s another review from a gentleman travel blogger who loves Paris.