February 6, 2001
by Kay Kimbrough
PARIS TO THE MOON
Random House, 2000, $24.95.
Adam Gopnik arrived in Paris in 1995 for a five-year period that would end in 2000. He, his wife and their infant son settled into their apartment in rue du Pres au Clercs in the seventh arrondissement to experience French culture, bureaucracy, health care, childbirth and crises. Gopnik, a writer for NEW YORKER magazine, presents a portrait of Paris on two levels, his own and that of his young son, who struggles with two languages, two cultures and the knowledge that he is going home to New York in the year 2000.
Food naturally plays an important role in Gopnik's book. He writes of his first visit to Paris in 1973 when he was a young teen. "The trees cast patterned light on the street. We went out for dinner and, for fifteen francs, had the best meal I had ever eaten, and most of all, nobody who lived there seemed to notice or care. The beauty and the braised trout alike were just part of life, the way we do things here." His impression was emphasized because he and his family left London for Paris, and the food in London at that time was dismal, a city of "pallid, gray people on the streets, who ate sandwiches that turned up at the edges." His appreciation for French food continues. He claims to create an "unearned" "poetic effect" by reciting the names of the restaurants where he and his wife Martha had lunch: "Le Souffle, Le Basilic, Chez Andre, Le Petit St. Benoit, Laduree."
The chapter on Alice Waters' visit to Paris to work on the establishment of a restaurant in the Louvre demonstrates a key difference between French attitudes toward food and those of food-obsessed Americans. Waters' view blends morals and esthetics. She told teachers in California in regard to the "garden in every school" project, "The sensual pleasure of eating beautiful food from the garden brings with it the moral satisfaction of doing the right thing for the planet and for yourself." Gopnik cooked a meal for Waters that was eaten at he time the Starr report was arriving in his Paris apartment from a New York friend via the fax machine, which provided an odd kind of music for the Queen of Pure Pleasures. "It was a kind of two-course meal of radical hedonism and extreme puritanism, both as American as, well, apple pie."
Although the French keep morals and esthetics separate in culinary matters, they are passionate about quality of ingredients, atmosphere and service in their beloved restaurants. Gopnik participated in the war over Balzar, a bistro near the Sorbonne that was his favorite restaurant until it was bought by a chain. The war was about tradition, service and quality, not morals.
This delightful account of everyday life covers the events that all ordinary people encounter: shopping, celebrating holidays, child care, entertaining friends, and, of course, eating. Gopnik reflects on his occasional homesickness for New York restaurants and their amazing variety, but concludes, "I would still rather eat in Paris than anywhere else in the world. The best places in Paris, like the Barasserie Balzar, on the rue des Ecoles, don't just feed you well; they make you happy in a way that no other city's restaurants can."
During the Gopnik's last year in Paris, their son had salmonella poisoning. They made a frantic trip from pediatrician to surgeon to emergency for tests. With no more red tape than showing a health card and a pediatrician's records, Luke had "a sonogram, a X ray, a barium enema, and various other tests and got examined by three doctors." All this work was done in one hour with no mention of money, forms, insurance or HMO rules. Gopnik comments, "This is socialized medicine, of course, which the insurance companies have patriotically kept Americans from suffering under."
The birth of their daughter in Paris was equally satisfactory, if a bit more complicated. The contrast between American pre-natal care and French preparation for birth is amazing. French women are advised to drink red wine for its iron content and to hire a night nurse in order to go out and enjoy life with their husbands after the birth.
The book ends in the Luxembourg Gardens where Luke feels most at home in Paris. He has mastered the art of catching rings while riding the carousel in the Gardens. He has had a romance with a four-year-old named Cressida while swimming at the Ritz. He has had enough of French school and finds the prospect of living where everybody speaks English a fine idea. The parents, too, are ready to return to New York. "'We have a beautiful existence in Paris, but not a full life,' Martha said, summing it up, 'and in New York we have a full life and an unbeautiful existence.'"
This book is a treasure, pointing out the best of Paris, the paradoxes of life in exile, the portable quality of family life and the unbreakable bond of human beings and the concept of home. Gopnik writes with style, humor, genuine feeling and honesty. He appears eager to share his good fortune in participating in the best of two worlds with those less fortunate.
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