When Scott Carpenter moved his family from Minnesota to Paris, the cultural chasm was deep and wide. Never mind that he was fluent in her language and literature, there were certain proclivities of her nature that had to be experienced to be fully understood. Welcome to the hilarious world chronicled in Scott Carpenter’s memoir, French Like Moi, A Midwesterner in Paris, where an errand to a cheese shop becomes a lecture on cows; a remodeling project must be delayed until a neighbor dies; and a friend’s Coq Au Vin becomes fodder for a more palatable Americanized version, one that doesn’t involve offal.
Shortly after moving into his new neighborhood, the street in front of Carpenter’s apartment became a construction zone.
“Men in blue coveralls unloaded sheets of corrugated metal and built a work enclosure the size of our apartment, as tightly wrapped as a Christo installation.”
No one knew what they were doing or seemed to care. He quickly realized that his neighborhood, in the southeast section of town, held little of the romance or glitter of the postcard Paris with which most tourists are familiar. Similarly, the residents were real people and he frequently found himself stepping over vagrants or beggars to get to his favorite shops. Yet, when he reported one beggar to one of the bakery ladies, she shrugged it off.
“The French tolerance for the scruffy and unhinged of the world hadn’t entirely eluded me. Paris is unforgiving of small social infractions, but once you cross a certain threshold, almost any eccentricity can be pardoned – sort of the way that, in the US, petty thieves get thrown in prison but the more ambitious ones are put in charge of hedge funds.”
In France, students are set upon a regimented program of learning. It seemed ridiculous to the French that American students were given so many choices, when they were yet uneducated. When one of Carpenter’s friends asked him the best way to teach an incoming group of American students, he advised him to make his presentation more interactive. American students, compared to their French counterparts, have less tolerance for facts. They want to participate in discussions. The difference, as Carpenter paints it, is the difference between a pointillist Seurat and an impressionistic Monet.
Life in the City of Light wasn’t all glitter and gold. Parisians had their share of twenty-first century problems. It seemed terrorism showed no favoritism. Due to several events in recent years, Parisians were forced to open their bags for inspection before entering a shopping center and armed military strolled through the parks on the alert for terrorist activity. While we’ve come to associate terroristic experiences with American culture, they were also happening in France.
“The difference was, in Paris people got depressed, while in the US they got angry. Americans were buying guns in record numbers . . . In the States people don’t like to sit on their hands. They’d rather sit on a crate of ammunition.”
From the mundane to the evocative, in the end Carpenter’s essays point to our shared humanity. I recommend Scott Dominic Carpenter’s French Like Moi for fans of Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.