PARIS, I LOVE YOU BUT YOU'RE BRINGING ME DOWN, by Rosecrans Baldwin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 286 pp., $26.
In 2007, young writer Rosecrans Baldwin moved from New York to Paris with his wife to start a copywriting job at an advertising agency on the Champs-Elysées. His French was iffy, his advertising experience nonexistent. But he had loved Paris since a family vacation there when he was 14, and a friend was offering him the position, so how could he say no?
Baldwin and his wife, Rachel, wound up living in the City of Light for 18 months. "Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" is his memoir of the experience, a comical record of elation, anxiety and disillusionment. If it can be boiled down to a single idea, it might be: Nothing is as good as the Paris of one's imagination, but the real Paris is pas mal.
Baldwin's voice is charming and funny, if sometimes glib. His frankness keeps you from hating him for his enviable situation, even when he's grumbling about French bureaucracy (their health insurance cards take well over a year to arrive) or how many hours he spends at work. He knows complaining is absurd; he even quotes a visiting American friend who tells him, "You're in Paris. Life is wonderful. Quit being a bitch and let me know when I can have your job, OK?"
The book's best parts are Baldwin's observations about French office culture. There's the question of which colleagues to kiss on both cheeks upon arrival each morning, which "required months of calibration." Everyone takes an hour for lunch, and eating at your desk is unthinkable. There are, of course, five weeks of yearly vacation time and an office refrigerator solely for Champagne.
The worst thing an office worker can do is be politically correct. "In meetings," Baldwin writes, "if someone called your idea P.C., pay-say, there was no possible recovery. The label was nuclear." Women acclimate themselves to occasional fondling, and even the laziest, most recalcitrant employees are unlikely to get fired.
When he's not at the office, Baldwin works on a novel ("You Lost Me There," published to acclaim in 2010), and this book shows a novelist's eye and ear. A gastroenterologist Baldwin visits for a stomach bug "wore Joey Ramone hair to the collar of a black leather jacket. He was half gnome, half roadie," and wants to know the current cost of a loft in the East Village. In the park where Baldwin eats lunch, there's an octogenarian who always brings her pet tortoise -- "the size of a five-pound chicken" -- and frees it for a walk.
Baldwin spends too much time describing his fellow expats' love lives and his trips to other cities. Otherwise, the book is a light read, sweet and airy as a meringue. Its core is his relationship with Rachel, who spends her days trying to write in their apartment in the upper Marais despite nonstop construction noise. They each experience the frustration and humiliation of struggling with an unfamiliar tongue, feeling confused and excluded. "Living in another language and speaking defectively, I could not be clever," Baldwin writes. "At best, I was genuine. Accidentally funny, but never funny on purpose. Earnest, not savvy."
The book's sympathies lie with Bruno, a "stocky and morose" art director Baldwin is paired with at work. Baldwin writes that this chain-smoking, scooter-riding late-30s bachelor colleague "had the perfect life all figured out, a basic French model, but it seemed increasingly beyond his reach." Bruno embodies the book's subtext, that Paris and New York have become playgrounds for the privileged, and that middle-class natives find themselves squeezed out of the urban dream. But part of what makes Bruno a true Parisian is his equanimity. "In Paris, if you're not rich, not from an old family, you're stuck," he tells Baldwin. "But at least I'm stuck in Paris."