If you have ever lived in Paris, been to Paris, thought about traveling to Paris, or just in need of a good laugh, get your hands on a copy of David Lebovitz‘s delightful new book, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City. Cookbook author and former Chez Panisse pastry chef, David Lebovitz has been amusing fans for years on his blog DavidLebovitz.com with his stories of the absurdities he encounters in daily life as an American expat living in Paris. Now he’s gathered some of his best stories of his travails and given them a home in this hilarious book.
We’ve all heard (or experienced) stories of soul-leaching French bureaucracy or how rude the people can be in Paris. David shares in exquisite detail how this plays out when you try actually living there, versus just hitting the tourist spots. Need to make a payment at a bank? Make sure you have exact change, because the bank doesn’t have change. Did someone just cut you off in line? Next time don’t leave more than an inch in front of you, or better yet, learn the Parisian way and proactively cut some else off who isn’t paying attention. If you are a regular reader of David’s blog, a few of the tales will be familiar, but even with those David brings more color to the canvas, making them worth the retelling. Most of the material is new, and positively guffaw inducing.
So with all of this wit directed at how crazy it appears to live in Paris, why does he do it? “The butter,” is the reason he gave me when I first asked. At each turn of the absurd there is something, often food, that redeems Paris, the French, France, and every screwball paradox. Speaking of butter, I posed a few questions about Living the Sweet Life to David directly:
EB: Why is the butter so much better in France than in the US?
DL: It’s because almost all French butter is cultured, which gives it a slightly-tangy flavor. And the higher fat means that it’s great for baking as it contains less water. If you buy handmade or artisan butter at the cheese shop or crèmerie, it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame. It’s bright-yellow, creamy, and sinfully rich. For everyday eating, I buy butter with flakes of sea salt in it, which I smear on everything I can.
EB: I’ve heard it is considered bad manners to use the bathroom if you are visiting someone’s house, and now you’ve confirmed it. How do you cope?
DL: A lot of visitors to France wonder why the cups of coffee and the glasses of water are so small. Or why you don’t see Parisians chugging water from bottles on the streets–it’s because there’s no place to “go” when you’re finished. I can’t speak for the women, but it’s easier for men to find a semi-private place to relieve themselves. although the city has been getting wise and erecting metal bars in the corners of buildings. And there are anti-pipi walls, which are cleverly designed to direct the streams back at offender.
Because I’m a bit shy, I’ve had to cut down on the fluids I’ve consumed, except for wine. After a few glasses, I can be as brazen as the next Frenchman.
EB: Every time I encounter someone from Paris they seem to be scowling. Why don’t Parisians smile more?
DL: We Americans are told to smile all the time, no matter what. French people smile when they’re actually happy about something. So to them, we look kind of dopey walking around with big grins on our faces for no reason. It’s a cultural difference and after living here for a while, when I watch American television programs, I have to turn the brightness down on the tv set to compensate for the pearly-white teeth. They hurt my eyes.
Americans often ask me, “How do they know we’re Americans?…We haven’t said anything?” Aside from the sensible shoes (and the water bottles), it’s because we’re always smiling about nothing in particular. Luckily I’ve found a way to make Parisians smile: Dulce de Leche Brownies.
EB: You’ve mentioned on your blog that you often get disgruntled notes whenever you criticize anything French. Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get run out of your favorite town with the publication of this book?
DL: When I started the blog, which I think is common when you’re an expat, you tend to rant because you’re unfamiliar with things and it’s frustrating to live somewhere where the way of life is so different. Shop keepers that do everything they can not to sell you something, and folks who think nothing of sliding ahead of you in line, are incomprehensible to those of us trained otherwise.
Some of the things, I’ll just never understand. Why, in the blazing 99º heat of summer, windows on buses and in restaurants must remain firmly closed. Why dog owners think it’s okay to leave behind their dogs business. And how people in an crowded city manage not to get the black and blue marks that I get because everyone seems to walk in diagonal lines on the sidewalk. But I did choose to live here and I’m not here to change things. (Although I do have a wish list…)
It’s disconcerting for natives to read about someone arriving in their culture and criticizing things (even though I learned it from them; the French are world-class râleurs, or complainers), but I also show a deep love for the French, and Paris, and spend a lot of time highlighting the great things here: the cheeses, the chocolates, the cafés, and, of course, the butter. Plus I profile the great shops of Paris as much as I can, from small-scale chocolatiers to unknown restaurants that deserve to be better-known.
If people read one entry in the blog and that’s it, they may come away with a certain impression of me. But regular readers know that although I often find the absurdity in things around here, the good things usually make up for it.
And when they don’t, there’s always the butter. And red wine.