While we were getting ready for out primary elections last week, the people of France elected a new president. Out with Nicolas Sarkozy, in with the Socialist Francois Hollande. Who can explain to us what it means and why we should care?
Maybe it could be done by Chapel Hill author Rosecrans Baldwin, whose latest book, “Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” is a lively memoir of his time living and working in Paris.
Maybe Baldwin would tell us that Sarkozy moved too far to the right, pandering to the French “Tea Party-like” advocates of a hard line against immigration and Islam. But Baldwin’s new book is not about French politics as much as it is about a young American trying to negotiate life as an ordinary office worker in Paris.
One of the hardest things for him to learn was the French etiquette of kissing colleagues at work. At the beginning of every workday, Baldwin learned that it was customary to visit and greet his co-workers at their desks and to deliver a kiss that brushed the cheek, a “bise.”
But not everybody was to be bised. Baldwin did not know which co-workers should be bised and which ones should not. He writes, “It definitely wasn’t appropriate to kiss your boss, except when it was, though it was correct to kiss your underlings, except when it wasn’t. Young men generally didn’t kiss other young men, unless they were friends outside work. But older men did, sometimes. You never knew. Also, these kisses were intended not to touch the cheek but to glance it. People kept their eyes locked on the middle distance and seemed, while kissing or being kissed, very bored.
“Honestly, I had no idea how it worked. There was one woman, an Italian down the hall, who visited us at ten-fifteen each morning, making loud smooching sounds even before she entered the room; then she’d deliver long-drawn, suction-fueled bises all around: on Julie’s cheeks, Françoise’s cheeks, Tomaso’s cheeks, Olivier’s cheeks. Even my cheeks, once we were introduced. But it wasn’t always done. Maybe four days out of five, but that fifth day . . .
“September found me frequently biseing inappropriately. Male clients, IT support workers, freelance temps. Any female who came within ten feet. They’d return my weird kisses reluctantly, or else back away and attempt to ignore the gaffe. I asked Pierre how he knew whom to kiss, whom not. Pierre said there was no way of knowing this unless you’d grown up in France, then you just knew. He himself preferred to shake hands.”
Although his Paris book is getting good reviews, some of us cannot get our minds off of Baldwin’s first book, a novel titled “You Lost Me There.” That book also got attention all over the country. The New York Times Book Review gave it a full-page review. Later, it was named one of National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2010, a Best Book of Summer 2010 by Time and Entertainment Weekly, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
The novel is set on a resort island in Maine, where its main character, Victor Aaron, is a research scientist who studies possible cures for Alzheimer’s disease. After Victor’s wife dies, he discovers a stash of her diary-like memos. As he reads them he has to deal with the conflicting feelings she expressed about him.
I am still talking about “You Lost Me There,” but many of Baldwin’s Chapel Hill friends are already reading and thinking about “Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” and eagerly waiting for his next book.