Sometime in the early 2000s, American pastry chef, and writer, David Lebovitz, decided to leave his life in San Francisco behind, to live in the city many of us (me, at least) dream of – Paris.
In his light, and funny book, The Sweet Life in Paris, David shares his misunderstandings and (mis)adventures as an American trying to live in The City of Light.
The book, a collection of his uniquely Parisian experiences, is interspersed with recipes of delicious dishes and desserts guaranteed to make even a Parisian swoon.
Though it has always been a dream of David’s to live in Paris, he discovers shortly upon arrival that his new life would not be as sweet as he’d hoped.
Visiting Paris for a week, with the objective of seeing all the glorious sites is one thing; but living there, trying to find a job, fixing up an apartment, opening a bank account, or just going to the supermarket to buy groceries, is another thing entirely!
David soon learns that living in Paris, and indeed, dealing with Parisians can be quite frustrating.
Living in Paris, he’s had to deal with French bureaucracy, and seemingly nonsensical ways of doing things, run-ins (literally) with Parisians on the streets, and trying to understand what Parisians are saying, which, most of the time, is the exact opposite of what they actually mean.
When they say, “Non,” they mean, “Convince me.”
When they say, “It does not exist,” they mean, “It does exist—just not for you.”
When they walk right into you on the street and say nothing, they mean, “I’m Parisian, and you’re not.”
When they say, “We don’t have change,” they mean, “I want a tip.”
When they say, “We don’t have any more,” they mean, “We have lots more, but they’re in the back and I don’t feel like getting them.”
When they say, “The cheeses in France are the best in the world,” they mean, “We are indeed a superior culture.”
Each chapter of The Sweet Life in Paris is a lesson in Parisian culture, which could be surprising or funny, depending on how much you already know about the French.
Over the years, the French, particularly, Parisians, have built a reputation for themselves as rude, chain-smoking, deep-thinking, smirking, complainers, prone to strikes. All this David attests to, humorously, trying to explain the behavior of the globally misunderstood Parisians.
The Sweet Life in Paris is also a good book for those planning to visit Paris. David gives useful tips on do’s and don’ts if you want to enjoy, or survive your next vacation. He gives tips on everything, from what clothes and shoes to wear (or not to wear) so as not to stick out like a sore thumb, to restaurant etiquette (don’t expect waiters to give you a glass of water automatically at restaurants, and never, ever ask for a doggy bag), to how to act properly so as not to be snubbed by locals (always greeting store owners and customers “bonjour!” upon entering a store, and giving a “merci, au revoir” upon exiting; and asking permission before touching their products).
David also good-naturedly shares secrets on how to fit in and act more like a Parisian, like cutting lines, pushing your way through crowded streets / spaces, crossing the streets anywhere except pedestrian crossings, driving while doing a million things at the same time, answering the call of nature by discreetly facing a wall of an ancient building (for men only, of course), complaining about everything, having an opinion about everything, and of course, by always looking your best.
Having lived in Paris for more than 5 years, David has by now learned to be more Parisian. His experiences have taught him that in order to survive in a new city / country, adaptability, understanding and optimism is the key – Of course, bribing with brownies, and learning the language doesn’t hurt either.
I do my best to act like a Parisian: I smile only when I actually have something to be happy about, and I cut in line whenever I can. I’ve stopped eating vegetables almost entirely, and wine is my sole source of hydration. I never yield to anyone else, physically or otherwise…
Being a pastry chef and writer, David also recommends excellent restaurants, cafes, bistros, etc., for unforgettable food. Want to find the best hot chocolate in the city – go to Patisserie Viennoise. Need baking goods – Try G. Detou. Want superb chocolates- visit Patrick Roger. Want excellent coffee – Go to Italy!
Thanks to numerous travel websites listing do’s and don’ts for tourists looking to visit Paris (or any city), I was prepared to interact with Parisians, armed only with my basic understanding of French grammar and meager vocabulary – ready with my bonjours and au revoir, mercis.
When I got to Paris, I was surprised that all the Parisians I interacted with were very nice, friendly, helpful, and had no qualms about speaking English.
With all the build-up and warnings about the Parisian character, I was a bit disappointed when I did not come across a single rude Parisian in the 3 weeks that I was there. Even the waiters were nice!
The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing- City (2009) – David Lebovitz
Broadway Books (nonfiction)
Personal rating: 3/5