Scott Carpenter speaks French and knows his way around Paris, so naturally he wants to live the dream of many Francophiles. The Carleton College professor buys a petit apartment in Paris and starts to settle in, whereupon his dream gets a reality check.
As a Midwesterner accustomed to saying hello to everybody, he must learn to keep his bonjours to himself. He must feed reams of paperwork to the country’s ravenous bureaucracy. And if he buys the wrong light bulb at the hardware store, he should not expect a refund à la Target back home. “In the U.S. of A., the customer is always king,” he writes. “In France, though, it’s best to remember how royals occasionally wind up with their head in a basket.”
“French Like Moi,” Carpenter’s droll take on his sabbatical year in Paris, keeps the reader chuckling and occasionally cringing. While largely a collection of essays published elsewhere, the pieces coalesce into a respectable memoir. The tale begins when Carpenter dragoons his wife into buying an apartment in the less fashionable, more affordable 13th arrondissement. The place is tiny, too small for a proper bedroom for their eighth-grade daughter, but it’s theirs once the aforementioned paperwork is settled. Then it’s time to live as the Parisians do.
Carpenter describes his adventures with self-deprecating good humor. Gradually, he gets to know his neighbors and learns whose dog is leaving merde on the stairway. He finds the websites that deal with the street protests and strikes that Parisians face “the way a Minnesotan greets blizzards.” He learns, to his chagrin, that the women with whom he’s been exchanging warm bonsoirs are, um, professionals.
Not content with ordinary encounters, he finds someone to give him a clandestine tour of the underground tunnels beyond the official catacombs. He joins the condo association board and discovers how some creative neighbors maximize their living space: They annex hallways! And here he was waiting for his next-door neighbors to die so he could annex their apartment.
As embedded as he is, Carpenter knows he will not be mistaken for a real Frenchman by the locals. But when an ugly American shows up on the Métro, the temptation to play the part is too great. This scene, complete with an on-train performance by a Pavarotti puppeteer, supplies one of many entertaining anecdotes.
Carpenter mostly plays for laughs, and the wisecracks get thick in places. But he also shares some worthy observations about French and American culture. The attitude toward homelessness, for example. “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 U.S., petty thieves get thrown in prison while the more ambitious ones are put in charge of hedge funds.”
Such insights lead him to a better understanding of the challenges of fitting in. “Maybe that’s the essence of Paris,” Carpenter muses. “It keeps you turning, confronts you with yourself, always leaving you a touch off balance.”
Maureen McCarthy is a former Star Tribune editor.
French Like Moi
By: Scott Dominic Carpenter.
Publisher: Travelers’ Tales, 256 pages, $29.95.
Event: 6 p.m. July 8, livestreamed on the Magers & Quinn Facebook page.