Yes, we’ve all dreamed of it. And if you are a recently-turned home-baker, even more so. If you have visited Paris in the past, walked past one of those famous boulangeries and stopped in your tracks because you got smacked in the face by the impossible-to-ignore aroma of warm, freshly-baked croissants wafting by, you’ll know why. If you have fond memories of afternoons spent in little cafes, after long mornings of wandering around, and felt so unbelievably satiated by a simple salad dressed in a vinaigrette, or if you stopped by a little hand cart, with the cheery, twenty-something French boy dishing out crepes off a steamy griddle, you’ll know how food is so close to your memory of Paris. If you felt like you were walking through a dream, stomping your way down the little rues and arrondissements, taking in all the sights and smells and sounds, when suddenly your reverie comes to a crashing end with the unceremonious splotch! of having stepped into a pile of doggy doo, then you know what is it like to feel like a Parisian. Even if just for a little humbling moment.
And those are just the kind of memories David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris will shatter for you. And here’s why I liked that feeling: With his characteristic wry and sarcastic sense of humor, he takes you through a series of anecdotes of life, en France, on the inside, exposing the city’s oddities, revealing how even the dreamiest of places has its quirks, its black-spots that bring its loft image crashing down to reality. If you have, like me, held an delightfully romantic opinion of this City of Love, this book will make you choke on your cafe au lait. But gently. In a way that will shock and surprise you. But also in a way that will make you love the city even more, despite its peculiarities.
This sharp and witty memoir made me chuckle in parts, laugh in parts and sometimes just smile gently, in a way that you tend to when you read/see an endearing account, that even in its mocking and critical ways, expresses a deep love for something. And David Lebovitz’s book is an endearing account just like that. Except it is dedicated to a city he has come to call home.
This series of irreverent accounts shattered the abnormally charming impression I have held of the city, making me realise that maybe living there is not as easy as subsiting on wine and cheese. Or for that matter, spending afternoons in bistros and perpetually living in a cloud of freshly baked bread and smoking bacon.
Apart from the insight into life in the city, DL intersperses his anecdotes with recipes, which made interesting reading (because they’re each linked to the story they’re tied to) even though I will probably never have access to most of those ingredients and will therefore never be inclined to make anything from it, barring maybe the hot chocolate. But for the restless travellers always snooping out insider deets, he also provides tips and secrets on getting by in Paris. Like how to cut queues (as Parisians inevitably tend to do), where to drink the best Absinthe, and what departmental stores one must visit, and which ones one must avoid at all costs.
Particularly funny were the bits I could relate to. Once again, I felt so many parallels in the quirky ways of life in Paris and life in Goa. DL tells hilarious tales of how there is no semblance of customer service to be found. And how it is not because they are aware of it but pay no heed. It is because they simply couldn’t be bothered if you are a customer and if you go back delighted or not. The other bit that rang true is how living in place that is fascinating to people, means having an endless stream of visitors all the time. It reminded me of the first six months of our life after we moved here, when we would not only accommodate/entertain friends, but also friends of friends and people we sometimes didn’t know from Adam. Then there is the rather amusing bit about eating out with visitors, who automatically expect you to be the authority on local cuisine and ask you to order for them, after rattling off a barrage of restrictions. I cannot tell you how many times we have dined out with people who visit, have this fake enthusiasm to sample Goan food, and then curl their noses up at the thought of all that coconut, ask if it can be made non-spicy, and if the fish can be boneless.
All very fascinating and quintessentially in the DL-style, as I have come to know it, thanks to his blog, that took me completely by storm sometime last year. It opened a teeny little window into the fascinating world of memoir writing and I especially liked that his style is funny in a straight-faced way, across all that he writes. It is as much about his travels, interactions with local people and the things he sees, as much as it is about the food he eats. I was especially engrossed in his works on travel and food in Europe (Israel, specifically), that led me to have these grand notions of what his writing might be like in a book. And that is probably what disappointed me just a tad. This book, while a perfectly good read by itself, is more like a collection of blog posts, rather than a book, if you know what I mean. It’s also probably why I found it easy to put it down when a chapter ended, and move on to something else, forgetting completely that I have an unfinished book to get through. I never felt a sense of Oh, I wonder what happened next, as I did while reading Julia Child’s My Life in France — which much like this is a memoir that is superbly interesting and makes a great read even though I wouldn’t rate it very high in literary value.
Anyhow, that said, it was fun (albeit, slightly long-drawn) read because I’ll admit, it wasn’t as absorbing as I expected it to be. If you aren’t horribly interested in yet another memoir about Paris, or you don’t already love DL’s blog, or you are looking for a rich, absorbing story about the sweet life in Paris, this one will not interest you.
I picked it up on a particularly hot evening last week, with the intention to breeze through it, but it took me longer than I anticipated. Had it not been about a city like Paris (that I am still utterly fascinated by) and my completion-OCD, I might have had a harder time getting through it. And that, for me, is a sign that a book hasn’t quite crept under my skin and grabbed hold of me fully.