There are myriad guidebooks to Paris: Pudlow, Michelin, and Lonely Planet, to name a few and all of them worth the money. They tell you where eat, where to stay, and what to see.
And then, of course, there are guidebooks to Paris– those that tell you all of the above plus a little bit more, like how to navigate unfamiliar social customs, how to blend in with the landscape– in short, how not appear as though one has arrived from Central Casting to play the Ugly American. The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz is that and a bit more:
It has recipes. Lots and lots of recipes.
Granted, The Sweet Life in Paris was neither written nor is it marketed as a comprehensive guide to the sights and flavors of the city. Rather, it’s more or less an organic extension of Mr. Lebovitz’s blog, which chronicles his life and experiences as a San Francisco pastry chef who packed up everything he owned and moved to Paris– and all the pleasures, pains, and frequent head-scratchings that accompany French Culture Shock.
I refer to his book as a guidebook because that is precisely how I used it on my recent visit to his adopted city– an entertaining, human, and extremely useful guide.
For example, his chapter “The Most Important Words to Know in Paris” warns that one absolutely must say “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame” to the first person one makes eye contact with in any store or restaurant or “even in an elevator.” It’s a minute, but extremely important bit of information to share with Americans who are by nature accustomed to a thin veneer of anonymity when out in public. That and the knowledge that even the most feeble attempt by an American to speak French goes a very long way with Parisians. Having French-speaking abilities on par with a backwards two year-old, I found this comforting knowledge and entirely true in practice.
I purchased a copy of The Sweet Life in Paris the afternoon before leaving on my trip, hoping to read it on the flight over. It’s a smooth, pleasurable read that I decided to put down at around page 200 so that I might finish up in the city itself.
Perhaps I should have read one chapter further…
Prior to my visit, I contacted Mr. Lebovitz, suggesting that we might meet up for lunch or a glass of wine so that I might talk to him about this latest book of his, and to which he politely agreed. Two days into my stay, I resumed reading and was horrified by what I read in the next:
In “The Visitors”, Lebovitz shares his growing distaste for out-of-towners– especially friends of friends– who expect him to drop everything to meet up with them. Here’s an excerpt:
The final straw was when one of those friends-of-friends types, whom I foolishly agreed to meet, deeply insulted a waiter at what was once my favorite café in the Marais. The charming waiter, who liked to joke around with me, said to this fellow, who ordered his drink in English, “You should try to speak a little French, after all, you are in France!” To which my gracious guest glared and shot back, “You know what? I don’t even want to try.” It would have looked a little funny trying to disappear by sliding under the table, so instead, I gulped down my drink quickly and got out of there as politely as I could. And I haven’t gathered up the courage to go back. After that, I swore off guests forever.
As an out-of-town friend-of-friend, I gulped and quickly shot him off an email underscoring the fact that lunch or drinks or shiny baubles were on me.
I had short list of questions I wanted to ask Lebovitz when we finally met up for lunch, which happened at 5pm and turned into a bottle of wine and no food except the obligatory bar snack that seems to arrive anywhere, anytime you order a drink in Paris. And I don’t think I asked a single book-related question. I didn’t really care. I was enjoying myself.
Some people read better on paper than they do in person. Sometimes the persona a blogger dons is bigger than the one he wears in real life. Neither are true, so I discovered, with Mr. Lebovitz.
After a couple of hours and a couple of glasses of red wine later, Lebovitz offered us some advice as to where to have dinner. With that tip, we said goodbye and I headed off to the suggested restaurant, A la Biche au Bois.
Upon arrival without a reservation, I looked the man I took to be the owner in the eye, said “Bonsoir, Monsieur,” and, in my terrible French, apologized for not having a reservation, but that we would very much like to “eat of the food here.” He looked around at the very crowded restaurant and back at me to say, “There is no room for you!” Then he paused a moment and said, gruffly, “Come back in 45 minutes.”
45 minutes. No problem. But he didn’t take our name, which would have been the expectation, had this been happening here in San Francisco. Instead of worrying about it, we just decided to do as he said, go next door, and drink a kir or two (which happens to be the first recipe on offer in The Sweet Life in Paris and purely a coincidental occurrence).
At the agreed-upon time, we re-appeared, and so did the tall, bald linebacker of a man who told us to come back in the first place. He waved us to the rear of the restaurant and wedged us into a tiny table next to the service station, where a basket of old silver spoons lay tantalizingly within reach.
In short, the meal was simple and wonderful. It remains one of the favorite memories of my stay in Paris. And the best part of all? When Monsieur Gruffiness came by at the end of our meal, he looked at our water glasses and said, “You’d better drink up, boys.” We did as we were told and emptied them in a gulp. He then refilled them with Armagnac from an obscenely large bottle he held under his arm. His serious scowl was replaced by a grin which led me to think he may have had one or two snorts himself. He roamed the place pouring out the bottle to his guests.
From the moment I entered the restaurant to the time I left, I played the “W.W.D.L.D.”* game. From how I said hello, to what I ordered, to how I attacked the cheese platter, to how I eventually (and reluctantly) said goodnight.
It was a little bit of Paris for which I am grateful. Though it could be argued that nearly any Paris guide could lead you to such a place, how many of them will tell you, an American in Paris, what to do when you get there? The Sweet Life in Paris does.
And, of course, the others don’t have recipes.
*What Would David Lebovitz Do?