By Mara Gorman
Sharing the City of Light with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.
The night I met Adam Gopnik, his train from New York to Wilmington, Delaware was delayed. A soft breeze moved across the parking lot as I leaned into the car’s headrest; I sweated even though the door was open.
As of that spring evening in 2011, Gopnik had written for The New Yorker for 25 years. He was an intellectual, a man of letters, so brilliantly capable of casual erudition combined with self-deprecating humor and just a dash of name-dropping that I could only hope for myself that I would bask in his genius for just one evening without saying anything silly. I discreetly checked my armpits.
Gopnik would be speaking the next day at a University of Delaware memorial for the poet W. D. Snodgrass. My darling husband Matt, knowing of my starry-eyed crush on Gopnik’s work, and perhaps the man himself, had finagled his way into being the faculty member to pick the writer up and take him out to dinner. I had no official role in this welcoming committee or particular reason to be there other than a persistent admiration that had endured since I first encountered Gopnik’s essay about John James Audubon in the Best American Essays of 1992.
My copy of Paris to the Moon, Gopnik’s book about the five years he spent in Paris with his family in the late 1990s, sat safely on the seat next to me, but although it was a favorite of mine I was not tempted to pick it up and skim it. How embarrassing would it be, how jejune would I seem, I thought, if he and Matt suddenly appeared and I had my nose buried in his book? Instead I stared at the flat gray sky, at my lap, at the expanse of cracked sidewalk and parked cars, and rehearsed what I might say when I met him. I wanted so much to connect, to show him that that I understood his love for Paris, about which he wrote beautifully, longingly.
“Your writing is important to me. I’ve read every word you’ve written for The New Yorker.” Ugh.
“I love Paris too, just the same way you do. I wrote about it on my blog – I even mentioned your book!” Double ugh.
He’s here, Matt’s text read, and so I had time to prepare myself, deciding at the last minute that instead of sitting in the car, I would lean up against it. As they walked toward me, I saw Gopnik tilt his head as if to ask a question. He approached, smiling, looking a bit rumpled, shorter than I expected, but much like the photo on his book jacket. To my relief, I didn’t do anything foolish but simply stuck out my hand and said my name and “nice to meet you.” But he was looking intently at my face.
“Have we met before?” he asked, and I laughed spontaneously. Oh no, I was sure we hadn’t, for I would without question remember such a meeting. No, we had never connected, unless you counted the fact that it was his words that kept Paris alive for me.
~ ~ ~
Loving Paris is not the most original thing I’ve ever done. But like so many people, like Gopnik himself, I came to this love independent of experience and then had it confirmed by reality. He wrote of falling in love with Paris by means of a cardboard French policeman, an advertisement for Air France that his mother procured somewhere and placed in his room for decoration when he was eight years old. “My head was filled with pictures of Paris,” he wrote in Paris to the Moon, “and I wanted to be in them.”
Paris became a dream for me in the fifth grade, when once a week for thirty minutes I reveled in the gorgeousness of ordinary words – fille for girl, papillon for butterfly, lundi for Monday – as my teacher wrote them in spidery print on a sheet of poster paper. Somehow learning French for me became almost instantly about going to Paris, home of Madeline and of the boy with the red balloon. Like Gopnik, I wanted to be in those pictures.
No one else in my family had any particular interest in visiting Paris and so it became a personal mission. How carefully I studied my favorite subject, even when I was bedeviled by the subjunctive or when the summer reading for my advanced high-school course was a Beaumarchais play I could barely understand. I chose the college I attended based on its study abroad program and even lived for a semester in a building on campus called Le Chateau, whose design was inspired by a pavilion at the Palace of Fontainebleau.
And then, finally, in August 1990, at the end of the summer I turned 20, I arrived for the school year. Riding the bus from Orly Airport to the Gare Montparnasse, I gazed at the haughty lion sitting in the middle of the Denfert Rochereau traffic circle and thought, as I often would riding past, that he waited just for me.
Although Gopnik served as The New Yorker’s French cultural critic and journalist when he lived in Paris, covering everything from elections to strikes to fashion shows, he says in the first chapter of Paris to the Moon that his life in Paris was primarily domestic. He describes visiting the park, playing pinball in a café with his son Luke, watching an old couple in one of his favorite bistros eat dinner in the company of their blind dog.
My favorite things about the city were similarly quotidian. Even now I see my younger self, almost but not quite an adult, purchasing a ham-and-cheese crepe seasoned always with a generous amount of black pepper and wrapped in wax paper. I would have made this purchase from the storefront window near the Alliance Française where some of my classes were held. Clutching my warm treat, I’d make a right turn on the Rue du Fleurus past the stone façade of Gertrude Stein’s house with its black wrought-iron window ornaments. Angled and narrow, the street showed no sign of what lay at the end, but I walked confidently, a stray string of melted gruyere sticking to my glove, until I reached the gold-tipped fence and slipped into the Jardin de Luxembourg where I would pass by the carousel and puppet theatre without stopping, gravel crunching beneath my feet, headed for the fountain at the garden’s center to wile away hours on a small folding garden chair as if it were my own private realm.
Before I left Paris in May of 1991, it was in the Jardin that I took my last stroll, snapping photos of the statues including an angel with large swooping wings, her podium surrounded by electric orange flowers. This picture would hang on my dorm room bulletin board, representing Paris, where, I was convinced in the easy optimism of youth and inexperience, I would simply will myself back to work and live once I graduated from college.
When this fantasy proved to be just that and no trip to Paris was forthcoming for almost twenty years, it was often Gopnik’s writing, first in The New Yorker and later in his book, that took me back. As I got older and eventually had babies, my favorite parts of this favorite book were the tales of Gopnik roaming the city with Luke.
I especially enjoyed the stories of how Luke as a toddler was fascinated with the carousel in the Jardin de Luxembourg and its old-fashioned game where riders capture rings on a stick as they ride. As Gopnik points out, this game is the origin of the American myth of “going for the brass ring,” but the French rings here are small and made of tin, making the game quite challenging. Gopnik and Luke returned to the carousel routinely until in the book’s last pages Luke, now a brave six-year-old, rides the carousel and grabs the rings under the eyes of his proud and melancholy father who mourns his family’s imminent departure for New York. For Gopnik this game, this ride – whose only purpose and prize was the experience itself – represented all that he loved about the beauty and charm of Paris, as seen through the eyes of his child.
When I finally returned to Paris in 2008 with my sons Tommy and Teddy – six and three respectively – in tow, I didn’t even wait 24 hours to introduce them to the Jardin, which has a large playground next to the carousel where the boys played for hours. It was the end of June, the sunlight dappled the ground, and rarely had the world ever felt so good and right as it did while my children climbed and ran near the place where my own younger feet had strolled.
I eventually lured them on my pilgrimage to the merry-go-round and its slightly seedy charm. Tommy chose a worn wooden elephant for his ride. A leather belt encircled his waist to hold him safely on the animal and in his right hand he clutched a thick and worn wooden stick. This he used to grab rings off an old-fashioned contraption specially designed for that purpose and held up for each child by a bored attendant who again and again resisted the urge I would have felt to move the ring just out of reach at the last minute.
With intent focus Tommy managed to fill his stick with the small metal rings, one at a time, with each circumnavigation of the ride. This was no small feat for a first-timer. I knew this because Gopnik told me so, and like him, I delighted in my son’s success. “I was unreasonably pleased,” he wrote, “and then felt a little guilty about my own pleasure. It seemed so American, so competitive.”
Tommy was so triumphant to have captured almost all of the rings that he lost his head and as the carousel slowed to a stop, turned his stick to face the ground, where they all slid into the dirt. For a suspended moment we all sighed, but then the breeze in the plane trees, the sound of children calling to each other from the nearby playground, the scent of coffee and age, the essential perfection of the moment took over. It was a perfection borne of layers of experience: my own long sojourns in the Jardin, the pleasure of experiencing something I had read about and loved, and the very real happiness of the day, of Paris, of sharing a place so dear with my family.
Gopnik wrote of the Eiffel Tower, which in Luke’s company he saw lit up for the millennium, “Here we are at the end of the century and that’s what we have to get excited about, same old belle époque, fin de siècle stuff, champagne and the Eiffel Tower? That exhausted stuff, that dead stuff. Only it isn’t dead, or even really sick, or, in a certain sense, even old. It’s here right now, we’re looking at it right now. Luke is young and in Paris right now, and in that sense the sparkling tower is the same age he is. He’s going to take it with him through life, not as part of the lost glory of the French past but as part of what happened to him when he was a kid.”
I understood the pleasure of being in a moment, a pleasure brought on partly by all the previous pleasurable moments that have been lived there, and by all the moments to come. When I visited the carousel and watched Tommy I replicated Gopnik’s pleasure; this enhanced my own joy. That this was so seemed both very French and very Gopnikian.
~ ~ ~
And so of course, on that spring evening nearly three years later with only a few hours over dinner to convey it, I wanted Adam Gopnik to know how much his book meant to me, how it had brought me to many places I wanted to go. I wanted him to know that I too understood the revivifying effect of bringing children to a city that’s sometimes accused of being a museum, a dusty relic.
And I had no idea how to tell him.
So instead I listened in the car on the way to the restaurant as he talked about eating at Ina’s house (Ina Garten!) and mentioned his friend and colleague Malcolm (Malcolm Gladwell!). He was charming, comfortable in his own skin, well aware that he was the most interesting person in the vehicle. He insisted that we choose the wine at the restaurant, but then gave in to our protestations and selected a handsome bottle of Bordeaux.
There was no way I was going to call myself a writer in front of a man who referred to The New Yorker in conversation as “The Magazine,” but I hoped somehow to figure out a way to mention my modest travel blog, The Mother of all Trips, and to share that one of the very first stories I published there was of our visit to the carousel.
As soon as we had finished ordering our wine, he looked at me again with that same curious expression, and said, “Mara, I hate to be a bore, but I’m sure I’ve seen you before. Have you ever been in Paris?”
Well, yes. “You have two blond little boys, right?”
Yes again (I was feeling very odd at this point).
“That’s it! I saw you at the carousel at the Jardin de Luxembourg a few years ago.”
And so the moment I had been seeking arrived unbidden. He and I looked at each other in utter recognition. Of course, he had seen me before, as I in turn had seen him in the pages of his book. He went on.
“I was there with my family—it’s an annual tradition for us when we visit Paris in the summer.
“I remember that year especially because it was the last time Luke would ride – his legs were getting too long. I remember watching you and your family. I could tell you were American.”
When Adam Gopnik finished describing our chance encounter, he looked almost bashful, “I remember wondering if you had read my book. I almost came over and asked if that was why you were there, but you and your family looked so happy I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Later, I asked him to sign my book and he wrote on the title page, For Mara—A friend from Paris unknown!
I wrote about our two-week trip to Paris on my website. I talked about Teddy’s infatuation with the Eiffel Tower, his wonder that it appeared so often in the landscape. I shared the perfect days we spent exploring Marie Antoinette’s folly in Versailles and Monet’s garden in Giverny, where Tommy made his own sketch of the famous Japanese Bridge. Although this wasn’t the first time I traveled with children—far from it, for Matt and I spent 13 months on the road with Tommy when he was a toddler—it was the naissance of my online travel-writing life, begun with such joy and optimism and meaning and a shared love of one of my favorite places in the world. And without question, the most significant moment was the one when Tommy triumphantly filled his stick with all the rings. A moment I had unwittingly shared with the man who inspired it.
Mara Gorman is an award-winning freelance writer and family travel blogger at The Mother of all Trips. The blog’s name was inspired by a thirteen-month adventure across six states, three countries, and two continents that she took with her husband and toddler. Since that first extended trip, Mara has logged thousands of miles of travel with her children across North America and Europe. Mara is the author of The Family Traveler’s Handbook and her lifestyle and travel articles have appeared in a variety of USA Today special-interest publications and on websites such as AOL Travel. She is an avid skier, loves museums and cultural travel, and has never met an ice cream that she didn’t like. She also believes in serving global causes, especially those that help women and children; this belief is exemplified by her role as a board member of the travel blogging fundraiser Passports with Purpose. Mara lives in Delaware with her husband and two school-age sons.