Paris when it sizzles
The last time I saw Paris all right, the only time I saw Paris was a few years ago in April. It was neither warm nor cold, which meant I had no chance of packing the right clothes, and it rained seven of the eight days I was there. None of that mattered; all was just as it should have been. Drinking hot chocolate at Angelina's, walking home in the rain after a 21-sample cheese-tasting, or watching street vendors sell Eiffel Tower trinkets under the real thing, Paris was wonderful. This spring, two books give readers the chance to live or relive the dream of spending April or indeed any time in Paris.
Paris is to haute cuisine as it is to haute couture. Understandably, Gourmet has featured stories about the city since the magazine's inception. Many of these essays have been collected in Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing From Gourmet. Far from consisting only of food stories though the pieces on particular restaurants, chefs or dishes are, well, scrumptious the writings are also portraits of the city itself, its inhabitants and those fortunate enough to land assignments there. They range from Don Dresden writing about how chefs and customers alike cope with the cream and butter shortages of postwar Paris to Joseph Wechsberg (author of several pieces in the book) writing about the lost joy of walking through the city. But food is the main topic of Remembrance of Things Paris and reading it on an empty stomach is probably not a good idea.
Foodies and fashionistas aren't the only ones attracted to the French capital, as demonstrated by the wide assortment of writers found in Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, edited by Adam Gopnik. This fascinating collection is arranged chronologically starting with pieces by influential thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abigail Adams and Thomas Paine. Popular culture is represented by a Cole Porter lyric, an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and a piece by modern dancer Isadora Duncan. James Baldwin writes of spending Christmas in a Paris jail, while James Weldon Johnson head of the NAACP in the 1920s writes of experiencing equality for the first time during a 1905 visit. The variety of people represented in the book from Mark Twain to Elizabeth Bishop to M.L.K. Fischer, for example and the wide spectrum of their experiences gives Americans in Paris a broad appeal, making it accessible to an audience beyond that of Francophiles and lovers of literature.
Both these books are good for reminiscing about or anticipating a trip to Paris. Read them from a comfortable chair at home, during a transatlantic flight or at a small cafe table in the city itself.