I didn’t renew my contract at the school where I work this year and I’m on the job market. It’s a scary place to be. One e-mail or phone call will get my hopes up and have me checking out real estate in my “new” city, and inexplicable silence will have me querying my decision to look for something new. “Maybe I should try a sabbatical year in Paris?” I’ve fantasized more than once.
Eloisa James’ memoir, Paris In Love, recently caught my eye. After treatment for breast cancer, the Fordham University Shakespeare professor, best-selling historical romance author, and mother of two, decided that a sabbatical year in Paris would be just the ticket. She and her husband, a professor of Italian at Rutgers, New Jersey, enrolled their children in the Italian school in Paris and rented an apartment for a year of emotional renewal. Her plan was to write several books, both academic and romances, while un-distracted by the multitude of commitments of university life. Instead, she found herself devoting rather a large amount of time to updating her Facebook status with the family’s latest adventures and challenges. She strung these together into a memoir and told the story of their year in Paris in short bursts of about one paragraph each.
At first, I found the format jarring – there was no narrative thread at all and many of the anecdotes had nothing much to do with Paris and more to do with the development stages of her children that might have been much the same no matter where they lived. Over time, though, I began to feel that I knew these people, down to their obese Chihuahua who was too fat to get a chic new raincoat at a doggie boutique in the Marais.
Some of James’ stories were the typical adventures of those who try to make their home in a country where they don’t speak the language well. For instance, she made the error of filling the dishwasher with salt instead of dish-washing detergent for several months. The former occupant of the apartment had left the box of salt under the sink and James couldn’t read the label.
But over her months in Paris, James began to reconnect with herself through the French art of savoir vivre, knowing how to live well, particularly as it involved food. When December ushered in displays of fabulous foods for the holidays, James “learned to think about food as being beautiful rather than just fattening or nourishing…” She realized that “to eat as the French do is to celebrate life, even to indulge in it.” James began to cook ever more adventurous foods, not all of which were amazing successes, to wit, the chicken she slathered with violet-infused mustard that turned the bird an unappetizing purple hue.