In the decade David Sedaris has lived in Paris, he has brought the City of Light to life in his own irreverent way. The American writer was named humourist of the year by Time magazine when Me Talk Pretty One Day - a collection of essays, many dealing with his escape to Paris and Normandy - was published in 2001. His just-released collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, currently climbing the bestseller lists, also offers his own take of the fabled city. This interview is part of an ongoing series on people inspired by place.
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So many of us have romantic ideas about living in Paris. Does being there ever feel like a dream to you?
You know, there's a fellow named Adam Gopnik who wrote a book called Paris to the Moon. There's a section where he's talking about crossing the Pont Neuf, I think, at sunset on a winter's evening. And he talks about how the beauty of it just absolutely stops him and stops his heart. I remember when I read that it made me cry. I copied it down in my diary because it was the perfect description of that feeling and of that time of day. And Paris is so beautiful that, even after 10 years, I stop sometimes and I am just overwhelmed.
You have a hilarious story in your new book about tourists arguing outside your window.
You see that a lot in Paris, because it's exhausting to travel around with somebody and it's so fraught. Hugh and I just got back from Brazil. He has this really irritating habit of walking and reading at the same time, but if I say anything about it, then he's going to get mad - and then I have no idea where we are, so if he storms off, I'm just left. That's what our travel arguments are about. But in my neighbourhood in Paris, the streets are so maze-like, people are hungry and they're tired and you often hear, "Oh, for Pete's sake. Why don't you just ask somebody?" Or someone claimed that they could speak French. But it turns out that when they said they could speak French, they meant that they took Spanish for a year in high school.
You live on the Left Bank.
Yeah, in the sixth. This just seemed like the best apartment. All I do is go to the movies - and if I fell down my stairs, I'd be at the movies. I'd say that within a three-block radius of my apartment there are five theatres.
Are there other places, besides the movies, where you hang out in Paris?
You don't go to cafés?
Oh, God, no. You know where I go? I go to food courts. As much as I hate them, they feel comforting to me. There's this food court in this hideous mall underneath the Louvre, and when someone comes to town and says, "Let's go out for lunch," I say, "I've got the perfect place."
Visitors must love that: They come to Paris and you take them to a food court.
You know, when you live in Paris people always say, "Oh, tell us some secret place." And all the things I love about France are not people's ideas of France.
There's one place that I like to take people that I think is charming and surprising: the puppet show at the Luxembourg Gardens. Even if you don't speak French. The puppet theatre has been there forever and the sets are beautiful and it's Guignol - a very violent, Chinese-looking puppet who just throws himself into The Three Little Pigs or whatever story you've got going. Guignol just comes and takes over. It really is charming and the children are incredibly excited and they chant Guignol's name. You buy your ticket and you wait for your number to be called and when you go in, you tip the person who shows you to your seat. Then there's 10 minutes of puppet show and then intermission and they sell ice cream.
Other than that, my Paris is Picard, which is a frozen-food store. Everything in the store is frozen except spaghetti and ice cream cones. They have a special method for freezing. They have meat and fish, and they have TV dinners. They've got all kinds of vegetables and pie crusts. People think it's horrible, but I swear to God, every French person goes to Picard. The American going to Paris thinks, "Oh, let's go to the organic market" - and see other Americans. The French people are at Picard buying frozen food, believe me. That's where they are.
So I take them there and I take them to the Monoprix, a supermarket that sells clothes and stuff too. And to the movies, where we see an American movie.
That's your tour of Paris?
Yeah, and they all say, "We can do this at home." And I think, "Yeah, but you're not home." It doesn't fit in with their idea of what Paris is supposed to be. But all of that stuff is quintessentially French.
What about flea markets - you go there, don't you?
Yeah, I do. There are all these special flea markets that pop up around town.
Is the skeleton you write about the best thing you ever bought at a flea market?
Hmmm. The skeleton is really good. I got this Danish rocking chair at the flea market. If I could buy 10 of them, I sure would. It was a pretty extraordinary piece of furniture, I thought. And I've got some really good paintings. Twice a year, there's this flea market called the Marché du Jambon. It's a ham market and a big antiques show. Antiques and ham. I try to go there.
For the antiques or the ham?
Both. And the one at Clignancourt. I really have to say there's something wrong with you if you can't find something you want at Clignancourt. Maybe you can't afford it, but there's something wrong with you if you can't find something you want. It's broken into different territories and what I always tell people is to get off the subway at Porte de Clignancourt and follow the rich people. Do not follow the poor people. Do not. Every woman I know has had her pocket picked there. A friend of mine who works as a tour guide was knocked to the ground and kicked. You want to follow the rich people and keep following them. There's a little Kasbah section and most people stop there. They don't know that if you go on, there are territories upon territories. It just gets better the farther into it you get. It's huge.
A lot of people think of Paris as a great place to shop.
It is. I absolutely love to shop. I cannot think of anyone who loves it more than me. Whenever people come to Paris, my first question is "Who do you need to buy presents for?" When they say nobody, I just write them off. Even if Christmas is nine months off, I mean come on, you're going to go home, you're going to buy Christmas presents on Christmas Eve at Sears when you were in Paris nine months earlier and you didn't buy anything? If somebody wants to go to museums, I can't help them. But if somebody comes to Paris and wants to go shopping, I think I'm actually a really good person to know.
What's special about shopping in Paris for you?
It's like the flea market: There's something wrong with you if you can't find something you like. I don't care if it's clothes or paintings. I don't care if it's kitchenware. You can go to this place on the Right Bank called A. Simon and you can buy copper pots. When I go back to New York or to London, there are so many chain places, and in Paris there are still so many shops where there's just one of them. Paris is loaded with places like that.
What do you think is the most common misperception about Paris?
I think that has to do with rudeness. I think people don't understand that there are a number of things that are said and that have to be done in order for anything to start. Sometimes I'll see Americans in a store in my neighbourhood and they've gone right to the front - they don't understand that there's a line. Maybe they just weren't paying enough attention. "I want that in the window!" They don't understand that you begin by saying hello, and you don't just say hello. You say, "Hello ma'am," or "Hello, sir." You have to do that in Paris. You have to say "madame" or "monsieur." You have to remind them what sex they are. There are these pleasantries that have to be exchanged. It's like the American South that way.
I always think it's funny when people say, "Well, they said, 'Hello, how are you?' but they didn't mean it.'" Aren't you an adult? Nobody means it. You just do it. It's all part of the conversation. It's a prelude and it has to be done. But so many people who think that the French are horrible just don't acknowledge that part of it. They just want to skip straight to the transaction part. There are some people who can be pretty unpleasant, but no more than anywhere else.
Parisians are known for leaving town in August. Do you?
Yes. But there was an August I was in town and it was actually sort of wonderful. But not if you're on vacation - August in Paris feels like Sunday.
David Sedaris Paris primer
David Sedaris grew up in Raleigh, N.C., but has lived in Paris for the past 10 years. The 51-year-old is the author of seven books and the co-author of several plays and has three CDs of his work (one of which was nominated for a Grammy). He also contributes regularly to The New Yorker and This American Life on NPR.
There's a café called La Croix Rouge [in the 6e] Get a Croque Madame - it's made on pain Poilâne and it's just a really good croque.
I always liked the 15th because everybody else hates it - they think it's really ugly. It's just super-normal, it's a lot of new buildings.
Stitches. You'd be amazed at how good the health care is. The last time I went to the hospital, I just walked in the front door - two minutes later, I was in a private room on a Demerol drip. They didn't even ask my name. Or mayonnaise in a tube: That's always a good little thing to bring back to people.