The evening, La Vie Bohème, dedicated to the French cafe culture of the Impressionists, will also include the lush sounds of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Marine Futin. Author of Paris to the Moon and The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, Gopnik will discuss beauty and leisure, bohemia and art. His appearance is in partnership with The Tannery Series, a group that brings authors to the North Shore whose writing confronts the world in essential and curious ways.
Among the hundreds of pieces Gopnik has written for The New Yorker since 1986, some recent favorites are his November essay on baking bread with both his mother and his wife, a blog post on the historical drinking habits of American writers and a piece on the history of the Roma people in France.
We caught up with Gopnik and asked him to answer a few questions about French culture and his years living in France. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)
Q: Americans seem to have such strong feelings about France. Why does the place continue to fascinate?
A: France is the one country that is significantly like America, having passed through similar experiences of the Enlightenment, Republican revolution, industrialization, and modernity, and still significantly unlike America, with a national style very different from our liberal-free market -individualist one. In a world where American style (and American sounds) dominate the prosperous lands from Bangalore to Bahrain, the stubborn oddity of France appeals.
Q: What can we learn from the French about leisure?
A: France guarantees five weeks of paid vacation to every worker, and a week in a clinic for every newly-delivered mother. Yet their streets do not seem empty nor their people especially impoverished, no more than ours anyway. This suggests that the driven ethic of American life — whether self-driven or boss-driven — is more about the ethic than it is about life. There really is time available for pleasure.
Q: What are the major misconceptions most Americans have about France?
A: First, that the French are rude. Well, they are rude — but the rudeness is often simply a response to the absence , on an American’s part, of the elaborate courtesy still expected. In my experience, elaborate courtesy offered meets elaborate courtesy returned in France. But it is difficult to assert good manners while speaking English ever-louder. Second, that the French are food-obsessed. They have, of course, a matchless culinary culture, but exactly because it is so strong and old they are much less self-conscious about it than Americans or Brits are about theirs. There are no “foodies” in Paris as there are in New York, restlessly trying ever-newer restaurants.
Q: How has your enriched perspective from living abroad influenced your writing process?
A: Writing is about discovering worlds. The most gifted discover them three feet away. The rest of us travel.
Q: I loved your recent essay on bread making in The New Yorker. Why do you think we are now attaching such meaning to authentic food experiences?
A: Every time needs some subject matter that marks both the continuity of generations and the conflict of generations. In the past, religious rituals did that job — quarrels about marriages, confirmations, bar-mitzvahs and so on. In an ever more secularized age, more homely traditions get called on to do the same work: my mother and I baking bread (and my learning that my wife was once a baker) lets me see just who, and where, we are in time.
PEM/PM begins this Thursday, January 16 at 6 pm with Gopnik’s reading at 7 pm. Reservations required for Gopnik’s presentation. Please call 978-542-1511. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis. Other activities: Practice French on a French-language tour of Impressionists on the Water check out an absinthe demonstration and sample brasserie-inspired tastings.