Book review: L’Appart, by David Lebovitz
People tell me I’m lucky to live in Paris. But I didn’t have any lucky stars (les astres) to thank. I was responsible for making it happen, but I was also to blame for the mess I was in.
I adore charming, funny, upbeat American expat-in-Paris chef/blogger David Lebovitz. I discovered him when I was also an expat in France, though not cooking as much nor navigating the bureaucracy he did (I did projects for American employers, less red tape than permanent relocation). But I’ve been an expat for years across three European countries, so we have a lot in common to whine about, and his writing should greatly appeal to anyone in similar situations.
Although I occasionally use his blog for recipes, like this one for carottes rapee, a simple grated carrot salad I miss SO much from France (it’s ubiquitous there), most of his more glorious, complicated cooking and baking is far beyond my limited repertoire. But I loved The Sweet Life in Paris, his memoir of the ups and downs of moving from San Francisco, where he was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, to Paris. L’Appart is likewise part expat tale, part foodoir, but much different from Sweet Life.
I was well on my way to owning my very own place in Paris, which was scary and exciting at the same time. The excitement was short-lived. The scary part was just beginning.
For a painfully long time, Lebovitz was “living the dream” of owning his own little piece of Paris: a greatly in-need-of-renovations apartment. It was really more of a nightmare, as he suffered under an incompetent contractor and his equally incompetent but surlier electrician, and, considering Lebovitz’s profession, perhaps worst of all – the effects and stress of lacking an adequate kitchen to work, inventing and testing recipes for his popular blogs and cookbooks.
His ownership dream-to-nightmare scenario is like the Tom Hanks classic The Money Pit. Except that in addition to throwing more and more money at his increasingly troublesome piece of real estate, Lebovitz navigates the added complications of home renovation vocabulary and buying IKEA cabinets in French, not to mention the ocean-wide cultural differences and dealing with the maddening, often nonsensical workings of French bureaucracy. As the French say when frustrated, oh la la.
He’s already told his stories of falling for France in that first memoir, including establishing himself and carving a niche in the city. L’Appart focuses more on his journey to happy(?) homeownership. It’s a winding, complicated, frustrating one, but he makes it so much fun to follow along — plus there’s the safety of our outsider positions of not being Parisian apartment-owners.
He fills in some of his backstory here for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading him before, and although I highly recommend Sweet Life, it’s not necessary to have read it to enjoy L’Appart. But for example, he reminds us where he came from and why he chose Paris:
I had been cooking in Northern California for so long that it was natural I’d eventually fall for France. My life revolved around my cooking and baking, and in France, everyone seems to be either: 1) talking about what they had eaten, 2) eating, or 3) talking about what they were going to eat.
In addition to the farcical walk through the Kafka-esque process of renovating a Parisian apartment, the sort of B-plot is Lebovitz’s ongoing reconciling of a lifetime’s worth of American cultural background with the Parisian/French cultures he’s living amidst.
He has a sunny outlook: “Like my life as an American in France, I straddle two cultures, appreciating the qualities of each.” That familiarity in two cultures allows him to make such specially unique observations, like about a particularly glamorous office: “It made the posh tea salon at Ladurée look like the cafeteria at Walmart.”
His optimism leads to hilarious and sympathetic moments as he recounts certain cultural oddities contrasted with his own. A favorite example: his struggle to acquire an American-size fridge in a country (a continent, I think) where mini-fridges coupled with frequent small grocery trips are more the norm. It’s the worst for anyone who loves cooking and hates frequent shopping. It saves energy costs, but it’s still the inconvenient worst.
Coming from my similar American expat perspective, I loved how he handled this fascinating subject of cultural differences. It’s not easy, and what may initially seem like not so vastly different cultures quickly reveal their differences in any extended stay, let alone life here. He puts it succinctly but accurately: “You never feel more American than when you leave America.” AMEN.
I particularly appreciated how he highlighted these differences with sensitivity to their source, but emphasizing the frustrations common to Americans abroad, encountering the special stubbornness of Europeans and their beliefs. I was constantly mentally nodding along with his eyebrow-raising observations because my experiences in France and the German-speaking countries were uncannily identical.
When I moved to France, I also learned that adding ice to your drink would cause all sorts of stomach ailments, including causing your stomach to freeze, which, if true, the hospitals in the States would have to have separate wings to handle the ongoing epidemic of ice-related frozen-stomach emergencies.
Austrians often serve you a lukewarm glassful, ice is almost nonexistent. Don’t get them started on the severe health-related horrors of air conditioning, which is never cooler than about lower-mid-setting of an American home or office, but brings out the sweaters and unleashes endless robust complaining. When you’ve been frustrated by these differences or pseudo-sciences for so long, I can’t explain how comforting it is to read similar experiences. If he’d recounted any tales of European-asserted 9/11 trutherism, I would’ve thought someone was writing my expat life story.
One last such stinger: “In a country where ‘thinking outside the box’ isn’t encouraged…” Ditto here. He makes observations, like that, that I’m afraid to make for fear of the criticisms inevitably launched, but he does it so charmingly that I think and hope his Parisians won’t mind. (Don’t say any of these in my current home of Austria; or else throat, consider yourself jumped down.)
I love his optimism, well-intentioned snark and smart humor, I love the persistence he showed when things got tough. Occasional passages meander, needing some editing, and certain anecdotes are repetitive. These aren’t major flaws if you enjoy his natural, lighthearted writing voice, but they did detract from the overall enjoyment somewhat.
Like any good foodoir, this includes a treasure trove of Paris-inspired recipes, all connected to elements of his stories, straight from his freshly remodeled kitchen.
I’m admittedly biased, but you could not ask for a better neighbor than David Lebovitz…I have an endless supply of cookies and cakes coming out of my oven and am more than delighted to share with neighbors, who get first dibs.
There are lots of reasons to love him, like his inspirational cooking, the happy spirit imbuing his writing, and of course living his Paris life vicariously, and I loved him even more after reading the trials and tribulations of apartment shopping and restoration done with his signature charm and humor. His Paris neighbors are lucky to have him.
My rating: 4/5
L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home
by David Lebovitz
published November 7, 2017 by Crown Publishing
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.
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