Bonjour Bonjour Ça va Ça va Ça va Ça va Bonjour Bonjour. It’s really that easy to have an entire conversation in French.
There is no waving hello. This is not the French way. When you wave hello their eyes follow your hand like a litter of kittens. Non. They prefer words.
Janice MacLeod, Canadian expat author/artist in Paris, writes in a loosely styled journal format of a year living in the City of Light, chronicling her “day-to-day adventures.” These include observations on the city and its culture, its people, and jotted, meandering musings from her explorations – seemingly whatever caught her interest on a walk or crossed her mind while painting in a cafe. It weaves in memoir elements: she’d fallen in love with a butcher and like so many, romance was her reason for relocating. With a glowing optimism, perhaps stemming from that, she’s able to find something quietly exciting and promising even in the gloomy, chilly, gray days of the year as she wanders and explores. It sounded like such a dream.
Some of the entries vividly evoke the passage of seasons in the storied city:
There is nothing special about Paris in January, and that’s exactly what makes it so. Too early for tourists, mayhem from the holidays is a memory, and Christmas trees have been tossed in a pile in the park to await the city’s army of trucks to haul them away. Each tiny apartment feels like Versailles now that the guests are gone and the decorations have been stored. All that remains is the city’s twinkle lights, bejeweling streets and boulevards, but even those slowly disappear, taken down string by string by men with tall ladders.
The writings are accompanied by her illustrations of city neighborhoods and landmarks, which are stunning. They’re mostly watercolors, as on the cover, with some pen and ink. Shallow as it may sound, the lovely artwork is why I bought the book. Watercolors aren’t even my favorite, but these are gorgeous, and capture the places so well. Simpler ones depict objects – cafe chairs, Christmas ornaments; the most impressive are of cityscapes, street scenes, Paris’s instantly recognizable buildings and monuments. The author’s blossoming appreciation of her adopted city and what inspired or caught her attention on the streets is beautifully conveyed.
It’s also filled with photos. The contrast between the artwork and photographs is noticeable. It’s tough to take a bad photo of Paris, that does save these to some extent, but only a few make an impression. Many are cropped at odd angles, the composition is strange, or they’re just not eye-catching. When her drawings and paintings are so sublime, the photos pale even more in comparison.
The concept of daily journaling might’ve worked if it had been adhered to, with some observation or note from each day, but something went off course. To compensate, stories or bits of memoir stretch out essay-like across multiple days. These tend to be stories that aren’t necessarily Paris-centric, or are cliched and rarely compelling enough to warrant this extended treatment (although, to be fair, “extended” is relative as all of the entries are quite short and even these multi-day ones aren’t more than a few paragraphs in total.)
Along with my journal, I also take my camera with me wherever I go because one never knows when a lovely moment will reveal itself. Paris is kind to those who appreciate her lines. I can walk down the same street a hundred times and not see anything exciting, then the sun shines down at a particular angle and what was once mundane turns to gold.
One that stretches out is about cameras – it begins with the above nice bit about taking her camera everywhere because one never knows when magic will suddenly materialize, but drags on into thoughts on buying a camera, tourists and their cameras, leaving them behind because they’re too heavy, etc. It’s not Paris-related nor compelling reading in general. I couldn’t figure out why these stories were told when there were other snippets from her time out and about, or cultural observations, describing the markets, and so on that feel more illuminating and would’ve made better, consistent sources of material.
Or a day is a short biography in the form of a few dry facts on someone’s birthday, like Oscar Wilde, or a quote, maybe related to Paris (Henry Miller’s) or maybe not (Bette Midler’s). It’s not particularly interesting nor what I expected in terms of following someone’s Parisian-specific life. The many quotes come from writers, artists, and the like who have called Paris home. Some are utterly delightful, others seem like filler to stretch out the daily-entry-for-a-year concept. I wanted more from the author’s experience and perspectives, and less from other’s quotes, many of which are already well known.
In one instance, a quote is somewhat appropriated without recognition. Describing the lively, trendy Marais neighborhood, she writes that “anyone who lives in the Marais assumes that if you’re not interested in living in the Marais, you must be, in some sense, kidding.” Which should have a ring of familiarity, perhaps especially to proud New Yorkers who quote it liberally, because those are almost exactly John Updike’s words about New York. There’s no nod to his being the one to say them, and for a book almost more peppered with attributed quotes than its own author’s words, that’s a strange omission.
The storytelling is a mixed bag, sometimes it reveals something lovely, elsewhere it doesn’t say much at all and is too brief to be memorable. Her phenomenal artwork is the highlight, and I love the idea of daily journaling while exploring a city and finding new things to delight in, even if the concept wasn’t completely successful. It’s a fast read with wanderlust-inspiring illustrations and the occasional charming observation.
“I searched with such intensity that I was reminded of my own searches for love–the hot stress and the feeling of time being wasted, of feeling left empty-handed, of accepting that I might have to go without.”
“The symbol of Paris is a boat. You’ll see it on the coat of arms, government buildings, schools, and stamps. The symbol comes with the motto fluctuate nec mergitur, translated: “Tossed by the waves but refuses to sink.”
A Paris Year:
My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World
by Janice MacLeod
published June 20, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press