Seven and a half years ago David Sedaris moved to Paris, because, he says, “My boyfriend had a house in Normandy and I wanted to learn French.” His best-selling book Me Talk Pretty One Day is an account of his experience learning the language of Molière. “There’s a certain amount you pick up without trying. I went to school for a while, but…the language is getting more and more out of hand. I feel like saying I was in coma for the last eight years! I can say ‘Il neige. Il fait froid ce soir, non?‘ “
Sedaris’s problems with French may stem in part from his daily routine. He writes every morning and sees films in the afternoon. “I go to the movies every day,” he says. “And I go to Champion, the supermarket, so that I don’t have to talk to anyone. Someone will say, ‘Yesterday’s strike was amazing!,’ but I hadn’t noticed anything. I buy Le Monde and Le Figaro just for the Sudoku games. I understand what people say and I can say pretty much anything, but in a childlike way. I prefer to make my mistakes as fast as I can. I hope people will forget them.”
“I like my neighborhood on weekdays,” says Sedaris, who lives on a quiet side street near Carrefour de l’Odéon. He calls his quartier “perfect” for him because “it’s normal, it’s not a destination.” His apartment once belonged to Sylvia Beach, the woman who started the original Shakespeare and Co. and was James Joyce’s original publisher.
“One of the first words I learned when I moved here is flâneur. This neighborhood is full of flâneurs, and I am in a great hurry to go nowhere,” he explains as he gets up and demonstrates the way people stroll slowly around Boulevard St-Germain with their hands clasped behind them.
“There’s a great difference between London and Paris. Here, you often have a group of five people who gather to talk at the entrance of the métro,” blocking the way for others. “In London, they would move; they’d realize they’re in the way. French people think, ‘Wherever I am, it’s the center of the universe.’ In France, I always end up walking in the middle of the street.”
Sedaris is at his best when he free-associates about his eccentric relationship to his adopted city, so here he is in his own words.
Sedaris on Paris, springtime, skeletons and frozen food
I don’t like Paris in the spring.I’m usually out of town then. It’s kissing season; people are kissing all over. If they were punching each other, I’d be fine with that. But it’s this kissing everywhere-in the métro, in the street. I find kissing in public disgusting, and people come here thinking it’s what they’re supposed to do. I would never do that in public. People buy this book with the 100 best places to kiss in Paris. I need to buy it to see which places to avoid. In spring, twice as many people are kissing. I like fall and winter. I once was here in August, and I liked it because it was so empty. But the colder, the grayer it is, the happier I am.
One thing I like about London is how international it is. In Paris, it’s just you and the French people. I am constantly harassed by people saying, “You’re in Paris and you don’t do that…?” It’s as if there’s only a certain amount of space in Paris, and I’m taking it up. But for my needs, Paris is perfect. I can smoke everywhere and I never run out of movies. There’s no finer place on Earth to see movies. At least people don’t talk in theaters.
I like the Left Bank because it’s shadier. Like lots of Americans, I used to believe Left Bank/Right Bank meant something, but no-it’s simply where you can afford to live. It doesn’t say anything about you. It’s embarrassing to be an American writer in Paris, in the footsteps of Hemingway. People believe you sit in cafés all day and watch the world go by.
My favorite museum is in the medical school. One museum has all kinds of medical instruments; another one is a gold mine of ancient wax models with the most hideous disfigurements you can imagine and babies in jars, a man with a horn in the middle of the face, et cetera. For Christmas, I bought my boyfriend a skeleton, a real one. In New York, you couldn’t find three skeletons, let alone one of a baby! I’m fascinated by the grotesque, but I am not a sadist. In Syriana, I had to turn away from the scene where they pull George Clooney’s fingernails off.
I’m going to be the only person who never will have gone to the Louvre. I prefer to go to Drouot, the auction house, because the paintings are only there today. At the Louvre, they will always be there. And I love the Foire du Trône [a classic carnival held yearly in Paris]. It’s the same rides as in the U.S. and the same type of people manning them, and I find that refreshing.
I always take people to Picard, the frozen produce chain. In New York, if you’d open one, you’d make a fortune. Plus, it’s French, and people would want to be seen with Picard bags. When my boyfriend is out of town, I go to Picard every day.
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