David Lebovitz knows all about the romance of Paris, “flitting from museum to café to pastry shop,” taking in picture-perfect views of the Eiffel Tower, luxuriously eating Berthillon ice cream by the Seine.
Those are daily joys when you’re visiting the City of Lights. When you change your status from tourist to permanent resident, the attractions are even more sublime, but the roadblocks are downright Kafkaesque. Lebovitz, a well-known pastry chef and cookbook author, delves into both in L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home.
The plot sounds simple – an account of how Lebovitz bought and renovated his own apartment after years of renting. In reality, the former Californian’s project couldn’t have been more convoluted. The book is factually much heavier on disasters than delights, making for a painful account that’s only bearable because Lebovitz makes it painfully funny as well.
If you've ever dreamed of tossing your return ticket home, Lebovitz will make you think twice with his explanations of French fees, bureaucracy, space limitations, “the “highly structured and layered” nature of society, and business customs that never favor the customer. French life is rightly lauded for some benefits, he notes, including healthcare and long vacations. But the advantages come at a cost.
When Lebovitz’s contractor says “Don’t worry” early on, we already flinch, guessing how much he should be worrying. (Using the familiar “tu” verb tense with his workers rather than the more formal “vous” turns out to be just one consequential error.) And Lebovitz warns us early to keep every official document in French life, because “you never know when some one will insist that you produce an electric bill from exactly four years and eleven months ago. (And trust me, they will.)”
"L’Appart" feels more personal than Lebovitz’s other cookbooks and guides to Parisian life, though typically charming and occasionally a touch risqué. It includes ruefully sweet accounts of his partner Romain, a Frenchman who sees the pitfalls in Lebovitz’s path. Romain can’t save Lebovitz from himself, but he can at least accompany his partner to “EEy-Kay-a” (Ikea), which, we learn, beats out Charles de Gaulle Airport as the most confusing place in Paris.
As with many chef-memoirs, recipes are strewn throughout the book. This is a real bonus, as Lebovitz is a master of clear, well-tested recipes that elevate the repertoires of home cooks. When it comes to cooking, he’s in complete control, knowing every nuance of preparing buttery, caramelized kouign amann pastries or savory beef stew. It’s quite a contrast to his rocky route to home ownership. But we see him build his renovation skills, too, in a place where a big part of life is “investing in relationships,” even getting in line for the same checker in the supermarket.
It took time, he writes, but “I realized that living in Paris awakened something inside me that not only changed my cooking, but the kind of person I am. Without realizing it, I’d become entrenched in France, and French culture, and France made sense to me.”
We envy Parisians in a different way hearing Lebovitz describe the characters of different neighborhoods or reading his descriptions of choosing and nibbling the perfect baguette. We’d never want to take on the hassles he encountered building his home, but we’d sure want to be in the kitchen he envisions when his task is done, soft light streaming through new windows (another long story there), surrounded by friends “chatting while I tended to a coq au vin simmering on the stove....”
Vicariously, he serves quite a feast.