The night I met Canadian American writer Adam Gopnik, his train from New York to Delaware was delayed. A soft breeze moved across the parking lot as I leaned into my car’s headrest; I was sweating even though the door was open.
As of that spring 2011 evening, Gopnik had written for The New Yorker for 25 years. He was an intellectual, a man of letters so brilliantly capable of casual erudition combined with self-deprecating humour and just a dash of name-dropping that I could only hope I would bask in his genius for just one evening without saying anything silly. I discreetly checked my armpits.
I rehearsed what I might say when I met him.
Gopnik would be speaking the next day at a University of Delaware memorial for the poet WD Snodgrass. My darling husband, Matt, knowing of my starry-eyed crush on Gopnik’s work – and perhaps the man himself – had finagled his way into being the faculty member designated to pick the writer up and take him out to dinner. I had no official role on this welcoming committee or particular reason to be there, other than a persistent admiration that had endured since I first encountered Gopnik’s essay about John James Audubon in The Best American Essays 1992.
My copy of Paris to the Moon – Gopnik’s book about the five years he spent in the French capital with his family in the late 1990s – sat on the seat next to me, and I rehearsed what I might say when I met him. I wanted so much to connect, to show him that that I understood his love for Paris, about which he wrote beautifully, longingly.
“Your writing is important to me. I’ve read every word you’ve written for The New Yorker.” Ugh.
“I love Paris too, just the same way you do. I wrote about it on my blog – I even mentioned your book!” Double ugh.
“He’s here," Matt’s text read. At the last minute, I decided to lean up against the car instead of sitting in it.
To my relief, I didn’t do anything foolish.
As they walked toward me, I saw Gopnik tilt his head as if to ask a question. He approached, smiling, looking a bit rumpled, shorter than I expected, but much like the photo on his book jacket. To my relief, I didn’t do anything foolish. I simply stuck out my hand, said my name and “Nice to meet you.” But he was looking intently at my face.
“Have we met before?” he asked, and I laughed spontaneously. Oh no, I was sure we hadn’t, for I would without question remember such a meeting. No, we had never connected – unless you counted the fact that it was his words that kept Paris alive for me.
Loving Paris is not the most original thing I’ve ever done. But like so many people – like Gopnik himself – I came to this love independent of experience, and then had it confirmed by reality. He wrote of falling in love with Paris by means of a cardboard French policeman: an Air France advertisement that his mother procured somewhere and placed in his room for decoration when he was eight years old. “My head was filled with pictures of Paris,” he wrote, “and I wanted to be in them.”
“My head was filled with pictures of Paris.”
Paris became a dream for me in the fifth grade, when once a week for 30 minutes I revelled in the gorgeousness of ordinary words – fille for girl, papillon for butterfly, lundi for Monday – as my teacher wrote them in spidery print on a sheet of poster paper. Somehow learning French became almost instantly about going to Paris, home of Madeline and of the boy with the red balloon. Like Gopnik, I wanted to be in those pictures.
No one else in my family had any particular interest in visiting France, and so it became a personal mission. How carefully I studied my favourite subject even when I was bedevilled by the subjunctive or when the summer reading for my advanced high school course was a Beaumarchais play I could barely understand. I chose my college based on its study-abroad programme and even lived for a semester in a campus building called Le Chateau, whose design was inspired by a pavilion at the Palace of Fontainebleau.
And then, finally, in August 1990, at the end of the summer I turned 20, I arrived in Paris for the school year. Riding the bus from Orly Airport to the Gare Montparnasse, I gazed at the haughty lion sitting in the middle of the Denfert-Rochereau traffic circle and thought – as I often would riding past – that he waited just for me.
Although Gopnik served as The New Yorker’s French cultural critic and correspondent when he lived in Paris, covering everything from elections to strikes to fashion shows, he wrote in the first chapter of Paris to the Moon that his life in the French capital was primarily domestic. He described visiting the park, playing pinball in a cafe with his son, Luke, watching an old couple in one of his favourite bistros eat dinner in the company of their blind dog.
My most beloved things about the city were similarly quotidian. Even now I see my younger self, almost but not quite an adult, purchasing a ham-and-cheese crêpe, seasoned with a generous amount of black pepper and wrapped in wax paper. I would have made this purchase from the storefront window near the Alliance Française where some of my classes were held. Clutching my warm treat, I’d make a right turn on the Rue du Fleurus past the stone façade of Gertrude Stein’s house, with its black wrought-iron window ornaments. Angled and narrow, the street showed no sign of what lay at the end, but I walked confidently, a stray string of melted gruyere sticking to my glove, until I reached the gold-tipped fence and slipped into the Jardin du Luxembourg where I would pass by the carousel and puppet theatre without stopping, gravel crunching beneath my feet, headed for the fountain at the garden’s centre to wile away hours on a small folding chair as if it were my own private realm.
Before I left Paris in May 1991, it was in the Jardin that I took my last stroll, snapping photos of the statues, including an angel with large swooping wings, her podium surrounded by electric orange flowers. This picture would later hang on my dorm room bulletin board, representing Paris, where I was convinced in the easy optimism of youth and inexperience, that I would simply will myself back to work and live once I graduated.
When this fantasy proved to be just that – no trip to Paris was forthcoming for almost 20 years – it was often Gopnik’s writing, first in The New Yorker and later in his book, which took me back. As I got older and eventually had babies, my favourite tales were those where Gopnik roamed the city with Luke.
I especially enjoyed the stories of how toddler Luke was fascinated with the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg, including the old-fashioned game where riders capture rings on a stick as they ride. As Gopnik pointed out, this game is the origin of the American expression “going for the brass ring”, but the French rings are small and made of tin, making the game quite challenging.
Gopnik and Luke returned to the carousel routinely until, in the book’s last pages, Luke, now a brave six-year-old, rode the carousel and grabbed the rings under the eyes of his both proud and melancholy father, who was mourning his family’s imminent departure for New York. For Gopnik, this game, this ride – whose only purpose and prize was the experience itself – represented all that he loved about the beauty and charm of Paris as seen through the eyes of his child.
When I finally returned to Paris in 2008 with my sons Tommy and Teddy – six and three, respectively – in tow, I didn’t even wait 24 hours to introduce them to the Jardin, which has a large playground next to the carousel where the boys played for hours. It was the end of June, sunlight dappled the ground, and rarely had the world ever felt so good and right as it did while my children climbed and ran near the place where my own younger feet had strolled.
Rarely had the world ever felt so good and right.
I eventually lured them to the merry-go-round and its slightly seedy charm. Tommy chose a worn wooden elephant for his ride. A leather belt encircled his waist to hold him safely on the animal, and in his right hand he clutched a thick and worn wooden stick to grab the small metal rings. With intent focus, Tommy managed to fill his stick with the rings, one at a time, with each circumnavigation of the ride. This was no small feat for a first-timer, and like Gopnik, I delighted in my son’s success. “I was unreasonably pleased,” he wrote, “and then felt a little guilty about my own pleasure. It seemed so American, so competitive.”
Tommy was so triumphant to have captured almost all of the rings that he lost his head and as the carousel slowed to a stop, turned his stick to face the ground, where they all slid into the dirt. For a suspended moment we all sighed, but then the breeze in the trees, the sound of children calling to each other from the nearby playground, the scent of coffee and age, the essential perfection of the moment took over. It was perfection borne of layers of experience: my own long sojourns in the Jardin, the pleasure of experiencing something I had read about and loved; and the very real happiness of the day, of Paris, of sharing a place so dear with my family.
And so of course, on that spring evening nearly three years later with only a few hours over dinner to convey it, I wanted Gopnik to know how much his book meant to me, how it had brought me to many places I wanted to go. I wanted him to know that I too understood the revivifying effect of bringing children to a city that’s sometimes accused of being a museum, a dusty relic.
And I had no idea how to tell him.
So instead I listened in the car on the way to the restaurant as he talked about eating at Ina’s house (Ina Garten!) and mentioned his friend and colleague Malcom (Malcom Gladwell!). He was charming, comfortable in his own skin, well aware that he was the most interesting person in the vehicle. He insisted that we choose the wine at the restaurant but then gave in to our protestations and selected a handsome bottle of Bordeaux.
There was no way I was going to call myself a writer in front of a man who referred to The New Yorker in conversation as “The Magazine”, but I hoped somehow to figure out a way to mention my modest travel blog and to share that one of the very posts was of our visit to the carousel.
As soon as we had ordered our wine, he looked at me again with that same curious expression, and said, “Mara, I hate to be a bore, but I’m sure I’ve seen you before. Have you ever been in Paris?”
“You have two blond little boys, right?”
Yes again (I was feeling very odd at this point).
“That’s it! I saw you at the carousel at the Jardin du Luxembourg a few years ago.”
“Mara, I hate to be a bore, but have you ever been in Paris?”
And so the moment I had been seeking arrived unbidden. He and I looked at each other in utter recognition. Of course, he had seen me before, as I in turn had seen him in the pages of his book.
“I was there with my family – it’s an annual tradition for us when we visit Paris in the summer. I remember that year especially because it was the last time Luke would ride – his legs were getting too long. I remember watching you and your family. I could tell you were American.”
When he finished describing our chance encounter, he looked almost bashful, “I remember wondering if you had read my book. I almost came over and asked if that was why you were there, but you and your family looked so happy I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Later, I asked him to sign my book and he wrote on the title page, For Mara – A friend from Paris unknown!
I wrote about our two-week trip to Paris on my website. I talked about Teddy’s infatuation with the Eiffel Tower, his wonder that it appeared so often in the landscape. I shared the perfect days we spent exploring Marie Antoinette’s folly in Versailles and Monet’s garden in Giverny, where Tommy made his own sketch of the famous Japanese bridge. It was the naissance of my online travel writing life, begun with such joy and optimism and meaning and a shared love of one of my favourite places in the world. And without question, the most significant moment was the one when Tommy triumphantly filled his stick with all the rings. A moment I had unwittingly shared with the man who inspired it.
This story was originally published in "Tales To Go", an online publication from Travelers' Tales.
Mara Gorman is the author of "The Family Traveler's Handbook". She writes about her family's travels at The Mother of all Trips and lives in Delaware with her husband and two sons. Her eldest son dreams of Paris as much as she does.