When my second son had just – only just – turned two months old, we packed up our belongings and our older child and boarded a plane to Italy.
As I was boxing up my bookshelves and wondering what book could help me to make sense of this new experience, I came across Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon. The book of essays, subtitled "A Family in France," describes Gopnik’s experience living in Paris with his wife and young son during the five years leading up to the millennium. A writer for the New Yorker, he spends this time in Paris pushing his son around in a stroller and hobnobbing with the city’s intellectual elite (in equal measure, it seems), recording his impressions for the magazine. Taken together, his writings present a detailed study both of his new country and his growing family – it gives the impression of France as seen through a kaleidoscope, and family life as seen through a microscope.
My first reading of the book found me living in Paris in my early twenties. At that time, the sections that explored all things French – politics, restaurants, social mores – resonated with me. The parts about family life and child-rearing? They did not. But this time I was heading to a country that I knew little to nothing about with two small children in tow – it seemed revisiting the book was in order.
The first thing most people told me when they learned that I was moving to Italy with two small children was how much the Italians love children. I heard stories of stray grandmas who delighted in playing with American tourists’ kids while their parents ate delicious meals, uninterrupted; tales of gifts from bakers and shopkeepers, kisses from strangers. I didn’t really put much stock in any of it until the first time I walked down the street with a sleeping baby strapped into a baby carrier. All kinds of people stopped in their tracks, cooed, smiled, giggled, and asked questions, which I fielded as well as I could with my shaky Italian. It’s a boy, I’d respond. He’s 2 months old. Yes, he has a brother. No, you can’t wake him up to kiss him.
The baby was indeed whisked away at restaurants, and brought to the kitchen to collect a kiss from the chef on more than one occasion. It never failed that both children left the bakery with treats, even when we’d just gone in for a loaf of bread. And grandparents across the city fawned over our children, teaching me Italian in the process.
Much like Gopnik, a large part of my time in Italy was spent walking through the city with my child in tow. (For the record, much less of it was spent hobnobbing, almost none with the intellectual elite.) For most of our walks, the baby was strapped into a baby carrier. Frequently, he was napping, quietly breathing into my chest as I took in the sights. We walked for miles and miles under Turin’s storied porticos, wandered through art museums and open-air markets, crossed historic bridges and took ferries on the river Po. He grew up on those walks, from a sleeping newborn to a bright-eyed, curious toddler who began to grasp at the shiny things we passed, occasionally calling out “guarda!” as a tram screamed by. And for my part, I developed a kind of friendly entente with all of those mysteries of the Italian way of life – starting to understand many of them, still hazy on others, but happy to stand at the counter and sip my coffee, a bemused observer and sometimes-participant.
Reading about Gopnik’s walks around Paris with his son is an utter pleasure, and his reflections on French life, politics, and mores are dazzling, both in the breadth of topics and Gopnik’s ability to find truth by connecting them. Through the course of the book the reader gets to know Gopnik and his family, and what could be the most banal of family moments (shopping for appliances, navigating the health club) are always a light shining brightly on the differences between these two cultures and – more importantly – on the very nature of difference and universality.
From Paris to the Moon is decidedly not a parenting book, but it is very much a book about parenting – parenting in the context of life outside of one’s own culture, and living in a foreign country in the context of parenting. In addition to the thoughtful reporting Gopnik carries out in the public sphere, he mines the everyday joys and challenges he encounters living – and raising a child – in France. And he gets at one of the fundamental truths about the expatriate life: there is always something to learn in the macro and the micro, and even the most basic of activities, when carried out so far from home, have something to teach you.
Being in a new land or a new language lends a sense of discovery and adventure to the daily grind. “The odd thing in making a big move,” he writes, “is the knowledge that your life will be composed of hundreds of small things that you will arrive at only by trial and error. [...] Where will your hair be cut? What kind of coffee will you buy, and where?” These things may seem inconsequential, even trivial, but they are the routines that make up a life – and putting them in place all at once is very different than developing them organically over time. When combined with parenting – itself a long process of learning, a kind of ode to trial and error – it is a poignant reminder of how similar we are, how different we are, and how much we all still have to learn.