My first images of Paris had come from the book adaptation of The Red Balloon, the wonderful Albert Lamorisse movie about a small boy in the Parisian neighborhood of Menilmontant who gets a magic, slightly overeager balloon, which follows him everywhere and is at last destroyed by evil boys with rocks. Curiously, it was neither a cozy nor a charming landscape. The Parisian grown-ups all treated Pascal, the boy, with a severity bordering on outright cruelty: His mother tosses the balloon right out of the Haussmannian apartment; the bus conductor shakes his head and finger and refuses to allow the balloon on the tram; the principal of the school locks him in a shed for bringing the balloon to class. The only genuine pleasure I recall that he finds in this unsmiling and rainy universe is when he leaves the balloon outside a tempting-looking bakery and goes in to buy a cake. The insouciance with which he does it--cake as a right, not a pleasure--impressed me a lot. A scowling gray universe relieved by pastry: This was my first impression of Paris, and of them all, it was not the farthest from the truth. To this set of images were added, soon after, the overbright streets of the Madeline books, covered with vines and the little girls neat in their rows, and black and white pictures of men in suits walking through the Palais Royale, taken from a Cartier-Bresson book on the coffee table.
Pierre, though, being made of cardboard, got pretty beat up, sharing a room with two young boys, or maybe he was just both smaller and more fragile than I recall. In any case, one summer evening my parents, in a completely atypical display of hygienic decisiveness, decided that he was too beat up to keep and that it was time for him to pass away, and they put him out on the Philadelphia street for the trashman to take away.
I wept all night. He would sit out with the trash cans and would not be there in the morning. (A little later I read about Captain Dreyfus and his degradation, and the two uniformed and mustachioed figures got mixed up, so perhaps he had been sent to supply intimations of the other, darker side of French life. They were certainly there to be intimated.) What made me sad just then was the new knowledge that things changed, and there was nothing you could do about it. In a way, that was a Parisian emotion too.
Excerpted from Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik Copyright© 2000 by Adam Gopnik. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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