A French Guide To New York City – La Grosse Pomme

In order to maintain my interest in France I’ve been looking for French books that suit my tastes. Although I’ve been a casual Francophile since high school, I’ve never learned French because it is difficult to maintain an active interest in France when you just study their history and literature. I got half way through a biography on Napoleon before abandoning it and my copy of “Les Misérables” is such a thick book that I feel weary just to look at it. I would like to visit New York City more often, so I had the bright idea to buy a French guide book to New York City, “Le guide du routard: New York 2009“. This book is the mirror image of the guide books I read on Paris. Although I also bought some American guide books for New York City, I thought it would be interesting to see what the French recommend for their tourists.

The guide book has a list of recommended titles for further reading, just like English books on Paris list fiction and non-fiction books on Paris to prepare you for the city’s culture. It was interesting and worthwhile to check out the books on this list because there were a few surprises. If you think about it, it should be obvious that they would not consult the same books in English that an American would read to familiarize himself with New York City.

The first unfamiliar title was “Secret Isaac” or “Isaac le mystéieux”  by Jerome Charyn. The author grew up in the Bronx and writes detective stories set in New York City. Jerome Charyn now lives in Paris, where he teaches film at the American University of Paris, according to Wikipedia. That probably explains why the French are familiar with his novels while I’ve never heard of this author. The Amazon reviews of his novels suggest a hallucinogenic world of bizarre characters and exotic situations. So following this lead may provide a new source of gritty New York City noir fiction. I think it is valuable to explore another culture for just such unexpected tangents.

Another unknown author was Chester Himes. Chester Himes was a famous African American writer who emigrated to France in the 1950s. The guide book recommends his novel “Tout pour plaire“ which translates as “Everything To Please” but this is not listed as one of his novels. You can find this book at http://www.amazon.fr/Tout-pour-plaire-Himes-C/dp/2070408159/ but I’m not sure why they recommend it.

Although probably known to fans of detective stories, Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy“ was unknown to me. Maybe the guide book writers just prefer mystery novels. This is another author who moved to Paris, France where he earned a living translating French literature. Another example of a crime thriller on the list is “In Tenebris” by Maxime Chattam. The French tourists will be expecting to find a lot of murdering going on in New York City!

Many guide books for New York City now include a special section on Ground Zero. Fodor’s 2009 New York City has seven pages devoted to this topic including material on visiting the site. “Le guide du routard: New York 2009” describes what happened in its section on the city’s history and Ground Zero is listed as something to do in Lower Manhattan.

There are just a few amusing cultural misunderstandings in the book. For example, one of the listed modes of transportation is “en pony cab“. Hmm, it seems there is such a thing as a “pony cab” in New York City.  And on page 95 there is a section on “Homos” where we learn, “Après San Francisco, New York est la 2e ville homo des États-Unis. Certains estiment que 20% de la population de Manhattan est gay ou lesbiennne. À New York, les homos ont tout. De plus, les boîtes hétéros, sachant que les homos sont de bons clients, leur réservent une soirée spéciale par semaine.” The phrase “les boîtes hétéros“puzzled me because translation sites translate it as “the heterosexual boxes“but les boîtes can also mean nightclubs. I guess “homos” is an acceptable slang word for homosexual in French but it sounds amusingly insulting in English.

Just as there are English sites for Paris news and tourism, there are French sites devoted to New York City. I found a few interesting web sites listed in the guide book. http://www.voilanewyork.com/ provides information on New York City in French for French tourists. http://www.frenchmorning.com/ny/ is a web magazine for news concerning New York City for francophones.

There is a list of famous New Yorkers in the French guide book but there are no surprises here; Herman Melville, John David Rockefeller, Henry Miller, George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, Malcolm X, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Ralph Lauren, Paul Simon, Calvin Klein, Lou Reed, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Paul Auster, Billy Joel, Spike Lee, KRS One, Rza, Sean J. Combs, Mariah Carey, Tupac Shakur, Masters At Work, and Nas.

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