Armchair Traveller: Almost French
One of the women in my Book Club is going to France with her family this summer. She knows I read a lot of travel memoirs, so at our last meeting she turned to me and asked, “Can you recommend some books about France?”
Can I recommend some books? About France? (Is the Queen English?)
Almost French was my favourite of the shelfful of books I devoured before my last trip to Paris. The author, Sarah Turnbull, is an Australian journalist who meets a French lawyer when they are both in Bucharest for work-related reasons. A couple of months later, she takes him up on his invitation to visit him in Paris ― and never leaves.
Travel memoirs written by wealthy retirees who move to Provence (or Tuscany … or Greece … or …) and fix up old farmhouses are a dime a dozen. For that reason alone, I found Almost French refreshing because it was written by someone my own age living in a large city. I also enjoyed it because it was written by someone from a country with enough cultural and historical similarities to my own for me to relate to her observations about the differences between Australia and France.
But mostly, Turnbull’s memoir stands out from the dozens I’ve read because it is so painfully honest. She is open and frank about the daily grind and frustration and loneliness of adjusting to a new life in a new country. Travel memoirs are usually quite humourous ― often, I suspect, to deflect some of the pain that is always part of adjusting to life in a new and often confusing culture. And Turnbull’s book does have its funny moments. But she uses her stories of linguistic and cultural misunderstandings as an opportunity to write what amounts to a sociological study of the Parisian mind-set ― and she does so in a very real and down-to-earth manner.
For instance, her descriptions of various dinner parties are an obvious opportunity to talk about the French love and passion for food. But she uses these evenings as a window on everything French ― from politics to gender relationships to social habits to the proper way to present and serve a meal. Her weekend visits to the countryside with her French lawyer to visit his father lead to a treatise on how sentimental the French are about the countryside. And she becomes adept enough at reading the French psyché to understand that “Ce n’est pas possible” doesn’t always mean “It’s not possible.”
Another reason her memoir is so distinctive is that her experiences, although specific to Paris in the mid-1990s, are universal. Anyone who has picked up her life and started over in another country, or (dare I say it?) another region of Canada, will be able to relate to her book. Cultural differences between two regions of the same country might be subtle but significant enough to make you ask, “Where am I?” And although I lived in Paris for only three months, Turnbull’s descriptions of Parisians brought smiles of recognition to my face.
By the time she reaches the end of her book, Sarah Turnbull has lived in France for six years, and proves herself almost French by adopting one of the most clichéd of Parisian lifestyle choices ― she gets herself a little dog with as much personality as any French chien.
If you’ve ever contemplated moving to a foreign country, or have already done so, I highly recommend you read Almost French.