Book review: Almost French

Almost French book coverI recently finished reading Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. It’s an Australian’s account of living in Paris for seven years.

I found it fascinating, for a few reasons. Firstly, its (sometimes terrifying) insight into the French – and, particularly, Parisian – mentality was somewhat of an eye-opener for me. Secondly, as it was written from the perspective of an Aussie – and one who hails from the very area I live in, at that – it gave me a fresh outlook on my adopted country. Thirdly, it was good to read about the feelings of a fellow expat, as she battles with the somewhat shaky concept of “home”.

Naturally, most of the book talks about the French, and Sarah’s life in France. To start with, her impressions are mainly negative. Being treated as a rival and a threat by Parisian women. Being ostracised by snobby Parisians in general. (She learns from a book that it’s best to pretend you’re a chair at social events. That way, “when no-one smiles at you or talks to you … you won’t be surprised.”) Rats scurrying around outside her apartment. (“Voilà le vrai Paris!” exclaims her French boyfriend.) Having to dress up in posh togs just to go to the bakery, in order to avoid being frowned upon by the fashion-conscious French. The drab village where her boyfriend grew up – loved by him, detested by her.

However, as the book progresses, her outlook on her new home changes. She comes to accept – love, even – the Parisian way of life. She gets the hang of the complex etiquette that is often necessary for even the most casual French dinner party. Along the way, she learns just how serious the French are about their food and wine, and has a spectacular feast at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant. She buys a little West Highland terrier, which helps her blend right in with the locals in her district. In the end, she even falls in love with her boyfriend’s village.

As I say, I found the Aussie and expat angles especially poignant. It’s great to hear an Aussie talk about her country: Sydney harbour; surf beaches and swimming between the flags; Aussie TV (not that I watch much of that). And her comments about expat life struck a chord. Near the start of the book she meets a Greek Australian who had moved back to Greece. “‘It’s a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures,’ he sighs. ‘Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.'” Over the course of her seven years in France she starts to realise what he meant. I’m sure many an expat has had similar feelings.

It’s by no means a perfect book. You get the impression that she’s exaggerated a few tales for dramatic effect; either that or she just likes to have a good whinge at every little thing (yes, Aussies whinge too, though they hate to admit it!). I know quite a few French people – even ones that live in Paris – and they’re nothing like the people she claims to encounter. Some of her opinions will no doubt incense even the most placid Frenchman or woman. There’s also very little about her relationship with her French boyfriend, despite the back of the book hinting otherwise. Finally – if I may don my grammar nazi hat – she really could do with being less afraid of commas. They won’t bite, you know! Overall, though, it’s an entertaining read, and provides some interesting observations from the point of view of an Australian in Paris.

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