I read this book when it was first published in 2005 and really enjoyed it. It gave me itchy feet and wanderlust. As part of my current project to learn about France, its inhabitants and the French language, I searched out the book again and re-read it during the weekend. It’s an easy read and, as I’d read it before, I remembered lots of the stories and anecdotes. It has made me wish, all over again, for a French adventure of my own.
The book is the story of an Australian woman, backpacking around Europe for a year, who meets a Frenchman, Frederic, in Bucharest and takes up an invitation to visit him in Paris. She stays in Paris for the week that she agreed and then resumes her travels for four months, despite finding herself wishing to stay for longer. After four months of awkward phone calls (his English isn’t great, her French practically non-existent), and a weekend or two together, she returns to Paris to live with Frederic. This is where the story really begins, as Sarah struggles to make sense of the city and its people, the different norms and expectations associated with life there.
The book is all about the clash of cultures between Australian and Parisian society, having a foot in each culture, and how first appearances can be deceptive. For example, at parties, the women are very reticent about chatting to Sarah and she takes this personally as if she has done something wrong or the other women are just nasty. It turns out that this is not the case at all. Apparently, in France, history is everything, so unless you have known people for many years, they appear unfriendly or unapproachable. As Sarah struggles to make female friends, she discovers that a group of women out together for the evening is virtually unheard of as men and women tend to go out together, with friends of both sexes, not just of their own. French women do not seem to have female friends. Understandably, this also takes a bit of getting used to. Another point of friction occurs with Frederic’s insistence on returning to his childhood home every other weekend, or at least once a month. Frederic is from Boulogne-sur-Mer, an economically depressed and uninspiring area on the north French coast. Sarah moved to France to be in Paris. If she has to make these visits so frequently, she laments, why couldn’t Frederic be from Provence or somewhere else that is pretty and interesting. But roots, family and history are everything and Frederic can’t understand Sarah’s reluctance.
Gradually, over time, Sarah finds herself changing and adapting, almost without realising it. She begins to understand how things work in Paris, she develops a thicker skin, begins to understand why people appear stand-offish. She starts to appreciate that French style is not selfish, but for the benefit of everyone. When a table is beautifully laid with silverware and crystal glasses, it isn’t considered to be going to too much trouble but rather taking the proper care to produce something aesthetically pleasing. Why be expected to look upon something ugly or graceless? It’s the same with clothing: when Sarah tries to leave the apartment to visit the boulanger wearing jogging bottoms (pantalons de jogging!) Frederic objects, telling her it wouldn’t be nice for the baker to see her like that. So many of the points of disagreement are really about differences in perception; you may be comfortable in pantalons de jogging, and consider it to be your own business, but the French consider that it isn’t pleasant for anyone else to see you dressed in such a way. In time Sarah becomes accustomed to looking at things differently and settles into French life more comfortably.
I really enjoyed this book which paints a very readable picture of the dramas and adventures, the highs and lows of attempting to settle into another culture. Sarah knows she will never be considered French but gradually becomes the Almost French of the book’s title.