Almost French by Sarah Turnbull


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.


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10 Responses to Almost French by Sarah Turnbull

  1. Claire says:

    What a great review. It really makes me want to read the book! Have you ever heard the story of Petite Anglaise? A true story of an English woman who moved to Paris, married a french man had a baby, became a blogger and then ran off with one of her blog commenters. She published it all on the blog of the same name, and subsequently after losing her job/ lots of publicity, got a book deal. The blog’s still live, and I think the early days record a lot of her initial perceptions on living in Paris. Might be interesting – if nothing else, I think the true story is. x

    • I’d never heard of Petite Anglaise, Claire – what an amazing story! I’m off to check out the web page now. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Ally Bean says:

    I really, really liked Almost French. It was thought provoking & humorous. Your review is very good– and makes me realize that I need to re-read the book. After all, it has been 7 years.

    • Amazing how all that time has just flown by, Ally. I couldn’t believe it was that long when I picked the book up again. Hope you enjoy it just as much on a second reading.

  3. Zazzy says:

    Really very interesting. David Lebovitz talks about some of the cultural differences, but mostly about food and shopping. This seems to uncover the roots of some of the stereotypes of the French people and it would seem to me to be not only an interesting read but a kind of preparation for visiting or living in a different culture. Most Americans, I think, wouldn’t think twice about running down to the store in sweats. I wonder if these social conventions have changed much since the book was published. Got to put this on my list!

    • Thanks Zazzy. I’ve put David Lebovitz’s book The Sweet Life on my list since you mentioned him last (and signed up to his newsletter). Looking forward to reading that one too. There’s a very funny bit in the book where they are at a hypermarket in Boulogne and there is an Englishman in front of them (in sweats, or at least greying comfy stuff). The man’s presentation winds up Frederic anyway (as you say, most of us wouldn’t think twice), but then he does something which makes Frederic absolutely livid, which just adds insult to injury. I’ll let you read it, best to discover it for yourself!

  4. That was a great review of the book – what an intersting story. I very much admire, even envy, those who muster the courage to live in an entirely different country and culture. Especially those who follow a whim or love. Don’t think I could do it myself. I just had a nosy of the Petit Anglaise website re Claires comment – how interesting!

    • I found that website really interesting too! Some great stories there, I think I will be going back. Shame she’s not writing anymore. I wish I’d had the courage when I was younger. I’d do it now, how amazing an education it would be for the little man too.

  5. Fantastic review Polly – and good for you on making strides on getting into your own French world! Literature reading is always THE place to start!x