Saturday, August 02, 2008

Almost French

On Shelfari.comI saw that Bridget was reading Sarah Turnbull's Almost French: Love and a New Life in Parisso I got it at the library. I've read a few other expat in France books (e.g. A Year in Provence, Words in a French Life and French By Heart). Also have visited had three friends who moved to France so I've heard the real stories. Turnbull's experiences fit right in with those. It's pretty much unanimous that France, especially Paris, poses big problems for the expat who hopes to fit in socially (i.e. find a group of friends in say less than three years). It's easy to partake of the food, wine, art and ambience, but getting through the invisible social barriers is another story. It's harder than in Japan, quite a bit harder.

From the start I was intrigued with Turnball, an Australian who meets some dashing French lawyer, Frederick, and takes him up on his offer to stay with him in France. Something that I really wouldn't do. It's just to risky. (I'd visit, but I'd be in a hotel.) And Turnbull did have some of the same qualms most women would. What if this Frederick is a psycho? Luckily, he isn't and Turnbull decides to stay in France.

The book describes her navigation of and assimilation (as much as one can assimilate) into French culture. I particulary enjoyed reading about her pluck and ingenuity as she tried to get funding for a journalism training program, her learning the art of dog ownership in Paris and her volunteering at a soup kitchen. Her insights were fair. She doesn't simply bash the tough parts of French culture, she does try to understand. Although she writes of topics many others have covered like home construction and the food mania, I found these reflections fresh.

I would like to have learned more about her relationship with Frederick, how it evolved and deepened. Readers get a glimpse of that, but not as much as I would have liked. I wondered how she felt about being financially supported by someone she didn't know all that well and how she felt about living in France without the proper visa. (She doesn't get her work visa until she's been in there six years. For obvious reasons, she doesn't advertise that. Only someone who knows more about immigration will pick that up.)

Since I'm working on some writing now and really agonizing over structure, I noticed that Turnbull's structure is very episodic or thematic. Each chapter pretty much addresses one theme like owning a dog or house hunting. The only thread that is found throughout the book is that she's an Australian in France. I think that weakens this memoir. French By Heart covers the same territory and I thought the ongoing conflict with the busybody neighbor heightened my enjoyment. It gave the story a map, a definite way to measure the writer's personal, not just cultural, growth.

Would I want to live in France? Nope. Although I love French things, I doubt I'd have the patience to put in the years of social isolation, even with understanding the reasoning behind it. (One friend there now married to a Frenchman with a half French baby was recently diagnosed with depression. It is real hard to fit in there.) Still, for some reason I'd read another memoir by an expat there in a heartbeat.

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