Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Almost French

For anyone looking for light reading about Paris, I highly recommend Sarah Turnbull's amusing memoir, Almost French. Sarah, an Australian native, meets a  Frenchman in Romania and decides to accept his invitation to visit him in Paris. While I do not recommend moving in with a perfect stranger in a foreign country, I do find Sarah's observations about French culture to be insightful. I am relieved that Americans are not the only ones who meet with obstacles in Paris while interacting with the citizens. The book also reminds me of all the things I love about Gallic culture.

Many of Ms. Turnbull's sources of angst with the French are the very reasons I have always felt so comfortable there. The French dress-up when they go out! To quote:
One of the consequences of the pervasive beauty in Paris is that it makes leaving your front door feel like you're stepping onto a stage. It calls for dressing up. Just like actors in a play, the pressure is on those who live here to look the part....In France, vanity is not a vice. Rigorous self-maintenance  is imbued from birth—it's a mark of self-pride....Sloppiness in appearance is considered a fatal disease....The essence of French style can be summed up in two words, which linked together are loaded with meaning: bon goût: Good taste. The concept has far more to do with the dazzling court of Versailles than this season's trends. It emerged during the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV built a culture of beauty, etiquette, and elegance that still dictates almost every detail of French life, from the exquisitely decorated Paris shop windows to l'art de la table. (pp. 128, 129, 130, 132-133)
At social gatherings, after many embarrassing mishaps, the author comes to realize the following:
In a country where discretion is a highly valued virtue, asking personal questions—including what someone does for a living and whether they have children—may be considered inappropriate and sometimes rude. Even at dinners with good friends, the conversation remains remarkably impersonal. And if a one-on-one chat does veer into private territory, it often has an abstract quality. This can be both liberating and limiting. While it allows much to be said without revealing too much about yourself, it also precludes the sort of open, intimate exchanges that, in my culture at least, help form close friendships. (p. 266)
The descriptions of villages, restaurants, and Parisian scenes are delightfully vivid, as is the emotional journey made by the author into the French way of seeing the world. Ms. Turnbull learns that it is better when in France to "buy less, pay more," that is, better to have fewer good quality clothes than lots of cheap ones. (p. 134) She also is confounded by how the role of women in France differs from their role in the Anglo-Saxon world, saying: "...If French women haven't fought for their rights, it's because they have traditionally been treated with respect. If women haven't shown anger toward men, it's because in [France] there is no simmering male anger toward women either." (p. 174) She comes to appreciate haute couture as being "about history and tradition, passion and beauty, art and inspiration—everything that makes France a measure of civilized life." (p.202) I enjoyed accompanying Sarah on her odyssey and feel I have a little more understanding about a country and a culture which I have long loved. Share


julygirl said...


Stephanie A. Mann said...

And she buys a White West Highland Terrier for a pet--her misadventures walking and training her dog are fun, too!

elena maria vidal said...

Very fun!