Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Almost French by Sarah Turnbull

Unlike a lot of us, including those of us that participate in the Paris In July event, freelance journalist Sarah Turnbull wasn’t all that desperate to visit France when she was spending a year backpacking through Europe back in the mid 90s. She was mainly spending her time in the eastern European countries. In her travels, she meets a French lawyer named Frederic a couple of times and when he asks her to come and visit him in Paris, she agrees.

What starts out as a week long visit turns into a month long holiday affair and then into more and, after a brief separation while Sarah finishes her travels, she moves to Paris to be with Fred. Moving to a different country requires adjustments for anyone, let alone when there is a different language and very different cultural values involved. For a relatively laid back Aussie, the rules that permeate French society are difficult to understand let alone to follow, and that is before you throw the fact that Sarah needs to learn the language quickly and to find a way to break into the freelance journalism market so that she can start to earn some income. Being a freelance journalist means that she must work from home which is a way that the author is isolated from others, and she must find ways to counteract this loneliness.

Turnbull takes us through some of the well known French clichés but also some of the less well known quirks as well. She writes about the French obsession with food, talking not only of the lunch that she ate in a Michelin star restaurant but also of her joy at eventually moving to an area of Paris where there is still a fresh food market. She tells of starting most days with a café crème at her local café, and attends dinner parties where it is expected that there will be numerous courses and if they aren’t right there will be criticisms made - very different to the barbecue in the backyard that most Australians would be used to.

One of the other things that Turnbull talk about included fashion, and the way that seeing seeing how the French dress influenced her to dress better. At one point, she and Frederic had a conversation about how no French person would wear their tracksuit pants to the bakery for fear of upsetting the baker. A few days later I thought about how I would manage in France as I just popped down to the shops in my trackydacks, old smelly trainers and jumper! Non, non, non!

Other subjects to be examined include making friends, the French concept of home (wherein Frederic returns to his small town in Normandy on a very regular basis), moving house to a fabulous sounding apartment in central Paris and the joy of living in the beautiful city but also the issues that brings, Frederic's first visit to Australia and more. All of the anecdotes are told with humour and with a candour that at times can verge on harsh (for example when she talks about how difficult it can be to make friends with French women), but I can also definitely imagine. One of the other fun stories was when Sarah and Frederic decide to buy a dog. Sarah is determined that there do Maddie is not going to be a pampered Parisian pooch, but it doesn't take long before Maddie goes everywhere with her and often provides entres into conversation that might not have otherwise existed.

One of the strengths of the book for me was that Turnbull not only observes as an outsider looking at French society but that she was trying to understand so that she could assimilate as much as it would be possible for an Australian moving to France could, especially someone whose partner is French and so she doesn't want to let him down at all. Also, she took the time to compare and contrast the two cultures and the way they approach everyday things like food or the service that they expect in shops or aesthetic beauty whether it be in their own home or in hotel rooms with terrible art on the walls for example.

One of the other things that was quite interesting to me was that Sarah and I were both travelling at around the same time and so there were some key events that were mentioned during the book that I remember quite clearly. For example, when France won the soccer World Cup in 1998, I remember watching the final and then seeing the news reports of the people of Paris celebrating whilst Sarah Turnbull writes about being there. Whereas she ended up living a fabulous life in Paris I ended up living for 5 years in the UK, and I obviously came back to Australia a lot sooner than she did.

While I was living in an English speaking country with a similar culture and so did not face a lot of the same difficulties as she did, I was involved with a Nigerian man whose friends were predominantly other young Nigerian men and so could really relate to the feeling of ostracism that comes with sitting around a table or lounge for a meal and not being able to follow the conversation because it was in another language that you either didn’t know or weren’t fluent in, to having no one make any effort to include you in the conversation, to that feeling of just filling a space rather than being an integral part of the gathering.

I listened to the audiobook version of this book which was narrated by Caroline Lee, who I am almost convinced is pretty much the only female Australian narrator out there. I know that isn’t true, but this is the fourth audiobook that I have listened to this year where she was the narrator, and she also narrates several that I have considered listening to. I did like her narration in this book. I think her voice is more suited to contemporary storytelling, or at least I didn’t like her as much when I was listening to historical novels, particularly ones where there was a wide variety of different accents.
This book was published in the early 2000's and it has taken all this time for a follow up book to be released. I am looking forward to finding out what happens next to Frederic and Sarah.

Rating 4/5


A delightful, fresh twist on the travel memoir, Almost French takes us on a tour that is fraught with culture clashes but rife with deadpan humor.

Sarah Turnbull's stint in Paris was only supposed to last a week. Chance had brought Sarah and Frédéric together in Bucharest, and on impulse she decides to take him up on his offer to visit him in the world's most romantic city. Sacrificing Vegemite for vichyssoise, the feisty journalist does her best to fit in, although her conversation, her laugh, and even her wardrobe advertise her foreign status.

But as she navigates the highs and lows of this strange new world, from life in a bustling quartier and surviving Parisian dinner parties to covering haute couture fashion shows and discovering the paradoxes of French culture, little by little Sarah falls under its spell: maddening, mysterious, and charged with that French specialty—seduction.
I read this book for following challenges/events:


  1. I read this book when I first moved to France, and while I agree with some of what she says, a lot of the cultural generalizations she gives apply more specifically to Paris than France as a whole. People are much more relaxed in the provinces. :) So there is a sequel coming out? I'd be interested to see if she stayed in France or ended up moving back to Australia.

    1. I think she does make that point a few times but possibly not enough.

      The sequel came out here earlier this year and is called All Good Things. I am going to listen to her speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival next month so I am looking forward to that.

  2. I had no idea there was a sequel coming! I remember reading and enjoying this a few years ago so I'll keep an eager eye out for the new book.

    1. Seems like her life continued to be interesting from what little I know about the sequel.

  3. I love reading books about new places. Paris especially sounds interesting to me. I've never been there but I would love to spend some time there. I especially like the way that it sounds like this memoir manages to capture everyday Parisian life and culture. You don't really get that when you visit a place unless you stay there for an extended period of time and I'm not sure I'll ever get the opportunity to do that.

  4. I loved this book when I read it 10 years ago. I saw Sarah talk recently too, and fell in love with her and her story all over again. I'm hoping to reread it again, and the next book- a continuation, rather than a sequel.