Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Written in a breezy journalist’s style and with the brief to write about culture shock in Paris, this book was interesting and insightful enough, providing me with some good background on living in Paris and about Parisians, who in four months I may or may not really meet! It’s an easy read and I didn’t take it particularly seriously.
Having been through an experience of a New Worlder trying to fit into the Old World when I first lived in Europe, it made me feel a bit melancholy, remembering some of that shock and loneliness and that expectation that somehow life should be easier than it was. And now having lived in Australia for ten years, I think that allowed me to enjoy the book more, as her cultural reference point for comparison is Australia.
Some of the early cultural adjustments though, don’t seem to be necessarily about Paris. They are about living alone in a new city, about trying to find a career and get started, about working on one’s own.
I did enjoy various cultural observations and snippets of information; and it felt like there was truth to them: dealing with French bureaucracy, the thousands of little dogs around here, the pride Parisians take in dressing. I liked the insider views of her interviews with a top chef and a top designer and a visit to Paris Fashion Week.
Some of what started to feel more interesting and deeper, observations of a changing city, economic and cultural change, was topical, and now, over a decade since the book’s 2002 publication is a bit out of date.
It felt incomplete though, six years of struggling to understand her new life in Paris and the revelations were quiet ones. There was never a very deep exploration into one aspect of society that was backed up with historical information or much more than observation.
And more importantly for me to connect with the book, there wasn’t a deep enough exploration of her personal journey. The book is purportedly about the romance that brought her to Paris, but her husband is mostly absent. The relationship is touched upon, not explored deeply. It was not that kind of book and yet by all accounts, it seems pretty magical to meet one’s love of one’s life, pursue it whole-heartedly and make it last. I assume that her husband’s support was really what allowed her to survive all of the challenges that are described, but it doesn’t come across that way. The experiences here are gentle, funny and bumbling tales of adjustment.
Similarly, the pain of exclusion and trying to find one’s way isn’t expressed or perhaps deeply felt. I think by making the best of it, the author put a bit of a happy gloss so that what comes out is slightly complaining and resentful, hanging onto slights at parties and experiencing unfriendliness. I wanted more feeling and more vulnerability than these light-hearted anecdotes.
Still, if you find it on the shelf of your Paris rental apartment, as I did, I would recommend it. I read that Turnbull has continued with a successful writing career, and I suspect that her insights and perspectives would be more interesting to me these days, with a bit more experience around her belt, rather than the young writer who reminded me of my own slightly complaining and bumbling self, when I was trying to adjust to Brussels and London, pretending I was much more light-hearted than I was.