Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris

almostfrenchWhile in Bucharest during a year of European travel, Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull meets a French lawyer named Frederic and decides to go visit him in Paris. A weeklong visit eventually turns into a long-term relationship, and in Almost French, Turnbull describes her first years in France and her difficulty adjusting to the French (really the Parisian) culture.

Turnbull’s story is an entertaining one, and she tells it with humor and affection. Although she does at times get frustrated with the formality of many French parties and the expectation that you must always look your best, she eventually comes to see why some might prefer this attitude over Australian casualness. She also learns to accept that although she might be willing to adopt some French customs, she’ll still always be an outsider. And by the end of the book, she’s okay with that.

As I was reading, I did question whether some of the things Turnbull took as French characteristics and expectations might actually just be idiosyncracies belonging to Frederic and his circle of friends. Do all French people find it impossible to be comfortable in a hotel room with bad art on the walls? Is aggression the only way to get good customer service? Do all French women see other women as competition? I’ve never been to France and I don’t think I even know any French people, so I’m speaking from a place of total ignorance, but I’m not convinced that everyone in France acts the way Turnbull describes. (Although if the French would rather have silence than small talk, as Turnbull discovers at a party she attends with Frederic early in her stay, then sign me up.)

Still, I did enjoy this book for its honesty and humor about what it’s like to make such a major change. Turnbull’s early difficulties with language and social gatherings filled with standoffish strangers made the difficulty especially acute. But some of the best anecdotes in the book weren’t so much about cultural clashes as they were about learning to compromise in a relationship, having new experiences, buying a new house and discovering that the neighborhood is a little less beautiful at night, and eating very good food. Overall, it’s a nice light read, not wildly funny or incredibly insightful, but pleasant and fun.

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Memoir, Nonfiction. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris

  1. I was in Paris a long time ago, and I do mean long. I also visited the countryside.

    My impression was that the culture in Paris was much different than the rest of the country, and I much preferred the latter.

    If I ever return to France, I will most likely bypass Paris completely. It may be with this book, as it was when I was there, that the Parisians are a poor role model for the entire country.

    Now, of course, since it has been so long, things could have changed – including my sensitivities and thus my opinion. But from what I have heard, I am thinking not.

  2. nightreader says:

    Hi Teresa! I’ve been a silent reader of your blog for a little while. I’ve recently started up a blog of my own, where I intend to also write book reviews, though not exclusively. I also plan to blog about book-world news. I’ve added you to my blogroll list of favorite bloggers — if you get a chance, please check it out!

  3. priscilla says:

    This sounds fun. Another good book along these lines I enjoyed was French Lessons, by Alice Kaplan.

  4. Teresa says:

    JC: I strongly suspected that much of what Turnbull calls French culture is actually Parisian culture. I’m guessing that it varies a lot by region.

    Nightreader: Thanks for stopping by! I’ll add your blog to my reader.

    Priscilla: I’m not much of a Francophile, but I did find this fun. If I ever feel a need to immerse myself in France again I’ll keep French Lessons in mind.

  5. Jenny says:

    Of course, as you suspected, not all French people (or all Parisians) are like anything, just as not all Americans (or even all New Yorkers) are. (One of my students, after studying Sartre and de Beauvoir, once asked me, “Do all French people have threesomes?” No, dear.) I enjoy books that talk about the effort required when you open your mind and change your world view, whether that’s moving to a new part of town or across the globe. Sounds like this one does that nicely.

  6. Teresa says:

    Jenny: The book does a pretty good job with the whole idea of making major changes. I wish that had been more of the focus, rather than proclamations that this is what French people are like.

  7. jehara says:

    i read that book a while back and found it lacking. it was enjoyable in parts, but i was uncomfortable with some of turnbull’s assertions. i have been to paris several times and lived in brittany for six months and my experiences didn’t really resonate with hers at all. not to say hers aren’t valid, but i think it is doing everyone a disservice to generalize in the manner that she does at times. it’s similar to europeans saying all americans are loud and obnoxious. some are, and i’ve encountered them during my travels, but more often than not, traveling americans are pretty cool and interested in the culture they are visiting. there are definitely more enjoyable books discussing french culture. one that i really appreciated is Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. it really looked at the things that make france france from a historical perspective. it was quite fascinating, actually.

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