Thursday, June 30, 2005

Book Review: "Almost French: Love and a new Life in Paris" by Sarah Turnbull

Some would be tempted to classify this book as Chic-lit., after all, its subtitle reads, 'Love and a new Life in Paris', but it's so much more than that. Although it is an autobiographical account of an Australian journalist's move to France after falling in love with a Frenchman, it is essentially a light socio-ethno-political commentary on France and the French and also, what it means to be an expat in a country whose culture clashes with your own.

The author, without mincing words, dissects the cool, haughty, unfriendly exterior that French women present to each other and concludes that they are that way, because they 'perceive those of the same sex as rivals, not as potential friends'. This rivalry prevents them from having a 'sisterhood', like women in Australia and America do.

One of the highlights of the book is her interview with French designer Christian Lacroix in her quest to understand the French obsession with haute couture and how and why they do it so well. According to Lacroix, "there aren't many areas left where France really shines. There's micro-technology. Perhaps cuisine, but Paris remains the world specialist in haute couture. NO other city does it." Why is that? The French are a nation of aesthetics,they like nothing better than to look beautiful and to surround themselves with beautiful things. Infact, in France, vanity is not a sin, on the contrary it's a mark of self-pride. Looking scruffy is an act of selfishness because it makes the whole city look like a dump! In Paris, if you fail to dress up, shopkeepers will ignore you and make it quite clear that you are out of place in their beautiful shops. But why the extravagant fashion shows, surely no real Parisien walks around dressed like a stage actress? "The fashion shows hosted by France's leading fashion houses rarely sell enough dresses to break even, but the shows are wildly extravagant because that is what helps build seductive brand images, inspiring consumers to splurge on more affordable items like sunglasses and perfumes."

She also has hilarious chapters on what it means to own a pet in France and on why Paris is home to some of the finest restaurants in the world. When it comes to Paris being the gourmet capital of the world, Ms. Turnbull concludes that it all comes down to 'savoir faire' or an incredible heritage. The French are obsessed with using only the finest produce and finest ingredients in their cooking and have an almost absurd attention to detail. Low fat produce and skimmed milk are scorned at---only the richest, most luscious creams will do. "Infact, France has this effect on foreigners. It turns your eating habits and food principles upside down so that before long you're rhapsodizing about the delicate silkiness of foie gras entier without a thought for the fat content, let alone the poor goose who was force-fed through a tube down its throat. The damage is irreparable---there's no turning back to mueseli after flaky pastries filled with ribbons of dark chocolate." But how do French women eat this kind of food and not put on weight? I guess the answer to that might lie in reading, Mireille Guiliano's “French Women Don't Get Fat.”

When it comes to service at these restaurants however, one has to always appear superior to the waiters... 'The French are not impressed by anything as banal as niceness". If you are kind to a waiter, it is likely that he will mistake it for subservience and treat you accordingly. France is a hierarchical society, the waiter needs to feel like he is serving someone more important than himself, if not, he takes the upper hand.

She also touches on how the French view multiculturalism---in France, "multiculturalism" is pretty much a dirty word. The French cling stubbornly to the idea that theirs is a white nation. It's an old country with a strong sense of its own identity, here culture is viewed as an established entity that must be preserved and protected from foreign influences. The French are no more racist than any other people. Perhaps they're just more upfront about it because there's no culture of political correctness in this country.

Finally, being a recent immigrant to Canada myself, I understand completely when she says:

"After 6 years in France, I feel like an insider. But at the same time I'm still an outsider. And not just because of my accent or my Anglo-Saxon appearance. To be a true insider you need that historical superglue spun from things like French childhood friends and memories of school holidays on the grandparents' farm and years of accumulated culture and complications."

Ofcourse, Ms. Turnbull had a French partner which I am sure made things a lot easier for her , but regardless, her heart, like mine, will always be tied to two places. In the author's case, Australia and France, in my case, India and Canada.