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 decided to take him up on his offer to visit him in the world's most romantic city. Sacrificing Vegemite for vichyssoise, the feisty Sydney journalist does her best to fit in, although her conversation, her laugh, and even her wardrobe advertise her foreigner status.
My project of experiencing France vicariously through others continues with Ms. Turnbull's adventures as an Australian living in Paris, and I have to say, this account surprised me more than once. My previous experiences were through the frivolous and gossipy All You Need To Be Impossibly French by Helena Frith-Powell and the reserved but admiring Entre Nous by Debra Ollivier. These two ladies presented the French, Parisian women in particular, as confident, chic intellectuals who prefer to spend the afternoon reading a good book in solitude. Ms. Turnbull showed us a different picture. Her Parisians are lonely people riddled with insecurities, fatigued by the structure and rules of the city. Her Paris is a city of contrasts, with perfectly manicured gardens and parks, charming quartiers, beautiful architecture, and streets smelling like urine because while asking to use the bathroom of the people you're visiting may be considered a faux pas apparently urinating outside their building is perfectly acceptable.
Fortunately this is only one side of the story and Ms. Turnbull does a good job of finding and maintaining balance in her narrative. Perhaps it's a journalistic trait, to examine the subject from all sides and report on both the positive and the negative. Or may be it's that life's full of both. In a way Almost French is like a Cinderella story: an Australian girl risks it all by moving to France, has a terrible time of it at first, then finds her stride, learns the language and how to navigate the society, and settles in to a happy life in a city she loves with a man she adores.
The book is full of stories of how all that happened, from the desparation of not being able to find work and eating all the chocolate in the apartment, to the exhilaration of telling off a rude stranger without missing a beat, to the surprise of being overshadowed by her own dog, and they're all written in a fun, engaging way that's personal without becoming too sentimental or giving too much information. There are times when the author sounds a bit whiny, or somewhat pushy, but fortunately those times are fleeting.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it doesn't focus only on the usual subjects of fashion, food and seduction but ventures beyond to the issues of actually living in the city, meeting new people, growing to love the villages and towns beyond Paris, learning to appreciate all the different layers of society in one's quartier and getting things done despite the many rules and regulations that come with living in a coveted zip code. When I finished it I felt like I've actually seen some of the reality beyond what tourists usually see, or what the other two authors either didn't experience or didn't choose to share with their readers. It's a nice to have a differet view even though Ms. Turnbull writes about Paris and France in the 1990s and things may have changed, although I am confident that whatever changes took place they didn't radically alter Paris, France or the French.