Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ALMOST FRENCH by Sarah Turnbull - and other books by people who straddle two cultures

Sarah Turnbull's Almost French is neither new (copyright 2002) nor unique, but it's an excellent example of a genre that never fails to attract me.

The set-up: an English-speaking writer falls in love with a foreign place or person, usually non-English speaking. Often impulsively, the English-speaker leaves home and moves to a country whose customs are quite different from his or her own.

At first the writer is thrilled and dazzled. Then reality sets in, and he or she discovers how very different the two cultures are. Food usually plays a major role in the story, as - often - does home purchase and repair.

Inevitably, the displaced Anglophone writes a memoir.

Well, it worked for Peter Mayle, an English marketer whose steady stream of books beginning with A Year in Provence set high standards for the genre. It also works for Sarah Turnbull, an Australian journalist who, entranced by a Frenchman she met in Romania, goes to Paris to visit him for a month. That was in 1994, and, as far as I know, she is still there.

One reason these two authors succeed at this genre is that neither is a navel-gazer. They write about their experiences, to be sure, but their focus is on France - the rural south for Mayle, contemporary Paris for Turnbull. Her life as an ex-pat is often lonely. Because at first she does not understand the French language, social customs, dress codes, family traditions, bureaucracy, or ways of getting around red tape, she is frequently frustrated.

At the same time, she loves "the heart-stopping beauty of Paris," its "history and tradition, passion and beauty, art and inspiration - everything that makes France a measure of civilized life." More prosaically, she also loves her sixth-floor walk-up apartment, good coffee and croissants, and even the neighborhood drunks who show "the rich diversity of life within a small circumference." She has a love-hate relationship with France, she confesses, "but it's charged with so much mystery, longing and that French specialty - séduction - that we can't resist coming back for more."

Nor can I resist coming back for more books about people who follow their dreams and become ex-pats in countries they will never quite understand. This is probably because I've had a taste of the ex-pat experience myself: as a teenager, I studied for a year in France, and in middle age, I worked for a British company. My best friend in grade school moved to Florence nearly 40 years ago and has lived there ever since. One daughter has studied and lived in Bogotà and Taipei; the other daughter has studied in Munich and Salzberg. A granddaughter is hoping to study in China year after next. My husband and I occasionally talk about retiring, at least for a year or two, in a foreign country (aren't new experiences supposed to keep brain cells young?). Given the current high price of the Euro, however, it probably won't be France or Italy.

Meanwhile, I love to read about people who straddle two cultures. Here's a list of other bicultural memoirs I've enjoyed.
  • Bryson, Bill. Notes from a Small Island. Bryson, an American, lived for 20 years in the U.K. with his British wife. Here he describes his farewell tour before moving back to the U.S.
  • Child, Julia. My Life in France. Love, food, France, and the indomitable Julia Child. What could be better?
  • De Blasi, Marlena. The Lady in the Palazzo and various other memoirs about an American woman in Italy. Lavish, sensual, self-absorbed.
  • Gopnik, Adam. Paris to the Moon. New Yorker essayist takes family to live in Paris for five years. Excellent and often very funny reportage.
  • Keenan, Brigid. Diplomatic Baggage. Hilarious tales by a diplomat's wife who has been an ex-pat on several continents.
  • Lenard, Yvone. The Magic of Provence.  Lenard, a French ex-pat who spent most of her adult life in California, writes about moving back to France. Instead of struggling for years (like most authors in this genre) to restore an old house, she and her husband simply hire a contractor and go back to California. When they return, their house is all ready for them. Now that is magic.
  • Mayes, Frances. Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany. Mayes is an American woman in Italy and Mayles is a British man in France, but otherwise their stories are similar.
  • Robb, Peter. Midnight in Sicily. Robb, an Australian, lived in Sicily for 14 years. Here he looks at Sicilian food, history, politics, and organized crime. Among other things.
  • Sanders, Michael S. From Here You Can't See Paris. An American spends a year writing about a village and its restaurant in rural southwestern France.
  • Simeti, Mary Taylor. On Persephone's Island. American-born Simeti, now in her 70s, married an Italian professor in 1964 and still lives in Sicily. This now-classic ex-pat memoir was first published in 1986.

1 comment:

Ann Kroeker said...

Love your post and this list of resources. I loved the Peter Mayle books and enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun (the book...never saw the movie). I'd like to work through these over the next couple of years.

These interest me having married into an international family. As you may recall, I married a Belgian-born missionary kid. Four of his five siblings live in Belgium; the fifth lives in southern France.

Yet, we're still the American Midwest.

Sometimes I'd like to have tried it--taken that risk and moved our family overseas to Belgium or France.

For now, I'll live vicariously through these authors.