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An expat’s opinion on romancing Paris

October 12, 2003 - The Boston Globe

Choose to dwell among the Anglophone expatriate community in Paris and there will be moments—certain encounters—that offer a glimpse of what your future might hold. Many, such as meeting longtime expatriates still seeking a Hemingway-inspired golden age at Cafe de Flore, cause an involuntary shudder in those of us who try our best to integrate and stake our own claim.

In ‘‘Almost French,” Texas-born Australian Sarah Turnbull tells of her time in Paris since she fell in love with a Frenchman eight years ago. Fortunately, her tale elicits no such shudder. She humorously captures what it means to integrate into another society, with an account of her life as a struggling freelance journalist.

In the mid- 1990s, Turnbull took what she thought would be a year off from her career as an Australian television reporter to backpack through Europe. Visiting Romania at the end of her trip, she met her future husband, a French lawyer named Frederic. After visiting him in Paris, she never went home.

However, she spoke little French, knew nothing about the cultural differences she was about to encounter, and sought to break into print journalism. Turnbull was the embodiment of idealistic cliche, the kind Paris has a habit of chewing up and spitting out with the unrepentant couth of a French waiter.

Luckily, she had a local guide.

At first, Frederic’s presence in the book causes frustration; Turnbull reveals little about their romance, and her discretion leaves us searching for the spark. The confusion is not entirely Turnbull’s fault: ‘‘Love and a New Life in Paris” was an American add-on to the title. ‘‘Paris: Warts and All,” though not nearly as marketable a subtitle, would be more accurate.

But Frederic turns out to be the literary ace up Turnbull’s sleeve. Though everything we see is through her eyes, Frederic is France. Observations that could be perceived as snooty when explained by Turnbull become comedic when couched in Frederic’s passions and perceptions. When Turnbull attempts to walk out to buy a baguette in her ‘‘pantalons de jogging,” Frederic stops her. ‘‘Catching sight of me, Frederic looks appalled,” she writes.

‘’ ‘Tracksuit pants?’ He’s never seen me wearing them before.

‘’ ‘What’s wrong with that? I’m only going to the bakery.’

‘‘There is a second’s pause. Frederic’s eyes implore me. Finally, he manages to speak.

‘’ ‘But it’s not nice to the baker!’ “

Frederic’s similar reaction to flatulent English tourists in his hometown supermarket provides some of the book’s best comic relief: ‘‘It is—and these are his exact words—‘a declaration of war! A lack of respect for French standards! AN OUTRAGEOUS PROVOCATION!’ And France retreats in a petulant fury, abandoning the trolley and leaving the alcohol aisles to the enemy English.”

Turnbull mines her life as a journalist for amusing anecdotes. She tells of conspiring with a fellow freelancer to create a tape of fake office noise to get over the silence of working alone. Just as recent French-American tensions created unexpected subject matter for Paris correspondents who were more accustomed to writing about gastronomic delights, the big break for Turnbull (who mainly wrote fashion pieces) came when President Jacques Chirac proposed nuclear tests in the South Pacific.

After this, ‘‘There was an insatiable demand from abroad for articles relating to the tests and—as one foreign editor put it—‘any story that makes the French look bad.’ “

‘‘Almost French” slows when Turnbull stops interpreting cultural differences and becomes a Paris tour guide. Thankfully, she tends to catch herself after a few pages, launching from the descriptions into greater epiphanies told with an appreciative grace that subtly demonstrates her love for her adopted country.

An account of an interview with Christian Lacroix and how she came to write about French fashion rambles for several pages, but the French ‘‘moral” to her story is worth the wait. After receiving a congratulatory bouquet for her article from Lacroix, she reflects, ‘‘Sure, it’s clever PR. But it is also the measure of a gracious man. The truth is I feel privileged—not just to get the flowers, but to have been allowed to glimpse this unique world. To have met one of its contemporary masters. If I’d thought fashion was just fluff, now I’m awed by the mastery of technique which underpins haute couture. Its importance goes far beyond providing Oscar night outfits to Hollywood Stars. Rather haute couture is about history and tradition, passion and beauty, art and inspiration—everything that makes France a measure of civilized life.”

Such jewels of insight—and the book shines with them—make ‘‘Almost French” a worthy read.

Turnbull’s story will entertain, and edify, both armchair travelers and those of us nutty enough to try living here.

Joe Ray is a Globe correspondent based in Paris.

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