Almost French

Full Title: Almost French: Love and a New Life in ParisAlmost French by Sarah Turnbull
Author: Sarah Turnbull
Publisher: Gotham Books (2004)
Number of Pages: 304
How long it took me to read: 5 weeks, 2 days
Where I bought this book: Local Barnes & Noble
ISBN: 1-592-40082-5

Like a Moth to a Flame

I had the best of intentions. I was just in the bookstore looking for my first issue of The Paris Review. I first read about the periodical a few months ago – that it was a magazine publishing collections of interviews with real life writers. I wanted to get a sneak peak into the world I’m entering.

In any case, the bookstore didn’t have it. As I was making my way to the exit from the back of the store, I walked by a little table innocently featuring travel memoirs. Now, I know what you’re thinking – the magazines are usually near the front entrance, yet the memoirs are often further into the store. How I found myself well passed the magazine section and deeply buried beneath all those rows of bookstore shelves, I don’t know. The point is, fate brought me to the travel memoirs. Well now, can you really deny me a peak at travel memoirs?! After all, I live in a land where there are more cars on the streets than people, restaurants are located in plazas, and there’s a dentist’s office at every street corner.

The book cover looked like an old photograph. There were people embracing on a bridge overlooking a historic skyline blissfully devoid of skyscrapers and glass towers. If for no other reason, it was in the name of nostalgia that I had to bring this tome home.

Favorite Five

My favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “…as a host, don’t, whatever you do, pass the cheese platter more than once.  It’s considered ill-mannered, I read, after I’d done precisely that at least five hundred times.” (p.259)

4. “Before I can breathe bonjour, two massive hands clamp my face, practically lifting me off my feet. Loud, smacking kisses land on either cheek, amidst a babble of French endearments – ma petite puce, ma poulette. My little flea, my baby hen. … [Describing] Jean-Michel, who on this day is exposing half his bottom. A white belly pokes between slipping shorts and a filthy, ripped T-shirt. …Jean-Michel’s personal aroma is flavored by ripe armpits. Showering is something he does on Sundays.” (p.28)

3. “Without childhood memories and generations of family attachment to enhance it, I find the landscape depressing.” (p.149)

2. “In some ways, living in France has made me feel more Australian. Separation heightens your sentimentality. … Lately I’ve taken to buying big bunches of gum leaves from the florist. Occasionally, I’ll pick off a leaf and scrunch it up to smell the eucalyptus oil, just like I used to do passing trees back home.” (p.291)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “The trail of lime trees outside our building is still a public loo. …where else are they supposed to go to the toilet in a city where public toilets are about as common as UFO sightings?” (pp.281-82)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Remarkable! The entire first chapter describes her waiting at the arrivals gate at Charles de Gaulle airport, not knowing a soul, coming to see the guy she met months before and whose face she’s having a touch of trouble remembering. He’s late, she’s oscillating between panic and detached regret, and all I’m thinking about is that this chapter could just as easily have been written about the first time I met my (now) husband in Italy.

“I’ve only read the prologue and the first ten-page chapter and Turnbull has already thrown out handfuls of sentiments that perfectly align with my impressions of living in a new country, of feeling stranded in a foreign land, of the common misconceptions that come along with traveling to Europe, and of course, of the style that (sometimes only presumably) oozes out of every European crevice. I say ‘presumably’ because I saw some hideous things on my last trip that could better be described as an ode to Lady Gaga’s meat-wearing fetish than to the refined world of haute couture.”

“Will this be a difficult book for me to read, or will I draw comfort from the opportunity to take a look back and perhaps find the courage to more fully digest my European roots? For now, I just want to see what happens next. So, where were we? Ah yes, the airport…”

“Reading Turnbull describe the first meal her French lover prepared for her – a salad adorned with fresh tarragon, walnuts and crumbled goats’ cheese – regrettably awakens my compulsive nature. Not only are the standard thoughts running through my mind (what kind of lettuce leaves are mixed in the bowl, how would I find fresh tarragon in this part of the world, where did the goats’ cheese come from), but I’m also attempting to calculate the numbers of Points per serving and admiring the nutritional balance of the meal.

“Pausing in one of those little infinite spaces nestled between each of my neurotic thoughts, I recognize how far down the Weight Watchers rabbit hole I’ve fallen. There’s something askew with this picture if I can’t imagine having a relaxed meal without measuring it to death first. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I prepared a meal that was simply inspired by the marriage of fresh ingredients and innocent imagination. Sure, I just bought my first size 4 designer pencil skirt, but what’s suddenly more important than keeping the momentum of a diet regimen that would even make Hitler sweat, is learning how to rediscover my romance with simple, wholesome foods. Is it possible to pair a firm grasp on moderation with a carefree approach to enjoying the fruits of Mother Nature’s labor? Perhaps that’s what the process of realization will lead me to discover. The fact that I’m starting to shine light on this unexplored part of my journey feels promising – maybe I’m starting to get it.”

“This is definitely turning into a much-appreciated therapeutic read. I even talked about it a bit with my husband this morning during a miraculous moment alone (yes, we were locked in the bathroom to steal some private time, but beggars and choosers and all that). I’d like very much for him to read it once I’m done. I think it could help him understand how I’ve perceived some parts of our nomadic journey together over the years.

“For example, the way Turnbull describes the helplessness of not knowing enough foreign words to contribute to a simple conversation is spot on. It made me think back to those muzzled memories of standing by the dumpsters outside Remigio’s on Saturday nights (home of the world’s BEST hazelnut gelato), waiting for the Italian youth with whom I reluctantly found myself cavorting lazily debating what to do for the remainder of the evening. We would inevitably spend hours loitering on the street. Not knowing how to move things along because of my lack of even the most basic Italian vocab, I found myself in this mute, stupefied state on many an occasion. Although I know that he’s listened to me rant about the absurdity of those times (as only an over-caffeinated North American workaholic can), it would still be lovely to share this book with him now. I think I’m finally in a place where I could consider laughing at those memories, although how much laughing is still under negotiation.”

“I think I would enjoy the book more if it were brimming with a greater bounty of dry humor and sharp wit. I think I would like it more if it wasn’t so much of a chronicling of events. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t speak to me, but I think I expected to read more about the reasons that propel people to become expatriates, and about how to make life easier while playing the part. But all in all, I like it. It’s written from the heart, and I appreciate Turnbull’s willingness to share her experiences.”

“What has the book taught me about how I want to tell my stories? Firstly, it has reaffirmed my desire to share them on paper. Secondly, that which I was looking for but didn’t quite manage to find in this book, can potentially be what distinguishes my books from the rest. And finally, although I still haven’t decided where to graduate, I did get to explore a different side of Paris from the frescoes Turnbull painted with her words.”

Note to reader: While reading this book, I was still debating whether to attend my Masters graduation ceremony in London or Paris, which is one of my reasons for wanting to explore various facets of the French capital.

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