Monday, May 21, 2007

Vicariously French

If you’re a foreigner attending a function or dinner in Paris, don’t expect to be the life of the party. Instead, make like a chair. Apparently, pretending you’re a chair is the best way to quell your insecurities and keep your composure at stuffy Parisian events. Sarah Turnbull’s experience in Almost French deals with the dilemma that it is to belong to two places, two cultures. Traveling in Greece, Sarah encounters an old Greek on Samos island who warns her:

It’s a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures, he’d said. ‘It’s a curse to love two countries.’ Well I certainly don’t think of living abroad as a curse - I don’t think the Greek believed it either. He was just dramatizing his dilemma, the feeling of being torn between two places. And this is I something I now understand.

Sarah comes to know this ‘bitter-sweet’ dilemma as an expatriate in France. Uncharacteristically, she accepts an invitation to stay with Frederic, a Frenchman, at his place in Levallois. The decision is couched in uncertainty as she had only briefly met this quirky, self-professed ‘maniac’ (a term she puzzles over at first but which eventually endears her). The travel narrative explores the process of adjustment and cultural negotiation that occurs when Sarah moves to Paris. Cultural clashes emerge as she realizes she’s more Australian than she’d care to admit. But despite the frustrations of Paris, she discovers its enchantment – from the hypnotic world of haute-couture to the tolerant regard Parisians show to the homeless.

With the exception of Bill Bryson, my experience with travel narratives has been limited until recent weeks. I must say Almost French was surprisingly funny and self-aware in both its participation in and interrogation of cultural clashes and stereotypes. Authenticity is an issue for travel narratives, as the reader may sometimes be sceptical about whether they really get to the meat of cultural difference or instead perpetuate stereotypes. Nevertheless I appreciated Turnbull’s honesty. Travel narratives as a genre provide an excellent vehicle for the representation of an individual’s intercultural understanding.

One month until I leave for my trip! At the moment with travel narratives I do feel a bit like I’m popping Pringles – I can’t get enough. I’m wondering, in your experience does the need to live adventures vicariously through travel narratives come and go?


Bybee said...

At first, I thought "Almost French" was a novel, until I read your review. Sounds like I'll have to add it to my "Books For Expats" list that I'm slowly creating.

Dark Orpheus said...

"I’m wondering, in your experience does the need to live adventures vicariously through travel narratives come and go?"

This of course depends on your wanderlust. But personally - NEVER. When you are in a perpetual state of looking elsewhere, but unable to move, you will find that travel narrative becomes a significant part of your reading interest. It provides that temporary escape from your current state of restlessness, but also feeds it.

jess said...

I find that I only feel like reading travel writing occasionally- usually when I'm feeling particularly stuck in one location. I really love Paul Theroux's travel writing at those times.

acquisitionist said...

Bybee, definitely add it to your list. It's a well-known book in Aust because the author is Australian. I wonder if it will be difficult for you to obtain?

Orpheus, I think now that I've discovered travel narratives they will become part of my regular reading.

Jess, Thanks for mentioning Theroux. He's an author I've always intended to read - I've heard his fiction and travel narratives are great.

dew said...

I had to add this to my wishlist! I wish I lived in France. I plan to someday.

Siew Cooper said...

Great post! I have never read a single travel book, though I'm a glutton for travel. Vicarious reading has never before flitted into my radar for some reason or other, and the closest I've come is a Fodors or Lonely Planet on whichever destination I'm planning to visit at the time.

I'll keep my eye out for this one when I'm next at the bookstore, it sounds like a worthwhile read.

tanabata said...

I picked up Almost French at a bookshop in England a couple of years ago, but haven't read it yet. The sad fate of many of my books-really wish I could read faster! Anyway, sounds great. I hope to get to it sometimes soonish.
Also I just left you a reply on my blog about pictures in headers. Looks like Blogger now lets you do that by simply editing it within Page Elements. So you don't need to use the HTML hack for that anymore. Hope that helps.

tanabata said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
acquisitionist said...

dew, It would be one of the countries I'd like to live in too. I think I'd like to live long-term in maybe America or England, but potentially would like to spend a year in somewhere non-English speaking.

siew cooper, It will be easier for you to find. If there are any near you, check out Elizabeth's secondhand bookstores as they often have brand new copies of Almost French as remainder stock from the UK.

Tanabata, Hope I bumped Almost French up on your TBR list. You are a legend. Post-exams I'm going to play around with my site. Got the link to the video for blogger headers too. Thanks so much!