The road to Paris
“I can see us years from now, in your Parisian apartment, speaking French,” predicted Julie, une Landaise and my sole French friend in my adopted city of London.
I scoffed; never mind the fact that I had never been to France, I couldn’t imagine myself living there and speaking the language, let alone fluently! That was some seven years ago. I had to smile when Julie dropped by on a visit to Paris in April, and we were able to do exactly what she had envisioned all those years ago.
I may not have taken the traditional path to end up in France; I didn’t study French at school, nor did I study it at university. I didn’t have a particular interest in l’Hexagone while growing up in Australia, either. All I knew of France was that, supposedly, the natives indulged in cheese and garlic, had a penchant for riding bicycles and were partial to an Edith Piaf ditty or two.
I knew that the French accent may or may not have sounded like the chirpy guy in the Yoplait yoghurt ads. And I was vaguely aware of the anti-French sentiment in 1995 when then president Jacques Chirac decided to carry out nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll.
As a teenager I’d dreamed of upping and leaving to London and so, fresh out of university, I did just that. For almost three years I lived a glamorous London lifestyle; young, hungry and eager I revelled in my first away-from-home stint.
It was during this time that I met my future husband, un véritable Frenchy, and shortly afterwards I decided to see what life in France was like; swapping Pimms for Pastis, the Piccadilly Line for la ligne 9, Topshop for…hmm, there’s no equivalent, and weekends wandering the streets of Notting Hill and Islington, for strolls through the Marais and along the Canal St Martin.
Paris – the City of Light, the City of Love, or whatever you wish to call it – has been ‘home’ for over five years now. But I’ve also had the privilege of getting to know France beyond Paris; fleeing to the countryside at any given opportunity like every respectable Parisian, and embracing the differences between la capitale and province (now there’s a very Parisian attitude for you: if it’s not Paris it’s referred to as province).
Even after all this time, I still don’t know whether I feel more Australian, English or French – or a mixture of all three. I’ve no doubt other expatriates share this sentiment; not knowing where they belong… feeling neither here nor there. I swerve uncontrollably between love and loathing for this city, and am not always comfortable explaining this cosy love-hate relationship when asked “Vous aimez Paris?”
En tout cas, I refuse to look through the rose-coloured glasses that so many expats in France love to wear. Paris is a great city but it’s not all Ladurée macarons and walks along the Seine, en fait far from it. And for the record, I don’t subscribe to the views that French women never get fat (they can and some of them do), that the French are all oh-so stylish (they’re not – you only need to take the Metro on a daily basis to realise they’re clinging to an old reputation), and that you can never eat a bad meal (you can, just head to the Latin Quarter, it’s inevitable). Is it a coincidence that cliché is a French word?
Meanwhile, when my husband tells me I’m ‘so Parisian’ for being an occasional râleuse, I’m secretly happy he thinks I’ve taken to this French thing so well. I’ll always be thankful he has introduced me to foie gras poêlé, beurre demi-sel, Sancerre, roquefort, moutarde de Charroux (and not from Dijon), his stepmother’s homemade ratatouille, steak à point and not bien cuit, the humble fraisier, the joys of l’apéro, the countryside, ballet at the Opéra de Paris, Sunday at the local marché…among many other wondrous things that for me represent la France, my France.All Images © Richelle Valenzuela