Individual perceptions and understanding of another country and another culture can be very personal or they can be very general, drawing on a collective point of view that one just follows.
They can also evolve over time and be influenced by events. This is how I have experienced the relationship between France and Australia over a period of 40 years.
In 1972, my father was working for a US company in Grenoble and when the branch closed, he was given a choice of being transferred to Paris, Zurich or Melbourne. The prospect of moving 20,000 kilometres was an exciting adventure he wanted to experience, so he chose Melbourne.
What we knew of Australia was limited to what we saw in the TV series Skippy le kangourou, but found that many of our compatriots knew much less than we did: “L’Australie ? Attention, c’est un pays de sauvages, qu’allez donc vous faire la-bas ?” was typical of the comments we heard when we spoke about our future country.
At the time, the Australian government was doing everything it could to attract migrants, by paying for their trip and producing glossy brochures that promised nothing less than paradise.
However, it was the time France was conducting nuclear tests in French Polynesia some five thousand kilometres away, which created some tension between the two countries. At school, I was accused of polluting the sea and killing fish so when we moved to another suburb and I had to change school, I said that I was Swiss, which wasn’t that much of a lie, Geneva being 150 kilometres from Grenoble.
The consequences of this tension were not limited to the schoolyard; there was a boycott of everything coming from France including mail, so we found a way around this by getting a family friend in Italy to send mail between us and our family and friends in France.
At the same time, there was this fascination with France; the headmaster of a school where I was enrolled gave my parents and me an interesting rendition of the French cancan with his robe. We often disappointed when we said we were from Grenoble, the assumption at the time was that if you were French, you had to be from Paris. These days, thanks to the Tour De France, and Cadel Evans’s win in the time trial there last year, a wider audience knows where Grenoble is.
When you say France, the next thing that comes to mind here after Paris is French cooking. In the seventies, the most well known French dishes were snails and frogs, which wasn’t an accurate representation of French cuisine, as well as providing another reason for kids to pick on you. Nowadays, Australians love cooking dishes from many different countries and they are much more aware of the diversity of French cuisine.
The thirst for all things French in Australia is quite evident, with French festivals in many capital cities, the French film festival, and many websites such as MyFrenchLife.org of course, but also frenchaustralia.com.au (online directory of French products). When we published our book Dear France, sweet country of my childhood, we found that it was very warmly appreciated in Australia.
On the other side, it’s a different story. Australia is a dream destination for the French, because it’s so far away and has such wide open spaces, in contrast to France which could be contained 14 times in the space of Australia.
However, even with the abundance of information on the internet, some stereotypes still prevail. When we announced we were going back to Australia, we were asked if chocolate existed there and if there were kangaroos in the streets! It explains why the lovely village of Halls Gap in the Grampians National Park (Victoria) is so popular with French tourists, with an abundance of kangaroos everywhere to be seen.
The only down side for me was that even though I had 19 years experience in IT, my Australian diploma was looked at with a great deal of suspicion when I was looking for a job in France – employers seemed to have trouble believing that Australians could be qualified in a different field than surfing.
What the French are more grateful about now is the sacrifice that Australian soldiers made for France in the two world wars. Thirty years ago, history books only mentioned US and British soldiers, but now there is a much greater awareness of Australia’s involvement, with a special headstone dedication ceremony of Australian World War I soldiers in Fromelles last year, for example.
On Remembrance Day, we always say thank you to Australians for their help in liberating our country and giving us the chance to live a great life in their beautiful country.
Are you a french expat now living in Australia? How has your perception changed over time?
1, 4. © Pascal Inard
2. © J.Serur Yedid
3. © taste.com.au
5. © Gordon Lawson