The following is a guest post by Catherine Berry, author of But You Are in France, Madame.
There was no doubt that it was tough. Not in a life or death way – that was to come later. But, we had no right to complain, as it was personal choice that had led us to where we were, living in the beautiful French Alps.
Our newly set-up blog pages quickly became filled with smiling faces, stunning backdrops, mouth-watering recipes and intimate dining experiences, making it look like we were to be envied, far away from the asphyxiating repetitiveness of our pre-France life in Melbourne, Australia. But it was an exercise in well-crafted design and unintentional deception as our family of five struggled on a daily basis with isolation and constant cultural differences.
“You don’t eat sushi outside Paris” joked our French-born, perfectly tri-lingual friend one balmy summer’s evening ten months or so into our adventure, squinting down at the distant lights of the Arno River working its way through Florence, and over a plate of spaghetti linguini served on the terrace of his Art Deco house. He had not been fooled in the slightest by our attempts to downplay the difficulties that we were encountering in our efforts to infiltrate the French administrative system. He knew from long years of experience that the French way of life was a complex layering of rules, lived with pride and unconscious application to detail. But, it was what it was and his words were a gentle reminder that the sooner we relaxed and let ourselves go with the French flow, the easier living there would be.
So, we did. We did our best to be French, feel French and accept differences as neither right nor wrong. Just as our first self-congratulatory, ‘yes, we’ve done it, we’ve found our place here’ thoughts were cementing their place in our minds, we were cruelly reminded that in life there is no place for self-satisfaction and complacency.
But you are in France, Madame is our French story. It is not a cookbook, nor a travel guide, nor a serious analysis of French customs and society. It is a glimpse into French living as we lived it with our moments of happiness, confusion, sadness and heartache.
Let me recount one little anecdote: At the collège (junior high school) for a parent-teacher interview, I met my daughter outside in the courtyard and she showed me up to her classroom. Her teacher was busy chatting, so we waited patiently in the corridor. When he did come out, he indicated that the meeting would take place downstairs and headed off with us in tow.
Before sitting down, I introduced myself using my first name, and put out my hand to be shaken. He mumbled back his full name as he took my hand, although I suspect he would have been shocked if I had actually dared use it. By this stage, I had already understood that teachers did not expect to be questioned about their practices. Of course, I did—question him, that is; politely and almost deferentially. There was a slight pause, as he dipped his head to better digest what he had heard. Then, with the assurance of a perfect, unarguable answer, he replied, “But you are in France, Madame”.
And now – a confession. I am not a writer. Of course, I write – notes, to-do lists, letters to excuse my children from school activities, the occasional blog and hundreds of emails, but with one memoir to my name, I have not earned my stripes. And, when I read, I try to read in French. My real passion is France and the French language.
Nonetheless, if you have ever wondered what it would be like to unzip and discard your current lifestyle and slip on life in the country of haute couture, please try on But you are in France, Madame for size.
More about the author and her work: Catherine Berry’s blog.