I left Australia hoping to cram a lifetime of adventures into one unforgettable year. Instead, I ended up with a new life. I’d taken one year’s leave from my job as a television reporter in Sydney to travel around Europe. If I didn’t go now, I never would, warned a nagging voice in my head. Though, at twenty-seven I wasn’t much interested in hanging around youth hostels. The idea was to immerse myself in fascinating foreign cultures, to work as a freelance journalist in Eastern Europe, which in my mind bubbled with unwritten, hard-hitting stories.
It was in Bucharest, Romania, that I met Frédéric. His English was sprinkled with wonderful expressions like ‘foot fingers’ instead of toes and he seemed charming, creative and complicatedvery French, in other words. When he’d invited me to visit him in Paris, I’d hesitated just long enough to make sure he was serious before saying yes. Why not? After all, this is what travelling is all about, isn’t it: seizing opportunities, doing things you wouldn’t normally do, being open to the accidental?
That trip to Paris was more than eight years ago now. And except for four months when I resumed my travels, I have been living here ever since.
It was a city and culture I was familiar withat least that’s what I thought back then. When I was a child, my family had toured France in a tiny campervan and my eyes had popped at the chocolates and the cheeses. At secondary school I studied French and saw a few films by Truffaut and Resnais, which had struck me as enigmatic in a very European way, although I couldn’t have said why. When I was sixteen we lived in England for a year and I came to Paris several times. In my mind, these experiences added up to knowledge of France and some understanding of its people. Then, a little over ten years later, my meeting with Frédéric drew me back, and when the time came to actually live in Paris, I figured belonging and integrating would take merely a matter of months.
Now, remembering my early naïveté draws a wry smile. The truth is, nearly all my preconceptions of France turned out to be false. It hardly needs to be said that living in a place is totally different from visiting it. And yet this blatantly obvious statement does need to be said, particularly about Paris, the most visited city in the world. A place I imagined to know after a few nights in a closet-size hotel room as a teenager and one summer holiday with a Frenchman sipping kir on café terraces.
At times the learning curve has seemed almost vertical. The social code I discovered in France wasn’t just different from the one I knew, it was diametrically opposed to it. For a long time, I couldn’t fathom the French and, to be fair, they couldn’t fathom me either. My clothes, my smileeven how much I drankset me apart. During my first year, dinner parties turned into tearful trials. There I was, a confident twenty-eight-year-old with the confidence knocked out of me, spending cheese courses locked in somebody’s bathroom, mascara streaming down my cheeks.
It hasn’t all been tears and trials, of course. The truth is, if France failed to live up to some of my expectations, in other ways the reality has been far richer, a thousand times better than my clichéd visions. My work as a journalist has enabled me to meet people ranging from famous French fashion designers to master chefs. On a personal level I’d taken a headlong plunge into new territory as well. Put a very French Frenchman together with a strong-willed Sydney girl and the result is some fairly spectacularand sometimes hilariouscultural clashes.
If I had to pick one word to sum up my life in France, it’d have to be "adventure." Every moment has been vivid, intensely felt. No doubt many people who live in a foreign country would say the same thing. But there is, I think, something that sets France apart from many other parts of the world. I know of no other country that is so fascinating yet so frustrating, so aware of the world and its place within it but at the same time utterly insular. A nation touched by nostalgia, with a past so greatso marked by brilliance and achievementthat French people today seem both enriched and burdened by it. France is like a maddening, moody lover who inspires emotional highs and lows. One minute it fills you with a rush of passion, the next you’re full of fury, itching to smack the mouth of some sneering shopkeeper or smug civil servant. Yes, it’s a love–hate relationship. But it’s charged with so much mystery, longing and that French specialityséductionthat we can’t resist coming back for more.
From where I write in Paris today, I see a foil shimmer of rooftops, a few orange chimney pots, quaintly crooked windows and lots of sky. Although by this city’s standards it’s nothing special, to me it is precious, this view. It makes me think back to a time when we didn’t have it, when we were living in a different apartment where I wasn’t nearly as happy. Those early difficult years in France seem a lifetime ago now, as though they were lived by someone else. So much has changed since then, including me, probably. The truth is, when I started to write this book I had trouble taking myself back to that time. I don’t know why it should have been so difficult. Either I’d forgotten or subconsciously didn’t want to remember or, being a journalist, I was paralyzed by the idea of writing in the first person. Probably a combination of all three.
For days and weeks, I sat staring at my rectangle of pearl gray sky. For inspiration I looked at old photos, read my early articles and Mum sent me all the letters I’d written from France, which she’d carefully kept. The memories came back gradually, growing sharper and brighter until I could see myself on that summer’s day almost eight years ago, excited but nervous, arriving in Paris in my safari shorts and flat, clumpy sandals, oblivious to the horror my outfit would inspire in any self-respecting Frenchman.
And suddenly it seemed as though it had happened only yesterday.