It’s a tired cliché, but I came to France to be with a Frenchman.
We met when I was finishing my studies at university and I was teetering on the precipice of the big and scary world of adulthood. The actual story of how we met is a long one but in a nutshell, thanks to the magical world of the internet, I just happened to fall in love with a man from across the other side of the world. I was young. It was easy to be in love. We figured that we would find whatever way we could to make it work. We thought that anything was possible, if we wanted it enough. And we did. We were stupidly, ridiculously, naively, passionately, crazily, but wholeheartedly in love. And so I landed in Paris in 2001, wide eyed from my very first flight overseas ever, and overflowing with excitement about being reunited with my Frenchman.
I didn’t fall in love with him because he was French, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had been Spanish, Brazilian or Chinese, if he was living in Sweden, Thailand or Peru – I would have followed him across the world, to wherever he was. That was how much I wanted to be with this one person. It just so happened that he was French and he was in France, so that’s where I went.
I threw myself into the daily challenge of learning the language – I knew only a few French words before arriving and I naïvely thought that it would be an easy process. I was so wrong. But I persisted, despite being crushed and humiliated and embarrassed by the words coming out of my mouth and my inability to communicate and my feeling that my 2 year old niece spoke better French than I. It never occurred to me to give up though. This was just another of life’s challenges that I would overcome. The goal – which was to speak the native tongue of man I loved – was worth it.
I was also determined to learn everything I could about French culture, visiting museums and monuments and reading as much as I could about this fascinating country that I found myself living in.
But, I confess, as much as I enjoyed living in our Parisian suburb and going to the market every week and eating pastries… I didn’t love it. Sure, it was an intellectually interesting process, but I just didn’t love it. If anything, the experiences I had made me appreciate Australia even more. They made my feet tingle with wanderlust. I wanted to explore other countries and other cultures.
A couple of years later I pulled myself out of the language bubble. Love is one thing, but I realised I was lonely, and the only friends I had were my husband’s. I discovered that Australians were few and far between, and I found myself swept into the internet-fuelled world of American and British expats. I started to make friends. I eventually had the idea of doing a podcast. In the six years of doing that show, I found myself meeting fascinating people and doing incredible things. Every person I met and every experience I had helped me understand this country better. What started off as a lark with that podcast ended up sparking my intense curiosity… and lighting a fire in my heart.
Because before I knew it, France had gotten under my skin. Despite the moments of intense frustration that so many of us expats experience, I realised that I have a weird, begrudging love for this country. It’s not a love born of blind devotion or grass is greener perspectives or romantic ideas of Amélie’s Paris, but it’s a reluctant appreciation, born of a slow, smoldering burn, resulting in a deep respect for the culture, the history and the people of France, and my husband’s heritage.
Of course, these feelings are tinged with teenagey, angst-ridden moments of hate at times, but… it’s kindof like the love you have for an old coat, bought in an emergency on a cold and blustery day, but which you find yourself reaching for on the coat hook over and over again. Because it makes you feel warm, and safe, despite the fact that you wished it had pockets…
Someone asked me the other day if I was a francophile. “No”. I adamantly replied. “NO!”
Yet as I contemplate these words… If I look back at the definition I cited earlier, that “a francophile is a person who is fond of or greatly admires France or the French”… Well…. Perhaps, despite myself, I am. Sortof. Cos I guess if I confessed that I really really really do not like Amélie, no one would let me into their francophile club, will they?