26 January 2014

Understood by a Book

Love in Paris, on Amazon
Today I felt understood by a book. That's right - understood by a book, not "I understood a book" (although that, too, I hope). I got the email from the library yesterday that the ebook copy of Lunch in Paris I had put a hold on was available, so I downloaded it and started reading. I'd already read the first couple of chapters, which were available as a sample - whet-your-appetite-while-you-wait, that sort of thing - and really enjoyed it.

But the further I got into the book, the more I realised that it's not what I thought it was from those first few chapters. The full title is Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, and that's exactly what the beginning of the book reads like. Romance, and food. It's the story of how the author, Elizabeth Bard, a New Yorker, goes to Europe, falls in love with a Frenchman, moves to Paris, learns to shop at the market and cook French food, and lives happily ever after (well, for a given value of "happily ever after"). I was expecting a regular romance story - I've read enough of those to know how they're supposed to go: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl overcome obstacles to their being together, boy marries girl. The end.

As I said, the first few chapters start up quite promising in that regard - Elizabeth meets the tall-dark-and-handsome Frenchman Gwendal (yes, that's a guy's name; Breton, apparently); he takes her home from the café where they've eaten amazing food and then, after an amorous interlude, feeds her more amazing food (recipes included in the chapter); she goes back to London, where she is working, comes back to Paris every weekend for more amorous interludes (not described in detail; this is a G-rated book) and more amazing food; and you expect the rest of the book to be about how they eat and love their way to a proposal and a wedding with lots more deliciousness of the amorous and culinary kind.

But actually, there's a lot more to this book than that. Oh, the loving and eating (including recipes) is all there. But the wedding takes place just half-way through the book. The romantic happily-ever-after is not the denouement, it is, in a sense, only the beginning. What this book is really about is an American girl finding a new home in France, with a Frenchman. And quite apart from the language barrier - at the beginning of the story, Elizabeth barely speaks French; Gwendal's parents don't know any English - this is about making a cross-cultural marriage work. About being transplanted into a culture different from your own, and learning to live and function in it. And boy, do I know what she is talking about.

"I had one foot on either side of the ocean," she says, "and my knees were beginning to wobble" (chapter 18). Yes. That's exactly how it is. And with that foot on either side of the ocean comes an awareness which, I believe, you can only get from this in-between position, this neither-fish-nor-fowl existence that is entailed in being a cross-cultural transplant. You see both cultures, your original and your adopted home, through a different lens.

The interesting thing is that even though my situation is, in a sense, the exact reverse from Elizabeth Bard's - I'm German, living in Canada, married to a Canadian, she is American, living in France, married to a Frenchman - the issues are the same. Some of the cultural difference she points out are precisely the ones I've struggled with - still struggle with, in fact, after twenty-five years in this country.

Take the issue of "making friends". Americans (i.e. North Americans - Canadians are included in this) can meet someone, find them sympathetic, invite them over for coffee, and bingo, friendship is established. Europeans, Bard explains, don't do that. "I found that, for whatever reason, people in Europe don't need more friends," she says. "They have their families, the people they grew up with, the people they went to university with, colleagues to talk to on a cigarette break. Their social world is made up of tiny circles, closed but overlapping like those Chinese ring toys you can never untangle from one another. […] An English acquaintance was once drunk enough to explain it to me. We would have to meet at at least three events, he said, before I could even consider suggesting that we see each other outside a group context" (chapter 16). Yes! That's exactly how it is. I need to meet you repeatedly in a group setting before I can be friends with you. I'm still profoundly uncomfortable "going for coffee" with someone I don't already know really well, or "inviting them for coffee", for that matter. And it's very difficult getting out of your cultural skin.

But also, if you've chosen to live somewhere other than your culture of origin, you find yourself in a position of having to translate for those "back home". And believe me, it can get tedious. Bard talks about her mother bringing out the phrase "Why can't you just…" - do the things you would do "back home", the things that are "normal" (chapter 15). Because they're not normal here, that's why. There is an implied criticism in that "Why can't you just…" - a criticism of your home of choice, of the culture you are now a part of, to the tune of "Why do you choose to live in a place where people do these weird things?" And then you find yourself defending your new culture, even if perhaps you don't like whatever it is they're criticising, either.

And then there is the amazingly insightful passage about the flip side of the American dream. "Implicit in the American dream is the idea of self-determination. The result of our just-do-it attitude is that anything you don't do is your fault. This ethic of personal responsibility informs American attitudes on everything from obesity to college admissions to welfare reform" (chapter 19). And with it, Bard says, comes a fear of failure - because the American attitude is "You can do anything you want to do!", if you fail to do it, if you're not a successful person, it's your own fault. The can-do attitude that is so pervasive, and so refreshing, in American culture has its backlash.

My prime personal example of that is homeschooling: what is illegal, or at least uncommon, in Europe, namely educating your kids yourself, is perfectly possible here, which is wonderful. But if your kids are less-than-perfect in their academic performance and social development, guess whose fault that is? Oh yes. Self-determination has massive guilt trips built right into its system. I love the sense of personal freedom inherent in American culture, but I have also absorbed the guilt that comes with not making perfect use of that freedom to become a highly successful person on all fronts. One foot on either side of the ocean, and my knees are wobbling.

I knew most of those things Elizabeth Bard says - knew them in the back of my mind, but to have them articulated in this way struck such a chord. I found myself in her book - I was understood.

However, Lunch in Paris is still first and foremost a love story, with recipes. One novel-length tale of people and good food. And unlike some other books I've read, it is not a homily on the superiority of French eating habits over everyone else's (American ones in particular), but simply a celebration of the pleasure of French food. And of love, of course. I've come away from reading this inspired in so many ways.

And you know, I think I'll have to get me a hardcopy of this book for keeps, even just for the recipes. The local bookstore has a copy in stock, and what do you know, I still haven't spent the gift card I got from my friend for my birthday. I was saving it for something special, and this will fit the bill admirably.

Life, the Universe, and a Book that Understands Me. Love and good food are part of the deal.


  1. WOW! I LOVED reading this post Ange.!! Whooo. Now I wanna read that book. You've really expressed yourself...I also thought of my mother and how she must have had the same difficulties...culture shock I suppose! Excellent read!

    1. I think it's a really common immigrant experience. It's so reassuring to hear you're not alone...

  2. Nicely said. Perhaps this is the type of book you might write one day?

    1. Maybe... it's one of those dreams in the back of my head...

  3. I read that book awhile ago but now am finding it even more interesting from YOUR perspective. ;-) That is one of the things I love about a good book - we can all get such enjoyment from them and yet it can be for such different reasons. When I was reading that one I also read Paris in Love: A Memoir, just in case you are hungry for more Paris (and more French food!).

    1. Thanks for the book tip! I'll have to look it up.