The Secret Life of France by Lucy WadhamHow refreshing it is to read an account of France and the French that hasnt resorted to the usual hilarious micky-taking of every stereotype you can think of.
I am a huge Francophile and am about to embark on my 8th trip in the next few months so I was looking forward to reading this. The book is written by a Brit who has lived in France for over 20 years, was married to a French man and has two children who have always considered themselves French rather than dual-nationality, so shes pretty well placed to make fair and frank comments about both the French and the Brits and all our differences without resorting to cliches and poking fun.
Wadham, if telling about a certain aspect of French behaviour, always tries to back it up with historical facts of why that may be (the revolution, catholicism, a national love of and belief in Freud for example) which did cause a few aha moments. What I also liked was the way she explains our British behaviour in comparison and the reasons why the French see us the way they do: we dress badly and have a culture of ladettes and drunkeness but they have a great affection for our eccentricity and sense of humour.
There were some eye-openers too, particularly when it comes to extra-marital relations and racism. I also now know why those rude Parisian waiters behave the way they do too. While I come from a nation of manners, politeness and overusing the words please and thankyou in resturants, for the French the role of waitor is held in icredibly high esteem and expressing gratitude is seen as us looking down on their profession. Now I know to look down, not up and say simply onion soup and red wine. Simple!
My only slight grumble about this book is that it sometimes appeared as though it was hopping back and forth between times or themes. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it a refreshing and convincing portrayal of one of our closest neighbours.
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There is a genre in British publishing which could be called "froglit": the obsessive psychoanalysis or mockery of our nearest and dearest neighbours. There is no equivalent "britlit" genre in French publishing. The French prefer to write about themselves or, a grave accent la limite, the Americans. The British appetite for froglit is often fed with the fast food of would-be comic exaggeration A Year in the Merde or the processed food of comic romanticisation A Year in Provence. Either way, the French are usually seen from the outside, through the prism of unchallenged, or unadmitted, British prejudice. Lucy Wadham's elegant, measured and funny book is a case apart.
T here is a romantic, often misguided, misconception among the British that life in France is akin to life in Paradise. Better health service, transportation, weather, urban planning, bucolic life and easier access to culture, sex, food, wine - just about anything related to sensory pleasure. In reality, it doesn't quite work that way. Lucy Wadham was a young Oxford student when she married an older, traditional Frenchman. Her rite of passage was swift and brutal: she sat for her exams shortly after becoming a first-time mother.
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Lucy left Britain in her late teens, and met and married a French man for 25 years. She put her children through the French education system and then divorced in a French court. Despite the twin-edged sword of flirtation in France and its much freer laissez-faire attitude towards adultery and promiscuity, she found a remarkable absence of gender conflict. The absence of gender conflict in France has become a source of relief to me. Once I had overcome my prejudices, I realised that the constant flirtation — often heavy-handed and irritating but sometimes subtle and uplifting — was a pretty harmless thing compared to the deep seated resentment that seems to infect gender relations in Britain. It places high emphasis on education, on literature and the arts. Its greatest paradox is that it is at once obsessed with the idea of nobility and the ideal of equality.
Why then is the national mood being relayed on French news that of profound discontent? Are you not simply an illusionist risen from the heart of history? The righteous indignation being expressed by Plenel and Bourdin is, Macron suggested, no longer enough. This embracing of action over discourse and reality over idea is where Macron stands out, not only from his three presidential predecessors but from Bourdin and Plenel themselves. A version of this post appeared as a column in the May edition of Prospect Magazine. A week later Brigitte Bardot told Paris Match she too agreed with the letter.