For many, the thought of living overseas is the dream of a lifetime. Make that location Paris and heads fill with thoughts of food, romance and fine living. Jane Paech did that for six years with her family, and their experiences were chronicled A Family in Paris: stories of food, life and adventure.
Chronicled is perhaps not the right word, for the book is thematic rather than strictly sequential. The chapter titles reflect the author’s feelings for this magical city. After the first heady impressions of ‘we’re living’ in Paris’, disillusion sets in as Paris reveals herself, warts and all. The warts are often a spectacularly unhelpful bureaucracy. Added to that is the pain of trying to adjust to a very different set of assumptions. Finding an apartment takes on a whole new meaning when you have provide your own bench tops, doors and ovens. Waiting for weeks for your husband’s employer to approve you buying these things, and a comical (to the reader, but certainly not to the protagonists) back-and-forth battle with the local IKEA to get them fitted would make most of us want to pack our bags and head homewards.
Perhaps the hardest part of any relocation is adjusting to the locals. I may never get used to South Australians meeting newcomers invariably asking which school one attended. In Paris, it’s important to learn that when going to dinner, to be a little late, but not too much. More formal occasions demand that guests don’t begin drinking until everyone’s arrived. In Australia, you’d never find that people respond to ‘we must have you around for dinner sometime’ with ‘thanks, but we have too many friends already’. But Paech’s book reminds us that living overseas broadens our horizons. Australian vague offers of dinner can be a politeness not followed through with because those offering most likely already have more friends than they can fit into their busy schedules. I know several newcomers to these shores that have taken such vague offerings at face value and have been disappointed when the proffered (and, at the time sincerely meant) get-togethers didn’t materialise. Perhaps Australians place a high priority on making new acquaintances feel at ease, and Parisians letting them know how things stand. Which social practice is better?
The discussion of French education also revealed fascinating divergences in practice. Elder daughter Annabelle found the adjustment from Australian to French education extremely difficult. Teachers often ridiculed students in a way that would be considered bullying here. But French students quite often finish school with a superb knowledge of their own language and culture that makes learning other languages easier. At the end of the book, Paech quotes her daughters’ views on the differences. In short, Australia praises kids and tells them that anything is possible; in France, they recognise this isn’t possible and try to make students resilient.
This work is not a critique of Parisian society. It is a finely textured personal examination of cultural adjustment. It like a series of love letters revealing the highs and lows of a complex but rewarding relationship. We feel Jane’s emotional jolt when finally the time comes to leave. The finale resembles a poignant visit to an old lover. Everything remains largely the same, but is veiled by the past. Add to this the lovely photography that not merely illustrates but adds to the depth of the text and you have a lovely book worth lingering over.
If you are after a travel book, this may not suit you, though there is a lot of useful travel information within. If you prefer sequential narratives, you might find this work a little off-putting. If you are interested in the problems and delights of cultural immersion, you simply must read it. I found Paech’s book exquisitely delightful. But then, I am biased for, of course, I love Paris as well.