The First time I went to France I was eighteen and with my parents. We got dropped off by a tour bus and had three days staying on the outskirts of Paris. I remember it was Bastille Day and a man had brought a ladder to climb up and see the parade. We drank red wine and ate brie with baguette on a bench as the pink sky of the late European sunset sank behind the Notre Dame. It felt like the American dream. I tried to speak my five years of high-school French at a market and floudered. I thought I was no good then.
The first time I knew I wanted to speak French was when my Mum told me I wouldn’t regret it. She must have said something truly spectacular because she convinced me to attend an all-girls private school that I really didn’t want to go to. I went for the French. I haven’t regretted it.
The first time we had French class our Madame McPherson christened us with new French names. I was called Chantelle or something like it and someone else was called Mireille. It was not that confusing because I had always been Mir-el and this new girl was called Mir-ey. Maybe I found it strange at the time but I had no one to tell and I wanted to keep it that way. My mum had promised that if I had no friends by the end of year 8 I could change schools. Madame McPherson was a little bizarre too. She was always too nice to us. I remember her in a red beret with her bob bouncing as she spoke with her cordial voice, gurgling and coaxing us into co-operation. She enticed us with her Tarte aux Pommes and tales of Paris. We fell in love with the idea of a glamorous life after high-school – in pencil skirts, eating cognac crêpes flambéed.
The first time I started fantasising about eating croissants was while reading a Cleo article about French women. The writer said they were so chic and sophisticated and would have a yoghurt and croissant and that was it. She wondered about their fibre intake. I didn’t. I wanted to be chic and sophisticated. I started eating a jumbo croissant from the Vietnamese bakery on the way to school everyday. I ingested chicness and sophistication until I got fat from it.
The first time I could really communicate in French was after spending a month on exchange on La Reunion Island at sixteen. I was disappointed that my home-stay brother wasn’t hot but I was impressed with his friends. I spent too much time at the beach and not enough time with the family speaking French. Still, I spoke French all day at the beach with my homestay brother’s hot friends. It is important to stay motivated when learning a language, isn’t it?
The first time I fell in love with a French boy was when I was twenty-two. I met him in Perth two months before I was due to leave on a big trip to Europe. He was all those crazy romantic things that had been promised until we got to France. He had warned me he would be moody and depressed back but I didn’t know what he was talking about until I felt it. How could one be depressed in France? What about all that nice cheese? I waited around hoping my good humour would change him. Instead, I was the one getting stressed out.
The first time I befriended a French girl was in the Meditarranean town of Saint Raphaël on the Côte d’Azur. We were staying at my boyfriend’s best-friend’s house with two other friends and everyone was being awkward. They would not talk much by day and at night time they’d stay up drinking and playing cards till dawn while I slept. I was exhausted trying to keep up with the conversation and social norms and trying to keep the talkative person inside of me bottled up. I remember tears pouring out in an internet café. No one was showing me the compassion that I had always given to foreigners. Maybe they were too young to understand or maybe I was. The girl was the older sister who flitted in and out of our day while she was working in their father’s real-estate agency for the summer. She didn’t eat between meals and was imperfectly beautiful – just what Cleo had said French women were. Plus she was nice and understanding and asked me questions about myself and spoke English to me. I was just grateful when she came around.
The first time I realised there were problems in France was when we were in Marseille and a guy asked my boyfriend for a cigarette. The guy didn’t believe he didn’t have any and he followed us down the street, poking at the large square shape in his pocket. He said it was because he was white skinned with blue eyes. He said it didn’t matter how he treated me because we were travelling with our things packed in the same bag and I couldn’t run away. Would plastic shopping bags have been too dramatic? He was particularly grumpy in Marseille.
The first time I became a French movie was in Lyon staying with that now ex-boyfriend who was making me depressed. I drank black coffee with sugar cubes dissolved into it and smoked a cigarette for breakfast. I smoked because everyone else did in the extremely small circle of my (ex-)boyfriend’s world. I smoked to cope with the stress of the relationship that had fallen apart and the choice I’d temporarily made to carry on there regardless, willing change. I was not myself. With him I died a little. But in the end I chose London over Lyon, I chose my friends over him, I chose temporary pain over keeping a lid permanently on the sunny side of myself, I chose expansion over constriction. And he knew it.
The first time I read a book about the French was the one by an Australian journalist Sarah Turnball, Almost French. She fell in love with a French man and learnt the difference between them and us – like how they wouldn’t take out the rubbish in their tracksuit in Paris. I saw cultural differences where relationship problems had existed and it fed my craving for France. All these years and books later, I’m thinking that I actually just like reading about this elusive creature called The French. Each book invokes a silky feeling of fine lingerie and fresh flowers, market stalls and secret gardens, crème brûlée and moody skies. Pleasure and Presence. Was it ever even about France?
The first time I fell in love with France was in Montpellier in 2004. The city was young and vibrant and smooth. I met a whole group of friends watching a b-boy show. I stayed for two rounds and moved there a year later. I wanted to know these people. There were two kind and lovely French girls from Saint Rochelle and the rest were Moroccan or Algerian or Tunisian descent. They ate couscous and McDonalds and we smoked Shisha and drank tea at the Shandra when we could afford it. Things happened. I sold ice-cream at the beach, pushing that damn cart over the sand all afternoon. People stopped to talk to the girl with the strange accent. My French improved rapidly. We got lifts home from the beach with random people we met. It was an adventure. Everyone talked to strangers. If you wanted to see people you knew you just had to hang out at the main square. I got a little studio to rent talking to a man at the kebab shop on my first day. I had arrived there not knowing how I was going to do anything. I was just going to see and that’s what I did.
The first time I decided I didn’t want to live in France was when a friend stole a box of my belongings in Paris. He’d been looking after it while I’d been away and when he dropped it off at the train station, all the clothes and CDs were gone and only coat hangers remained. I was never able to get in contact with him again, though I called and called. I cried for several days after that. In the end I decided that this would not have happened to me in Australia. I knew people there. I knew who to trust. Still, I learnt a good lesson.
The first time I could really appreciate France was when I went back to stay with a good friend in Montpellier in 2007. We ate, we sun-baked and talked about frivolous things. We stayed up late and I didn’t get anxious over anybody. I hadn’t lost my French and I didn’t care what people thought anyway. I wasn’t trying to speak well or get a job or find a house or meet anyone. We enjoyed friends and rosé wine and the summer.
The first time I had to stop learning French was when I had to take up German. And so, slowly and reluctantly I let go. Not all the way of course – I’ve come too far with France. On the outside I may have appeared cured and nonchalant (even to myself) but now I realise that I’ve always been a bleeding Francophiliac on the inside. “What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be”. But with eyes open and heart aflutter, I am going back to France.