Every month Ruth Spencer casts about for a sense of self on a journey of reinvention.
I was once on a bus in Parnell when two sleekly-dressed women got on, giggling through a cloud of chardonnay fumes. They settled themselves noisily at the back like naughty schoolgirls. “Oh!” one yelped in a carrying voice. “The last time I was in a bus was in Paris!”
I get it. Having been to Paris is a bit like being vegan. You find yourself working it into conversation. No one has to wonder. I hadn’t been to Paris when the women got on the bus, but I have been since. And I liked it, a lot.
I’ve been a Francophile since third form, or for our younger readers, 32 BCB (Before Cardi B). I fell in love with the way they talked on ‘Allo ‘Allo. I won a French pronunciation prize in fourth form (31 BCB) but my teacher gave it to me in private because we all knew it was embarrassing the way I was cat-spitting the Rs like a Café René waitress. She wanted to encourage me but also hint that I should stop.
When I decided to embark on this journey of reinvention, I did what a lot of people do: I made a Pinterest board called Reinvention. It only has a few pins in it so far, and they lean pretty French. One is a photo of crusty rustic bread. One, I’m afraid to say, is a motivational posts that says, “You have to do this for you”. The other is a Parisian street scene, specifically a black vintage bicycle with a basket full of baguettes. I was thinking Me As Chic French Person but clearly some more intrinsic self thought around what I should do for me is eat bread.
Lucky I like the bread because I don’t like the cheese. I thought the cliché of smelly French cheese was an exaggeration until I was in France. We searched the whole apartment for the dead goat. When your cracker smells like something was incontinent on it, au, as they say, revoir. And it’s not just the cheese; it’s really something when the Gérard Depardieu lookalike at the next table orders the tartare, and then chomps his way through half a kilo of raw mince and raw onions with a raw egg on top at eleven o’clock on a perfectly innocent morning. Don’t even ask me about Andouillet sausage, just be glad you can’t Google a smell. Isn’t it amazing that a country that basically invented cheese, mince and pastry didn’t manage to come up with the mince and cheese pie? And they call themselves sophisticated.
So I can’t eat French, except for bread. And I took four years of French at school, which is to say, I can’t speak French. Surely though, I could dress French? I’ve suffered too many Frank Spencer jokes to be comfortable with berets, but I have plenty of gallic black in the wardrobe. Pinterest offers me Emmanuelle Alt, the incredibly stylish former editor of Vogue Paris. She wears jeans with effortless blazers in a way that makes you want to burn down Glassons, but for some reason the same clothes make me look like the desk clerk of a budget hotel chain. I try a classic ballet flat with Breton stripes and a cropped black pant but I look like a mime, literally the worst French thing. It’s a Francofail.
Unable to physically embody Frenchness, could I inhabit it instead? Some lavender, a concrete lion or twelve et voilà, my West Auckland brick-and-tile could be transformed into a Provençal chateau! Oui? Non.
When I was in Paris (pardonnez-moi, I know it’s irritating) I stayed in an apartment overlooking an internal courtyard. Everyone had window boxes of geraniums, glowing jewels in neon reds and pinks that sprawled off balconies and tumbled over windowsills. So I went to Le Mitre 10 and bought a pink geranium. It disliked its container so I transplanted it; now it very obligingly dislikes its garden spot. I would have called this a failure too, but I feel the geranium’s attitude is very Parisian: aloof and vaguely disappointed with me. I’ll feed it some raw mince and hope for the best.
Like les Dames de Parnell on a Link bus, I’m not giving up on being French. There’s a niche for me somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, between, say, Amelie and Emily in Paris. But for now, I’ll put a pin in it and try something else. Let them (well, me) eat bread.