Travel Memoirs: Travel Stories of Foreigners in France
An analysis of the common elements found in travel memoirs including description of cultural differences and adjustment to the new culture. Several French travel memoirs are used as examples.
To say that the experience of living in a different culture is life-altering is an understatement. The idea of traveling conjures a wide range of images and emotions: fear, wonder, homesickness, respite, incomprehension, appreciation, embarrassment, accomplishment, irritation, and pleasure. Many travelers have the inclination to write about the experience of immersion in another country. Travel memoirs are the outflow of the desire to share the adventures of one’s journey with others.
Kai Mikkonen says that “Since the time of the Greek epics different types of journey—the quest, the odyssey, and the adventure—have served as powerful masterplots in literary narratives” (Mikkonen 287). Because of its relation to quests, the travel memoir as a sub-genre of autobiography shares many commonalities with another branch of self-narratives, the spiritual autobiography. In both branches of autobiography, travel writings and spiritual narratives, the author has endeavored upon a quest either metaphorically, literally, or both (Staude 257). The majority of confessional autobiographies contain common elements (Staude 258). Likewise nearly all travel memoirs follow a characteristic pattern.
Common Elements in Travel Memoirs
Description of the new culture
Adjusting to the new culture
Reverse culture shock
Common Elements of Travel Memoirs
The author first describes his or her homeland and what life is like there. Also included are the reasons that have prompted the journey. Then the actual journey is described along with what Mikkonen calls “encounters on the road” (Mikkonen 286). This is followed by the arrival in the new place and the author’s acclimatization. The process of becoming accustomed is usually given the most in depth treatment in the narrative. The author typically talks about culture shock, feeling like an outsider, and unfamiliarity with the local way of life. After a period of adjustment, the author usually begins to adapt to local customs and procedures and begins to feel a part of that society. Nearly all the memoirists express a sense of accomplishment and victory as they begin to get the hang of their new lifestyle. Another frequent theme is reverse culture shock when returning to the former culture.
French Travel Memoirs as Examples
The common elements of travel autobiographies are evident in the memoirs Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, Foreigners in France: Triumphs and Disasters edited by Joe and Kerry Laredo, and A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle.
Sarah Turnbull is an Australian journalist who took a sabbatical to travel through Europe for a year. She met a Frenchman, Frédéric while in Romania and then went to Paris to visit him. Turnbull fell in love with him and decided to move to Paris to be with him. In her memoir, Almost French, she talks about her experiences relocating to a different country and an unfamiliar culture (Leistensnider 1949).
Foreigners in France: Triumphs and Disasters is a collection of twenty memoirs from people who have relocated to France. The majority of the people moved either because of work or the desire for a different pace of life. The expatriates recount their positive and negative experiences with their move to France.
Peter Mayle and his wife are expatriates from England who moved to Provence. A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence are memoirs about their new life in the Lubéron. Mayle talks about adjusting to the Provencal lifestyle and the adventures he and his wife have had repairing their house, dealing with the locals, and learning about the French.
Almost French by Sarah Turnbull
Reasons for Traveling: Background
All of these autobiographies include background information about the autobiographer’s former life and the reasons for their relocation. Turnbull was a television reporter in Sydney, Australian. She planned to travel around Europe for a year and, as she says “immerse myself in fascinating foreign cultures [and] to work as a freelance journalist in Eastern Europe” (Turnbull vii). Weather was Mayle’s main impetus for moving to France. He describes England as being perpetually cloudy. Provence was a dream for him and his wife. He says:
We had been here often before as tourists, desperate for our annual ration…of true heat and sharp light. Always when we left…we promised ourselves that one day we would live here. We had talked about it during the long gray winters and the damp green summers, looked with an addict’s longing at photographs of village markets…dreamed of being woken up by the sun slanting through the bedroom window. (Mayle, A Year in Provence 4)
Mike and Suzie Broderick wrote a memoir about their move to France that is in Foreigners in France. In their autobiography they describe their former life in England. The Brodericks talk about their reasons for moving to France. They had begun to think “about a new life, new challenges and taking things a bit easier” (Laredo 78). The prospect of opening a bed and breakfast was also an impetus to relocate (Laredo 79).
Many of the travel memoirs include what happened to them along the way to their destination and the transition experience. Turnbull had not even planned to visit Paris. After meeting Frédéric she acted on impulse and moved to France to be with him. A chance encounter on the road led to an even bigger adventure than she had planned (Leistensnider 1949). Mayle describes their move by saying, “somewhat to our surprise, we had done it. We had committed ourselves. We had bought a house, taken French lessons, said our good-byes, shipped over our two dogs, and become foreigners” (Mayle 4). One couple who moved to France discusses the problems they had with the actual process of moving from England. They complain about the moving company by saying, “The removal lorry broke down and they couldn’t send a replacement…they underestimated the volume to be transported – all this resulting in a thirty-six-hour delay, our rugs left on the lawn…Jonathan’s [the husband] shirts and pullovers had been used to wrap fragile items” (Laredo 103).
Foreigners in France by Joe and Kerry Laredo
Description of the Memoirists' New Life
The next part of most travel narratives is the arrival at the destination, the description of the locale. E. Stuart Bates analyzes adventure memoir and notes that “A great deal of detail is given, in consequence of the author seeing this country and its ways from outside, after journeys and residence abroad; the kind of detail that enables us the better to visualize” (Bates 130) the scene.
Turnbull depicts her new romantic setting in Paris. She thinks that “Simple discoveries seem extraordinary” (Turnbull 21). She gets a personal tour of the city from the back of her boyfriend’s motorbike. Turnbull writes, “Most thrilling of all is riding at night when millions of winking lights wake the city’s monuments. The Eiffel Tower loses its metallic flatness and glows a lovely amber” (Turnbull 22). Mayle describes the area where he and his wife have settled in such a way that it is nearly visible to the reader: “Wild flowers, thyme, lavender, and mushrooms grow between the rocks and under the trees, and from the summit on a clear day the view is of the Basses-Alpes on one side and the Mediterranean on the other” (Mayle, A Year in Provence 5). Dung Rahuel, whose memoir is included in Foreigners in France, describes the way Paris looked to her when she first arrived: “I was shocked to see Parisians running here and there, in department stores, in the street, in underground corridors. They were packed like sardines in underground coaches at rush hours. They ran and ran, seeing no one on their way” (Laredo 48).
Describing Culture Differences in Memoir
Bates says that travel autobiographers also discuss “the costumes, food, dwellings, and customs” (Bates 130) of the foreign country. Turnbull talks about the “uniform” that seemingly all French women wear—“little skirts and figure-hugging tops…Sophistication seemed to ooze from every gesture, their habit of drinking wine in tiny, unhurried sips, the nonchalant way they waved their cigarettes in the air” (Turnbull 167).
French food is one of the most common aspects of the culture mentioned. Mayle goes into especially profound detail as he describes the food he has eaten while in Provence. One of his lunches consisted of:
A flan of foie gras in a thick but delicate sauce of wild mushrooms and asparagus was followed by homemade sausages of Sisteron lamb and sage with a confiture of sweet red onions and, in a separate flat dish, a gratin of potato that was no thicker than my napkin, a single crisp layer that dissolved on the tongue. (Mayle, Toujours Provence 170)
Turnbull describes the enormous portions of a meal she ate at a dinner party by saying, “I [made] the mistake of taking two helpings, unaware that four other courses…follow…By the end of the meal, my trousers [were] slicing into my waist” (Turnbull 48).
In her book Interpreting the Self Diane Bjorklund talks about the way societies shapes individuals. She says the “idea of culture provided an environmental explanation for differences in human behavior” (Bjorklund 128). The culture that one is born into and grows up is the cultural identity that a person will adopt. Becoming part of another culture is a difficult process. This is evident in the travel memoirs. In her discussion about minority autobiographers writing about their experiences in the dominant culture Bjorklund says that:
These autobiographers do not write in terms of self versus society but of the differences between their group and the dominant culture, even though this opposition is played out for them on the individual level. They may express fear that pressures to assimilate will suppress their own unique culture and consequently the basis of their identity. (Bjorklund 153)
Fitting into a new culture is further complicated when a person is not a native speaker of the main language of the new country. Bjorklund articulates this by stating that “Such a language [difference] is a barrier to assimilation, and it represents a clearly perceived difference from the majority” (Bjorklund 148).
Provence Memoirs by Peter Mayle
Describing Culture Shock
The travel memoirists express the difficulties they have had acclimatizing themselves in France. Many feel like they are outsiders and simply are not a part of what is going on around them. Turnbull experiences this most keenly while at a dinner party during which she was ignored by the guests. She expresses her isolation from the rest of the group by saying that “Although surrounded by noise and people I feel apart. Alien.” (Turnbull 49). The Brodericks also talk about their sense of being apart. They write, “In the early days, we felt like fish out of water. We didn’t know anyone, we didn’t understand very much and we had to survive…It was a rather strange feeling of being totally alienated from the world that we had known and were familiar with” (Laredo 83).
Homesickness and culture shock often accompanies the sense of isolation. When she first moved to Paris, Turnbull spent most of her time in her apartment trying to find work. She talks about missing being in an office with other people and missing her old life. Turnbull says, “I’d kill for a bit of office noise now…I miss my friends. I miss sun and light and can’t help wincing when someone at home tells me what an incredible summer Sydney is having” (Turnbull 59). Martina Nowottnick talks about falling “into a deep hole of discouragement and passivity” (Laredo 93) because the language barrier kept her from making friends like she was able to at home.
Even if the émigré speaks the language, most travelers experience a language barrier when moving to a country where their native tongue is not spoken. Nearly all of the autobiographers being examined have trouble adapting to speaking French. Turnbull had only a basic knowledge of French before moving to Paris. She expresses her difficulty with the language: “Inside, I fizz with frustration at my inability to communicate…But it was as though in trying to express myself in another language I’d suddenly plunged fifty IQ points” (Turnbull 47). The Provencal accent was even harder for Mayle and his wife to understand. He describes their difficulties with the language:
The language spoken was French, but it was not the French we had studied in textbooks and heard on cassettes; it was a rich, soupy patois…Half-familiar sounds could be dimly recognized as words through the swirls and eddies of Provencal…That by itself would not have been a problem had the words been spoken at normal conversational speed and without embroidery, but they were delivered like bullets from a machine gun, often with an extra vowel tacked on to the end for good luck. (Mayle, A Year in Provence 6)
Most of the autobiographers in Foreigners in France talk about being surprised “to find out how much [they] didn’t know” (Laredo 82).
The language barrier is often complicated for the travelers because of the difficulties wading through French bureaucracy and le Système D (Platt 91). Without fail, autobiographers discussing their experiences in France mention their problems with le Système D and not knowing how to accomplish what they need. Mayle describes le Système D as “the national sport of paper gathering” (Mayle 21). It took Turnbull and Frédéric months to gather all the paperwork necessary to get married. She says, “deciding to marry in France sends us hurtling back into space toward that familiar planet of paperwork where nothing is simple and straightforward” (Turnbull 299). Sonia Blaney’s memoirs are included in Foreigners in France. When dealing with French bureaucracy she advises that “If you want something done, be prepared to be faced with lots of obstacles” (Laredo 42).
Assimilating into the New Culture
Eventually, the travelers begin to assimilate themselves into the culture. Communication becomes less of a struggle. The autobiographers express a sense of achievement and triumph when they feel like they are no longer on the outside looking in. When Turnbull successfully navigates le Système D, it feels like a victory. She writes, “Walking out of the mairie, the stamped document folded in my bag, I’m filled with a sense of accomplishment” (Turnbull 183). After a few years Turnbull starts to see
sign[s] of progress. My progress. Surveying our dinner party, it strikes me that I have evolved on other fronts too. The food ritual and conversation, two sides of a coin elemental to French life, used to seem baffling and terribly foreign…And I guess I’ve adapted to the way French people interact and converse. (Turnbull 270-1)
Mayle also feels a sense of accomplishment when he and his wife become more proficient in French. He observes, “Our French has improved, and the thought of spending an evening in totally French company is not as daunting as it used to be” (Mayle, Toujours Provence 236). Martina, who felt so isolated and alone because she could not speak the language, met a Frenchwoman in a park one day. Her husband says that “Martina wasn’t sure whether she should ask her to stop by one day or not, because in the past all attempts to get into contact with Frenchwomen had failed. But she summoned all her courage and asked her – with success!” (Laredo 97).
The travelers struggled to acclimate themselves to their new culture. Interestingly, once they are admitted into that new world, they are no longer fully a part of their old world. They experience reverse culture shock when visiting their former home but in their new country they have a permanent foreigner status. Explaining this mixture of cultures, Turnbull says, “in France I may stand out as foreign yet in Australia I feel a bit foreign too” (Turnbull 294). In a similar vein Mayle says, “We will never be more than permanent visitors in someone else’s country, but we have been made welcome and happy” (Mayle 241). When talking about her former home in the UK, Sonia Blaney states, “I…don’t feel that I belong there any more” (Laredo 45).
Guides to French Culture for Foreigners
Travelogues share many similarities. The autobiographers describe their voyage, the scenery of the destination, the clash of cultures, and the eventual victory of admission into the new world. Memoirs of France have even more in common with each other. The nightmare that is le Système D is balanced out by the exceptional food, slower pace of life, and the beauty of the country. Sarah Turnbull sums up her fascination with France:
If I had to pick one word to sum up my life in France, it’d have to be ‘adventure.’ Every moment has been vivid, intensely felt. No doubt many people who live in a foreign country would say the same thing. But there is, I think, something that sets France apart from many other parts of the world. I know of no other country that is so fascinating yet so frustrating…France is like a maddening, moody lover who inspires emotional highs and lows. One minute it fills you with a rush of passion, the next you’re full of fury, itching to smack the mouth of some sneering shopkeeper or smug civil servant. Yes, it’s a love—hate relationship. But it’s charged with so much mystery, longing and that French specialty—séduction—that we can’t resist coming back for more (Turnbull ix).
Many have written memoirs about their experiences in France. It is a country that leaves its mark in the journeyer’s spirit and the journeyer cannot help but share the experience.
- Bates, E. Stuart. Inside Out: An Introduction to Autobiography. New York: Sheridan House, 1937.
- Bjorklund, Diane. Interpreting the Self. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.
- Laredo, Joe and Kerry Laredo, eds. Foreigners in France: Triumphs and Disasters. London: Survival Books, 2004.
- Leistensnider, Beth. “Paris in Mind.” Booklist 99.22 (Aug. 2003): 1949.
- Mayle, Peter. A Year in Provence. New York: Vintage, 1989.
- ---. Toujours Provence. New York: Vintage, 1991.
- Mikkonen, Kai. “The ‘Narrative Is Travel’ Metaphor: Between Spatial Sequence and Open Consequence.” Narrative 15.3 (Oct. 2007): 286-305.
- Platt, Polly. French or Foe? 1994. Cincinnati: C. J. Krehbiel, 1998.
- Staude, John-Raphael. “Search for Meaning: Autobiography as a Spiritual Practice.” Journal of Gerontological Social Work 45.3 (May 2005): 249-70.
- Turnbull, Sarah. Almost French. New York: Gotham, 2002.