Petite Anglaise: A True Story: In Paris. In Love. In Trouble.

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9780385522816: Petite Anglaise: A True Story: In Paris. In Love. In Trouble.

She has a job in Paris, a handsome Frenchman, a beautiful bilingual toddler, and an adorable apartment with breathtaking views. So why does Catherine Sanderson feel that her life is coming apart? Stuck in a relationship quickly losing its heat, overwhelmed by the burdens of motherhood, and restless in a dead-end job, Catherine reads an article about starting an online diary, and on a slow day at work–voilà–Petite Anglaise is born. But what begins as a lighthearted diversion, a place to muse on the fish-out-of-water challenges of expat life, soon gives way to a raw forum where Catherine shares intimate details about her relationship, her discontents, and her most impulsive desires. When one of her readers–a charming Englishman–tries to get close to the girl behind the blog, Catherine’s real and virtual personas collide, forcing her to choose between life as she knows it and the possibility of more.

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About the Author:

Catherine Sanderson worked for a British accounting firm in Paris when she began her blog, Petite Anglaise. When her employer discovered the blog, she was fired, and her story was picked up by news agencies around the world. She continues to write the blog, which boasts 100,000 viewers per month, and still lives in Paris with her daughter.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
Snapshots


The day I created my anonymous Internet diary, the nom de plume "Petite Anglaise" instinctively sprang to mind, and felt so very right, so very natural, that I considered no other.

Ask any English girl who has ever lived in France, and I'm sure she'll tell you she has been called a petite anglaise at some time or another. It is a name loaded with meaning: an affectionate tone implies that the anglaise in question is not just English but cute and English; a hint of lasciviousness makes her sound sexy, but also taps into a commonly held view that English girls are rather easy.
But there is another layer of meaning I've always found appealing: those two words summed up neatly everything I ever wanted my life to be. Petite anglaise: an English girl who has been translated into French; her life transposed into a French key.

For my pen name, or perhaps that should read my mouse name, I took a liberty, dropping the la which should, by rights, precede it: "Petite" became my first name, "Anglaise" my surname. In a few whimsical clicks, an alter ego was born.

It's simple enough to identify what made these words such a perfect, obvious pseudonym. But I struggle to divine the source of my deep-seated desire to become a petite anglaise in the first place. What on earth could compel a girl to uproot her whole existence when she had never so much as tasted a genuine croissant? When her childhood holidays seldom took her beyond British shores, and her family tree was firmly rooted in Yorkshire? What was it that caused me to fall in love with the idea of immersing myself in a language and culture which were not my own? And why set my sights on France, in particular?

When Tadpole was born, I spent a sleepless night on the maternity ward gazing intently into her inky, newborn eyes, grappling to come to terms with the indisputable fact that this was an actual person looking back at me, not just a version of Mr. Frog, or me, or both, in miniature. From the outset she seemed to know what she wanted, and I realized I could have no inkling of the paths she would choose to follow. But if I watch her life unfold carefully enough, perhaps I will see clear signposts pointing to who or what she will become. Because when I look backward, ransacking my own past for clues with the clarity that only hindsight can bring, a series of defining moments do stand out. Moments charged with significance; snapshots of myself which, if I join the dots together, lead me unswervingly to where I stand today: from French, to France, to Paris, and to Petite Anglaise.

My recurring daydream, as a child, had long been one of escape. As our Vauxhall Cavalier tore along the highway, my legs wedged at an uncomfortable angle in the narrow space behind my father's seat, my stomach lurching with motion sickness, an image played across my shut eyelids. Closing my ears to the sound of my younger sisters bickering beside me on the backseat, I saw myself running. I parted fronds of wheat as I cut through fields, I sliced across people's gardens, leaped over drystone walls and streams.

It was as if there was somewhere else I wanted to go, but I didn't know, then, where this somewhere was. In the daydream, my course ran parallel to our car. My running self had no inkling of her destination.

A few days shy of my twelfth birthday, dressed in the navy uniform of Mill Mount Grammar School for Girls, my nylon, knee-length skirt crackling with static, I expectantly took my seat in an attic classroom. The wooden desk, scarred with many generations of graffiti, was at an unfamiliar gradient, and I had to place my pen with care, just so, to prevent it rolling to the floor. Mrs. Barker arrived and wrote her name on the blackboard, her resolutely English surname momentarily dampening my enthusiasm. "Bonjour tout le monde!" she said brightly, and with that my very first French lesson began. I opened the well-thumbed Tricolore textbook which was to be my guide for many years to come, pushed my wayward glasses back up to the bridge of my nose, and bent my head studiously over page one.

France. Here was a destination to bend my running steps toward, a hook to hang my daydreams on—so alluring, so exotic, so tantalizingly close. No matter that school French lessons consisted of little more than endlessly rehearsed role-playing and verb conjugations. No matter that my first extended stay on French soil would not take place for another six agonizing years. As I sat in a numbered booth in the school language lab, cumbersome headphones blocking out the English sounds of the world around me, I closed my eyes and pretended I was actually there. I yearned to taste the seven ounces of pate I was instructed to buy in the grocer's shop, to visit the church or the town hall after quizzing a passerby—invariably an elderly man wearing a beret—for directions.
"’coutez, puis repetez!" said the voice on the crackling tape at the start of every exercise. "Listen, then dream" would have been more apt. I'd fallen hopelessly, irrationally, in love with the French language and, by extension, with France. And I'm at a loss to explain why, even now.

It wasn't until the summer before my eighteenth birthday that I finally boarded a coach at the York railway station bound for Heathrow Airport, from where I would fly to France. As I waved goodbye to my anxious mother, I took a series of deep breaths, trying to still the butterflies beating frantic wings against the walls of my stomach. It was hard to believe this was it, I was really going. Unzipping my knapsack with trembling fingers, I checked for the twentieth time that my passport was where it should be, wrapped around the tickets I had bought with money from my Saturday job serving cream teas to heavily perfumed old ladies. For years I'd argued bitterly with my parents every time the thorny subject of French exchanges was broached, indignant at their refusal to smooth my way. It was no good; they were unable to overcome their misgivings about welcoming a stranger into their home. But now, at last, I was of an age to take matters into my own hands. This trip to Lyons was to be my baptism.

For two whole weeks I would stay with Florence and her family. I would sleep in a bed made up with French sheets. I would eat French food at their table, mopping my plate with a chunk of crusty baguette, just like the characters in the Pagnol books I devoured or the actors in the handful of subtitled films I'd found in the local video shop. I would speak French, and only French, every single day for two weeks. For eighteen months I'd written Florence—whose details I'd stumbled upon by chance in the "pen pals" section of a Vocable magazine I'd found lying around in a classroom—long, painstakingly crafted letters, praying that one day an invitation would come. Florence always replied to my letters in French. She shared my obsession with the Cure, and in the photo she'd sent me her hazel eyes were circled with a lot of dark eyeliner, just like Robert Smith's. The dimples in her cheeks, the dusting of freckles across her nose, at odds with the moody image she was trying to project, were rather endearing. Now we would finally meet. I was determined to love her in the flesh.

As I wheeled my suitcase out into the arrivals area, suddenly overtaken by an echo of the shyness which had been the scourge of my early teens, a girl in dungaree shorts hurtled toward me.

"Cat-reen!" she exclaimed. "C'est bien toi?" I nodded, tongue-tied, savoring the sound of my name in its French incarnation. How much prettier "Catherine" sounded on her lips!

Florence was shorter than I had imagined, and her hair smelled strongly of cigarette smoke as she leaned close to my cheek to administer my first-ever French bise. Her accent was like nothing I'd heard in any listening comprehension exercise in the language lab, and for days I had to beg her to repeat everything slowly, several times. My secret hope was that she would teach me local slang so authentic that my teachers back home would be flummoxed, my classmates mute with envy.

The welcoming committee Florence brought to the airport told me everything I needed to know about her happy-go-lucky existence: it consisted of an ex-boyfriend and two younger brothers, but no actual means of transportation. The plan, from what I could gather, was to take a bus to where her elder brother worked, in a nearby village post office. If he was around, he'd give us a lift; if not, we'd hitch a ride to her village. Her father, a widower, was working the late shift at the local sausage factory and wouldn't be home until dinnertime.

Thumbs outstretched, Florence and I stood on the edge of the road while the boys hung well back with my unwieldy suitcase so as not to jeopardize our chances. Thank goodness my parents can't see me now, I thought, preparing to clamber into a French stranger's car, poised to become the subject of a cautionary tale used to deter future generations of exchange students. Remember that English girl? You know, the one who ended up dismembered and used as sausage filling?

But if there was any danger, I was past caring at that precise moment. Every sense amplified, I was too busy feasting on my surroundings: the cars with strange license plates which rumbled by on the wrong side of the road; the way in which Florence's brothers seemed to gesticulate with their hands, their arms, even their shoulders, when they spoke; the unfamiliar cadence of their sentences; the strumming of a thousand cigales, invisible in the scrubby vegetation around us. So caught up was I in the moment that when a car finally slowed to a standstill on the dusty road, it didn't register at first.

"Cat-reen, reveille-toi!" Florence cried, putting her hand on my arm and startling me out of my reverie. "He is stopping, it is time to go!" She dropped her half-smoked Gauloise, scrunching it in a practiced movement between the rubber sole of her tennis shoe and the dusty road, and bent her head to speak to the driver through his half-open window. After lengthy negotiations, we heaved my suitcase into the trunk and clambered into the backseat with one of her brothers.

"Et les autres?" I asked in my pidgin French.

"Oh, don't worry about them," said Florence with a dismissive shrug. "They'll hitch a ride of their own."

As the car sped along, my eyes devoured every street sign, every yellow mailbox, every shop front we passed. It was as if I had stepped inside the pages of Tricolore. Everything felt as alien and exotic as I had so desperately wanted it to feel. And yet, despite the unmistakable Frenchness of everything around me, a part of me felt I belonged here. I wanted to hug myself with glee: I really did thrive on being out of context, just as I'd dreamed I would.
Three years later, when the "year abroad" became the hottest topic of conversation toward the end of my second year of university, I never called it by that name. It was to be my "year in France," with a couple of months in Germany tacked on at the end to pay lip service to course requirements. I filled in an application to work as an English assistante, not caring which region of France I wound up in, although I did rule out Paris. With my small-town background, the sheer scale and intensity of the capital intimidated me. I would visit, and I suspected my path would lead me there eventually, but I wasn't quite ready for the City of Light just yet. Assigned to a lycee in Yvetot, a drab, uninspiring market town in austere Normandy, I was to "teach" English conversation to groups of nonchalant denim-clad teens for a few hours a week. But the job—which I didn't particularly enjoy—was simply a means to an end. All that mattered to me was that I would spend nine whole months in France.

Home was a tiny attic room in a town house in nearby Rouen, rented from a schoolteacher and her piano-tuner husband, whom I rarely saw. Much of my time, in those first weeks and months, was spent with other English assistantes, warming our hands on steaming cups of hot chocolate in smoky cafes, pining for absent boyfriends, and mimicking our students'—and sometimes their teachers'—comical English accents. The experience fell short of my expectations at first: instead of total immersion in the language and culture, I was speaking my mother tongue all day long to pupils, then hanging out with a crowd of fellow anglaises after hours.

One autumn Saturday, I was walking gingerly around the pedestrian town center with Claire, an English girlfriend, on cobblestones made treacherous by their coating of damp coppery leaves. Pausing at a street vendor's cart by the Grosse Horloge, we bought scalding-hot, chocolate-filled crepes, their buttery slickness soaking through thin paper wrappers. As I took my first bite, Claire gave me a conspiratorial nudge, pointing out a tall boy striding toward us with a large German shepherd on a leash, flanked by a couple of shorter friends.

"You know that English teacher who invited me over for dinner with his family last week?" she said, pausing to swallow a mouthful of pancake. "That's his son, Yann, over there. He's not bad, is he?"
As he drew closer, I stared at the slim boy—obviously a student—with pronounced cheekbones, a Roman nose, and moody smudges beneath his blue-green eyes. He wore a long dark gray coat, which emphasized his height, over pale jeans and a pull camionneur, the zip-necked sweater which seemed to be compulsory wear for all Frenchmen that year. Suddenly self-conscious, I prayed I didn't have chocolate smeared around my lips. Yann wasn't just good-looking; he was gorgeous. Tall and dark-haired with an air of melancholy about him and, in some way I struggled to put my finger on, unmistakably French. In that single electric instant I knew that if Yann would have me, my university boyfriend, out of sight and mind back home, was history. Here, right before my eyes, was a compelling reason to upgrade to a French model, a passport to the French life I craved.

I saw Yann often over the next few weeks with Claire and the other assistantes, increasingly tongue-tied in his presence as I grew more and more besotted with him. Was it wishful thinking, or did the way he continually singled me out for attention—even if it was as the butt of his jokes—mean that he was drawn to me, too? A trip to Paris with Claire, Yann, and a gang of his friends finally gave me the pretext I needed to find out for sure. And from the moment he slid into the seat next to mine on the train we boarded at Rouen station, I knew my instincts had not been wrong.

We kissed in semidarkness, surrounded by slumbering bodies mummified in sleeping bags, on the tiled floor of a friend's apartment. I was euphoric. A French boyfriend: sexy, exotic, mine. I loved the way he pouted as he spoke his mother tongue, his range of expressive Gallic shrugs, every twitch of his slim shoulders speaking volumes. I loved the way he could casually throw a meal together in a matter of seconds, toss a salad in a perfect, homemade vinaigrette. With every kiss, with every evening meal at his parents' house, I inched one step closer to my goal: carving out a niche for myself in France, making it my home.

The first time I slept over we'd contrived a flimsy excuse: a late dinner with friends, a missed curfew for my rented room. No one was fooled, but Yann's parents played along gamely. En route to the kitchen to make coffee the following morning, clad only in a borrowed T-shirt, which Yann assured me was perfectly decent but felt quite the opposite, I slid along the walls, cringing with embarrassment, eyes downcast. Yann's father was sitting in his favorite chair by the window, pretending to read Liberation, but from th...

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