A Beret Good Read

Helena Frith PowellLately I’ve been going through my books. I’m considering, but not committing to, downsizing my bookshelf. I’m loath to do so because, I mean, books!

I’m a huge fan of libraries. I think you get a real sense of a community by the stacks of its local library. Wimbledon, for example, has six books on beekeeping, a whole self of IVF and far too many books about the grieving process. It has a huge section on financial advice, every new feminist book as soon as it’s published and a massive stack of books in the children’s geography section.

I can’t buy every book I want to read, as I have neither the money nor the space, so my strategy is to only buy books I have already read at least twice from the library. Looking through my bookshelves, I realise that I have a lot of books on style. And, as a subsection, a lot of books on French style.

I’m not the only one who has books like these. They are best sellers. On the whole they fall into two types:
– gawky young English/American woman moves to France, learns from the locals and becomes chic
– dumpy middle aged English/American woman moves to France for work or her husband’s work, learns from the locals and becomes chic.

They have delightful titles like “Two Lipsticks and a Lover – all you need to be impossibly French“, “How To Be Chic And Elegant: Tips From A French Woman” and “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.”

From my extensive research of books and blogs about French style, all the advice can be summarised as follows:

– accessorise with a scarf

– never ever wear underwear that does not match

– wear red lipstick – never leave the house without makeup, even to take out the bins

– perfect “le no make-up” look which involves a minimum of eight products

– spend a small fortune on beauty at the parapharmacie

– buy classic cut, good quality items for your minimalist wardrobe

– buy traditional French brands like Dior and Hermes

– dress in an androgynous way, but display your femininity

– quality over quantity in everything

– be thin, but enjoy food

– be intellectual, but not overly opinionated

– be attractive to men, but in a dismissive fashion

– avoid French women as they will steal your husband – only socialise in couples.

Please don’t mistake my pithiness for disregard. I read those books, I inhaled those blogs, I wanted to be a French girl. The number of faded stripy t-shirts and dead ballet shoes in my wardrobe are testament to that.

Now that I’m contemplating possibly moving to Germany in the future, I am stressing about it like an exam. I want to start revising now, before the course has begun. I’m looking into replacements for my skin products that I can’t get there, I’m researching recipes for making baked beans (they take FOREVER. I’m just going to import them). I’m panicking about phone contracts and data plans.

What I’m not doing is trying to look German. Mainly because I don’t want to. I don’t want a Dirndl (and a colleague has kindly pointed out that I “don’t have the bust to carry it off” which is surely some sort of sexual harassment?), I quite like my non-funky glasses, I don’t want to wear orthopaedic shoes or Birkenstocks (there’s just too much naked foot on display, I can’t explain it) and I like wearing the colours I wear now, I don’t want to break into patterns or mustard-coloured hosiery.

When I moved to London, I ate those books and blogs on how to Look French. I watched so many videos on how to tie silk neck scarfs, despite looking ridiculous in neck scarves. I wore red lipstick. I had three berets which itched. I bought a lot of classic items for my minimalist wardrobe, but I actually need more than ten items of clothing with my job and I couldn’t afford to buy proper classic items, so bought the next best thing available in Dorothy Perkins which usually had a non-classic ruffle or decorative detail. Obviously I looked a hot mess, rather than French because I did not follow the rules. That was my fault, not the fault of the books. I was a disaster.

You don’t find a lot of books about dressing like other nationalities in the lifestyle section of Waterstones (you can find them in the fashion section though). There aren’t many “Dress like a Mexican” or “Great Greek Style” books. Mainly because you can’t really the style of a nation into one book, and mainly because the French have very good PR. French girls and women are chic, are classy are stable. They are seductive even if they are jolie laide.

When you’re lost and you don’t really know who to be, it’s very easy to want to be French. French girls eat croissants, but are slim; are sexy, but don’t have to wonder if they look like a slut or if you can even call yourself a slut if you aren’t ever getting any; are intellectual, but not geeky; are attractive, but not shunned as clothes horses. It’s easy to dress like a French girl. You can be pretty and girly in skirts or chic and sexy in cigarette pants. They always wear matching underwear. They have their lives so together that they can wear matching underwear without having to plan the laundry rotation in advance.

When you’re lost, you want clear instructions on how to dress and how to look, because maybe that will help you fake it until you make it. If you dress attractively, maybe you will be attractive. If you dress like a French girl, then you won’t have to be a dumpy girl from Milton Keynes or a middle aged mum from Slough whose kids have left home. If you look like it, you can become it. If you just sort out how you LOOK, you can sort out how you FEEL and how you THINK and how you BE. If.

I did not become French. I travelled TO France and discovered that these books and blogs are selling a very particular type of well-heeled (in both senses) Parisian woman who doesn’t eat much and is constantly struggling to fit into the mould society has caught her in. She must be sexy and slender and not mind that she never has dessert except when out with guests or that her husband is having an affair with a neighbour and the whole boulevard knows. Those women don’t last. No one can last like that.

I don’t need those books any more because I know who I am at the moment. In a few years that might be different if I live elsewhere, have a family, have a different career, am happier or more stressed, or have a different haircut.

At the moment, I am the kind of girl who wears a lot of pleated skirts and swishes them about her knees. I’m the kind of girl who can’t get her calves into most trousers and wonders when she’ll stop referring to herself as a girl. I’m the kind of girl who buys and wears the lipstick but forgets to reapply it. I’m the kind of girl who’s happy, for a change, with what’s going on in her life and has found a balance between her work  and her friends and her family and her worries and will sometimes dare herself to wear the short shorts to Tesco and be stunned that no one stops her crossing the street, so stunned in fact that she VERY NEARLY starts discussing the shorts with the busy and nervous Indian chap behind the counter until she remembers that she comes into this Tesco a lot and it would be nice to still be able to come here without being mortified the next time.

I’m still a bit of a mess, but I’m not wearing an itchy beret any more. I might keep one or two of the books though…

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On Lands, Languages and London

LONDON, BABYFritz the German and I have been together for coming up on a year now – depending on who you ask. He was very particular that we be an official couple after a certain date, which amused me greatly.

Eventually, there will be a moment when we have to decide whether to “shit or get off the pot” – as Chris O’Donnell so quaintly put it in “The Bachelor” –  and it could well be that we stay together and commit to living in the same place. Which is generally how relationships work, I believe.

People have been asking what I’m going to do.

Realistically, I will move to Germany and live in Munich. His career is much much better than my job; his family are all either in that country or within driving distance; the standard of living is better in Germany; Brexit is about to slide this country into the sea and who knows what the next election will deliver.

With dual nationality, moving to Europe is a lot easier for me than it is for him to move here where England – excepting London- and Wales have actively chosen to be unwelcoming to Europeans.

On the face of it, it shouldn’t be a big deal. I speak German already; I work for a German company already; Munich is very cosmopolitan; most of my friends don’t live in London any more, so I travel at least an hour to see them and we’re all on Whatsapp already. Not that much would change.

And yet.

Every time someone asks me when Fritz will move to London and I say that I’m more likely to move there, a small part of my soul screams a little.

I just don’t want to. I made a life for myself here in London. I went to university here, I have friends across the country, I found a job in London and lived through so much joy, despair, heartbreak, hope, loss and love here. I speak the language, and I mean, I really speak it. I don’t spend the start of every conversation explaining why I can speak good English, I don’t have to run through my education background, I don’t (usually) have to explain Northern Ireland and how it fits into the UK. I can have conversations about things I don’t know or understand but passably fake it. I can express displeasure and fury at retail or service situations without bursting into tears in frustration. I understand the nuances of sales assistant chat. I can ask questions in a way that makes doctors take me seriously, rather than fob me off with paracetamol. In English I am competent, confident and assertive, even if my personality might not be.

In German, I’m quiet. I’m more reserved, I make smaller jokes, I take a backseat conversationally. I go with ideas rather than suggesting them. In German, I can’t exactly tell where the line between drunk banter on public transport is approaching sexual harassment. In German I don’t have the confidence to argue with the pharmacist that, actually, I would really like to buy the medication I asked for, rather than the one you keep insisting is better. In German I am terrified of official documents and the tiny-font-massive-paragraph fonts.

I’m very concerned that I will lose my confidence in Germany and become a shadow. Or worse, an ex-pat yearning to go home.

To be clear – I love Germany. I love the friendliness of the people – that the friendly ones are breathtakingly friendly and the grumpy ones are so stunningly obviously grumpy. I love that things just function there and when they don’t, people make efforts to rectify that. Objects and services are of good quality by design rather than as a selling point. I love that the cities make sense and that society is much more equal than the UK. I like that it’s a much more socialist society than ours. Teachers are well qualified and well-paid. Doctors aren’t harassed and as exhausted as ours. The healthcare system works. There is Nutella everywhere you go. The work-life balance is sensible and society is built for it. That there are ice cream kiosks on virtually every corner in the summer and the flavours are sublime. That Ritter Sport and Milka are in every newsagent and sparkling water is the norm.

Aside from the language, what I already know will annoy me in Germany is that I will not have hot and cold running access to baked beans or ready-meals. That I won’t be able to channel surf for reruns of NCIS: LA or Friends where the voices are right. That everything is just that little bit more expensive, because they believe in paying for quality and I struggle with that as a person who buys twice cheaply. That the shops will close at midday on Saturday and not open until Monday. That anytime I want to buy painkillers I will have to have a chat with a pharmacist who will try and sell me some sort of herbal tea instead. That I will be an hour out from all my English friends and even further out from my North American people. That the food is so salty (Germans aggressively season their food) and beige or pickled. That is will be COLD with snow in winter and HOT with sunburn in summer, because they have proper weather. That online shopping isn’t such a big deal there. That I’ll have to pay for health insurance. That I’ll have to do a tax return. That there isn’t a Boots, or a big Tesco or a Marks&Spencer where you can buy makeup, a meal, a five pack of pants and some other random purchase.

I’m afraid I’m going to be wistful for a United Kingdom that exists only in my rose-coloured memory and that I will be bitter about the people I will have chosen to live amongst. At the moment, it’s sort of acceptable that I make fun of my Germans, because they heavily outnumber me at work and they’re on my turf. In Germany, if I make fun of the Germans, I’m going to look like someone who holidays in Costa Del Sol, but only eats fry-ups at the English pub and only speaks to other English people.

Aside from the cultural differences, I am essentially afraid of change and also of being dependent on someone. I’ve been on my own for a while now. I’ve become accustomed to my independence and having created a life that suits me entirely. Fritz has been very careful about not pushing it and agreeing that we would have UK Sky for the TV and that I would go back to the UK every six weeks or so. We would speak English in the house. Our imaginary future children would go to an international school. The bigger EDKA’s have world food aisles and sell Heinz Beans, we could stock up.

I know it would be fine. I know I would be fine. I would be beholden to F and his people for a bit til I found my feet and a job and a routine and some friends of my own, but that happened when I moved to London. My German would improve. I have friends there I could visit. With Whatsapp and Skype, it’ll not be that different from how I communicate with my friends anyway. It would be fine. It would be better than fine.

But it wouldn’t be London.

When I moved to London it was for a boy. It was for a boy and a job and my friends. The job is fine, the boy went away and my friends married and moved to the suburbs. The constant was London. It feels such a cliché to say that the city is a character in my life – one skewed wonderfully by the Paul Rudd/Amy Pohler movie – They Came Together (which is one of the most disappointing movies I’ve ever seen, by the way. My expectations were beyond high). Every day, whether I am having a great or terrible day, I see something in London that stuns me. The skyline, graffiti, human interactions, foxes in places foxes shouldn’t be, tube station messages, the newest hipster wankery. Irony, stubbornness, stoicism and mild hope are built into the very pavements of the city and hold us up when we are weary.

When the Westminster Bridge attack happened, I remember thinking “The first “pray for London” image I see on Instagram is going to make me lose my temper. We don’t need that and we don’t want that. We don’t need your pity.” Such a ridiculous thought, but I was not the only one who had it. Most of my Instagram was of Londoners resolutely carrying on and not making a fuss – we’re fine, look at this avocado toast. Those PrayForLondon posts didn’t come from Londoners. My thoughts are garbled and spikey about the attack. It was terrible and shocking and awful for those involved, but it didn’t affect the city. Westminster is an integral part of London, and Big Ben is a symbol of the city, but it’s a rarefied world of politicians and a sanitised world for tourists as well as being the area people stomp through on their way to the train home, or that good Japanese restaurant behind the hospital. London had seen worse, and wasn’t here for your attention-seeking sympathy, thanks. London sees worse on a Friday night in Peckham and we all just get on with it.

London has become a family member to me. I can complain about how dirty and polluted it is and how stupid the cereal café is and how it’s full of tourists, but if you – a Non-Londoner – start on it, I will defend it to the hilt. The parks are beautiful, maybe you just haven’t actually seen that much of london; it has more green space than most capital cities;  people LIKE cereal and sometimes want to try a foreign one without committing to a box – so AKSHURLY it’s a genius idea; the tourists are where the main attractions are, the nine million people who live here tend to avoid Oxford Street during peak hours.

How can I leave it? How could I love anywhere else nearly as much? I’ve inhaled so much tube brake dust and city grit that it’s part of me.

But then again, as my friend Jude pointed out, the first time I came to London – I hated it. So who knows, maybe Munich will be great?