Mon dieu! My underwear doesn’t match
Worrying about bizarre concerns is an inevitable consequence of going native
I recently read an article about Louise Clarke, the recruitment consultant from Bristol who woke up one morning convinced she was French. She started speaking French all the time and demanding croissants. To us it might sound quite amusing and also a rather convenient way to learn French, but Clarke says it was no laughing matter.
“It might sound funny to others,” she said, “but suddenly thinking you are French is terrifying.”
After three months of tests, Clarke, 30, was eventually diagnosed with a rare disorder called Susac’s syndrome, which can result in personality changes and bizarre behaviour. Although she is doing her best to control her Frenchness with steroids and other medication, Clarke has been told this could go on for years.
I am sorry to break it to her, but speaking French and eating croissants are the mildest manifestations of this cruel illness. Turning into a Frenchwoman has many more dire consequences. I should know, I have lived here for more than six years and observe them on a daily basis. For example, Clarke will soon find she is unable to leave the house without wearing matching underwear.
Suddenly, her Marks & Spencer smalls will seem inferior and not nearly seductive enough. Like a bee to honey, she will be drawn to underwear shops where she will spend half her monthly salary on bits of matching lace.
Clarke will also discover a revolutionary streak that the British lack. On New Year’s Day I was in the park with my children. A chic Frenchwoman dressed in a tailored cream coat approached the pond where we were watching various waterfowl swim around. She stopped in front of a tree and started to feed the birds with bits of bread from a small plastic bag. When she left, I went to inspect the tree — I wanted to know why she had chosen that particular spot. It was as I suspected. On the tree was a sign in big red capital letters saying it is forbidden to feed the birds.
If Clarke is married, this sort of rebellious behaviour will extend to her personal life. She will pretend to be a perfectly normal wife and mother, but will of course be having affairs all the time — mainly with the husbands of her closest friends. She will do this just in case any of her close friends are having affairs with her husband, of which there is a higher than likely probability if any of them have contracted her illness and think they are French, too.
Clarke will also cast aside her copy of Hello! magazine in favour of Proust. Next to matching underwear there is nothing as important to a Frenchwoman as her reading matter. Even Elle magazine, known in France as “the bible” and issued weekly, has a serious books section, while its fashion articles embrace such topics as how to dress like Simone de Beauvoir.
Clarke’s friends may notice a slight intransigence creeping into her behaviour. This is something that can happen even if you don’t suffer from Susac’s syndrome but simply live in France.
During dinner on New Year’s Eve, my daughter Olivia was asked by my Italian aunt if she would move to come and sit next to her. Predictably, my aunt had fallen out with my father and wanted a barrier between them. Olivia looked horrified and replied: “Je ne change pas de place.”
The other thing that will happen is that although Clarke may be asking for croissants, she won’t actually eat one, or at least not a whole one. Most Frenchwomen are thin, some of them painfully so. If Clarke is of average British build and her symptoms continue, she is going to have to buy herself a whole new wardrobe (starting with the matching underwear, of course).
Clarke may consider her experience “terrifying”, but imagine how scary it would be for a Frenchwoman to wake up thinking she is English? “Suddenly I woke up speaking English and demanding one rum and Coke after another,” I imagine the unfortunate woman would say. “All I wanted to do was watch Celebrity Big Brother and pierce parts of my body. All of a sudden Flaubert seemed so last week, and I craved glossy magazines.
“The scariest thing of all though was that after all that rum and Coke and those packets of crisps I could no longer fit into my matching underwear. But that didn’t seem to matter, as for some reason I no longer wear it.”
For men on the lookout for signs of Susac’s syndrome, there will be fewer manifestations. On the underwear front, the average English gentleman may find a pair of Speedo-style pants no longer quite as offensive as he once did.
They will confuse and irritate their wives by demanding a cheese course with every meal (which has to be at least three courses and should ideally involve the whole family sitting down together). He will cause hilarity in the local pub when he goes in and asks for a “glass of your finest Burgundy and some olives stuffed with anchovies”.
He will then surprise his female colleagues by paying them compliments, looking at their legs a lot and insisting on opening doors for them, something an Englishman barely dares to do for fear of being called sexist. A Frenchman has no such fear. He grew up in the shadow of the original, Nicolas Chauvin, who was a hero of the Napoleonic wars before his name gave us the word chauvinism due to his excessive patriotism.
“France is the thriftiest of nations,” said Anita Loos, the American author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. So an Englishman afflicted with Susac’s syndrome may suddenly display an alarming lack of generosity. But there is an upside. As Loos also pointed out, the French are very logical: “To a Frenchman, sex provides the most economical way to have fun.”
A Frenchman suddenly waking up English will experience two main symptoms: an obsession with sport and a penchant for warm beer. At least the diagnosis will be simple, even if the cure is not.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019