Julia Child: the ultimate reinvented “trailing spouse”

Julia Child, after a rather adventurous early life of her own, arrived in Paris as the expat wife of a U.S. Information Service officer. She only understood basic French and had minimal cooking ability, but she took advantage of her location and free time to completely reinvent herself.

Tall, gawky and with such an odd voice, Julia was an absolute master at making things happen. She must have been smart as a whip and as determined as hell. And she had to face the same woe of other serial expats: moving away from places she loved and sometimes ending up places she didn’t much like (all at the whim of an employer’s needs).

If you’re an expat–especially a “trailing spouse”–and haven’t read her biography, please pick it up immediately. It’s inspirational and a good laugh. A few gems:

On pre-arrival expectations:

“In Pasadena, California, where I was raised, France did not have a good reputation. My … father … liked to say that all Europeans, especially the French, were ‘dark’ and ‘dirty,’ although he’d never actually been to Europe and didn’t know any Frenchmen. … Furthermore, thanks to articles in Vogue and Hollywood spectaculars, I suspected that France was a nation of icky-picky people where the women were all dainty, exquisitely coiffed, nasty little creatures, the men all … dandies who twirled their mustaches, pinched girls, and schemed against American rubes.

“I was a six-foot–two-inch, thirty-six-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian. The sight of France in my porthole was like a giant question mark.”

On expat cliques: 

“Paul and I were intent on meeting French people, but that was not as easy as one might think. For one thing Paris was crawling with Americans, most of them young, and they liked to cling together in great expat flocks.”

On the “rustic” charms/annoyances of some overseas accommodation:

“[The landlady's] taste dated to the last century, and the salon looked faintly ridiculous: decorated in Louis XVI style, it was high-ceilinged, with gray walls, four layers of gilded molding, inset panels, an ugly tapestry, thick curtains around one window, fake electric sconces, broken electrical switches, and weak light. …

“[In] the kitchen … there was a four-foot-squre shallow soapstone sink with no hot water. (We discovered we couldn’t use it in the winter, because the pipes ran along the outside of the building and froze up.)

“The building had no central heating and was as cold and damp as Lazarus’s tomb. Our breath came out in great puffs indoors. So, like true Parisians, we installed an ugly little potbellied stove in the salon and sealed ourselves off for the winter. We stoked that bloody stove all day, and it provided a faint trace of heat and a strong stench of coal gas.”

On the uncertainty of expat life:

“Our tenants had moved out of our Olive Avenue house in Washington, and the real-estate agent wanted to know if he should rent it again. We didn’t have an answer. Nor did anyone else in the U.S. government, apparently. It was maddening. Paul and I didn’t want to change our life pattern, nor did we fancy standing in the middle of the prairie with no options at all. So he began to agitate quietly behind the scenes. “I understand how government works,” Paul wrote his twin. “To the boys in Washington … I am just a body. If there is a slot in Rome, or Singapore, my body could be plunked there–or Zamboanga.”‘

My Life in France,” Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme (2006). (If you need more convincing, read two gushing New York Times reviews here and here.)

9 responses to “Julia Child: the ultimate reinvented “trailing spouse”

  1. Being a Londoner I had never heard of Julia Child – she seems to be a very American institution, but – I watched the film Julie and Julia for research purposes and now I am reading the book that Julia Child. it is beautifully written, captures the essence of this formidable woman and a post-war Paris lifestyle – its superbe!

    • I wondered after I wrote this post whether many non-Americans know who she is (since I didn’t really bother explaining any of that in the post…). Suppose she is quite an American institution; nice that that movie is introducing her to more people. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I read this book a couple of years ago because I love cooking, but I can see from your examples that it also is a perfect expat book. Thanks for giving me a new perspective!

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