I recently read an article about a woman called Louise Clarke 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 w
I recently read an article about a woman called Louise Clarke 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 Ms Clarke says it was no laughing matter. "It might sound funny to others," she said, "but suddenly thinking you're French is terrifying."
After three months of tests Ms Clarke 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, Ms Clarke has been told this could go on five 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 over six years and observe them on a daily basis. For example, Ms Clarke will soon find she is unable to leave the house without wearing matching underwear. Suddenly her M&S smalls will seem inferior and not nearly seductive enough. She will be drawn to underwear shops like a bee to honey where she will spend half her monthly salary on bits of matching lace.
Ms Clarke will also notice a new revolutionary streak that the British lack. On New Year's Day I was in the park with my children. A chic French woman 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 feeding 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 she is married, this sort of rebellious behaviour will extend to Ms Clarke's 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.
Ms 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 and fashion articles include ones on how to dress like Simone de Beauvoir.
Her friends may notice a slight intransigence creeping into Ms Clarke's 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 Ms Clarke may be asking for croissants, she won't actually eat one, or at least not a whole one. Most French women are thin, some of them painfully so. If Ms Clarke is of your 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).
If Ms Clarke thinks her experience was "terrifying" imagine how scary it would be for a French woman 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 look-out for signs of Susac's Syndrome there will be fewer manifestations. On the underwear front your average English gentleman may find a pair of Speedo-style pants no longer seem quite as offensive as they once did. They will confuse and irritate their wives by demanding a cheese course with every meal (which by the way 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 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 sexist; Nicolas Chauvin, who was a war hero before his name gave us the word chauvinism due to his excessive patriotism.
"France is the thriftiest of nations," said the American writer Anita Loos, who wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. So your Englishman afflicted with Susac's Syndrome may suddenly display an alarming lack of generosity. But there is an upside. As Loos also points 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.