A kurta over denims. That is not what I expected to see a French lady wearing when she walked into the café for our tete-a-tete. Say Hello to Benedicte Le Bris; simple-looking, comfortable in her skin, and blending in with the crowd – she is an atypical expat. Originally from Plaisir, a small suburban town, a 40-minute train journey from Paris, Benedicte’s tryst with Pune began in 2013 when she accompanied her husband, a Maharashtrian, to Pune from London to set up his own business.
Fate brought together the couple in Shanghai where they worked in the same restaurant. Work then took them to London for five years. Moving from the bustling cosmopolitan city to Pune was something Benedicte never imagined would transpire. “No way!” she exclaimed when her husband first proposed the idea of shifting base to Pune back in 2010. Two years of consistent convincing and a post graduate degree later, Benedicte finally prepared herself for a new and different life.
“It was a culture shock!” she explained when I asked her about her initial reaction to life in Pune. Having lived in different parts of the world (Australia, Shanghai and London), Pune was an entirely new experience for her. “I was overwhelmed – I didn’t take too well to the weather and spicy food.” One accustomed to starting a new life, Benedicte did not come to Pune with preconceived notions. “My exposure to India was very limited; also I had never seen any Bollywood movies; in a sense, I only found out about India and Pune through my husband…but yes, I was aware of the typical cows-on-the-road stereotypes associated with the country!”
Thankfully for her, settling down in Pune was not very arduous. For one, she did not face a language barrier. Even though she could not speak Hindi or Marathi, she got by comfortably. In her initial days in the city, she frequented The Cultural Centre (TCC) in Mundhwa and got involved with recreational activities at InterNations. This helped her foster new friendships with both the locals and fellow French expats. She did not find it difficult to bag a job either. Benedicte has been working with Virasat Pune, using her time and energy towards promoting the heritage and culture of Pune. As a non-local, her passion for another city’s past, present and future is quite remarkable. “On a personal level, it is very enriching to learn something new; I enjoy understanding new cultures and observing human behaviour”, she shared.
Benedicte has nurtured a soft spot for Pune – dotted with old structures, she finds the peth areas visually stunning; enjoys the tranquility of Deccan with its parks and proximity to the hills; and fancies the cosmopolitan streak of Camp. She reminisces about Paris at the sight of the Mula-Mutha rivers – “there’s something very Paris about the locals gazing at the changing colours of the river while the sun sets.”
Her regret if she ever bids adieu to Pune is that she never pursued learning Marathi – a reason she believes she has missed out on fully exploring the depths of Pune’s culture, particularly Marathi theatre. Not much of a foodie, she would miss the modaks but certainly not the spicy misal!