Book Review: (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living

I’ve just finished a gem of a book and would like to share it with you. It’s (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living by Mark Greenside and it is funny as heck. I like to read a book before going to sleep but my wife wouldn’t let me with this one because I kept laughing so hard I was shaking the bed.

Mark is an American who spends every summer in a house he bought in a tiny village in Brittany. Somehow, despite living part-time in France for decades, he has not managed to learn the language. This leads to inevitable mishaps, all of which he describes in a hilarious style. As he puts it, “If you’re lucky, some of the things that happened to me will happen to you. If you’re luckier, they won’t.”

We learn what happens when you accidentally end up in the middle of a combination pig roast / talent show with a busload of elderly French tourists. And what it is like to try and fail (yet again) to prepare a meal that satisfies your French neighbors. There are funny stories about shopping, banking, driving (including a car accident that turns out surprisingly well) and more. Mark has an engaging style that allows him to tell these and other stories with humor and humility.

As someone who lives part-time in France myself, I think that Mark has done an especially good job at describing the cultural differences between France and the United States. And I was touched when he talked about his French friends, people with whom he can barely have a conversation, yet who have become “people I care about and who care about me.”

If you are looking for a book about France that is thoughtful, heartfelt and really, really funny, this is one you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

Synopsis

Every year upon arriving in Plobien, the small Breton town where he spends his summers, American writer Mark Greenside picks back up where he left off with his faux pas–filled Francophile life. Mellowed and humbled, but not daunted (OK, slightly daunted), he faces imminent concerns: What does he cook for a French person? Who has the right-of-way when entering or exiting a roundabout? Where does he pay for a parking ticket? And most dauntingly of all, when can he touch the tomatoes?

Despite the two decades that have passed since Greenside’s snap decision to buy a house in Brittany and begin a bi-continental life, the quirks of French living still manage to confound him. Continuing the journey begun in his 2009 memoir about beginning life in France, (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living details Greenside’s daily adventures in his adopted French home, where the simplest tasks are never straightforward but always end in a great story. Through some hits and lots of misses, he learns the rules of engagement, how he gets what he needs―which is not necessarily what he thinks he wants―and how to be grateful and thankful when (especially when) he fails, which is more often than he can believe.

Introducing the English-speaking world to the region of Brittany in the tradition of Peter Mayle’s homage to Provence, Mark Greenside’s first book, I’ll Never Be French, continues to be among the bestselling books about the region today. Experienced Francophiles and armchair travelers alike will delight in this new chapter exploring the practical and philosophical questions of French life, vividly brought to life by Greenside’s humor and affection for his community.

(Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living  is available at Amazon.

“Paris was not itself!”

This month marks the 50th anniversary of May, 1968, when strikes and student protests nearly brought down the French government. I recently talked to three people who participated in or lived through these tumultuous times about their experiences. At the time, one was a French university student, another a French factory worker, and the third an American grad student doing research for his PhD. Their three different perspectives are fascinating.

You can read the entire article at Frenchly.

Franco-American Cultural Differences: An Insider’s Perspective

For the last ten years, my wife Val and I have split our time between California and France. And we’ve observed a great many cultural differences between the two countries…

I recently gave two talks on the subject – one to a French group and one to an American one. Four of these cultural differences generated a lot of discussion.

You can read my article on the subject at My French Life.

Vive la différence !

Why I Love France

Annette Charlton has a great website called A French Collection with lots of interesting information about France and even a little boutique of fun stuff to buy.

She recently asked five of her favorite “Frenchy” bloggers to write short posts about why they love France. I was honored to be included in such a terrific group and happily wrote about why my wife Val and I love the country so much.

If you’d like to see what the five of us said, here’s the link.

Wild Kingdom

St-Rémy-de-Provence, where my wife Val and I live part of the year, is a beautiful Provençal town. It has long history, starting with the original Roman city of Glanum—you can still see its ruins on the edge of town. St-Rémy is the birthplace of the medieval sage Nostradamus and the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent his year in an asylum and painted masterpieces like Starry Night.

The old city center has terrific restaurants and our Wednesday morning market might be the best in Provence, drawing tourists from all over. The town’s population is just ten thousand but it seems larger, enough so that I sometimes forget that we’re out in the country. But if I walk just a few minutes in any direction, I’m reminded of where we are.

If we go left out of our front door and walk five minutes, we are right in the middle of town. But if we instead go to the right and walk five minutes, we’re in the country. Really in the country.

All around town are the farms that supply our great Wednesday market. When we go for walks we pass olive groves and vineyards and the rows of trees that protect crops from the fierce winds of the mistral. We walk by orchards of cherries and almonds and apricots, the trees covered with brilliant white and pink blossoms in the spring. Here and there we’ll spot a mas, a farmhouse hundreds of years old, with walls a foot and a half thick.

And then there are the animals—flocks of sheep tended by a shepherd and his dogs, a few bulls here and there, goats napping in the shade of a tree. And somewhere the escargot ranchers round up their herds, ever so slowly.

We see horses a lot, and have to be careful where we step when we go for a hike because the locals like to ride their horses on the trails. In fact, they like to ride them everywhere. I was walking our dog Mica last Sunday and she suddenly got low to the ground like she was tracking something. I couldn’t see anything but then heard the clop clop clop of a horse out for a ride, its owner in the saddle. And this was just minutes from our house.

Then yesterday we rode our bikes to the nearby town of St-Étienne-du-Grès. As we rolled along the quiet country road, a baby stroller popped out from a little path off to the side, followed by a mom and her dog. Out to get some fresh air, no doubt. But then I noticed that the mom had a leash in her hand but it wasn’t attached to the dog. Another dog, perhaps?

No, the next moment a horse appeared and the whole family started ambling down the road. Mom, baby, dog and…horse? I guess even horses need to stretch their legs.

My Café Littéraire

There’s a great hotel in Les Baux called Benvengudo that I’ve written about before. The nice people there recently invited me to talk about my book at a “Café Littéraire” as part of their springtime series of events. Other events include a wine tasting by Château Romanin and a harp concert so I’m in good company.

It was an intimate event, held in the salon in front of a crackling fire (spring has been wet and cold so far), with delicious wines and pastries on offer. The turnout was modest due to the weather plus the mudslide that blocked one road to the hotel but was a lot of fun nonetheless.

My dilemma in preparing was that I didn’t know what language I would use. The expected guests were a mix of French and English speakers so I prepared for both (but secretly hoped for English, let’s be honest.)

As the time came to begin, with everyone in their comfy chairs, I polled the audience and learned that French would be the best language. Zut! So I took a deep breath and launched in and, luckily, everyone laughed at all the right moments. And my book readings were in English so overall it was a nice mix of two languages.

Once, after I did a reading, I forgot what language I was supposed to use and continued in English, until the puzzled looks reminded me to switch back to French.

Unlike back home in Silicon Valley, where the busy audience usually leaves right after such an event, here everyone ordered another drink and talked together. It was quite an international group, with people who had lived in Switzerland, Russia, the United States, the UK and France, making the discussion wide-ranging indeed, especially on the subject of cultural differences.

Two people actually spoke some Russian and took the opportunity to practice with each other. I don’t know what they were saying but I hope it included some nice words about my presentation!

French People Are Like Coconuts

Imagine this: The PTSA meeting hasn’t started yet and two parents in the audience are chatting away—about their kids, their vacations, the hot new movie in theatres. After a few minutes, one puts out her hand and says, “Oh, by the way, my name’s Jessica.”

In the US, a scene like this—two strangers talking like old friends—wouldn’t be surprising. But would it happen in France? Pas du tout! In France, it’s considered weird to just start talking with someone you don’t know. And if a stranger tried to chat with them, a French person’s first thought would be a suspicious “What do they want from me?”

Learn how to bridge the cultural gap between French and Americans at Frenchly.

Taking Your Dog to France

Imagine a chic Française sitting at a Paris café with her chic chien. Now imagine yourself there with your own dog. Impossible? Non!

As the world’s most dog-friendly country, France is full of dogs in restaurants, hotels, boulangeries, on hiking trails, the Métro — you name it. So how American dog-friendly are they?

Learn the secret of taking your dog to France at Frenchly.

My Life as a Swiss Criminal

It started with the clothes dryer

I became a criminal during my first week in Switzerland.

It began when I moved there for an expat assignment, back before Val and I started living in Provence. We needed to supply our own clothes washer and dryer. And because Swiss appliances are ridiculously expensive, we were advised to buy a washer and dryer in the US and ship them over.

There was only one problem: Swiss electrical standards are different than ours. So I found a specialty store that carried “international appliances” and confirmed the specs.

  • 220 volts? Check.
  • 60 hertz? Check.
  • 3-phase electricity? Check.

We were all set. Or so I thought.

When our stuff arrived in Switzerland, it was easy to plug in the washer. But the dryer was another story – an electrician had to wire it up.

I called the village electrician but he could only come during the day so my neighbor let him in. When I got home that night I learned that the electrician couldn’t do the wiring due to some mysterious technical thingy. I was stuck.

So I talked to the head of facilities at my company. He agreed to send out the electrician who had helped build our factory, Monsieur Jeanneret. I was assured that he was the best – no silly clothes dryer could stop him!

I met M. Jeanneret during lunch hour. He inspected the dryer and his eyes got big. Uh, oh. Then he went to the basement to check the electrical panel and as he walked back up the stairs he shook his head.

I hadn’t learned much French yet so I didn’t understand his long explanation. But I understood “big problem” and “very expensive.” M. Jeanneret left without doing any wiring.

My facilities manager spoke to him later that day and explained the problem to me. It had to do with amperage. Wait, what? I had the right voltage and hertz and all that, didn’t I?

Well yes, but they only describe the kind of electricity. There’s this other thing called amperage that describes how much. The higher the amperage, the more of an energy hog an appliance is.  And mine was the biggest, fattest, hungriest hog that M. Jeanneret had ever seen.

How hungry? The dryer drew 30 amps of electricity. That’s no problem in an American home, which is typically wired for 200. But my cozy little Swiss house only had 25.

This meant the dryer used more electricity than the entire house!

It put into perspective how much energy we Americans use. And how energy conscious the Swiss are.

So now I faced a dilemma. I could buy a Swiss dryer (very expensive.) I could rewire the house (very, very expensive). Or I could become a criminal.

I went with criminal.

I plugged the dryer into a wall outlet and set it on low. That worked but it was highly illegal.

Why?

The Swiss are clever. They know that lunch is the big meal of the day. Millions of stoves cooking at the same time creates peak electrical demand and the Swiss government wants other big appliances off the grid; otherwise they need to build new power plants.

One way they do this is by requiring that all dryers be wired into special circuits that shut off electricity around lunchtime.

My dryer, my lovely big American dryer, was not connected to one of these special circuits.

I was a Swiss outlaw.

My crime was never discovered, thank god. I didn’t care to experience the rigors of Swiss prison life.   Rumor had it that Swiss prisoners are deprived of Lindt chocolate and forced to make do with Hershey’s.

In Switzerland, that’s considered cruel and unusual punishment.