Armchair Travel in France with Robert Louis Stevenson

Bored at home? Missing France? Here’s a pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Known for his classic novels like Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson was an adventurer. Born into a family of lighthouse designers in Scotland, as a young man he longed to see the wider world. As he put it,

“I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure adventure, such as befell early and heroic voyagers.”

His first great adventure was in France, in the wild and rugged region known as the Cévennes. At the age of 27 he made his way to the tiny village of Le Monastier, where he gathered (too many) provisions, had a sleeping bag made, and bought a donkey named Modestine. Then he set out—admittedly, not really knowing what he was doing—on a 12-day march into the unknown.

Read all about this fun book in France Today!

Reading in French–How to Get Started

French is a beautiful language, but like any foreign tongue, it can be intimidating. I remember the first time I was in Paris and a local spoke to me. I froze because I had no idea what she’d just said! It was so embarrassing. Let me tell you how reading in French can help you, as it helped me, no matter what your level.

I didn’t begin studying French in earnest until I was in my late 40s.

I improved little by little and today, a dozen years later, I can speak the language comfortably. I subscribe to a French newspaper and watch French news. And one of the things that has helped me is reading.

When I first started, I could only read the short handouts I got from my French teacher. Eventually, I tried newspapers and magazines, and finally made it to simple books—my first one is very popular with 12-year-olds!

Now I’ve enjoyed a number of French novels, including some of the classics.

I offer my tips for getting started with French reading in My French Life.

Try a Graphic Novel for Easy French Reading

Let’s say you know some French and would like to try reading something more challenging that a magazine article. Here’s an idea for you: a bande dessinée, or BD, what we call a graphic novel in English.

When native English-speakers think of illustrated stories, comic books like Batman and Spiderman usually come to mind.These are considered ‘kid stuff’ rather than something an adult would read. Sure, there is the occasional graphic novel that reaches an adult readership, like Persepolis or Maus (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), but those are exceptions.

Not so in France.

No, in France the BD is a serious and respected art form, with an annual festival in Angoulême that attracts hundreds of thousands. And while comic-book-style BDs are popular, those dealing with adult themes are also widely read. And they are a great way for a French learner to read in French. The text is limited and the illustrations help you understand the story.

I’ve written an article on the advantages of BDs for French learners, along with an explanation of the different kinds that are available (history, humor, contemporary social issues, and more.) You can read all about it at My French Life!

Improve Your French With a Language Partner

People sometimes ask me how I learned to speak French and I always tell them that the key was when I discovered language partners.

There are plenty of ways to learn French, such as traditional classroom courses, apps like Duolingo, and listening to podcasts. But while these can teach us the basics, what we really want to do is communicate. We want to be able to make our way around Paris and Provence on our own. We want to connect with the locals and learn about life in la belle France. And for that we have to speak, which can be scary. Which is where a language partner comes in.

A French language partner is someone who speaks French and is trying to learn English. You get together regularly and speak one language and then the other, encouraging and correcting one another.

Unlike a classroom where the opportunity to speak is limited, a meeting with a language partner gives you plenty of time to talk, listen, and ask questions. It allows you to learn not only formal French but also real-life French, with all of the slang and nuance that French people use in everyday conversation. And because you’re working with someone who is also learning a new language, you skip the usual embarrassment because you are both making the same kinds of mistakes. It’s relaxed and informal and downright fun.

Want to know more? Check out my article in Frenchly!

What Do the French Think of the Transit Strikes?

France is experiencing its biggest strikes since 1995, with the nation’s transportation system largely shut down, paralyzing the country. The strikes began in December and continued through the holidays, with regular street protests in Paris and other major cities. More “Days of Action” are scheduled, when thousands of protesters will again march in the streets. Getting around Paris has never been harder.

What do the French think of all this? Are they still solidaire with the strikers or are they tired of the hassle? I looked at some recent polls and the answer was surprising.

Read all about it in Frenchly!

Discover Marcel Pagnol, the Bard of Provence

Jean de Florette…My Father’s Glory…Marius and Fanny. These and other beloved works were all written by Marcel Pagnol, the bard of Provence. Ask a local what author best describes their part of the world and chances are they’ll name Pagnol.

A fascinating character, Marcel Pagnol was not only an author but also a great filmmaker, the first to be elected into the prestigious Académie française. And he’s my favorite French author. No one else can conjure life in the south of France the way he can.

Want to learn more? Read my article about Pagnol in Perfectly Provence!

Christmas in Provence

Provence shares many Christmas traditions with the rest of France, like sapins de Noël (Christmas trees) and Père Noël (Father Christmas.) But it also has some unique ones of its own.

One is the santons, those cute little figurines sold all over Provence. They depict characters from village life such as the baker, the fishwife and the scissor grinder. They are popular with tourists, kind of like Hummel figurines but with a French twist. And their origin goes back to the French Revolution.

Crèches (nativity scenes) had long been popular in France but were banned by the fiercely anti-clerical leaders of the Revolution. What to do? An artist from Marseille came up with a clever solution. He invented santons and turned the crèche into a “village scene,” using his little figurines in place of the usual Biblical characters. This passed muster with the anti-religious zealots, who somehow missed the fact that santon means “little saint,” and a new tradition was born.

Another Provencal Christmas specialty is le gros souper (the big dinner) eaten before midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It is full of religious symbolism, like the three white tablecloths representing the holy trinity and the seven dishes representing Mary’s sorrows. It also requires a great deal of preparation, so fewer families today have this big dinner than in years past.

Perhaps the most famous Provence Christmas tradition is the treize (thirteen) desserts. Wait, thirteen? Yes!

These are eaten after midnight Mass, which means in the wee hours of Christmas—what a great way to start the day! Like the gros souper, the treize desserts are full of religious symbolism. Thirteen, for example, represents the number of people at the Last Supper.

Each family can decide what to serve but the desserts usually include fruits and nuts, candies and some sort of sweetened bread. My favorites are the two kinds of nougat, one white and one black, symbolizing good and evil.

Like the gros souper, fewer families prepare the treize desserts today than in the past but they maintain a loyal following. Some people just skip the dinner and the Mass and go straight to the desserts!

So at your Christmas dinner this year, when you are debating whether to have another slice of pie—go for it! Just tell your family that you are taking part in an ancient and noble French tradition.

A Forgotten French Classic

The New York Review of Books called it, “The runaway best seller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest best seller of all time.”

The Washington Post described it as, “Aristocrats with secrets, a prostitute with a heart of gold, criminals nicknamed the Schoolmaster and the She-Wolf, an evil lawyer, thwarted love, blackmail and conspiracy—this is a sprawling novel that packs in everything and then adds more.”

What is it? Les Mystères de Paris / The Mysteries of Paris, the book that inspired Victor Hugo to write Les Misérables. Almost as interesting as the book is the author himself, a man born to privilege (his godmother was Empress Josephine) who became one of the leading Socialists of his day.

The book is ripping good fun in either French or English. Read all about it at My French Life!

Living Like a Local in Provence

Val and I live part of the year in St-Rémy and we’ve tried to become as local as we can. An important part of that is getting to know our region’s history.

One way we’ve done this is through local associations, which are groups organized around a common interest. Associations are popular in France and every town and village has at least a few. They might be cultural, charitable, athletic—you name it. A friend of ours is in a walking group and she joins fellow members for “randonnées” in the countryside every weekend.

We’ve made it a point to go to lectures put on by our town’s historical society. Want to know about the women of the French Resistance? How about what the Pont d’Avignon looked like before it collapsed? Or maybe the REAL story of Mary Magdalene in Provence?

Read all about it at Perfectly Provence!

The Greatest French Book of All Time?

France is known for great literature. Think of all those famous authors–Hugo, Balzac, Proust, Camus, Flaubert, and more. Ok, maybe we haven’t read a lot of them but Les Mis was terrific, wasn’t it?

Out of all the books written by French authors, which one is the best? Maybe Madame Bovary? The Stranger? In Search of Lost Time? Or maybe the beloved Little Prince?

I decided to find out. You might be surprised by what I learned.

Read all about it in My French Life!