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!

The Most Beautiful Villages in Provence

My friend Annette Charlton is a part-time Frenchie like me, splitting her time between homes in Australia and Brittany. She has a wonderful website called A French Collection that you should definitely check out.

Annette recently asked me to write an article about the most beautiful villages in Provence. “But they’re all beautiful!” I protested. “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, “but please try to keep it to under 10.”

So I wrote the article, reluctantly leaving out gems like Egalières and Oppède-le-Vieux. And of course I led off with my own St-Rémy-de-Provence. All of these towns are worth a visit on your next trip to la belle Provence.

Check out my article at A French Collection!

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!

Wines of the Rhône Valley

If someone asked you, “What are the wines of Popes and Presidents?” what would you say? You might guess Bordeaux or Burgundy or maybe even Champagne. But the right answer is the wines of the Rhône Valley.

The mighty Rhône River bursts forth from Lake Geneva in Switzerland and flows 500 miles south to the Mediterranean Sea, passing Lyon and Avignon along the way. Along its shores are grown the grapes that make some of France’s greatest wines.

Many of these wines are produced near where Val and I live in St-Rémy and we just love them. I’ve written an introduction to the wines of the Rhône Valley that you might enjoy…and maybe you’ll discover a new favorite!

Read all about it in The Good Life France!

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!

How to Make a Holiday Toast Around the World

From drinking glühwein in Germany to Lambrusco in Italy, each country has its own holiday traditions and it’s fun to learn about them.

The wine writer Jill Barth has written an interesting article in Forbes about wine and winter holidays around the world, including recommendations on what to drink. It might come in handy for New Year’s! And I’m thrilled to be quoted—about France, of course.

You can find Jill’s article here.

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.

Easy Elegance–How to Prepare a Cheese Course

Nothing dresses up a meal like a cheese course. It’s classically French and who doesn’t love a meal à la française? But many of us don’t serve a cheese course because it’s intimidating. How many cheeses should I get? What kind? And what do I serve with them?

I’m here to help. I spoke to Patricia Hughes-O’Brien, the head of the cheese department at Draeger’s Market, a gourmet food store that’s been serving the San Francisco Bay Area since 1903. She shared her advice on how to present a beautiful cheese course that’s easy and fun to put together (and to eat).

Read all about it at Frenchly!

Audiobook Giveaway—Enter Now!

I’m thrilled to let you know that the audio-book version of Are We French Yet? has just been published. The reader is Doug Schuetz, a talented voice actor who just happens to be my old college roommate! We’ve stayed in touch over the years, mostly holiday cards and such, and this was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect, share memories, and have fun during the recording.

Doug and I live on opposite coasts so he would record a few chapters, send them to me for review, and then make any corrections. His only stipulation when he agreed to the project was that I not “go all Martin Scorsese” and try to tell him how to do his job. As Doug put it, “You’re a terrific author but not an actor or a director—I’m the professional. Let’s each do what we’re good at.” He said it in a lighthearted manner but I got the point.

And I love the result! He made my funny stories even funnier by the way he read them. A few times while listening, I would call Val into the room and tell her, “You’ve just got to hear this!”

The audio-book is available from Amazon here and would make a great Christmas gift for the France-lover in your life. And to get things rolling, I have six copies to give away. Just let me know in the comment below that you’d like one , by next Wednesday the 11th, and I’ll pick the winners from those who enter.

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!