English-language memoirs about life in France usually follow a common trajectory: an American or Brit or Australian somehow lands in France and must cope with the unfamiliar culture while learning the language and navigating a new job or life situation. They often cover settling into that new life, fixing up a home, shopping at local markets, cooking food, discovering romance, etc. They are mostly light-hearted affairs with only a touch of drama. In short, they can be formulaic. But I often forgive their formulaic nature because an author’s voice, experiences, and narrative structure do vary. I also forgive the formulas because, to put it simply, I love France.
It’s worth noting I’ve read plenty of memoirs about France that haven’t resonated with me. The prose was either average or the actual story was nothing terribly impressive — or I didn’t click with the author’s persona. But the number of favorites outnumber the number of duds. Here are a few of the most insightful memoirs about life in France.
Of all the books listed here, I think Almost French captures the allure and awkwardness of romance between an ex-pat and French person. Sarah Turnbull stumbles her way into Paris via an invite from her future husband and never looks back. Then comes the struggle to learn French, to deal with government bureaucracy, to understand a mate with an odd sense of humor. But Turnbull doesn’t whine nor does she sugarcoat, she mostly reports, probably because of her journalistic background, which beefs the book up not only with acute observations but informative facts about Paris.
One moment I’ll never forget, and what seems to sum up the difference between the French and other Westerners is when her husband scolds her for wearing sweatpants in public. She’s about to leave their apartment to make a quick run to the bakery. He’s horrified by her sloppy clothing choice. “It’s just the baker,” she says. “Yes,” he says, “but it’s not nice for the baker!” That’s stuck with me a long time. I highly recommend this book.
Bringing Up Bébé
I used to think my husband and I parented in a stricter-than-average way. We didn’t let our kids run around at restaurants, or groan about what they had to eat, or get every popular new toy. We trained them to often say “please” and “thank you.” We taught them not to complain when they had to share, to go to bed at a regular time. We love them but they don’t lead, we do. Then I read Bringing up Bébé. With much relief, I realized we’re not strict, we’re just French.
This is a wonderful memoir about American Pamela Druckerman’s observations of French parenting. A journalist married to a Brit, she lives in Paris. After she has a baby, she meets a lot of French mothers. While her child is disobedient and bratty, the French children are behaved, happy, and not picky eaters. While she feels lost at what to do with her child, the French mothers know exactly what to do with theirs. For the French moms “No” means “no,” put your own life first, and most of all, don’t view your child as a “king.” Children don’t need to be indulged but viewed as a young human who needs wisdom and discipline. Plus, Druckerman investigates the research, which turns out to support the French style. It’s a memoir every new parent should read.
As a professional gardener, it was difficult but enticing to read this memoir about growing a garden in France. What a dream, after all. Who wouldn’t want to adopt a rectangle of land and grow a bunch of plants in a dreamy place like Provence? That’s what New Yorker Richard Goodman did. He’d never gardened before, let alone in a foreign country. His naivety might make gardeners roll their eyes. But he was educated quickly about horticulture and the salty, often serious Provençal people. I don’t know which was more difficult but his optimistic outlook makes the American reader root for him.
What’s special about this book is its cast of characters. You get a close look at a Spanish couple living in Provence, themselves somewhat outsiders despite being in France for decades. You meet the old farming families that actually grow the grapes and lavender and olives that makes the agricultural industry there tick. It offers a clear, insightful look at how rural life in Provence operates. And the garden that Goodman grew? Not particularly special but perfectly respectable for a beginner.
Lunch in Paris
In essence, this is a love story with recipes. Elizabeth Bard landed in London as a graduate student and met a handsome Parisian Ph.D. student. Soon, they married and she found herself living in Paris, coping with French in-laws and a foreign culture. Food plays a large role in this. At each chapter’s end, there are recipes based on the previous story Bard has told. I haven’t made them but they do seem delicious and remind me of the freshness and beauty of French food.
Bard’s breezy voice will either win you over like a girlfriend or grate on you. I like it. She’s vivid with details and open about her vulnerabilities. Very American. But that’s the charm. She, as I when I lived in Paris, sometimes feels like a clunky, forward, overweight American even though by our standards she’s a perfectly appropriate, slim enough woman. If you’re looking to escape, this memoir is a sweet journey of romance, food, and Paris.
In Part 2, I’ll cover a classic about Provence, a classic about Paris, another on French food history, and the memoir that drastically changed my life.
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