Adam Gopnik lived out a lifelong dream of moving to Paris in the late 1990s, then wrote about it for The New Yorker. This is a more high-minded book, packed with Parisian history and cultural facts but full of humor too. Gopnik wittily describes the education he and his wife got in adjusting to Parisian life: the lows of searching for an apartment, buying disappointingly tiny appliances, the unashamed sexiness of French doctors. It also has a political tinge as he touches on terrorism in Paris, which now in retrospect, seems eerie and prescient.
Overall, you will delight in Gopnik’s keen insights and sharp humor, especially if you personally know French people or the culture. One memorable moment comes when he points out the strange disparity of how, when a new gym opens, they celebrate by laying out a huge spread of high-calorie, high-carb pastries for patrons. Everyone must have breakfast after all!
Mastering the Art of French Eating
So if you were to take Elizabeth Bard’s memoir and turn it on its head, you’d get Mastering the Art of French Eating. Ann Mah, an American, moved to Paris because her husband was a U.S. diplomat, but she suddenly found herself alone for a year when he was reassigned to Iraq. In Paris, by herself. Ugh, right? Well, she found solace in French food and in investigating the history of it. We learn about the origins of boeuf Bourguignon and buckwheat crepes, which is surprisingly interesting.
I personally connected with this memoir because when I lived in Paris, all I thought about was my husband back home in Seattle. It was a bittersweet ride because I went through this weird, delightful experience of working and living in Paris but the love of my life wasn’t with me. Mah aches for her husband as well. The scenes of them struggling to visit online broke my heart a little. Good news, they were reunited. And bought their own tiny piece of Paris.
A Year in Provence
For insight into life in Provence, this should be your first pick. It’s a classic. A British guy decides to get away from the rat race and buy a country house in Provence. Dreamy, right? No. There’s lots to fix up and lots to go wrong. But Mayle’s voice is witty and his love of Provence is endearing. The book is packed with interesting anecdotes about the locals Mayle meets and the troubles he endures to renovate a home in France. It also includes a fair amount of information on the delicious food of Provence. This, as I understand it, was really the first memoir about France that led to a surge of interest in the Provence region. Deservedly so.
French Women Don’t Get Fat
This book changed my life. It altered my outlook on eating and food. I learned how the French don’t “live to eat” but rather “eat to live,” and in doing so, don’t need to deal with the American-style of overeating and its consequent shame. This supported what I learned firsthand when I lived in Paris. The French’s attitude is excess isn’t flattering so don’t do it. Simple, right? Heh. Easier said than done. But Mireille Guiliano, with this book, shows how it can be done.
Guiliano is the CEO of the Veuve Clicquot empire and has lived in France all of her life. This book is unlike the others in this list in that it’s written by a French person. It’s part lifestyle guide, part memoir. Guiliano outlines her own childhood and how her family’s eating choices were dictated by the seasons and rooted in nature. She discusses the French’s attitude toward eating, which is to enjoy wholesome, healthy, delicious food but not too much of it. Another piece of advice? Exercise enough (e.g., walking) so that you stay slim but not so much that you have to suffer and get sweaty. If you do overindulge in eating one day, pull back the next just a little so your weight doesn’t get too far out of your control. The book is full of small practical tips like this peppered with personal anecdotes about how Guiliano approaches or has approached each of these situations.
Some may find her words unrealistic or snobby but I found them powerful. And considering this woman is a slim, attractive person in her older age is a testament that it works. After several years now, it’s worked for me too.
This book makes the list because it’s so darn useful if you want insight into the dealings of real estate and home renovation in France. American chef David Lebovitz decided to move to Paris on a whim and figure out the details later. Well, the French don’t do “whims.” He found this out the hard way.
Picnic in Provence
Elizabeth Bard’s follow up to Lunch in Paris. She and her husband move to Provence and work to create a slower, more wholesome life. Again, it’s anchored by food and recipes of the region, which of course is beautiful and alluring. They fix up a historic house, adjust to country life, have a son, and open an ice cream shop. You know, the usual.
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Karen Hugg is a writer and gardener living in the Seattle area. She is a certified ornamental horticulturalist and Master Pruner. When not digging in the dirt, she writes. She's been published in various journals, anthologies, websites, and more. Her life is happily hectic but she's lucky to have a patient husband and sweet children. Her pets aren't bad either. To learn more, explore http://www.karenhugg.com.