Book of the Month: Beginning French (Review + Author Interview)
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July 14 is the French version of Independence Day. On La Fête de la Fédération, France is turning Blue-White-Red, as fireworks sparkle over the Eiffel Tower and the Marseillaise is heard blaring from TVs and radios. Fitting to today, I want to introduce you to one of my new favorite books about living in France: Beginning French – a humorous and funny memoir of a US couple that buys a vacation home in the Dordogne.
Book Review: Beginning French
Beginning French by Les Américains aka Eileen McKenna and Marty Neumeier is a great read if you want to dream about a life in the French countryside. Marty and Eileen decide to make take a leap of faith and buy a house in the Dordogne region. This area east of Bordeaux is known for its beautiful rolling hills, amazing wines, and picturesque villages. Enchanted after a first visit to the region, they buy an old farm house as a home away from their home in Silicon Valley – a place where they could spend time together as a family with their daughter Sara, who lives on the East Coast and enjoy life. La vie et trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin – Life it too short to drink bad wine!
But things never go as planned, especially with the French. The “completely remodeled” farm house turns into a French version of Tom Hank’s The Money Pit and the authors have to learn to improvise, smile and poor a glass of rosé every time they get some bad news. And they get plenty of those. Such as a water boiler blowing up and destroying their just recently furnished and decorated house, or when the roof of the old barn decides to fall down after holding up just fine for the past 400+ years. While some things don’t go as planned, they never lose their positive spirit and love for their little dream house in the French countryside.
Beginning French is written in such a personable style that you feel like you become part of the family. When Sara, a professional foodie from Brooklyn joins her family and they enjoy delectable French dishes together, you feel like you sit right there with them, enjoying duck burgers and Goat Cheese Souffle and drinking a glass of sweet Montbazillac. As a foodie myself, I dream of being invited to one of their dinner parties or family outings at one of the night markets, discovering the local dishes and munching at young potatoes fried in duck fat, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh sprigs of rosemary.
Since I can’t do that, I decided to cook all the recipes that Sara shared in the book as well as on their website BeginningFrench.com when I get back home from my travels. Seriously, take a look at those pictures. The food looks absolutely amazing! Can’t wait to be back in my own kitchen and try them! They also have a few sample chapters of Beginning French on their website, so make sure to check it out!
The book is really a great read: funny and witty, personal and beautifully written, it takes you away to the French countryside without romanticizing it too much. Marty and Eileen keep it real and tell you about all the nightmares they had to face to make their little dream of living in France come true. From empty nester to francophile, foodie and wine enthusiast, Beginning French will make you daydream about your own little house in the French countryside.
Beginning French: Author Interview
MariaAbroad: In your book, you are living the secret dream of many: Buy a house in France, drink good wine, enjoy the amazing cuisine and live life. What do the French understand about life that makes it so much more enjoyable over there?
Eileen: The French take more time for family and friends than we do over here. While Americans tend to be work-obsessed, the French are quality-of-life-obsessed. And the centerpiece of that quality is a tradition of great food and wine. Meals are leisurely. You rarely see displays of excess or bad temper.
Marty: People know how to behave. Even the kids are calm and polite. They have a culture of quiet enjoyment. This isn’t to say that the French don’t work hard. They do. They just make more time for food and socializing.
MariaAbroad: What advice would you give someone who plans to buy a house in France?
Eileen: Oh la la! This is a serious question. You have to decide what kind of experience you want. City or country? Village or hamlet? Do you want to walk to the boulangerie or drive? How close to the airport do you want to be? Do you want a lower-maintenance village house, or a free-standing house with some land around it? What level of renovation are you willing to take on?
Marty: What most people don’t understand is that charm has its cost. Even a “completely restored” house needs more work than you might think. Right now you can get a village house for as little as 50,000 euros. But what will it cost to renovate and maintain it? Unless you know the ropes in rural France, fixing it up could be a daunting and expensive task.
Eileen: It’s true. For one thing, it’s hard for outsiders to find the right kind of workers; for another, jobs usually take longer than they do in the US. There are more holidays, sudden storms that stop the work, and the well-known tendency to perform jobs on “French time.” If a contractor says he’ll be there first thing lundi matin (Monday morning), it’s more of a suggestion than a commitment. He may show up on Thursday ready to go.
Marty: Our best advice is to get the most renovated house you can find, and be prepared to spend some time and money on repairs. Or just rent. Renting will probably cost you less, and you can learn the lay of the land before committing to ownership.
MariaAbroad: How easy was it for you to integrate into the local community? Are you still les Americains or did you become Eileen and Marty to your neighbors now? Do you think you ever will?
Eileen: We’re Eileen and Marty to the village boules players, because we join in on Friday nights—we’re a constant source of amusement to them. But we’re still les Americains to everyone else.
Marty: What slows integration is a lack of language skills. If you struggle with basic conversation, as we do, your relationships can only get so far. The nice thing is that our neighbors really want us to succeed. They listen intently. We listen intently. They guess at what we’re trying to say. We guess what they’re trying to say. But, or course, the ball is in our court. We do feel a little more successful every year.
MariaAbroad: You’ve lived part time in the US and France for a while now. Have you turned into «The French» with your American friends now?
Marty: They just think we’re incredibly lucky, and we are. Who gets to do this?
MariaAbroad: Would you consider moving to France permanently in the future? Why, or why not?
Eileen: We think about it from time to time. The fact is, we love going back and forth between the two cultures. We’ll always be Americans, no matter how hard we try to be French. But we feel we’ve become better Americans for the experience. You can learn a lot about your own country by getting outside it.
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