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I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do): Living in a Small Village in Brittanyby Mark Greenside
Synopses & Reviews
Tired of Provence in books, cuisine, and tablecloths? Exhausted from your armchair travels to Paris? Despairing of ever finding a place that speaks to you beyond reason? You are ripe for a journey to Brittany, where author Mark Greenside reluctantly travels, eats of the crand#234;pes, and finds a second life. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; When Mark Greenside — a native New Yorker living in California, doubting (not-as-trusting-as Thomas, downwardly mobile, political lefty, writer, and lifelong skeptic — is dragged by his girlfriend to a tiny Celtic village in Brittany at the westernmost edge of France, in Finistand#232;re, "the end of the world," his life begins to change. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; In a playful, headlong style, and with enormous affection for the Bretons, Greenside tells how he makes a life for himself in a country where he doesn't speak the language or know how things are done. Against his personal inclinations and better judgments, he places his trust in the villagers he encounters — neighbors, workers, acquaintances — and is consistently won over and surprised as he manages and survives day-to-day trials: from opening a bank account and buying a house to removing a beehive from the chimney — in other words, learning the cultural ropes, living with neighbors, and making new friends. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; andlt;iandgt;I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do)andlt;/iandgt; is a beginning and a homecoming for Greenside, as his father's family emigrated from France. It is a memoir about fitting in, not standing out; being part of something larger, not being separate from it; following, not leading. It explores the joys and adventures of living a double life.
"In 1991, Greenside, a teacher and political activist living in Alameda, Calif., found himself at both the end of a relationship and 'the end of the world.' The French world, that is: Finistre, a remote town on the coast of Brittany, where he and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend spend 10 weeks. Preternaturally slow to negotiate the ways of life in a small Breton village, he gets help from Madame P., his slow-to-melt landlady and neighbor. At summer's end (as well as the end of his relationship), his attachment to France became more permanent through the quasi-impulsive purchase of an old stone house, which was made possible with the help of Madame P. She figures prominently and entertainingly through the rest of the book, facilitating several of the author's transactions with the sellers and the local servicemen who provide necessities such as heating oil and insurance. At times the author's self-deprecation comes across as disingenuous, but his self-characterization as a helpless, 40-something leftist creates an intriguing subtext about baby boomerism, generational maturity and the relationship of America to France. Greenside tells a charming story about growing wiser, humbler and more human through home owning in a foreign land." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
For many Americans, France is the go-to country for culture. We revere French gastronomy, style, painting, literature. Oh, the chevre! The mille-feuille and the tarte tatin! Madame Bovary and the Eiffel Tower! The way the Parisiennes fling their scarves so artfully around their perfect necks! Some francophiles are so besotted that they end up moving to "la Hexagone," as the French... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) refer to their country. By now, there's a full shelf at any bookstore of tales of those lucky — or unlucky — souls who have made the attempt. These books seem to fall into one of two broad categories: First, there is the lyric paean to a region (often Provence) where life is simpler and better than in the United States, the postcard-worthy fields are full of fragrant lavender, and every village seems to have its own particular eau-de-vie, each tastier and more potent than the next. Then there is the trials-and-tribulations saga, full of shaggy dog stories of zee-French-zey-are-a-funny-race, to paraphrase writer Adam Gopnik. Both types often feature a house (crumbling wreck, funny workmen, cultural misunderstandings) or a love affair (short- or long-term, bridgeable or unbridgeable cultural differences). Two new books fit neatly into these categories: Mark Greenside's "I'll Never Be French" most definitely belongs to the trials-and-tribulations subgenre, while Mary Ann Caws' "Provencal Cooking" can be filed under AP, for Adoring Paean. Greenside describes himself as a left-leaning Californian who was brought to Brittany by a girlfriend. The relationship didn't last long, but his love affair with France, or more specifically with a tiny Breton village in the department of Finistere, did. He now spends half the year in the United States, and the other half attempting to understand zee funny race. In telling his house-buying, getting-to-know-the-villagers tale, Greenside captures how an American in France trying to accomplish the simplest of life's tasks can feel like a complete and utter buffoon. In one memorable episode, he describes the way his insurance agent always seems to regard him with absolute dread, wondering (or so Greenside supposes) what unanswerable question the foreigner will ask in his mangled French: "'Bonjour,' I say. 'J'ai un question.' "'Ouuuui,' he says, squinting. "He's reacting the same way I do whenever a girlfriend says, 'We have to talk.'" Greenside takes us through his dealings not only with "The Insurance Guy" but also with "The Oil Guys" and "The Floor Guy." While he doesn't exactly triumph, he does endure. The big mystery remains how he does this, if his French was as bad as it seems to have been. Since the book talks anachronistically of the franc, the reader realizes that these events took place in the Stone Age before the euro; with any luck, Greenside has since mastered the fine art of the French subjunctive — or at least the conditional past — in the intervening years. The book winds up with a winning description of a 50th birthday party Greenside threw for himself, and then — baf! as the French comic books would say — the story comes to a too-abrupt end. Greenside realizes that when you try to live a bifurcated, bi-national life, there's a price to be paid (no matter how good the cheese). "When something happens here, I worry. When something happens there, I worry. I now worry two times as much as I used to." It's cute, but it's not enough. Greenside could have given a bit more thought to his irreducible American-ness, to the question of why it is, exactly, that he'll never be French, and to the auxiliary question of why he even thought about trying. Mary Ann Caws' "Provencal Cooking" purports to be about food, but, strangely, the focus doesn't turn to matters gastronomic until more than halfway through. Caws is a noted scholar of French literature who translated the work of the Provencal poet Rene Char. It was through her work with Char that she came to love Provence and to be the owner of a, yes, crumbling structure called a "cabanon." Her account is disjointed and comes to no real conclusion. Yet it is not without its charming moments, such as when she explains her failure to comprehend the Provencal dialect or describes how, two hours after leaving a neighbor's big fete, her family was summoned to come back to "rinse" out their stomachs with a helping of onion soup. The problem is that these anecdotes never add up, and the endless valentines to Provencal life are never spiced with anything more piquant than honey. The reader learns that Caws is divorced at some point and that she is now remarried, but we are never told directly about anything more controversial than the look of Provence's celebrated Mont Ventoux or the usefulness of always having a basil plant nearby. In addition, the book is marred by a troubling sloppiness, especially in the recipe section. Phrases and even whole paragraphs appear on one page, only to reappear with little or no alteration on another. Caws refers throughout the book to a beloved piece of cookware known as a doux-feu. It sounded intriguing, and as someone who likes to cook, I was eager to find out what it was. After numerous mentions in which it is never explained, Caws finally lets us know on page 224 — just pages from the end of the book! — that it's a sort of Dutch oven with a place for water carved into the top, "like some miracle: nothing ever dries out, even when you leave it for hours." But in sharp contrast to this most impractical delay, Caws offers a lovely, if brief, section on several of her favorite Provencal markets. Although those in the towns of Apt and Carpentras are well-known, the others — in the villages of Bedoin, Sault and Mormoiron — are not, and any reader planning a trip to the area would do well to take note. If only Caws had given us more in the vein of this markets section and less of the hurried, thrown-together recipe section, her book could have been much more valuable. Anne Glusker is a writer living in France and the host of "Stir It Up," a weekly Swiss radio show on food. Reviewed by Anne Glusker, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
Greenside, a writer and teacher, tells the story of his experience in a small village Brittany, France, after his then girlfriend convinced him spend a summer there. Although he doesn't speak French, he stayed there and ended up loving the village, which became his second home. Here, he recounts the culture, food, and people, as well as his daily life, cultural differences, and anecdotes, as he learns to love this unfamiliar life and culture. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Humorous and charming, Greenside's tale recounts how his reluctant visit to Brittany turns into a semi-permanent stay and second life. 16 b&w drawings throughout.
About the Author
Mark Greenside is the author of the short story collection I Saw a Man Hit His Wife. His stories have also appeared in several magazines, including The Sun, The Literary Review, and Cimarron Review. Greenside lives in Alameda, California, where he teaches and ispolitically active, as well as in Brittany, France, where, he says, he still can't do anything without asking for help.
Table of Contents
The Oil Guys
A Day in the Life
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