I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do) : Living in a Small Village in Brittany
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 crepes, and finds a second life.
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 Finistere, "the end of the world," his life begins to change.
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.
I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do) 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: Finist�re, 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. (Nov.)
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November 03, 2008
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Excerpt from I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do) by Mark Greenside
Getting ThereIt begins with a girl. It always begins with a girl, and even though we don't make it through the summer -- through evenhalfthe summer -- she gets me there and changes my life. It doesn't matter what happened or why, it's one of the best gifts I've ever been given.It happened like this.It's 1991 and I'm in her apartment, living her third of our bicoastal relationship (one-third in New York, one-third in California, one-third apart), probably the only person in Manhattan looking forward to a summer in the city, when she says, "Honey, let's go to France."I close my book and listen, petrified. I hate to fly and don't speak French. This isn't a good idea. I was in Paris in 1966, and they loathed me, and I don't think I've changed that much. "Let's go to Saskatchewan.""It's not the same.""I know. They speak English and we can drive.""Don't worry. I'll take care of everything."It's late May, a beautiful spring in New York, and this is her busiest time at work. As far as I can see, there's no need to start studying French.That's my second mistake.One week later, she announces she's found the perfect place. "It's special, magical, enchanted." She's a poet. Everything she says is exaggerated."Where?" I ask, thinking Paris, Nice, Cannes, Antibes."Brittany. It's as far west as you can go. Finistère.""What does that mean?""The end of the world."That'swhen I panic. I go to the bookstore and read in a guidebook that Bretons aren't French but Celtic -- linked by language and culture to the Irish, Scots, Cornish, and Welsh -- so maybe I do have a chance. On the other hand, they've been French since 1532, why chance it? I go to the Café des Artistes and write her a note. "Great work. Could you ask if the place is on-a-country-road quiet, sunny, and large? Does it have a good bed, hard mattress, running water, hot running water [remembering my stay in Paris], a TV, stereo, car, separate studies for writing, a coffeemaker, shower, bath, at least two floors, farm animals in the vicinity, a washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher, a bar in the village, a boulangerie, a market, a post office, bikes, and neighbors who want Americans living next door?" I leave it on her desk, thinking, Saskatchewan, here we come.The next day she leaves me a message on her answering machine. "We have it -- a thousand a month, with a car."I wait a minute, put on my happy voice, and call her at work. "Hi...got your message.""Ouiiiiiii," she sings."Does it have all those things I asked about?"Certainement. The last thing I need is to listen to you complaining every day.""Itreallyhas all those things?""That's what the lady said. Her name's Sally. She's English and just returned from the house. She lives in Massachusetts, you can ask her yourself."So I do. I call her, and she says yes to everything. There's no way out. I'm going to France.We book our flight on Air France. All I can think of is a joke I recently heard. "In Heaven, the French are the cooks, Italians are the lovers, English are the police, Swiss are the managers, and Germans are the engineers. In Hell, the English are the cooks, Swiss are the lovers, Italians are the engineers, Germans are the police, and the French are the managers." I know I'm going to die -- but if I do, I'm going in comfort and style. The food on the flight is scrumptious, and we're flying economy. The meal begins with a printed menu and a choice ofboeuf Bourguignon or filet de sole bonne femme. The wine is French -- Côte du Rhône, Burgundy, Beaujolais -- and is good and free and limitless. The front of the menu has a lovely little poem by La Fontaine. Mine is "Lion." Hers is "Swan." I look around and see four other poems. Everything about this is class.Joie de vivre, savoir-faire, je ne sais quoi. The movies, the nibbles and snacks, the pampering. If