All things French: tout ce qui est français

What is it about the French? A joie de vivre, or just… a certain je ne sais quoi?

Je ne sais pas exactement, mais… for me (and millions of others), it’s an unmistakable something. For a country, ça me rappelle (it reminds me) of…that something, possessed by some girls (and women). Lisa, a character in my novel MAKE THAT DEUX, has it:

that something which is undeniably attractive, captivating and alluring.

En revanche (on the other hand), perhaps not everybody feels that way. Some people are not big fans of la politique en France, la culture, or even la cuisine (but two out of three isn’t bad). And some people are fans of all three.

I love all things French, or tout ce qui est français, including the language, the people, and the beauty. I even like their sense of humor,* and while I’m not crazy about existentialism, I get it, though some of their movie endings me rendent folle. De toute façon, mon sujet:

Here are a few of my favorite (French) things:

Champagne. Wine. Cheese. BoulangeriesPâté. Truffles. Baguettes

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Cafés. Café au laitPâtisseries. Macaroons.

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Museums. Promenades, and parks. Monuments. Art. Palaces. Châteaux. Vineyards. Lavendar.

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Nice. La plage. Les peitits villages de Provence. Aix. Avignon. Nîmes. Montpellier. Carcassonne. Lyon. Beaujolais.

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A street in Montpellier where I once motored on my mobylette, régulièrement

And…Paris.

photo copy 5A view of the Champs -Elysées

Jenny Miles (the main character in my novel) has her own favorite things about life in France, but some of them she simply can’t afford with her few extra French francs, back when no one had thought of (?) the Euro (!) . It’s not that she doesn’t have un rond (well, except for that second time in Paris), but she is glad to get free admittance to lots of museums with her Carte d’Etudiant (student ID):

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*Below, une blague, courtesy of mon prof, Madame Marie-Hélène:  “Si vous n’avez pas ‘un rond,’ ca veut dire que vous n’avez pas d’argent !! ( penniless! )”

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Traditions: My Charlie Brown Christmas tree, en français

It’s been almost a month since les fêtes de Noël, and as we settle into the new year, the holiday season — and its traditions — are now memories.

One of my holiday traditions — at least, for the last few years — is to keep something Christmas-y out and on display all year ’round. I try to select a small and unobtrusive item, like an interesting new ornament that I judge shouldn’t be hidden in a box for eleven months. So, as I was packing up our Christmas decorations a few weeks ago, I left two sets of holiday cloth cocktail napkins on view in our china cabinet. One set is decorated with red and green Christmas ball ornaments; the other features a tiny elf drinking from a large green flask.

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This Noël, I celebrated the fall publication of my novel MAKE THAT DEUX with its own special Christmas tree, complete with “French” ornaments, some of which I didn’t find ’til the 26th:

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It’s not really a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree (alas, something unfamiliar to my teenager) — it’s sturdier, prettier, and fake, of course. But it reminds me of one, in a way. Inspired by growing my girls blog post of late January 2012, I decided not to pack it away, but to keep it out and decorated throughout the year.

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Aren’t these lovely? Merci, Nordstrom’s after-Christmas sale!

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I love Christmas and hate to see it go, and I also aime tout ce qui est français…all things French, as you can see in my “auteur bio” on amazon.fr. Like Jenny, the main character in MAKE THAT DEUX, I spent a year in the South of France, in Languedoc, a côté de Provence. Jenny doesn’t see much of Provence, but last summer, I saw a little of it with mon mari between our stays in Nice and Montpellier, and before we traveled north to Lyon and Paris on our own tour de France. Until we return for another one, someday* — or at least, until next Christmas — I’ll display my French Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Traditions can change over time; some continue year after year, some spring up from a new idea and evolve (“From now on, we’ll…”), and some traditions come to an end, or prennent fin. When I was growing up, I looked forward to our family tradition of watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” once a year (and it was once a year). One of the Christmas traditions my own family has adopted is watching Christmas movies and television shows together during the holidays. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” isn’t in our DVD library, but I think I will have to cherche (search) for it in about ten months. (I wonder if I can find it en français…)

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Cocktail, anyone?

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* Sometime in the future, we hope to visit our son in Italy, and then jaunt over to Nice and Aix-en-Provence (and stay a little longer this time…)

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Aix (and adventures) en Provence

Peter Mayle’s autobiographical novel A Year in Provence was published in 1989, ten years after I arrived in France to spend a year of college in Languedoc-Roussillon, the region à côté to the west.

During school holidays, carrying a backpack, my Eurail pass, little money and no credit cards, I traveled with friends to Spain, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Holland and England. But aside from Paris, I didn’t travel much in France. I did visit Carcassonne and the beach villages of Carnon-Plage, La Grande Motte and Sête, but I never made it to nearby Avignon, Aix-en-Provence or the Luberon valley.

So when I read Mayle’s book (and later, the rest of his books) set in Provence, I was enthralled. Like so many others, and because I love the south of France anyway, I wanted to visit Provence. Someday.

That day turned out to be Thursday, July 5, 2012.

My husband and I arrived in Aix the evening of July 4th, after driving* west from Nice. That morning, I thought it would be fun to take the coastal route through Antibes, Cannes and St. Tropez. We would stop in some quaint spot for lunch, perhaps not until Hyères, and then drive on to Aix and arrive at our hotel in the centre ville in plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail. Then we would go to nearby Venelles for a dégustation (wine-tasting) and tour of a vignoble (vineyard)  to be conducted in French at Château l’Evesque. We would dine at La Flambée du Luberon, the Château’s restaurant.

We made it to Cannes on the congested coastal road, then decided to take the autoroute instead. We did have a wonderful lunch at a café in Hyères, then continued west and north to Aix. We arrived at Hotel Saint Christophe with no directions or help from our car’s GPS *, found the parking garage after two tries, wedged backed our car in a parking space in the garage and checked in. I called the Château to confirm our reservations for the evening and get directions (en français) from Jean Michel Escoffier (I had previously emailed Nathalie, his wife.) Then we decided to have that drink and take a taxi.

It was the right decision. We arrived on time and joined un petit groupe of ten French people for a tour of the vineyard and lavendar field, led by Jean Michel –speaking in rapid French and (fortunately for us) talking with his hands. Then it was time for the dégustation with Nathalie, who described the wines speaking almost as fast as her husband had. So far in France, I’d understood about 90% of what I heard, and had held my own communicating in the language that I’d been (re-)studying for a year. But comprehending the Escoffiers was a major challenge — and a highlight of mon voyage.

The following morning, on July 5th, we left Aix and ventured into the Luberon valley just to the north. We exited the autoroute at Cavaillon and drove to Apt, then followed a winding road through some beautiful petits villages médiévals made famous by Mayle (and that Madame Marie-Hélène**  had advised me not to miss): Bonnieux, Lacoste, Ménerbes and Oppède. There, we stopped for a leisurely lunch before heading to Avignon for the rest of the day and to Montpellier that night.

It was hard to leave the Luberon, and I kept thinking about Peter Mayle and his writing. A few years ago, when I was just beginning as a writer but after I had finished the first batch of revisions on my upcoming novel, I wrote a letter to Mayle asking for advice. I sent it to his publisher in New York, hoping that it would find its way to him somehow.

Mayle’s books and interviews reveal him to be a wonderful and kind man. In the spring of 2008, he wrote me back a three paragraph letter, typed on his personal stationery and signed in ink. His last line was:

“All I can say is courage, and don’t give up.”

* For more explanation about our adventures en voiture, see the post Le Tour de (Montpellier) France.

** mon prof de français

Américaine in Paris

A mon avis, it’s the most beautiful, most romantic city in the world.

Earlier this month, I marveled at la Tour Eiffel but didn’t climb to the top of it (though I did ascend the spiral stairs inside the Arc de Triomphe and the steps at Montmartre). Like the main character in my upcoming novel, I drank café crème ( café au lait) at petit déjeuner and, at times, beaucoup de vin at déjeuner andner. But unlike her, I only gazed at the pâtisseries.

If you follow me on Twitter (@MakeThatJulie), you may have seen other photos from my recent vacation in France, an anniversary trip for my husband and me. It was fun speaking français and teaching him some helpful phrases such as L’addition, s’il vous plaît  (Check, please). 

Though we enjoyed several lieux touristiques — monuments, museums and palaces — our most memorable moments occurred unexpectedly. Cocktails at the bar at Hotel Negresco in Nice. Lunch at a café in a petite village in the Luberon valley. Wine-tasting, explanations in French and a private dinner at a winery near Aix-en-Provence. Breakfast on the terrace at our hotel in the old section of Montpellier (and a nostalgic visit to the nearest beach). Exploring Lyon and nearby Beaujolais with French friends who hosted us for the weekend at their home. Laughing together as we figured out the Paris metro system (not that hard), and dinner at a tiny restaurant in Montparnasse that serves everyone the same (delicious) menu.

Our experiences were so different from those that I had as an exchange student in France, part of a small group from the University of North Carolina. I was on a tight budget and traveled by train all over western Europe (but not much in France) using my Eurail pass. Since then, university abroad programs have exploded – just about everyone goes somewhere to party study and experience life in another culture. My novel, to be released soon, is about a girl who spends a year of college in the south of France, her life filled with adventure, romance, and many unpredictable and memorable moments. Her story takes place in an earlier time, but her experiences are much like those of many of today’s young women.

And she dreams of going to Paris with the man she loves.

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