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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Paris, Versailles and the Louvre


One of the most fun things about being an author is having to do research.

photo copy 3A view of La Tour Eiffel from the top of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile

My novel MAKE THAT DEUX takes place (mostly) in the south of France, where the protagonist, Jenny Miles, spends a year of college. Before the school year begins though, she visits Paris with the other American students on her Year-Abroad Program.

Last summer, my husband and I spent four days there at the end of our two-week, adventure-filled vacances in Portugal and France. Our time in Paris wasn’t long enough – we weren’t able do as many things as I wanted to do, or to see as much. Cependant (however), maybe it was long enough, because after staying in five other lovely spots (the Algarve, Nice, Aix, Montpellier and Lyon), we were getting tired of traveling. (Oui, we had built too many stops into our itinerary….but we were all alone, sans les enfants, et plein d’énergie!)

We arrived in Paris on a Monday, and we made the most of our time, though the city was crowded with tourists just before the London Olympics. We stayed in a friend’s spacious appartement, conveniently located near the Eiffel Tower and close to a Métro station.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame

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We chose a few things to do, and quickly decided we’d have to plan another trip, stay longer and see more. One day, we ventured to Versailles. I had been there once before, il y a longtemps, with a group of other students on a guided tour. That day, the palace wasn’t very crowded, unlike the day we visited it last summer (though these photos don’t include tout le monde):

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Versailles

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We visited several art and history museums in Nice, Lyon and Paris, and my favorite was the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, parce que j’aime bien les objets d’art impressionistes…But we couldn’t leave France without a visit to the Louvre. It was the first European museum I had visited as a student, way back when, and it had changed. On ce jour-là, I walked right up to the Mona Lisa; now, malheureusement, the Louvre’s most famous work of art must stay well-protected. C’est dommage.

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However, we were able to walk right up to two very famous ancient Greek statues housed in the Louvre: Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, pictured below. We also saw many other less bien connu (and amazing) works of art there, much more than Jenny did in MAKE THAT DEUX.

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Our trip to France wasn’t just for la recherche, but “research” was an element très amusant et agréable in our tour de France et de Paris. Mais pour un auteur, toutes les expériences de la vie sont la recherche…

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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Lyon and Beaujolais, with the French and a faux pas

In my novel MAKE THAT DEUX, Jenny sees a lot of western Europe, but only a little of France itself. On school breaks, she travels mostly with Americans, staying in youth hostels and seeing the sights without the aide of les français.

Which is a shame. But that may keep her from committing too many faux pas in front of the French. Goodness knows she experiences enough embarrassing moments as it is…

Par contre, one of the highlights of our trip to France last summer was the weekend my husband and I spent with a French couple in Lyon. My faux pas (and I hope it was just the one) happened on Sunday…

Luc and Juliette met us at the train station on Saturday morning. Earlier, we had exchanged letters and emails – en français et en anglais – about our visit, a stop on the way from Montpellier to Paris. Near our age but with twice the number of children, they were très agréable, insisting that we stay at their belle maison rather than pay for un hôtel.

Luc doesn’t speak much English (though he made un effort) and my husband knows little French, but Juliette’s anglais is very good. She and Luc were surprised at my ability to speak French, very encouraging and complimentary.

(The men’s language barrier wasn’t a problem, since Juliette and I could talk to each other — and translate for our husbands — and since, well, men are men.)

For two days, she and Luc entertained us, showing us around Lyon and the surrounding area like only the French can do.

 

Above is a postcard they sent us one Noel. That Saturday, I took this photo of a similar view:

On the Presqui’île  — a peninsula between the Rhône and the Saône Rivers — we toured the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, then stopped for une boisson at a café off the famous Place des Terreaux. 

Refreshed, we crossed un pont (bridge) and explored vieux Lyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stopped to look in the window at the famous Musée Miniature et Cinéma and then wandered into a traboule between two main streets.

A window display of the Musée Miniature et Cinéma

Luc explained that these hidden passageways came in handy during World War II for the French to hide from — and fool — the Germans, and that people still live in the apartments which share covered spiral staircases:

Luc and Juliette were wonderful hosts, even helping us navigate the Versailles site web on their ordinateur (computer) on Sunday, in preparation for our visit to the palace the following week.

That afternoon, they decided we should explore the nearby region known as Beaujolais. We happened upon a vrai (real) French Renaissance Festival in the medieval village of Ternand just in time to watch a play (complete with horses and jousting) performed en français.

But earlier that day, after mass at their church just down the street, and during our visit to Les Halles in Lyon,* I made an erreur.

As we walked through the vast indoor market, Juliette made a few purchases, and I noticed poultry, fish, meat and cheese displayed in ways I had never imagined. Then Luc suggested we sit down at a café for a glass of vin and some raw huîtres — oysters. He ordered for us.

I listened and thought he had requested 3 oysters for each of us. Since I love oysters (and didn’t realize that Juliette already had un repas waiting for us at home), I interrupted en français and asked that he double it.

Oops.

Luc had actually ordered 24 oysters, not 12. But being a polite Frenchman (and perhaps assuming that Americans like more of everything), he changed the order to 48. Which I didn’t understand  hear  catch, until they arrived.

Good thing oysters are so low calorie. They were delicious, I was embarrassed, and later, we all ate a very light dejeuner et dîner! 

*for more, see my post “Les écharpes, le fromage et café crème (scarves, cheese and espresso with cream)”

Bonjour! L’etiquette française

The French are a very polite group, à mon avis.

First of all (and this has been true pendant longtemps), everywhere in France, one always greets another — n’importe qui (anyone) — with a Bonjour (or, among friends, Salut). Bonjour, Madame. Bonjour, Monsieur. 

It’s de rigueur (en anglais et en français), if not obligatoire, as we used to say when I was a student in Montpellier, France many years ago. It’s part of French etiquette: one doesn’t ask another person for assistance, or begin speaking at all, before the polite French greeting.

Les français teach their children good manners, la politesse, and from what I observed when I was in France this summer, they do a very good job.* Polite French children grow up to be polite French adults. Taxi drivers, hotel staff, museum workers, merchants, wine makers, teachers, lawyers, accountants, actors, and yes, even waiters treated me and my husband with courtesy and good manners.

Maybe it helped that I speak French, and my husband speaks un peu — he learned some key words and phrases, and when to use them.

Par exemple: Bonjour, Bonsoir et Bon week-end.

Even French toll booth machines on the autoroute are polite. As we drove from city to city in the south of France, we encountered many of them unexpectedly, panicking only the first time, when I was driving (“Do we need exact Euro change? Are we in the right lane? Does it take credit cards?”) The answers were no, yes and yes. Upon the successful completion of our payment, the machine replied in a cheery French female voice: “Merci! Bon voyage!” 

The French equivalent of ‘ave a nice day, “Thank you! Have a good trip!” just seemed more, well, personal. And it made me laugh.

Back before our vacation, I heard many an American complain that the French — in particular, French Parisian waiters

1. get annoyed when tourists don’t speak any French (and don’t even try)

2. don’t linger, hover, try to strike up a conversation, learn English or read their minds, and

3. take (unnecessary?) long breaks, leaving their customers to sit leisurely and enjoy a drink and a good meal.

Hmm. Though we have much in common with the French, we live in different cultures and have different customs. And perhaps we demanding Americans just misunderstand French etiquette.

Back in my day,** I worked as a waitress (as opposed to a “server”) when waiters did not share tables, work or tips. Then, a waiter/waitress could get “up a tree” (or just, “tree’d” in North Carolina restaurant lingo) when several groups were seated at his or her tables within seconds of each other. When I was working to put myself through college, it helped that my customers not only spoke the native language, but also didn’t expect not to speak it. I didn’t linger or hover at my tables, and I didn’t tell the diners my name (why?). I did take breaks, but only when I had time — it’s the American way.

But I always politely greeted my customers and thanked them for their business (in English) —  and I made a lot of money.

* see the post L’éducation des enfants français

** à mon époque, or autrefois… More on this in an upcoming post.

Anticipating Paris

I just read (and believe) that one of the top ten constant determiners of happiness is our ability to imagine the future and look forward to it.

I’ve always done this, and I enjoy anticipating fun future events. But I’ve learned to avoid feeling disappointed when my pre-conceived notions don’t match reality when it happens. And, that sometimes (quite often), reality surpasses my imaginings, so it pays to be flexible.*

Last spring, as my husband and I planned our two week summer vacation in Europe, I enjoyed imagining the places we would go and what it would be like. We had some good ideas about things to do during the first ten days, in Portugal, the south of France and Lyon. For our last three and a half, to be spent in Paris, we made a list of sights to see. But we knew we might not have time to see them all, or visit all les lieux touristiques.

And we didn’t. Despite the fact that we had “fast passes” to the museums,  there were just too many people — tourists! — crowding the streets and the places to see in the City of Light — La Ville Lumière.

The Champs Élysées as seen from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

On our first afternoon, we walked to the Eiffel Tower (but didn’t climb it), then took a touristy boat ride over to Notre Dame and Ile de la Cité. The next day we climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, then made our way to Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur. We found the Moulin Rouge, spent a few hours inside the Impressionists’ Museum, the Musée d’Orsay, then met a friend for a drink on the Champs Elysées. We took a whole day away from Paris to tour Versailles (at my husband’s wish, not mine, though I was willing).

Notre Dame Cathèdrale

Sacré-Coeur

Our last day in Paris was a rainy one, and we spent the morning at the Louvre. Then we wandered through the streets of the Marais district, had lunch and went to the Musée Carnavalet (Musée Picasso was closed). Afterward, we found our way back to Rue de Rivoli and located the famous Angelina Tea Room, known for its hot chocolate and delicious Mont Blanc dessert. But there was a queue, and since we were tired, we decided to pass, call it a day and go have a drink before dinner.

I had a long list of places to see and things to do in Paris that we missed, including the Musée Rodin, Saint-Germain-des-Près and the Jardin du Luxembourg. Though we had dinner one night at a wonderful restaurant in Montparnasse, we didn’t have time to explore the area. Due to lack of planning, we never dined at a 1-, 2- or 3-étoile restaurant — something we would have enjoyed very much, despite the price.

Next time, we’ll plan to stay in Paris much longer, make our dinner reservations ahead, and avoid many of les lieux touristiques. 

I’m already happy just anticipating it.

*For more about those unexpected moments that are more fun than those we plan, see the post Américaine in Paris.

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.

When it’s out there, reader – le jugement


Now that I’m back from les vacances en France, it’s time to travailler – work – again. As the French say, Faire et refaire, c’est toujours travailler. 

The suitcases are unpacked, the clothes washed, the photos sorted, and the memories treasured. Talk of another future visit – someday – is happening, with a slightly different plan, and preferably, not during l’été – the summer. But it was a fabulous trip, a welcome break from routine and a wonderful time to share with the love of my life. We spent a lot of time together, spoke French (well, I did, and he did un peu), and saw sights both famous and little-known, the latter just as impressive.

We started in Nice and ended in Paris, visiting many other villes, villages and a chateau in between. With sporadic access to wi-fi (in French, it rhymes with leafy), we stayed “dark” for the most part – only a little frustrating, and actuellement quite liberating. And neither of us “worked.”

At the end of week one, we traveled to a city in the south, Montpellier, and had lunch at a nearby Mediterranean plage – beach – in a town called Palavas-les-flots. It was a nostalgic stop on our journey – the place where I spent a year as a college student, where my boyfriend (now my husband) sent me letters and flowers. Visiting it with him after so many years together was indescribably romantic. Since my novel takes place there in an earlier time, our voyage to Montpellier and Palavas doubled as research; when we got home, I did a final fact-check review of the story and tweaked just a few lines, as necessary. But even though much has changed there since 1979, much is also the same.

Now, chez nous, it’s time to blog again, tweet and work on my next book, as I prepare au meme temps to release the first. Which brings me to the subject of today’s post: the fact that once “it’s out there,” my novel will no longer really be my own. It will belong to the reader, who will judge it and its characters. Much of the story is based on true events, but much is not. Memories from my time in France long ago are imprecise in some ways, but clear in others. But it’s not the specifics or any incongruities that worry me.

It’s le jugement.

Because even though it’s popular to claim that we don’t judge – and even say, “don’t judge me,” in truth, we do make judgments all the time. We form opinions and justify our positions. When we read fiction, I think we almost feel we own it; we decide what’s good, bad and neutral; we judge the plot, the writing and the ending. All of this is fine and well, and it’s what we as authors know as we write.

But now when I read someone else’s work, I read not so much as a reader but as another writer. I think about what led the author to write the book. I think about the travaille, the brainstorming and the planning, the edits and revisions. I think about the author choosing the title. Having grown as a writer, I’ve changed as a reader. When my book is “out there,” of course I hope that judgments are good and reviews, positive.

A bientôt.

[Note: above photo is of The Conciergerie in Paris: once a palace, it was converted into a prison during the Revolution and became a symbol of terror. This was where Marie Antionette was imprisoned  before her execution.]

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