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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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…

Letter to France

Dear France,

As someone tells Jenny in my new novel MAKE THAT DEUX,

“you ‘ave captured my heart.”

I’m not sure exactly when you did it. The first time I saw you, I was a little bleary-eyed, and I felt a little awkward. I had been looking forward to meeting you for so long — years — and I had started to believe it would never happen.

You were just so, well, distant.

When I started to feel comfortable with you (and you know it took weeks), it was almost like I’d always known you. I was so at home with you. It was like déjà vu. Sort of.

I didn’t know everything about your past…but what I did know, intrigued me. What I didn’t know didn’t seem to matter.

You understood me, even when I struggled to express myself. You encouraged me and seemed happy to have me. You shattered the stereotypes about les français — your people — when they politely welcomed me with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle!”

They listened patiently as I spoke your language, learned its expressions and worked on my accent. They charmed me with their own accents when they practiced their anglais, particulièrement when your (good-looking) young men said “ze” for “the” and “zat” for “that.”

I know you had greeted millions of girls before me who studied traveled had a blast abroad for a year. Some of them loved you as much as I did, but, I dare say, not all. Some of them were just playing with you. Some just wanted to shop and drink wine, discovering but later forgetting about your certain, well,  je ne sais quoi.

Mais pour moi, c’était impossible.

I never forgot you, even as my French vocabulary dwindled and my memories of our time together faded. I kept my few pictures of you, not knowing that (or how) I would use them someday. For years, I dreamed I would come back to visit you with the man I love.

Then, un jour in the summer of 2012, I did.

I had spent months getting ready to see you again, studying your language —  listening, reading and practicing it weekly. I had written my novel (set in your south) and was getting ready to release it this fall. I had planned an itinerary for our visit en juillet, but our emploi du temps was flexible and open to spontaneity.

Which was fortunate, because our unplanned moments with you were the best ones.

I loved seeing my husband discover you: the Côte d’Azur, Provence, Languedoc, Beaujolais… Paris. I loved hearing him try out the French phrases he had learned. I loved going with him to see parts of you that I had never seen. I loved taking him to see other places that had once been very familiar to me, that I had been while thinking of him.

He already knew me well, but now he knows me  — and my heart — even better.

A la prochaine,



La séduction et l’élégance: summing it up

Just after my new novel MAKE THAT DEUX was released* last week, a friend sent me this recent feature in the (UK) Telegraph Travel  titled

“36 Hours in…Montpellier” France. Its first line:

“Montpellier, the most seductive city in the French south at any time, is elegant and cultured, with an autumn sun warm enough to sit out on its squares.”

And, long ago, I did that with friends…


Just over three months ago, I returned to Montpellier for the first time in many years. I spent 36 hours in the city and at the closest beach (in nearby Palavas-les-flots) with mon mari during our vacation. We walked by Le Riche – the café in the above photo in Place de la Comédie — but didn’t stop, because we found it crowded with summer touristes. We chose instead a quieter spot to have a drink, nearer to the city’s own Arc de Triomphe and close to Place de la Canourgue. Later, we had dinner at a tiny, elegant restaurant in the area. For so many reasons, it was the perfect place to relax and celebrate a milestone anniversary.

MAKE THAT DEUX is set in Montpellier and Palavas, and the girls in MAKE THAT DEUX explore the Montpellier of an earlier time.

Has very much changed over the years? I think this sums it up:

Oui, et non.

In their époque, unlike today, studying abroad for a year or semester was not something that many people did. A university degree was (relatively) expensive, but not ridiculous. Moving back in with your parents after college was uncommon. College kids age 18 and over could drink legally in the U.S., not just in Europe. Cigarette smoking wasn’t restricted, nor was it even unacceptable. People — including lovers — wrote letters to each other on paper, and sent them through the mail.

What hasn’t changed? Back then, like today, terrorism was a major issue, and events gripped the world stage. A democrat was in the White House. College graduates had a very hard time finding a job. But while IN college, in addition to studying, students went to parties, met new people and went out on dates. Sometimes they even fell in love.

And — like today — they didn’t tell their parents anything everything about what they were doing, especially when it involved la séduction…


* See my HOME page for how to order MAKE THAT DEUX! Merci!



Avignon and Montpellier encore

Some parts of these two French cities haven’t changed for centuries.

This summer, during our five days in le Midi (the south of France), my husband and I spent an afternoon in Avignon. Arriving after lunch, we spotted and entered a parking garage near la gare with only moderate difficulty (having to back out of an unmarked a wrong entrance, and, with embarrassment, forcing the car behind us to do the same). Heureusement, I was driving.

It was a hot day and, during its July festival, the town was crowded with visitors from France and elsewhere. But perhaps because, as a student, though I’d lived just over ninety kilometers away for almost a year, I’d never ventured over to Avignon, I wanted to see le pont d’Avignon and look around — as a tourist.

We climbed les escaliers to this view of the pont, then saw the Palais des Papes on our way to Place de l’Horloge.

I wanted to visit another famous town in the region, Nîmes, but because we’re Americans (and therefore, had planned to do more than time would allow), we had to skip it and head over to Montpellier, happily* arriving there at cocktail hour.

At my request, our agent de voyage had booked us at a mid-priced more-expensive-than-in-the-U.S. (but still perfect for our budget) Best Western hotel, Le Guilhem, which we loved once we found it.** However, with no hotel bar evident, we set out à pied to find some alcohol a nice restaurant.

As luck would have it, we found one right next to our hotel on Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau called Le Petit Jardin. Malheureusement, c’était complet (full — although it didn’t look that way). Undeterred (but unhappy that our agent hadn’t found and booked it, since we were celebrating our wedding anniversary), we got a table at another restaurant, Volodia, on the same rue, and ordered champagne.

The following day, a Friday, we did some exploring. Some parts of Montpellier were just as I recalled, and some parts of it were quite different. We walked through the campus where I had attended classes and had studied at la bibliothèque. We visited nearby Palavas-les-flots and found my old (and only slightly changed) apartment building. We toured Montpellier some more (mais pas en voiture) and learned a little of its historyIt was a strange but wonderful feeling to be in a place where I had missed mon ami.

Château d’eau du Peyrou

Aqueduc Saint Clément

In my upcoming novel, the protagonist and her girlfriends get around Montpellier and its environs very well. They often meet at a café in the centrally located Place de la Comédie, or at the statue of Les Trois Grâces in front of the Opéra National de Montpellier.

Les Trois Grâces in Place de la Comédie

All of which are still there — though somewhat changed.

* at heure de pointe (rush hour)! As we inched along in a traffic jam from the autoroute, a siren-blasting emergency vehicle passed us and several other vehicles with difficulty, due to a complete lack of room.

**See the post Le Tour de (Montpellier) France

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

Exchange students: Les étudiants en échange

The Iranian hostage crisis began November 4, 1979, less than three months after I arrived in the south of France as a 19-year-old university exchange student.

I was part of a group from the University of North Carolina that attended a French university in Montpellier, France. We followed the crisis that gripped the world from the French perspective and read about it in Le Monde as we waited for it to end. But we went home to America long before it did.

I was a legal adult at the time, old enough to vote and drink alcohol, but much more concerned with my own life than with American security issues or the lives of the hostages. The crisis ended while I was still in college; a new president was elected, I graduated from UNC, found a job, married and raised a family. Then in 2006, I read Mark Bowden’s brilliant and suspenseful account of the story, Guests of the Ayatollah, told through the eyes of those who lived it.

The events of that year and the attitude of the time are relevant today, and the world is perhaps more dangerous. But more and more young people are choosing to spend time as exchange students in other countries, to experience another culture and learn a foreign language. Several colleges, including UNC, still offer a study-abroad program in Montpellier. In 2010, “Kim,” one of my American roommates in France,* sent me an article titled French Lessons by Aubrey Whelan, a Penn State student who attended the same French university that “Kim” and I had. As I read about Aubrey’s experience in Montpellier, I was amazed to learn that many things about life as an exhange student there hadn’t changed.

A month ago, my husband and I visited the city and Université Paul Valéry at the end of our week in the south of France. When I was a student there, costs were much lower, but still high, relatively speaking. Bureaucracy, a fact of life in France, was just as frustrating, and strikes just as frequent. The architecture of “Paul Val” was the same Soviet-chic, only a younger version, and class formats were the same. Like the students of today, my friends and I gathered at Place de la Comédie and at discos, and hung out at cafés and on the beach. Like Aubrey’s, our French skills fluctuated even as they improved.

And just like for Aubrey, my time in France was a life-changing experience.

In recent years, my family hosted two French high school students as part of a three week summer exchange program, and my teenage daughter was hosted by a French family on the same program. She hopes to study somewhere in France for a semester or a year during her time in college.

I think that’s une très bonne idée.

* “Kim” and I shared an apartment with “Lisa” during our year in France because there weren’t enough French host families for everyone in our UNC group of exchange students.

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.

Le Tour de (Montpellier) France

I’ve never cycled in France. But a long time ago, I drove a moped there, and earlier this month, a car. My mobylette was blue, like this one:

I knew my way around Montpellier, the city in the south of France where I studied for a year, and I knew how to get to the closest village, Palavas-les-flots, where I lived in an apartment on the beach. My “bike” didn’t go over about forty miles an hour, but it only took about twenty minutes to get to school. In town, getting around through the narrow, winding streets was easy. When I wanted to call “the States,” I drove to the International Calling Center in the Post Office and waited for a booth.

During our trip to France earlier this month, my husband and I arrived in Montpellier one evening en voiture – by car – after visiting Nice and Monaco, Aix-en Provence and Avignon (with a side trip through the Luberon valley). Though our vehicle’s GPS was confusing at best, after three tries, we navigated the narrow streets to our hotel, located in the vieille ville, close to the Promenade du Peyrou and not far from Place de la Comédie:

We pulled up to the entrance and opened our car doors with difficulty — the voiture in the photo is much smaller than the one we rented. We unloaded our valises and were politely instructed to park in an underground parking garage about a quarter mile away. Le Guilhelm was a former 17th century coach inn and conveniently located just steps away from wonderful restaurants and cafés. 

The next day, we tooled around the city, visiting the university I had attended and the village where I lived. I thought I’d be able to figure out how to get to both, using our quirky built-in GPS and drawing on memories over three decades old…since I’ve always been good at directions.


We chose la mauvaise route – the wrong way – many times. Without meaning to, we saw more of the city and its environs en voiture than I ever had en mobylette. Guessing at each turn, we made sure not to enter streets with the red and white interdit sign (“do not enter” or more literally, “forbidden”) and finally found a road I recognized (faintly) called Route de Mende. When we found the university, I was struck by how different it was from what I remembered. It was older, of course, and had changed quite a bit.

Following signs out of the city, we made it to Palavas using the road I had traveled many times; it seemed much wider. We had lunch at a café on the beach, close to the apartment I shared with two other American girls. Later that afternoon we returned to Montpellier, parked our car in the garage and set out to explore the centre ville, à pied – on foot. Much that we saw was just as I remembered.

The following morning, it was time to drop off our car. We were taking a train to Lyon, and fortunately the car rental drop lot was located at la gare – the train station – not far from our hotel. I had driven to la gare, or by it, through town on my mobylette many times, but by car, it was necessary to take a roundabout route. We gave ourselves an hour to get there.

Which turned out to be a smart decision. We had decent directions, but, malheureusement, when we approached la gare, we couldn’t find the entrance. We circled around and around the station, always keeping it in view but never able to approach it. Finally, I asked a Frenchwoman for help, and her instructions (given en français) provided our solution.

Comme toujours: Montpellier, en mobylette ou à pied, ça va, mais en voiture, c’est impossible!

En attendant — Waiting

Oh, the Places You'll Go!I’ve been waiting to do this for a long time.

I don’t mean, waiting to write a blog — although I hope I haven’t waited too long to do that. (About ten years ago, someone close to me suggested I start blogging. I didn’t take her very good advice, but a zillion other people did.)

No, I mean waiting to go back to France.

Like many others, I spent a year of college as an exchange student. (See #72 Study Abroad.) This year my husband and I will be celebrating a milestone anniversary, so we decided to take a trip to France. We’ll spend a week in the south, the weekend in Lyon, and the next week in Paris. My husband has been to France only once, going to Paris for a few days on business. So, over the last several months, I’ve been planning our trip and working on my French (my fluency has waned due to lack of practice) by attending weekly tutoring sessions with Madame Marie-Hélène.

Alors, back to the subject of waiting: I waited a long time to write a novel, and then I did it. I waited a long time to re-learn to speak French, and then I did it. I’m not waiting any longer to write this blog. Because of some of the things I rediscovered while writing my first novel and while working on the next, this blog will focus on the following theme:

The more things change, the more they remain the same. En francais: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

And one thing that doesn’t change is the necessity of waiting. Sometimes we have to wait, but sometimes we choose to wait. Since I’m starting this blog in the midst of the graduation season, some favorite lines from Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go! come to mind, about “The Waiting Place:”

“…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go, or the mail to come, or the rain to go, or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow, or waiting around for a Yes or a No, or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite, or waiting for wind to fly a kite, or waiting around for Friday night, or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake, or a pot to boil, or a Better Break, or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants, or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.

Everyone is just waiting….”

I’m not staying in The Waiting Place anymore. Are you?

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