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.


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)”

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

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.

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

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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