Francophiles & Francophobes
The book is wrong," said my 10-year-old daughter as we walked through a crowded shopping street. Anna continued: "It should be Some French Women Do Get Fat."
We had been in France for almost two weeks. I was preparing a semester-abroad program in Grenoble for Calvin College students, and my family had come along for the duration. Grenoble is a midsized French town surrounded by mountains and populated, for the most part, by svelte women. But as Anna pointed out, there was no avoiding the obvious. Now and then, a French woman took more than her fair share of the sidewalk.
While its argument may be overstated, Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat became a bestseller among American readers. A striking title—one a child could remember—certainly helped sales, as did a strong marketing campaign, capitalizing on Guiliano's cachet as the New York-based president and CEO of the French champagne company Veuve Clicquot.
But is it really possible to win over readers through an implied insult about American women? In a classic conversion narrative, Guiliano succeeds by emphasizing her adopted American nationality and admitting she was the worst of all overeaters. She tells of her year as an exchange student in the United States, where she adopted American adolescent eating ways. When Guiliano returned to France, her father ungraciously called her a sack of potatoes. Unrepentant, she went on to study in Paris and enjoy, undeterred, the city's pastries.
The family doctor helped her back to the thin and narrow. She learned from him to balance her desire to appear slim with her urge to pig out. "The key, he said, was not to conquer the second, but to broker a rapprochement: make friends of your two selves and be the master of both your willpower and your pleasures. That was the French way."
The difference between the French and the American ways is ultimately theological. A French woman knows how to pursue pleasure—and not feel guilty about it. "Nothing is sinfully delicious. If you really enjoy something … there is a place for it in your life." So enjoy chocolate, but only in small amounts and preferably the best kind. By contrast, Americans veer between snacking on the sly and then hitting the exercise machines, which Guiliano describes as "a vestige of Puritanism: instruments of public self-flagellation to make up for private sins of couch riding and overeating. French women happily don't suffer from those extremes of good and evil. Wellness is a gray area of balance."
Guiliano briefly claims her Huguenot (French Calvinist) heritage but falls flatly into a trope extremely common in French analyses of American society: the United States is still suffering from the uptightness of a Puritan heritage, while France is a "Latin" country, its people more in tune with the pleasures of life, more reasonable in their lifestyle, and a lot less fat.
In addition to her own diet-story and cultural commentary, Guiliano offers a clever mix of French recipes and familiar advice (drink more water, eat smaller portions, take the stairs not the elevator, etc.). The French, after all, do not have a genetic stranglehold on thinness. No, Frenchness is a state of mind, and one that is good for you:
If my fellow Americans could adopt even a fraction of the French attitude about food and life (don't worry, you don't have to sign on to the politics, too), managing weight would cease to be a terror, an obsession, and reveal its true nature as part of the art of living.
As her parenthetical comment indicates, Guiliano sidesteps any discussion of the undiplomatic divide between France and the United States over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That debate spawned a number of unabashed, France-bashing books. In Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese, Denis Boyles argues that France is divided between the French (charming folks) and their ruling élite (wicked, power-hungry politicos). Author of the "Euro-Press Review" for the National Review Online, Boyles readily acknowledges that his book is meant as a polemic, deliberately over the top. (The comic subtitle has already signaled that much.) So:
What we mistakenly see as a craven, anti-Semitic, insecure, hypocritical, hysterically anti-American, selfish, overtaxed, culturally exhausted country, bereft of ideas, fearful of its own capitulation to Islam, headed for a demographic cul de sac, corrupted by lame ideologies, clinging to unsupportable entitlements, crippled by a spirit-stomping social elite and up to its neck in a cheesy soufflé of multilayered bureaucracy is actually worse than all that. It's vile.
This could be funny in small doses. Taken at book length, Boyles' hyperbole is as indigestible as a plate of stale Freedom Fries, especially his central argument that France is actually America's "oldest enemy," as John J. Miller and Mark Molesky put it (see list of related titles at the end of the article).
Written before the 2005 student demonstrations and suburban riots that shook France, Boyles' screed is at once offensive and prescient. He writes of "angry Muslims who will burn down their squalid suburban ghettos as soon as they have enough money to buy a match" and predicts, correctly, that if Dominique de Villepin were to become prime minister, "the unions will tear him apart—poems, hair, pomposity and all—even if it takes them a (thirty-five hour) week to do it."
The truth is that Boyles probably strung together his online articles in order to cash in on the French-American divide over Iraq. If he had actually succeeded in describing the real divide between the French and their political élite, he might have written something decent. (Despite the promise made to readers, he doesn't even get around to talking about French cheese.1) I don't mind reading a book that is critical of France, but the cultural analysis should be more nuanced than a Pepé Le Pew cartoon.
Indeed, both Guiliano and Boyles play to opposing viewpoints whereby France is either the answer or the antithesis to the American way. To use a stereotype to point out stereotypes, France is a Parisian waiter who offers either a romantic dinner of savory sophistication or rude service and over-rated nourishment. If both viewpoints exist, one could argue it's due to the complexity of France's culture and long history, a complexity that invites strong reactions. One could also argue that many have imprecise ideas of France thanks to travel (experiences of good or bad service) or culture (like or dislike Gérard Depardieu)—or especially politics. Boyles admits that
the attitude you have toward France is probably determined by your political inclinations more than any piece of specific information. If you're a political conservative, France is anathema because of its duplicity and instinct for betrayal and its rejection of American claims of leadership. If you're a political liberal, chances are you think France is a little cranky, but charming, and besides you like the whole communitarian, anticapitalist gestalt of the place, with its wine-and-cheese ambiance.
In short, conservative and liberals agree to find the France their hearts desire.
To explore this Francophile-Francophobe dichotomy, I followed the fancy of Amazon.com recommendations and made my way through some thirty books, of which I feature a representative selection.2 I deliberately chose trade books, those published for a general audience, over specialized academic studies and textbooks on French history and culture. I am interested in what writers and publishers think the general public would like to read about France, especially when it involves an expatriate's opinion of its culture. My interest in such books comes out of the years I spent in France as an expatriate—first as an English teacher and doctoral student in Paris, and most recently as a director of a study-abroad program in Grenoble.
Allow me to put my approach as a question. If you were planning to live in Paris for an extended stay—and wanted to move beyond tourist guides—would you pick up a survey text on French history or a memoir by someone who had moved to Paris? If you would choose the latter, read on.
When I was a student in Paris, I decided to shop the French way. Instead of going to a hypermarché, France's homegrown version of Wal-Mart, I went to a local market street to buy fresh produce, bread, cheese, and meat from various stalls and shops. At a grocer's, I asked for deux tomates, s'il vous plaît. Before I could object, the grocer had briskly weighed out two kilos and presented me with a large paper bag. My French had been fine—how could one get "two tomatoes" wrong? I repeated DEUX tomates, pas deux kilos! The grocer shrugged and continued to offer me the bag. A (thin) French woman barged in front of me, offered to take the tomatoes, and asked for a kilo of this and half a kilo of that. Tomato-less but red-faced, I compromised by going to Monoprix, a medium-sized grocery and department store at the end of the street, where I could pick my tomatoes in peace. Looking back, I realize I was not aggressive enough for life in the big city. And despite my perfect pronunciation of deux tomates, I suspect the grocer of wanting to rip me off, the perfect six-foot-four Germanic foreigner, complete with a very un-Parisian Gortex raincoat and a backpack.
Visitors to France usually have their own tomato story, some incident, some misunderstanding, at first highly frustrating but now a comic commentary on Frenchness. These stories multiply when the visitor becomes an expatriate, someone with feet firmly divided between two countries. When the expatriate is a journalist, such stories are invariably tied together into a memoir or work of fiction, all in the hope of making an "Under the Parisian Sun" success.
Expatriate literature on France is of course as old as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, or rather Franklin and Jefferson, as Adam Gopnik has it in his anthology Americans in Paris. His collection ends in the 1960s, when Paris becomes "a smaller and less central place" where "the drama of the American journey has lessened, perhaps, but the comedy of cultural misunderstandings has increased." Such comedy is at the heart of Gopnik's own journalist-in-France-with-a-family memoir (Paris to the Moon) and David Sedaris' laugh-out-loud-at-language-learning stories (Me Talk Pretty One Day). And not to forget work by British authors, starting with Peter Mayle's This-Old-French-House odyssey (A Year in Provence) and Julian Barnes' Why-I-love-France-and-Flaubert essays (Something to Declare).
Most books in this genre, I should add, are not as well-written or as funny as these. But if you are indeed planning an extended stay in Paris, Sarah Turnbull and Suzy Gershman offer fairly instructive narratives about conquering the City of Light and becoming Almost French.
Sarah Turnbull comes to Paris as a young Australian journalist on the invitation of Frédéric, a French lawyer she met in Romania. The cross-cultural couple struggle through various cultural trials and tribulations and end up getting married. At last report, they live happily in Paris, with a West Highland Terrier called Maddie.
For her part, Suzy Gershman arrives in Paris as a fifty-something widow, flush with insurance-settlement cash and eager to fulfill the Parisian retirement dream she had shared with her deceased husband. She has an affair with a real-to-life (but no good) Count, lives through numerous cultural tribulations and trials, and does not get married. At last report, she has a Paris apartment, a country home in Provence, a new boyfriend, and a spaniel mix named Samantha.
Turnbull and Gershman agree that a dog helps smooth the way into Parisian society, serving both as a reliable conversation-opener and as a companion far less complicated than a French boyfriend. Despite their choice to remain, happily ever after, in France, both authors stress the difficulty of entering French society completely. Of course, becoming "almost French" suggests success as well as cultural failure. Turnbull concludes that such is the reality of expatriate life, of the insider/outsider realizing she does not "wholly belong." To be a true insider, it's not enough to have a perfect accent and fabulous clothes; you need "that historical superglue spun from things like French childhood friends and memories of school holidays on the grandparents' farm and centuries of accumulated culture and complications."
Turnbull arrives in France expecting (quite unrealistically for any foreign country) that "belonging and integrating would take merely a matter of months." At a dinner, she feels like an "alien" as the conversation moves along, rapid-fire, articulate and knowledgeable. At a cocktail party, she has difficulty connecting with others and realizes the social "rules" are different in France. People seem so formal, so reserved. She learns from Frédéric the advice she gives to all: It takes time in France. And that time includes making friends to obtaining a job and dealing with French bureaucracy.
Older and slightly wiser, Suzy Gershman comes to Paris more prepared, aware that settling into the city is different from finding a hotel room. Indeed, the savvy Gershman's account will annoy anyone who has been down and out in a Parisian youth hostel. A self-proclaimed "Shopping Goddess" and author of Born to Shop travel guides, Gershman takes her dog, for "her first social experience in Paris," to the luxury George V hotel for lunch, and the following week to the equally luxurious Hôtel de Crillon. In the same chapter, she informs her son about her choice to settle in France definitively: "We were broke but could afford France." Oh to be "broke" like that.
For all her tiresome name-dropping, shopping advice, and Too Much Information about Viagra-aided trysts with the Count-Who-Nearly-Couldn't, Gershman does show a great deal of spunk and determination, the kind needed to adapt to another culture and language. She watches tv until she can understand the French news and identify French soccer players. She tries to avoid the English-speaking expatriate community. She pays attention, learning each day "a small, stupid and essential detail." She realizes, for example, that that the French flag is called the "blue, white, and red." Indeed, France is similar to the United States in many ways, but the "order" is often so different.
Gershman accepts quite soon her situation of being "almost French": "No matter how much cultural savvy you gain, a foreigner will never be French, so it was far more fun to mix it all up." Mind you, she says this in the context of entertaining and menu planning. Still, her success in adapting is in her adaptability. And when she meets fellow expatriate Americans, she finds a common thread: "The ones who loved France the most were usually aging Baby Boomers who looked into their futures in the United States, didn't like what they saw and decided to stay in France where downsizing was a way of life, not a sin." French society may be impermeable at certain levels, but from Gershman's viewpoint, it beats a retirement village in Florida.
In fact, much expatriate literature wavers between the poles of francophilie and francophobie. Turnball summarizes such an attitude in her introduction:
I know of no other country that is so fascinating yet so frustrating, so aware of the world and its place within it but at the same time utterly insular … it's a love-hate relationship. But it's charged with so much mystery, longing and that French specialty—séduction—that we can't resist coming back for more.
In the end, francophilie reigns, justified by the inevitable je ne sais quoi, the eternal stereotyped mystery of a seductive France. If that seems an explanation that fails to explain, you are right. Such is the mystery of books about the mystery of France.
In joining a French company, expatriates often experience a cultural clash that involves a quadruple whammy of opposing business practices, linguistic misunderstandings, confusing social codes, and what-am-I-doing-here-getting-paid situations. Stephen Clarke, a young British journalist living in Paris, resorts to fiction to describe such a clash through the misadventures of Paul West, a young British businessman working in Paris to set up a tea shop chain. In A Year in the Merde, West gets into trouble with his boss, a slick operator who traffics in tainted English beef, cozies up with the far Right, and tries to sell a country home on a site neighboring a future nuclear reactor and fields of genetically modified crops. As a manager, West attempts to deal with inefficient officemates, who are assigned to his project only because the company can't fire them. All the while, West acts the British lager lout, drinking himself in and out of relationships with well-built, sex-obsessed French women. The sequel volume, In the Merde for Love, is more of the same, yet focuses not so much on business culture as on West's encounters with French culture more generally, especially when he meets the parents of his latest flame.3
In these novels, Clarke presents French society in a way that is less cloying than the typical expatriate memoir and more grounded than the France-bashing polemics. The love is there, and yet the hate has some substance. His comments on a foreigner's day-to-day life in Paris are particularly perceptive. His hero ponders the bundled up carpets found in street gutters (carpets used by street cleaners to direct water and all manner of mess to the sewers). He criticizes the exorbitant price of tea in French cafés (considered a lady's drink, it's all show and no substance). He complains about the French use of "Anglo-Saxon" (to describe all English-speakers). He makes friends with Jake, an American who can only get a job as an English teacher (although he has been in Paris so long he can no longer speak English idiomatically).
As in the case of West's corrupt boss, most of the humor depends on Clarke's ability to riff on French social and political controversies of the past few years. He is also good at mocking the inefficiencies and obsessions of French and British business practices. A number of the French-English puns and mispronunciations are amusing, but only if you know both languages.
Clarke's satiric fiction is marketed as an "urban antidote to A Year in Provence," but Clarke is no Peter Mayle. The language is most often crude and the situations lewd. Indeed, Clarke initially self-published the first novel in Paris before locals clamored for copies at an English bookstore. One interview led to another and the book was eventually picked up by Bloomsbury.4 Easy reading blended with humor and elements of pithy cultural commentary makes a good recipe for sales.
Rather than trying to convey the full sweep of life in France, some authors choose to focus on a specific aspect of French society—a trade, for example (as in Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, on piano restoration), or the business side of French cuisine (see the recipes and renovations in Susan Hermann Loomis' On Rue Tatin).
In Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream, James Morgan traces his pilgrimage to places where Henri Matisse found the inspiration for his paintings. This memoir skillfully blends an account of Matisse's life with the story of the problems Morgan and his wife encounter as American expatriates in France, but we learn too much about his personal insecurities over selling their house in the United States. Yes, it's another book about Boomers finding true happiness in France, with the advantage that it teaches the armchair art historian a good deal about a great artist.
If you like wine but are intimidated by the connaisseur, Michael Sanders is a likable guide, never looking down his wine glass at you. In Families of the Vine, Sanders features the Cahors wine region, an area south of Toulouse that is not as well-known to Americans as regions such as Bordeaux and Bourgogne but produces a wonderful dark-red wine (based on the Malbec grape). The families of the title are three winegrowers representing three approaches to the business: 1) maintaining the status quo of selling the wine mostly in France, 2) marketing the wine abroad, or 3) turning the wine into a high-end vintage (grand cru). Presenting the family dynamics at each vineyard, Sanders succeeds in demystifying the entire winemaking process, from vine selection to tasting. He explains the concept of terroir, a fuzzy but important word indicating the combination of land, climate, vines, and a winegrower's heritage that makes a wine. And while wine snobbery and speculation certainly exist in France, Sanders' goal is to show the other side: "wine shorn of pretense, more as part of a way of life than merely a simple commodity to be bought and sold." Upon finishing the book, I went out and bought a bottle of Cahors made by one of the vineyards Sanders describes (Clos la Coutale). The wine was fine, and tasted even finer since I felt I had met the grower.
Such "cultural journey" books do share common faults. They can read like so many magazine features wrapped together as a book. Moreover, if an author deals with specific plants, people, paintings, and places, illustrations are a handy thing, especially when the narrative is weak. Aside from the book jacket, however, Morgan includes no plates of Matisse's work or even photographs of the locations he visited on his trip. Instead, he presents his own sketches. Morgan likes to draw, he likes Matisse, but that does not make him a suitable replacement for a master. As to Sanders, a map of the Cahors region would have been helpful, and why not pictures of the actual vineyards, the growers, the cooper, and the sommelier? No doubt, it's primarily the fault of the bottom line, the cost of permissions and color reproductions. And perhaps also the fear of becoming a coffee-table book, and not being taken seriously.
Still, in these books the writer's passion for an aspect of French culture opens a door to French society. Administrative problems and cultural misunderstandings remain, but the authors make friends, very good French friends. They bridge a cultural gap by a love for something that is lovely.
For readers of a more analytical bent, there are other places to turn. Through a grant from an American foundation, Julie Barlow and Benoît Nadeau were able to spend two years in France to study the country and write about it. The resulting book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong,5 is half expatriate memoir, half textbook, arguing according to its title that the existence of a functioning society proves that it functions. They contend that France is a country that "holds together" when seen from its own perspective: "It's easy to pass judgment on the French, but much harder to examine them in their own terms and on their own turf." The subtitle ("Why We Love France but Not the French") sounds like a France-bashing marketing ploy suggested by the editor—the book itself is resolutely pro-French.
In the introduction, Nadeau and Barlow claim they managed to "read the French in record time" thanks to their linguistic abilities (both are bilingual Canadian journalists) and an ethnologist's methodology. In that regard, they sought out the big picture and not the big story of the moment. At the same time, they tried to meet people from all walks of life, which was necessary "to make sense of this unfamiliar, immense territory: the mind of the French." Offering a memoir in the intellectual vein, the authors' goal was not to renovate a run-down house but rather to "renovate some ideas." If France is a mystery, they claim to have solved it.
The first section of the book is indeed quite strong, with its analysis of the French "Spirit." Nadeau and Barlow argue that "the present in France is only a compromise between the past and the present" and there is "no contradiction between being resolutely modern and ferociously archaic." The country of high-speed trains and rocket scientists is also that of a bureaucracy that takes its cues from the ancien régime. In the same way, the French president has a kingly role in society and the state (the all-powerful Etat) is counted upon to provide for the people. The result is political and societal structures that change slowly, bending but not breaking through successive revolutions, republics, riots, and seasonal strikes.
The authors also provide a good introduction to the importance of World War II in understanding French society. While acknowledging an "anti-Semitic thread in French culture," their discussion ends positively, noting that Vichy's collaboration with the Nazis is openly discussed in the French media. But how thick is this "thread" even today? The reader is left with more questions than answers. A subsequent chapter gives another clear historical overview, this time of "Algeria: The Unacknowledged War." The Algerian conflict divided France in the 1950s and 1960s and remains a delicate topic. The return of a million settlers to France in 1962 and the arrival of Algerian nationals well into the 1970s are certainly at the heart of current debates over immigration and integration. Nadeau and Barlow do not discuss the hate crimes and incidents now involving French Jews and French Muslims.
After describing the "Spirit" of France the book describes the country's "Structure" through a presentation of its institutions, laws, and educational system as well as its societal habits. With regard to such habits, the chapter on "the choreography of protest" in France is particularly interesting. "Open defiance of law and disrespect towards its enforcers," Nadeau and Barlow write, "is what happens in an extremely centralized country where citizens enjoy little real political liberty. And the State puts up with it because such behavior is a recognized check in a heavily centralized democracy." As with the recent failure to reform French labor law, the prime minister and president usually cave in to a major protest, as it represents an unofficial referendum.
Nadeau and Barlow rightly stress the centralizing force of France's educational system. They point out an aspect of French society that my wife and I found hard to accept when our kids came to us with stories of their French teachers' pedagogy: "The French tolerate authoritarian teaching because they are an authoritarian society. They want a uniform education because they want uniformity." At the same time, the system is designed to push the best students to compete for places in the grandes écoles, the élite schools that parallel the under-funded and overcrowded universities and provide the country's engineers, top professors, business managers, politicians, and technocrats. If fraternity comes from a national curriculum and the rhythms of a national school calendar, equality and liberty are relative to a student's ability and the varied quality of local primary and secondary schools.
Nadeau and Barlow offer one of the more helpful primers to contemporary French society. In fact, my colleagues and I currently have our students read it before they head off to France for a semester. I should note, though, a gaping hole in their rather lengthy book: the absence of any in-depth discussion of religion in France. Nor do they discuss in detail the debate over the real or imagined decline in French literature, fashion, film, and gastronomy. Written before France's rejection in May 2005 of the European Constitution and the suburban riots of that year, the book is far too positive about France's ability to adapt to change. Finally, I learned a great deal about government and societal structures but a lot less about day-to-day life for sixty million French men and women.
Some of what I was looking for can be found in Nadeau and Barlow's more recent book, The Story of French, which offers numerous insights into what defines French daily life: the French language. Their 450-page page study provides a readable overview of how French developed over the centuries, not only in Europe but also in North America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia through colonial expansion and international organizations. Given such a wide temporal and geographic scope, their historical portions at times sound potted, fitting more into the exhausting instead of the exhaustive category. I found most interesting the chapters that took a polemical turn.
For example, Nadeau and Barlow find that sixty million Frenchmen are wrong when it comes to "the castrating influence of language purism," an attitude that refuses any changes to French grammar and spelling in deference to an "ideal French." Writing from Montreal, they also attack the "cultural myopia" in France that discounts or even ignores French-speakers from other countries. They even mock the French for their defeatist acceptance of English preeminence: "So why are the French so ready to sacrifice their mental universe?" The chief reason is a lack of pride and will, for "in the end, it all boils down to choice." Nadeau and Barlow threaten to write the French version of their book without respecting some complex and, in their view, archaic rules of French grammar, but they doubt that a French editor would accept such a bold assault on tradition. Such is the irony of their book—a defense of French, "the other global language," provided in English.
In French Women for All Seasons, the sequel to her first book, Mireille Guiliano admits that readers have sent her "gotcha" letters to report sightings of fat French women. She recognizes that in a generation, French women could become "as dangerously overweight as many Americans and other nationalities." In fact, she now sees the problem as "a conflict of two world orders." Her solution is redefined as "the classic French lifestyle," which she goes on to describe in repetitive detail, throwing in advice on the proper tying of silk scarves and champagne drinking as well as a host of yummy-sounding recipes. Be ready for more books of this sort as she has even trademarked the phrase "French Women Don't Get Fat."
Guiliano's admission about obesity in France leaves us again with the essential dichotomy: is the country on the decline, falling apart, even at the waistband? Or does it "hold together" despite all its problems, and offer the recipe for good living, from foreign relations to dieting?
Inside observers often describe France as a nation of râleurs, complainers who succeed in changing nothing. Plantu, the brilliant French political cartoonist, commented on protests by showing France as a desert island, with a single palm tree flying a tattered, tricolore French flag. The French circle the palm tree in a march, totally isolated from the rest of the world.6
And yet, our stay in Grenoble was grand, with Alpine hiking and skiing, travel to delightful towns and villages, a generous sampling of local specialties, window shopping in a lively downtown, espressos sipped at a favorite café, fresh baguette and pastries from the corner bakery. When the North American media began to show images of burning cars in French suburbs, friends and family asked quite anxiously if the riots affected us. I replied by blaming the media, in France and North America, for making a very serious situation look worse. That's not happening downtown, I added, guiltily aware of my own participation in France's social divide. Many enjoy the ample wine and cheese of the land in vibrant city centers, while many others are excluded from the feast, particularly poor and unemployed minority youth, who shout from the doors of bleak suburban housing projects.
French and American political commentators will often point, with an odd mixture of doom and glee, to the political, social, and economic mess in which France finds itself. Nonetheless, France continues to offer a quality of life that allows citizens as well as expatriates to neglect serious problems, and even protest against any serious attempt at change.
Our daughter Anna came back from her school in Grenoble one day brimming with the story of an incident at the cafeteria involving the moniteurs in charge of school kids during the two-hour lunch break. For some instance of insubordination, one of her fifth-grade classmates had been told to clean up all the lunch trays. While the girl remained in the cafeteria, her friends chanted outside, "Down with the moniteurs!" I asked Anna if she had joined in the chanting. She replied with an incredulous of course. Just that month I had spent hours helping her memorize for her history tests the events of the French Revolution and Napoleon's exploits. But my mild-mannered daughter was obviously learning at school more than just the facts of the French revolutionary spirit. She was becoming French.
All the books in the world could not have taught her that reaction. Nor can all the books reviewed here teach you all that you need to know about France. Trade books on the expatriate experience are very weak on matters ranging from French popular culture and humor to the subtleties of French intellectual, political, and religious positions. They promise to "figure out," "decipher," and "explain" the French way of life, but they often overlook both the ephemeral and the essential qualities that make up a culture. For that, you will have to go to academic studies and textbooks, as well as French movies, magazines, music, and TV. Or better yet, go to France.
Otto Selles is professor of French at Calvin College.
1. For that, see Pierre Boisard's Camembert: A National Myth.
2. I am grateful to Calvin College and its Board of Trustees for supporting this project through a Calvin Summer Research Fellowship.
3. In the United Kingdom and Canada, the book was released with the title Merde Actually.
4. The first novel has even been translated into French as God Save La France (Pocket, 2006).
5. Translated as Pas si fous, ces Français! (Seuil, 2005).
6. L'Express, March 30, 2006, p. 2.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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