Monday, May 8, 2017

Expat Memoirs: Vive La France!

 Last fall, when we had just moved into our apartment and I was still figuring out the crazy garbage system and feeling pretty overwhelmed, I decided to take on a reading project.  It started with my love of certain movies like A Good Year or The Hundred-Foot Journey, where people find themselves in a new situation (preferably an international setting -- and if at all possible, Provence), and even if it's less than ideal, they learn to cope and even, eventually, triumph. 

But I didn't want to read fiction; I needed the real, been-there-done-that stories, especially as the kids kept getting sick and we were trying (sometimes it felt quite literally) to survive. 

Now I feel less like I "need" the stories now, but I've found some wonderful books.  And my list keeps growing!  You may not be living the expat life right now, but there is so much to learn from these tales, keen observations of those who have come to love a new place despite its quirks, to thrive and call it "home".  

If you made a pie chart of expat memoirs, a huge chunk of them would be about France.  And probably at least 95% (maybe even all???) of those would have to do with food -- at least to some degree.  Being a bit of a Francophile, I decided to start my book reviews with these French foodie tales.

*****Disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order.  These are just the ones I've read since my arrival in Korea.*****

My Life in France by Julia Child
Why you should read this:
It would be more difficult to find a reason not to read it.  I honestly don't know what took me so long.  Child's unpretentious story-telling and effusive personality shine from the pages. She was educated and intellectual, and she had a very scientific approach to cooking, as she detailed in her descriptions of the research she did for Mastering the Art of French Cooking and its "son".  But her love for people blended with her joie de vivre triumph over any kind of vanity she could have laid claim to.  I like to think that if I'd been in Paris in the 40's or 50's, we would have been good friends.  But I also think that was part of her charisma.  Bonus: The text is peppered with fun words  like "collywobbles" and "muckity mucks", which in my opinion are tragically underused and I hereby endeavor to inject into my daily conversations.  Bonus bonus: the wonderful black-and-white photographs, mostly taken by her husband Paul. 

Why you should read this:
Because it's SO funny.  This was recommended by bloggers I generally agree with, but again, I waited too long to read it.  Most chapters had me laughing out loud at least once.  Lebovitz takes on some of the stereotypes and quirky ideals of French (in particular, Parisian) living, and discusses them to hilarious ends.  I came away having learned a few things but mostly with a strong reminder to find humor in the situations around me.  Bonus: as a famous pastry chef, he has some recipes that look amazing and I'm tempted to try in my beautiful new oven.

Why you should read these: 
As an American who moved to Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman, Bard might have just glossed merrily over all the nitty-gritty details of French life.  Instead, she tells an interesting and realistic tale of adapting to a new culture, as well as navigating the highs-and-lows of family and relationships, through the filter of an outsider.  She discusses issues that we American women like to talk about at length, such as the French attitude towards the female physique and eating, or fashion. But she also bravely wades into more grim territory such as  Stage IV cancer and death of a family member in her new adopted culture.  

Bard also explores what happens when the French national motto "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" crashes into the American belief that anything is possible.  These are both, in many respects, books about "crazy ideas": her husband's quest to fulfill his lifelong dream of working in film, writing a book about her own life even though she isn't -- quelle horreur!! -- a prize-winning scientist or former prime minister, or opening a specialty ice-cream shop in small town in Provence.  She has lived in the country long enough that hers is no longer a starry-eyed puppy love, but an ability to see what is truly there and still want to call it home.  Bonus: lots more yummy recipes.

Why you should read this:
I felt the strongest personal connection to this author due to her husband's career similarities to my husband's, and the frequent moves that has entailed (though the same was true for Julia Child). Unlike the Childs, their dream of living in Paris takes a bitter twist when he is sent to Iraq for a year, and she has to forge a life without him.  Though it's not a sad book, I read parts of it with a lump in my throat -- like when she describes the first days after her husband Calvin leaves, or the wistful thoughts about staying in one place long enough to put down roots while still being incredibly grateful for the opportunities in her life.  

I also related to her love of the French language, though discouraged by her mother who instead made her study the more "important" and "useful" Mandarin.  Both I and now my eldest daughter have received such blunt scrutiny -- i.e. "Why would you want to learn FRENCH?!" (Insert look of disgust). "It's so pointless these days."  But as she says, her mother underestimated the power of love in the ability to learn a language.  Similarly, it's through her passion for food that she survives her year of separation from her husband as she explores France and details culture and history as it relates to what the French eat.  

But even if you don't identify so strongly with the author's story, Mastering is an interesting and educating read, while remaining personal.  Bonus: (do I even need to say it?) yummy recipes (though these seemed more meat-centric than the other books).

I know that there are so many excellent books that fit into this category of expat memoir, but these five reminded me that keeping your sense of humor, enjoying good stories as they happen, and finding -- or rather, living -- your passion are the keys to thriving, wherever you are.

{Also recommended, though read before this project: A Year in Provence (and sequels) by Peter Mayle,  A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Mollie Wizenburg (doesn't entirely take place in France, but still), and Lessons from Madame Chic (and sequels) by Jennifer L. Scott.}

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