Friday, September 04, 2009

Village Idiot's Fish-Out-Of-Water Tale: C'est Magnifique

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Do you have book prejudices? Are there certain genres you avoid because, even if you've never tried them, you just know they're not your thing? I definitely do. I stay away from anything science/tech-y, avoid chick lit, ignore high fantasy, and give travel memoirs a wide berth. At least I did. Then, I read I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do) by Mark Greenside; now, I'm re-thinking my travel memoir avoidance. There might be something to this genre after all.


Greenside's tale begins with a girl, as all good stories do. The female in question is Kathryn, his poet girlfriend, who decides they should spend the summer in Europe. Brittany, to be exact; situated in the far west of France, it might as well be Finistère - The End of the World. Greenside is reluctant to say the least. Says the intrepid traveler, "I hate to fly and don't speak French. This isn't a good idea. I was in Paris in 1966, and they loathed me, and I don't think I've changed all that much" (3). Still, when Kathryn informs him she's rented the perfect summer cottage, that's the end of the argument. They go.

In the small Breton village where they settle, Greenside (l'American) stands out like, well, an American in France. His only saving grace is that he's not English. Otherwise, he's pretty obviously "an affront to the village, France, and humanity" (192). Kathryn's dream cottage turns out to be a filthy nightmare, "each room its own disaster" (30). But, somehow, what should be a miserable excuse for a summer, turns into a love affair. Not between Mark and Kathryn - they don't survive the experience - but between Mark and his new home. Through daily interactions with the villagers, he comes to understand (not exactly through words, since he still can't understand the language) that he's in a graceful place, where "the small things are large, a bonjour, ça va, a flower, a glass of water. It's a good way to live" (135).

Still, he never plans to actually live there live there. Yet, somehow, his formidable landlady convinces him to buy a house. When he has no money. How does this come about exactly? In a way that is wholly un-American and quintessentially French: it's all based on trust. The whole transaction befuddles the cynical Monsieur Greenside, who exclaims:

My dad was a lawyer -- a Philadelphia lawyer -- we were all taught never, ever, under any circumstances, with the possible exception of a birthday card, to sign anything without having it vetted by someone, preferably a lawyer, but at least a professional, definitely a Jew. And here I am surrounded by Christians -- Catholics -- initialing a document I can't read and don't understand, in a language I'll never master, the whole thing being explained and translated by the person I'm buying the house from. The only saving grace in this whole process is I don't have the money, so what's to lose? (114-15)

From buying baguettes at the local boulangerie to dealing with Breton contractors to blunders big and small, Greenside punctuates his travelogue with a healthy dose of humor. Even better, it's the humble, self-deprecating kind that makes you fall instantly in love with its bearer. His voice is lively, engaging and just funny. Where I expected a long, dull monologue about places I've never been and people I've never met, I got a colorful fish-out-of-water stale spun by a master storyteller. Rarely have I encountered a village idiot as entertaining as Monsieur l'American, Mark Greenside. Want my opinion of I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do)? C'est magnifique.

Grade: A-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for some language

2 comments:

  1. Oh I love a good travel book and this one sounds like great fun. I laughed when you said his only saving grace was that he wasn't English. How true! The French really don't like us. I might have to see if I can find this one somewhere. Very nice review.

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  2. Hi. I'm writing this title down right now. I love travel books but it's hard to find good ones. If you haven't read A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle you're missing a real treat. There are two follow up books that are wonderful as well. I'm so glad I stopped by here. Nice blog!

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