August 20, 2009

I'll Never be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside

I must confess that I do not read a lot of travel books, but I was impressed with I’ll Never be French (no matter what I do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany. Despite the lengthy title, the book is actually a rather brief literary romance between a man and his coastal French town. Against Greenside’s best efforts, he and a girlfriend plan a vacation to France. The relationship doesn’t last, but Greenside’s growing affection for Brittany and the populace does. In the rashest move of his forty some years, Greenside is coerced into the purchase of a house. Comical miscommunications, anxiety, and miraculous good fortune ensue.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the total debunking of the myth that the French hate Americans. Total. Debunking. Instead the charming and ridiculously polite strangers, neighbors and friends that Greenside meets, go above and beyond to help him out. They come across as near saints because it turns out that Greenside needs a lot of help. Self styled throughout the book as an incompetent, he spends a few chapters of the book in dirty ripped pants, repeatedly falling out of his window and buying things he has no way of paying for. Greenside effectively bumbles his way through life in France reconciling his bi-continental lifestyles. He compares himself to a three year old an apt description that endears himself to the reader and French alike.

It’s worth noting that Greenside speaks and understands very little French. And his way of communicating such frustration with the reader, is to include a lot of French dialogue that he doesn’t translate. So unless you have a working knowledge of French, Greenside leaves you as lost in the conversation as he was. While it is an effective technique and does incorporate the reader, it can also be irritating to traverse.

Injected with humor, I’ll Never be French, transports with its descriptions. For those of us who will never make it Brittany, or who have been and are interested in Greenside’s take, it is a delightful arm chair travel experience. Diane Johnson of L’Affaire, Le Mariage and Le Divorce fame calls it, “one of the nicest of the trillions of books about France.” And I’d agree with that.

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