Book Review: French By Heart

French by heart

Rebecca Ramsey, French By Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France. Broadway Books: 2007.

Buckling up on an airplane with the prospect of spending a glorious two-week vacation in a foreign country is one thing—one thing I have done and long to do again. It is another thing altogether to buckle up and move your entire life overseas. Ready for that? Hmmm. That is just what the Ramsey family did in French by Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France.

My reaction to this book was literally a physical one. I made the mistake of cracking the cover open one night after everyone else was in bed. Within five minutes, my heart rate and blood pressure were way up. Sleep was a long way off.

Why such a reaction to this book with the cute, happy cover? Well, perhaps I identify in too many ways with the author, Rebecca Ramsey. Rebecca lives somewhere in Greer, South Carolina, a few miles from me, and her husband works for Michelin like mine does. Michelin moved Rebecca’s family to Clermont-Ferrand, France, a town I’ve visited twice and which you may remember I have already written about here. I don’t know Rebecca, but I do know that “moving to France” has not gone unmentioned in my house (albeit in a hazy, “alternate reality” kind of way).

So when Rebecca mentions mountains of paperwork, whirlwind French lessons, packing her piano onto a shipping container, and dubious looks from airline attendants at the mention of Clermont-Ferrand, I feel like I am looking at an “alternate reality” of my life. When I read about Rebecca understanding only half of what the people behind the counter at the bank are saying while everyone else stares at her, yes, my head vigorously nods, yes (only it happened to me at La Poste). When she stares at the sausage on her plate, spotting unfamiliar little lumps, my head again nods. And when she wanders the aisles of the bookstore, I, too, wander the same aisles in my head and think, oh, if only I could remember more French!

Rebecca and her husband, their three children (one of whom was still a baby), and their cat lived, worked, and went to school as a “normal” family in Clermont-Ferrand for four years. French by Heart is the story of how Rebecca—wife, mother, and neighbor—experienced France. It moves for the most part chronologically in exploring the strangeness of it all—the lack of toilets, the startling doctor’s office experiences, the smoking teenagers, the odd social habits, the unsmiling strangers (coming from the South, this would be really strange)—all of which, I’m sure, she included in order to scare me to death. On top of this is the always-hovering figure of the elderly neighbor, Madame Mallet, who watches Rebecca’s every move and criticizes every fault. Other than Rebecca, Madame Mallet is a central figure and the progression of their relationship—delving deeper and deeper beneath the crusty French exterior—is, I think, a mirror of Rebecca’s relationship with France itself.

There are moments in the book that fire up my imagination. Can you imagine, for instance, living five hours from Normandy and just popping up there for the weekend? Or having a winter break in the Alps? Or going antiquing for French antiques? Then there’s the Sunday afternoon hiking among the sunflower fields and the châteaux—sigh.

After reading, though, I was left feeling that Rebecca never did become “French by heart,” for during most of the book she is feeling either awkward, uncomfortable, or frustrated. I did not get a true sense of France or the heart of the French people. I’m not sure whether to put France out of my mind or say “Bring it on!” In all fairness, however, I am probably not the best candidate for reviewing this book. Given the connection I have with it, I am tuned to picking up on everything scary.

I need one of you out there to read it and tell me how French By Heart strikes you!

★ ★ ★/5

History Matters

“What does the history major say?”

“Do you want fries with that?”

I remember my dad throwing out that old line about history majors years ago when I was choosing an area of study. At the time I am sure I just sighed and rolled my eyes at that “dad humor.”

Fast-forward fifteen years. My bachelor’s degree in history is not earning me any money at the moment. I never finished a master’s degree. And yet, a couple of months ago, in the midst of some kind of intellectual dialogue (I can’t remember the topic but in our house it’s usually either religion or, at that time of year, politics) I heard myself say, “It’s my job as a historian to bring history into the conversation.” Almost as soon as I said it I realized how pompous it sounded. I mean, major disclaimer, I don’t work in the history field anymore and I don’t have an advanced degree. (My inferiority complex about all of this is a discussion for another time.)

Yet I can probably claim that I am more historically well-versed and more historically aware than the average American. Is it my job, then, to bring up history, to correct the myths and misunderstandings I encounter or, even more to the point, to address the at-times willful ignorance of how we got here? Over the past couple of months and especially over the past couple of weeks, given our current political climate, I am starting to be convinced of it. Presidential personalities and precedents, immigration, women’s rights—each with a long and varied history of their own—are just a few of the hot topics du jour.

For a less politicized example, look at motherhood. The blogosphere is chock-full of women proclaiming how hard motherhood is. Just yesterday a “viral” article partially titled “Why Parenting Used to Be Easier” appeared on my Facebook feed (view the original here). The article features a struggling Australian mum with two children pondering how on earth her grandmother survived life with eleven. Her father’s response? In her grandmother’s day, mothers didn’t have as much pressure put on them. This explanation is easy to understand, for even I feel the societal pressure to avoid processed foods, buy organic, keep the TV off, make sure we spend 60 minutes outdoors, get involved in sports and music, teach my kids to read (but not TOO early!), never leave them alone in the car, have a Pinterest-worthy house, throw Pinterest-worthy birthday parties—you get the picture.

So if mothers even fifty years ago experienced motherhood somewhat differently than I do, how does my experience stack up to motherhood throughout history? Is my job harder than theirs? Through the lens of history, I have to look at this fairly. I have to admit I have myriad advantages over my foremothers; I have a house full of time-saving devices, I have virtually anything I’d ever want at my fingertips via the internet, my children are growing stronger and healthier than ever thanks to modern medicine, and, let’s not forget, I don’t have to grow my own food (vegetable or animal) and I don’t have to make my own clothes (unless I want to).

But on the other hand, mothers in certain times and places had great advantages over me. I believe that for hundreds of years, many mothers lived in tighter communities and had stronger support systems (please indulge a few generalities here). Men and women rarely moved away from the area they grew up in and, more often than not, had elderly or unmarried family members living with them. They really knew their neighbors and shared with them in experiencing childbirth, sickness, and death. They exchanged labor and services with each other. And we can’t forget the advantage of the elite and even middle class who regularly employed maids and nannies (obviously this is still an advantage for some today). This type of community brought several benefits—safety in letting children run around, built-in “babysitters” in the house, a division of labor, and the sharing of years’-worth of wisdom and timeless advice.

The modern American mother (even probably so far back as the mid-twentieth-century as the world began to change), however, is often isolated, hundreds of miles from her parents, living with society’s expectation that she be self-sufficient and independent. Many, many mothers add working outside the home and are still expected to do it all in both spheres. Modern mothers are solely responsible for their children’s care in a minute-by-minute way. Few are brave enough in our paranoid society and sometimes legitimately scary world to turn their kids out of the house in the morning and call them in again for dinner at night.

Looking through the lens of history shows me it’s dangerous to say my life is harder or easier or better or worse than a mother’s life one hundred years ago (or even fifty). Maybe it’s a wash—motherhood has and always will be hard. But the bottom line is, everything has a history. Even my day-to-day motherhood. And history matters insofar as we use it to think about ourselves and frame our circumstances. So the Australian mum with the grandmother who had eleven children? I’m sure grandma would say there were parts of motherhood that were terribly hard for her—diseases, cooking and cleaning, you name it. She might say her grand-daughter has it easy. We’ll never know. But thinking historically helps us to think empathetically and to be more willing to live with “grey areas.”

So what made me think through all of this? I’ve discovered a new podcast that has made me feel brave enough to bring history into the conversation. John Fea’s “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” podcast has been endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking. John Fea is the history chair at Messiah College and the author of such works as Why Study History? and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (the latter I recommend for anyone interested in the topic). His podcast is a little over a year old and has already covered a lot of territory. In his first episode, he lays a foundation for why bringing historical thinking to bear on the problems of today is so important. Historians provide, among other things, context, causality, and show us how complex any issue truly is (see all Five C’s of Historical Thinking here). In the words of Fea’s first guest, Executive Director of the American Historical Association Jim Grossman, “everything has a history.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re ready to think in a fresh way about the world around you (and sound smart around the dinner table), I recommend “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” You don’t have to be a historian to get something out of it. In the meantime, make room for history in the conversation.

Serendipity in Italy: Part One

My own photo, July 2016.

I’ve decided it’s time to finish writing up my European summer vacation memories before they start to slip away from me. And—eek—it will be summer again before we know it, especially here in South Carolina where the “winter” has been in the 60s and 70s.

A funny thing has happened to those vacation memories; where they used to be vivid and sometimes have rough edges (i.e., the angst of international travel), they have since smoothed out and I’m left with the highlights. I suppose I am now in the zone of rosy retrospect. In a way, I really regret not getting my thoughts—the good and the bad—down sooner. Lesson learned.

I still stick by my assertion that the best travel moments happen serendipitously. The things we planned to do and see were wonderful, but the memories that shine brightest are the unexpected vistas, the hole-in-the-wall places, and the plain old fun of watching other people have a grand time.

Florence

It is way more fun to say Florence as Firenze (frankly, it’s way more fun to say any Italian word as if you’re trying to be that “spicy meatball” guy). Anyway. Florence was our first stop in Italy after a week in France.

The feeling of flying into a foreign country for the first time is quite unlike anything else. There’s so much to discover, it feels as if the sky’s the limit. The fellow passengers are always part of the building anticipation. The first time we went to France, there was a French family waiting at our gate in Atlanta. It was almost more than I could handle. Real French people! A vrai père and mère and bébé! Flying into Florence was no different. There were Mediterranean-featured people at the gate and the flight announcements were in Italian! Ah—Italy!

Unfortunately our arrival in Florence marked the low point of our vacation. The airport is small and almost as soon as we disembarked the plane we were at the airport’s exit. I stopped in my tracks about ten feet back from the door and worried aloud, “Wait, where was customs? Why didn’t they ask for our passports? Are we here legally?” I was just plain ignorant; they don’t check passports within the EU, but for a few awful minutes I was convinced they would come after us for not having our passports stamped. In a haze we wandered around the parking lot until we came upon a bus heading to the center of town.

The outskirts of Florence, like those of any town, are not attractive; they’re industrial, congested, and run-down. But tourists must inevitably pass through them before reaching their reward. Soon enough, the architecture became more regular—Italian Renaissance!—and the landscape more picturesque. I spotted my first of those trees—the tall ones with no branches until the very top, where they fan out like an umbrella—which, appearing in any picture, immediately evoke Italy (I now know they are stone pines). The bus pulled up at the Santa Maria Novella train station and we were off on our own.

Walking down to the street from the train station, we were again immensely thankful that we had traveled with only carry-ons. The Florentine sidewalks are paved with huge stone pavers, irregularly shaped and uneven. There were wall-to-wall people and trying to get through those bumpy lanes was a sweaty job. How fortunate for us that our hotel was just at the corner of one of the avenues radiating from the train station.

The lobby of the hotel looked awfully posh—deep blue walls, white trim, sharp black and white photos tastefully arranged, and a fireplace with stylish chairs before it. It was like jumping into a pool of cool blue water. We stood in line at the desk long enough for me to be hooked. Unfortunately, this is the point where we found out it was not our hotel, because the travel agency had gone out of business the day before. I will spare you the angst. After frantically making phone calls, we found a place that could take us that night for the number of nights we needed. At the moment, I didn’t really care what kind of place it was, so long as I could know for sure I would have a place to sleep that night. We walked back out of that cool blue oasis assured that our new hotel was not far off.

Maybe that hotel wasn’t really far off, but it sure felt like it. Back onto those rough sidewalks, pushing through the people, I was powered by anger and adrenaline. But even that could not tarnish Florence. We turned a couple of corners and a huge dome appeared over the rooftops. I was convinced it was the dome, but I was wrong; it’s only that Florence is packed to the gills with churches. The streets became narrower, quieter, and blessedly shaded. We passed enticing little ristorantes where everyone had piles of pasta before them and leather shops where I’m convinced they blow the scent of leather out onto the street on purpose.

My own photo, July 2016.

My arms were throbbing and shaking from pulling my suitcase by the time we found our hotel. The Hotel Orto dei Medici was nice enough. It had high, vaulted hallways that had crumbling ceiling frescoes here and there. Compared to the posh oasis, this hotel evoked more of an economy hostel on the 19th century Grand Tour. Our room was small and outdated (or put another way, felt really European), but it was a gift after the adrenaline rush of the past couple of hours.

Before leaving the hotel again, we explored some of the empty common rooms. Pushing open the glass doors into the dining room, we discovered the back garden just beyond. The sight of this back garden worked a miracle on me; in that moment, it almost made up for losing out on that blue oasis. Over the next couple of days, it fully made up for the loss. The terrace was completely enclosed by the surrounding residences, but the back side was only two floors tall and above this roof were visible several tall, pointy cypresses and the facade of a very Florentine basilica. Flowering vines covered the golden walls of the terrace and miniature potted orange trees lined the patio beside the al fresco dining area. The hotel claims that it was built in the nineteenth century on the site of Lorenzo de Medici’s art school and that its garden is all that remains of that green space where Lorenzo discovered Michelangelo Buonarroti.

My own photo, July 2016.

For three mornings we breakfasted al fresco in the mild sunshine, enjoying fresh-squeezed orange juice and the satisfying clink of sturdy china coffee cups on the stone cafe tables, surrounded by a Babel of languages and feeling like citizens of the world. Breakfast on the terrace turned out to be one of the most luxurious vacation experiences and most probably my favorite part of Florence.

On our first night out in Florence we intended to get the lay of the land, to find out exactly how far it was to the major sights and how long it would take us to walk between them. Retracing our steps down the narrow street, the bustle began to pick up, the gelato shops appeared every twenty yards, and music and the smell of food floated through the air. Before I was expecting it, we flowed out of the street into the piazza surrounding the Duomo and its Baptistery. These iconic structures were far larger than I had imagined, both looming high overhead, although I think now that some of that sensation came from all of the buildings sitting so close together around the piazza. The Duomo reminded me of an extravagantly frosted cake with its intricate statuary and white stone inlaid with green and red designs.

My own photo, July 2016.

We sat for dinner on the piazza near the entrance to the Duomo. We ordered pizza because we were in Italy and we made a life-changing discovery—Italian pizza is nowhere near as good as American pizza. Friends, Italian pizza is boring. I had it a few more times in other towns and my opinion did not change. I have to admit this was a let-down. I had had such high hopes for Italian food. My expectations in this area were met later, in other ways, but I’ll never think of Italian pizza the same way again. But our night, like the rest of the trip always seemed to do, redeemed itself. A large brass ensemble with at least thirty members began to play on the steps of the Duomo. The bright tones reverberated in the enclosed space of the piazza, and we decided we were having fun.

My own photo, July 2016.

My own photo, July 2016.

The next few days in Florence are a blur in my mind. We walked so much, saw so much, and ate so much. We used our awesome tourist skills (thanks, Rick Steves!) and by-passed an hours-long line to climb the Campanile next to the Duomo—dark, tight, twisting steps up and up, each landing bringing an awe-inspiring vista which was only to be surpassed by the view another one hundred steps further up. The view at the top was one-hundred percent Tuscan. The red-tiled roofs stretched out to the hills, which were topped by cypress and pine and endless villas.

Ham sandwich, Italian style. My own photo, July 2016.

We ate ham sandwiches and bowls of gelato as big as mountains. We shopped in a leather goods store where we were treated royally by a consummate Italian gentleman. We saw sculptures and paintings with about ten million other people alongside. We went to the Galileo museum which turned out to not really be about Galileo. We stood on the Ponte Vecchio among the jewelry shops and watched the Arno river flow by.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see Florence again. I hope I will. If I do, you can bet I’ll sit on that Medici terrace again, remembering how it always turned out right in the end.

Good night, Florence. My own photo, July 2016.