An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France
Reviewed October 27, 2009.
Broadway Books, New York, 2007. 308 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #4 Nonfiction: True Stories
Having lived in Germany for ten years, French by Heart is exactly the sort of book I love -- someone else's tale of making a home in another country. There's much that I relate to from my own experiences, much that I enjoy vicariously, and a wistful feeling of "Wouldn't I love to move to France for four years!"
Rebecca Ramsey's husband works for Michelin, and for four years they moved their family to Clermont-Ferrand, four hours south of Paris. Her three children attended the local French school, and her family's way of doing things quickly came under the scrutiny of their neighbor, a grandmotherly type with definite opinions.
Rebecca has a wonderful way of pulling you into the confusions and delights of living in a foreign country, of beginning to feel like you belong, while always knowing you are different. She expresses the joys and frustrations of building a friendship with her nosy and opinionated neighbor. We cringe with her as she describes the daunting adventure of getting stitches for her bleeding son, and feel pride with her at her success.
One of the things I love about living in a foreign country is how it adds a certain sense of wonder even to the events of daily life -- shopping, going out to eat, going to school, talking with friends. Everything is new and different, memorable and exciting.
Rebecca Ramsey catches some of that as she describes their arrival in France:
What was it about this place that was so enchanting? Even with my queasiness, I couldn't help feeling charmed by it, from the old brass door knockers shaped like a lady's hand to the women, young and old, with their sultry eyes and obvious confidence. As we walked by the cafes I tried not to stare at the people sitting there, their beautiful French words twirling out of their mouths, mingling with the swirls of coffee perfuming the crisp morning air. I wanted to understand it all, the Frenchiness of this place. I wanted to be part of it and for it to be a part of me -- a part of us, our family. We hoped to have four years or so in France. Could that happen in four years? We were nervous, yes, but our American hearts were open. Could we be French too, just for a little while? French, not by citizenship, but by heart?
Reading this book, France will win a place in your own heart, too.