Like many Americans, I’m a sap for France. It started with the movie Sabrina (the 90s version with Harrison Ford) where a painfully awkward girl gets a job at Vogue Paris and returns a stylish sophisticate. It gave me the idea that France was a magical land that gave women everything from inner poise to more flattering haircuts to better shoes. As Sabrina, the movie’s title character, prepares to go home, she muses, “Across the street someone is playing ‘La Vie En Rose.’ They do it for the tourists, but I’m always surprised by how it moves me. It means seeing life through rose colored glasses. Only in Paris, where the light is pink, does that song make sense.”
I know I’m not alone! Americans travel to France in hordes, helping make its tourism numbers the highest of any country in the world. We look to Parisian runways to set the tone for global fashion trends, and we emulate French cookery in the most humble of kitchens. We sprinkle our conversation with French phrases in an effort to sound more chic and sophisticated. Want to instantly impress someone with a technique, accessory, item of clothing, or decorative object? Just say, “It’s French.”
My personal obsession with all things French only intensified when I met and married a man who’d partly grown up in a tiny town in the French Alpes. He cured some of my lofty idealism about the country, but in many other ways, he made me fall hopelessly in love with it. Finally, in the summer of 2010, we traveled there together. I visited Bourg d’Oisans, the tiny town he had called home. I had my first French pastry (WHICH CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER).
I had the best wine and the best cheese I’d ever tasted. The word “mountain” was redefined by the vertical, soaring glory of the Alpes. I got to see Paris. The Louvre. The Champs-Élysées. Notre Dame. I didn’t know until that summer that the Eiffel Tower sparkles at night, every hour on the hour. The street musicians played “La Vie En Rose” every evening. And the light really was pink (in my head, anyway).
If you’re an impossible Francophile like me, there are four books set in France that you simply must read. Three of them are written by Americans, which I think is helpful. The foreigner’s perspective makes them more culturally comprehensible, and it also keeps the fairytale quality of the country intact. The last one is written by a French author, but it is more like a fairy tale than all the rest. These books summon all the storybook magic of the land, the food, and the people, feeding our obsession with charming tales of cafe journaling and market shopping and mouth-watering descriptions of food that is as beautiful to look at as it is enjoyable to eat. All three make me ache with envy for the French life.
1. For the Francophile who loves cooking, read My Life in France, by Julia Child. I’ve heard several fans of the movie Julie and Julia, which is one of my all-time favorite films, express disappointment at the crudeness and self-absorption of Julie Powell’s book (see here, for example). If this is you, I implore you to read Julia Child’s book. It will give you whatever you were hoping to get from Julie’s book, and then some.
Less idealized than she is in the film, Julia Child comes across like the woman you want to be best friends with: smart, adventurous, determined, loyal, occasionally awkward, enthusiastically making mistakes and covering them over with a quick wit and a charming manner. She cheers us on in our own cooking adventures and encourages us to remain unfazed by our mistakes: “Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is.” Darned cats, always falling into stews. But tant pis! We forge ahead. She causes us to contemplate the formation of our own identities as we follow her journey: “Upon reflection, I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by…an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which caused me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful, ‘scientific’ thought. I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.” What woman hasn’t struggled to state her opinions with courage and clarity? And she describes France and cooking in ways that make you want to drop everything you’re doing and enroll at Le Cordon Bleu: “You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made. Even after you eat it, it stays with you – always.”
2. For the Francophile who loves writing, read A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway, an account of his years in Paris as a struggling writer. If Julia Child makes you want to run away to Le Cordon Bleu, Hemingway makes you want to run away to a cramped little apartment overlooking the Seine and spend your days in sidewalk cafes with rain dripping from awnings as you moodily write your novel and sip your aperitif. I begin every school year by reading to my students a passage from this book in hopes that it will inspire them to love writing for itself, to love the act of writing as much as the product. And I confess that I also hope it might spark a love for Paris. Here’s what I read to them:
“It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.
A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”
Hemingway’s clean, forceful prose is as captivating as the cafe scene he is describing. That same crackle of electricity runs through all his descriptions of Paris as he describes life as one of the famous authors and artists who congregated in cafes and bars along the Avenue Montparnasse during the roaring 20s. Foodies will be happy too; the book simmers over with delectable portrayals of delicacies. For example: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Most of all, Hemingway makes us hungry for Paris, for the city itself, its light and color and magic and music: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” I recited that quote to a group of students I took on a study tour of Europe in 2012. We were standing on top of the Montparnasse Tower (not far from Hemingway’s old haunts) watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower, bathing the city in a dusky pink glow. I think a few new Francophiles were born that night.
3. For the Francophile who loves tragic and introspective love stories, read The Paris Wife. I always recommend this book as a companion to A Moveable Feast; it’s a modern novel written from the perspective of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. It’s important to contemplate history from a variety of perspectives, and Hemingway does tend to give us an inflated view of himself. This book gives us the chance to consider what life was like for the people who lived in his long shadow. We see him through Hadley’s eyes as the talented, troubled, charismatic man who would both give her the world and break her heart. While the book dwells less on the beauty of Paris itself and focuses more on the relationship between Ernest and Hadley, not to mention the boredom and difficulty of being a young mother in a foreign country, it is still a wonderfully gripping read. The Hadley with which we’re presented is naive and vulnerable, but still searingly insightful when it comes to reading human nature; particularly, Ernest’s nature: “I saw him on the cover of Life magazine and heard about the wars he covered bravely and the other feats – the world-class fishing, the big-game hunting in Africa, the drinking enough to embalm a man twice his size.The myth he was creating out of his own life was big enough to take it for a time – but under this, I knew he was still lonely.” Sad and beautiful.
4. For the Francophile who enjoys simple, child-like tales set in the French countryside, read The Lost Estate, by Henri Alain-Fournier. I’ve written a separate blog about this wonderful novel, which you can read here.
I hope I’ve convinced all you fellow France-lovers to add these books to your must-read list! And please let me know if there are any other essentials you feel I’ve missed.
And to the naysayers, who scoff at France’s politics and military history, I say, “Tant pis! You are missing out.”