"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?” ~ from French by Heart by Rebecca S. Ramsey
Look who’s here!! *jumping up and down*
Becky Ramsey is one of my favorite bloggers (wonders never cease) and the author of the delightful travel memoir, French by Heart (Broadway Books, 2007). Though I’d wanted to read her book for a long time, I only recently got around to it because of my renewed infatuation with all things français.
I’m so pleased that Becky (who knows passion and French pastry are one and the same) agreed to answer my burning questions, and share a delectable recipe from her favorite French cookbook. Oo-lah-lah! This calls for a nice hot cup of French roast, and – what’s your pleasure? Pain au chocolat? Galette des Rois? How about a crisp baguette with creamery butter? Go ahead and nosh on this Nutella crepe with strawberry cheesecake gelato while you make up your mind:
French by Heart was easily my favorite Frenchie read of the summer, not only by virtue of its irresistible subject, but because I love love love Becky’s writing.
In her book, I found even more of the honest, ingenuous voice, self-deprecating sense of humor, keen insight into human nature, and uncanny ability to transform the minutiae of daily life into pure gold that I had appreciated so much at wonders never cease. Where else could you read about a nosy, overbearing neighbor, a contrary piano tuner, smoky dinner parties, haughty teachers with purplish red hair, and a pharmacist demonstrating a one-time-use breast pump – all in order to tap into the truth about what makes French people tick?
Becky with husband Todd, daughter Sarah, and sons Ben and Sam (center).
Imagine what it would be like to completely pull up stakes and move a family of five from Greer, South Carolina to Clermont-Ferrand, France. You would have to sell your house and car, close all your bank accounts, take a detailed inventory of everything you own, then ship everything (including an heirloom piano) in a big steel container. You’d say goodbye to your family and friends, and then, along with your husband, three kids (ages 9, 7, 6 months) and your cat, set off on a crazy, unpredictable adventure. Would you whimper or roar?
Clermont-Ferrand is an industrial city 4 hours south of Paris.
Lucky for us, Becky lived to tell about it!
J: If you could click your heels and be in France right this minute to stay for 24 hours, where would you go and what would you do?
B: Ooh, I dream about this very thing at least once a week! If I’m going to take an imaginary trip, Jama, why don’t you come with me?
First, I’ll introduce you to my friends at Le Potache, a little hole in the wall café near the kids’ school, where we’ll slurp down a grande crème, a coffee so delicious that you just might stand on top of your bistro chair and sing La Marseillaise. Once we’re fully caffeinated, we’ll hop in my tiny rental car and I’ll give you a tour of all my old haunts.
Pain au chocolat (HOBBS HOUSE bakery/flickr).
I’ll show you the school first, with its huge gate and barren asphalt playground (French children learn to make their own fun!), and then we’ll walk over to rue des Gras, the cobblestone main street of Clermont-Ferrand. After a leisurely stroll, we’ll stop at a boulangerie for a pain au chocolat, a buttery pastry with dark chocolate inside. (It’s even better than it sounds!)
Main gate, École Saint-Pierre, where Ben and Sarah attended school.
Then we can drive over to Parc Montjuzet, take a five minute hike to the top, and gasp at the breathtaking view of the entire city and its encircling ring of extinct volcanoes. On the walk back down, I’ll point out the death defying kiddy slides which thrilled my children and gave me heart attacks.
Becky at Les Vulcans.
Once we’re back in the car, I’ll swing by our little stone church, Les Vulcans, the bookstore where I fell on my face, and finally arrive at the main course of the day: a visit to the village we called home for four years. A trip to my quartier demands at least a three hour visit with Madame Mallet, so we better stop for lunch first, to fortify ourselves with bread and cheese and a salade de chèvre chaude before the inquisition!
Becky’s favorite Salade de Chevre Chaude (salad with hot goat’s cheese).
I’m joking, sort of.
I’ll introduce you to my dear neighbor, and you might be a bit afraid of her. Keep in mind that she’s really a softy, and don’t be offended by anything she says.
She’ll want to hear about my children, and she’ll take our arms and walk us through the garden. She’ll also tell me that I’ve gained a couple kilos, which is true, so I’ll smile and laugh and shrug my shoulders. Then, when she’s finally done with us, she’ll load us up with presents (I hope you brought an extra suitcase) and dismiss us with a kiss on both cheeks.
After all that, I’ll need a nap. Why don’t we finish the day with a 12 course meal at La Radio? (Hey, it’s an imaginary trip, so the calories are imaginary too!) And then we can take a late night walk over to Place de la Victoire, where a band is playing. Ready to go?
J: Bien sûr! All of it sounds très fantastique, and I’m glad you mentioned a nap before taking on that 12 course meal. Tell me, during those four years, did you find the France you dreamed of in high school? What surprised or disappointed you?
B: Oh, France was so much more wonderful than I had even imagined. I suppose I expected it to be sort of like American life, but lived in French, with maybe a few cultural differences. But it was entirely something different, and I’m so grateful for the chance to experience it. My only disappointment was that when we first arrived, nobody in the entire country could understand me! I had thought that with three years of high school French and several months of tutoring, I’d be fine. Wrong! Thank goodness that even old dogs can learn new tricks, albeit slowly and with much embarrassment. At least it made for good writing fodder!
Looking down rue des Gras, main pedestrian street of Clermont.
J: What are some of the greatest misconceptions most Americans have about French people?
B: Oh, that’s easy.
#1 French people are rude.
French people are MUCH more formal than Americans are. They have their own set of rules of behavior, which they assume everyone is taught to follow. When people don’t follow the rules, it perplexes them. For instance, when you enter a small boutique, you always greet the storekeeper with a "Bonjour Madame." The boutique is like their home, and you wouldn’t go in someone’s home and start picking up items and examining them. You would ask first, of course. When people learn the rules and try to abide by them, they find that the French are some of the warmest people they’d ever meet. I remember once when I was lost, I asked a man politely for help. Before I knew it, he was stopping other people, and soon I had a team of four old men stopping traffic, trying to help me.
The French also are very deliberate with both spoken communication and body language. They smile easily in conversation with other people they know, but not while they’re walking down the street. It doesn’t mean that they are grumpy or sad or aggravated with passers-by. It’s just how they are. (This was VERY difficult for this southern girl! When we moved back to the States four years later, I had to train myself to smile on the street again!)
#2 French women don’t shave their legs or underarms.
Most do. Some don’t.
#3 French people dislike Americans.
Are you kidding? Take a listen to the music they love or the movies they see! They imitate us constantly.
French folks do a better job than we do in separating feelings about people from feelings about politics.
J: Do you still see the effects of the French experience on your children today? How would all of them feel about moving back? (Note: currently, Sarah is in college, Ben’s a senior in high school, and Sam is attending middle school.)
All three treasure their years in France. It made them who they are, to a very large degree. My older two, who started French school at 1st grade and 4th grade, are really great at memorization, which I’m sure comes from the terror of having to learn all those agonizingly long poesies (poems). I’ve noticed that Sarah, Ben, and Sam are very defensive of other cultures when others judge them with American eyes. The kids also remember how it feels to be the minority, which is a good thing for everyone to learn, I think.
Ben, Sam and Sarah on a Sunday afternoon walk.
All three would move back to France in a minute. However, my youngest, the picky eater of the bunch, might require us to bring cases of American food along. (Can you imagine? Preferring Kraft macaroni and cheese to a big wedge of Cantal? C’est fou!)
J: Have you and your family adopted any particular French customs here in the States?
B: Oh yes. We still love a Sunday afternoon family hike together, though it takes a good bit of arm twisting to get the boys away from other activities. (Sarah’s in college now — and minoring in French.)
Sarah and Becky on a Sunday walk south of their village.
Dinner together is a must, even if we have to eat the French way, at 8pm.
Our taste buds just won’t let us give up feasting on the Galette des Rois in December and January. It’s the King’s Cake for celebrating Epiphany, and we eat at least 3 or 4 every season. We go whole hog on it, sending the youngest under the table to call out who gets each slice, then celebrating the person who finds the hidden fève, (the ceramic baby Jesus hidden within the cake), with a paper crown.
Galette des Rois (Marylise Doctrinal/flickr).
Ben and Sam in a slightly comatose state after eating yet another galette des Rois.
It’s a fun tradition — and the flaky pastry and delicious almond butter cream makes everybody happy! You should see my collection of fèves from our French days. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but we have about a hundred of them. We’d eat one every day in season. That’s a hundred cakes! It’s a good thing we walked constantly in France!
J: We have to talk about your famous neighbor, Madame Mallet! From what I understand, she drove you crazy in the beginning, but eventually she became your closest friend. Do you keep in touch with her now? What did your relationship with her teach you about what French people value in life, what their priorities are?
B: Yes, we do keep in touch. But I’m afraid that since my French is falling to pieces, I don’t write as much as I used to. But she gets a birthday card from me every year, and she always writes back, sharing all the neighborhood gossip and demanding a visit. She’s still the same funny, crotchety lady.
Our friendship taught me so many things. I guess the most important thing I learned is that two people can argue with each other and still be friends. I’ve always hated confrontation and would avoid it at all costs. You just can’t do that if you live across the street from Madame Mallet. I learned how to argue with her and how to make up. I also learned once again that each person has an important story to tell. Her stories always mesmerized me. I miss them.
J: What larger life lessons have you gleaned from the entire French experience?
B: I learned so much.
I went to France as a type AAA person, holding tight to perfectionism, finding my identity in my work and in my communication skills with others.
To my horror, I discovered that in France I would have no communication skills and no work. And if that wasn’t hard enough, I walked around all day, speaking like a toddler/caveman/idiot! And yet, while I was struggling, I was surrounded by the most beautiful scenery, the most delicious food, the most stunning architecture that I had ever seen! I call it my upside down Lent. As all the things I held onto for security were taken away, I was gorging on tastes and smells and sights.
Ramseys in a sunflower field outside their village.
It wasn’t always easy, but I came away with a new idea of who I am and who I want to be. I learned to enjoy my life, and I learned to stop judging others by whether they obey my little set of rules. God taught me to open up my life to so much more.
J: Can you offer any tips/advice to those of us interested in writing memoirs? Did you keep a journal while you were there?
B: Yes, I kept a journal my first six months, before I knew I wanted to write a book. So many crazy things were happening and I didn’t want to forget any of it. I was too exhausted at the end of the day to do much more than jot down phrases, lists of weird things I’d experienced, little snippets of conversation. That journal was SO HELPFUL when I started getting serious about getting the story down. I’d suggest that people write while the memory is fresh, even if it doesn’t sound beautiful. Get the small details down, and you can work out the sentence structure/story arc later.
Sarah, Sam and Ben being silly on a Sunday afternoon family walk.
One thing I didn’t do was to read other expat memoirs. I was afraid that I might subconsciously copy the way others wrote or the details they captured. I wanted my story to be 100% mine.
Also, I’d say that when you write, be as honest as you can, even if the story makes you look like an absolute fool. People respond to honesty. Besides, in a few months you’ll laugh too.
J: How did writing French by Heart change your life?
B: Writing the book made me really examine and fully understand the experiences I’d had. That was a real gift. It gave me confidence in my writing, and in the idea that dreams really can come true.
It also changed the way I feel about speaking in public. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. I still feel nervous, but now I know how to cope with that. I can speak to a group of a hundred people without wanting to hide in the bathroom. I can do a live radio interview without being afraid that I’ll throw up midway through!
Becky and Sam go shopping; Becky with the circus poster she had to have.
I’d also say that the experience has toughened my skin. When the book first came out, I wanted to read every single word anybody had to say about it. I even got my husband/tech guy to set up a google alarm, so that it would send me anything related to French By Heart. I loved it at first. People were so positive and that was thrilling! But occasionally I’d hear something negative and it would break my heart. The first few times it floored me — it really shook my confidence. Eventually I learned not to care so much what people write — good or bad. Luckily, I’ve had a very good response. But a thicker skin is a good thing too.
J: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “French cuisine”?
B: I picture my favorite meal at La Table de Thierry, an itsy bitsy restaurant in Clermont-Ferrand. I see a small plate with a serving of confit de canard and some haricots verts, simmered duck preserved in goose fat (I know it sounds disgusting, but taste it and you’ll break into interpretive dance, I promise!) and green beans. A nice baguette and a glass of wine. Food that is prepared slowly, with care. Presented beautifully and served quietly. We have the table for the rest of the evening. No need to rush.
J: Did you learn to cook a lot of French dishes while you were there? Some of your favorites?
B: Yes, we didn’t eat until Todd got home from work at 7:30 or 8pm, and since there were no afterschool activities (school closed early on Wednesdays so that all the activities could be done that afternoon) I had plenty of time to cook. I’d love to recommend my favorite French cookbook. French: the Secrets of Classic Cooking Made Easy is written in English by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen, and I’ve never been disappointed by a single recipe.
I still make Tian Provençal (zucchini and tomato bake) at least once a week. The kids love Beef Burgundy and Coq au Vin, and my husband goes crazy when I take the time to make the chicken and pistachio pâté.
I’d love to share the recipe for my family’s favorite dessert. It’s Tarte aux Poires Frangipane, pear and almond cream tart, and the filling is the same as that of the Galette des Rois.
photo credit: French: The Secrets of Classic Cooking Made Easy
TARTE AUX POIRES FRANGIPANE
3 firm pears
1 pie crust, rolled out and placed in a large shallow pie pan or quiche pan, chilled while you make the filling
1 Tablespoon peach brandy or water
4 Tablespoons peach preserves, strained (I mash up any large bits. It’s used to glaze the pie, so you don’t want big chunks of peaches in it)
3 1/2 ounces (100g) finely ground almonds (I use a little less than 1 cup of almond meal/flour)
1/4 cup sugar
5 Tablespoons butter
1 egg + 1 egg white
few drops of almond essence
Combine the ground almonds/almond flour and sugar. Add the butter and mix until creamy. Then add the egg, the egg white, and the almond essence, and mix well.
Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
Peel the pears, halve them, remove the cores, and rub with lemon juice. Put the pear halves cut side down on a board and slice thinly crossways, keeping the slices together.
Pour the almond cream filling into the pastry case. Slide a palette knife under one pear half and press the top with your fingers to fan out the slices. Transfer to the tart, placing the fruit on the filling like spokes of a wheel. (It really doesn’t matter so much whether it’s pretty or not. Don’t worry. Just stick the pieces of pear on the top and go listen to Carla Bruni sing!)
Place the tart on the hot baking sheet and bake for 50-55 minutes, or until the filling is set and well browned. Cool.
Meanwhile, heat the brandy or water and the preserve in a small saucepan, then brush over the top of the hot tart at room temperature.
(adapted from French: the Secrets of Classic Cooking Made Easy, by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen)
J: Any new projects or exciting life adventures you’d like to talk about?
B: I’m so enjoying blogging about kids and faith and family over at wonders never cease. I’ve also got a book project or two in the oven, and I’m hoping to have some news to share soon!
J: Merci beaucoup, Becky! I’d love to chat some more, but a warm pear tart is calling my name . . .
FRENCH BY HEART
by Rebecca S. Ramsey
published by Broadway Books, 2007
Travelogue, memoir, essays, 320 pp.
**Earned glowing reviews from the NYT and Publishers Weekly
♥ More of Becky’s writing: "Juggling Writing and Family" (guest post, Nathan Bransford’s blog), "Beyond Paris: Clermont-Ferrand with Rebecca Ramsey" (guest post, Misadventures with Andi).
Pour vous, Madame Ramsey ♥ !
Confit de Canard (kamomebird/flickr).
Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.