Readers Write In: French Lessons’ Summer Postbox

“Wonderfix!  Fabulix!”  wrote Mary from Rockford, Illinois, a few weeks ago.

It was a dazzling response to “Astérix for Foreigners,” this summer’s blog post (dated July 12, 2013) on the famous French cartoon character.  Mary’s words were meaningful, concise and witty – and, as it happens, nicely complimentary.  I’m thinking of handing the reigns of French Lessons over to her for a while.

But Mary is simply one of many, a cherished and intelligent community of readers.  As we near the end of this summer’s edition of French Lessons, I can’t help but make a few introductions.

That post on Astérix also stirred Kristine, my American friend who lives in nearby Biot with her French husband and their ten-year-old daughter.  Olivier was reading these stories to Kaiya.  In Biot exactly as in Antibes, father and daughter giggled at inane names and storylines.  In both French towns along the Côte d’Azur, a dad’s enthusiasm was infectious.

I adore when a blog post sparks a parallel in a reader’s own life.

But ever so politely, Kristine also corrected me.  Assurancetourix, the name of the bard in Astérix’s Roman village, is hardly a play on the phrase assurance touriste (i.e., tourist insurance).  It’s assurance tous risques, Kristine explained.  Insurance for all risks, as in comprehensive car insurance.

As it happens, Kristine is one of the first friends I saw again in France this summer.  She has lived here for nearly a decade now, and in some ways has become a hybrid between her two countries.

On that early summer day when we met for lunch, the first thing Kristine and I discussed was Jean-G.  She had just read my post “Summer in the Côte d’Azur:  The More Things Change . . .” (June 22, 2013) about this industrious and impassioned tax lawyer that we’d hired to sort out certain fiscal debates concerning our home Bellevue.  Kristine brought the blog post for her own family’s discussion and vowed to hire the colourful Jean-G to sort out their affairs.

My French-American friend was engrossed that noontime in her explanation of a tax miscalculation gone terribly wrong as she led me out of an underground parking garage in neighbouring Juan-les-Pins.  I, the rule-following North American, couldn’t help but interrupt her story as we hiked upward to rediscover the daylight.  To my horror we were winding along the narrow and enclosed, cylindrical, vehicles-only ramp – against any incoming traffic.  Kristine said it was the only way the French people ever exited this particular parking garage.

Fortunately we met no inbound vehicles.  She continued her story safely in the sunlight, developing a theme I’ve heard countless times this summer here in the Côte d’Azur:  The French Government is sapping the middle class.  The core of today’s society has no more financial incentive to work.  No one wants to use his or her abilities to make this country a better place.  The elected officials are trying to make everyone equal, and equal in this case is the least common denominator.

Kristine elaborated as we approached the chemin de la Salis, the route that flushes traffic downhill into Juan-les-Pins.  As we reached the road, there was a break in traffic so I started across the road, followed briskly by my friend.  Now Kristine was horrified.  We should be using the zebra crossing, she insisted.

French pedestrian rules, I think, are more about tradition than true rationale.

But in the very hour before Kristine and I met, she had a phone call.  All the talk about the incredible Jean-G had spurred her husband into phoning his own accountant.  Their latest problem had been a miscommunication.  Olivier, she said, felt a new lease of life.  That lunchtime we drank champagne on the beach.

Immortalized in Valmondois in northern France, Honoré Victorin Daumier once created characters like our feisty Jean-G. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Immortalized in Valmondois in northern France, Honoré Victorin Daumier once created characters like our feisty Jean-G. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

That same post about the energetic Jean-G and the French tax machine also inspired Diane to write in from Denver.  “This one should go in some current publication,” she wrote, “except you’d have to change the property location and somehow totally affect it being anonymous.”  She added, “The characters are great.  I can envision Daumier-style illustrations – his series on Law and Justice.”

I had to Wiki this chap Daumier.  Honoré Victorin Daumier (1808 – 1879):  a prolific French artist whose work provided commentary on the state of his country’s social and political affairs during the 19th century.  A canny perspective from this erudite Denverite!

French Lessons doesn’t always prompt such lofty feedback.  “The Côte d’Azur:  The World’s New Silk Road” (July 26, 2013) declared that the Côte d’Azur is a modern crossroads for the world’s cultures.  One example of such a junction, I said, was a recent concert in Juan-les-Pins by Diana Krall – and her possible visit to our Bellevue the next day . . . except that we were leaving for a golfing event in the morning.

Alex from Toronto made me laugh.  “Krall” was the simple title he chose for his email.  “I would have blown off golf in 2 minutes to hang with Diana,” he wrote.

Some posts have prompted readers to look at their own activities through a new lens.  Barry from Who-Knows-Where is one such reader.  Fashion dominated my attentions in “Monaco’s Fête Picasso:  The Art of Fashion” (July 19, 2013) until, walking through this summer’s special Picasso exhibition at Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum, I stumbled on details of the painter’s days here in our French hometown.  Within moments I was plummeting through Alice’s rabbit hole, becoming completely engrossed in what could’ve been.  Did the life of this celebrated artist ever intertwine with that of Bellevue’s founder, a man who would’ve been Picasso’s contemporary?  Could Picasso have stood at the Mediterranean’s shoreline and gazed up at the very limestone walls of our grande dame?

Perhaps we should’ve blown off golf after all?  Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps we should’ve blown off golf after all? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Your blog has really struck a chord,” Barry wrote.  He’d made a recent cycling trip simply to look at his paternal grandparents’ house in a seaside resort.  These relatives were long gone, he said, but he got talking to the home’s current owner and, one thing and another, a new friendship was launched.  Meeting within that home’s walls only one day before receiving my post, Barry was quietly drawn down his own mythical rabbit hole.  He was keen to point out that he doesn’t necessarily count black cats that cross his path, but the silent third character in his budding friendship was the house, his grandparents’ former home, and the generations of stories that dwell within its walls.

Another dedicated reader who found a new lens for her day was Pat.  Like the fabulix Mary, Pat also hails from my birthplace of Rockford, IL.  “The Châteaux of Bordeaux:  France’s Hedonist Paradise” (June 28, 2013) began in the fabulous vineyards of Bordeaux and culminated in a late-night, sumptuous, ten-course feast within a 17th-century Carthusian monastery, featuring variation de chou fleur aux huitres et caviar (cauliflower whipped up like you’ve never seen it, with oysters and caviar) and homard bleu, petits légumes en risotto, cappuccino de corail (blue lobster, vegetable risotto and a froth of edible coral).

Pat drew several parallels with her own recent outing to Milton, Wisconsin.  Her day had begun in a parade of vintage cars that wound into this renowned winemaking vicinity for a “wine run”.  Then she and her friends moved onto dinner at the nearby Buckhorn Supper Club.  “We were eating early,” Pat explained.  The group arrived at 4:30 p.m.  Their table was black wrought iron, the glasses disposable plastic.  The waitress chatted at length about her children and husband.  And continuing in the subtle wit that wove through her tale, Pat said she chose for her main course the evening’s special, a dish so awe-inspiring that it wasn’t listed on the menu:  chicken and dumplings.

Some of you have encouraged me from the moment of this summer’s relaunch – and it has been a real pleasure to write each week knowing that you are actually out there in the ether.  Now for a little unabashed whooping:

Upon receiving the season’s first French Lessons post (“Brittany vs French Riviera:  Which is the Real France?,” June 15, 2013), Stacey from Florida declared, “Summer is officially here!  I no longer track the season with June 21st, but the initial French Lessons email . . . .  I can’t wait for my weekly fix of your blog.  I sampled a few options but my favorite way to enjoy it is over coffee on a Saturday or Sunday morning before everyone is awake.”

John from A-Place-Unknown also chimed in.  “I’m glad that you’re back, forgot after you left last year so it’s a treat to have this waiting in my inbox today!”

They are the kind of comments that propel me onward.  Shari from Colorado enjoys her “vicarious vacation” – the same journey that Barbro from Rockford takes.  She appreciates the chance to “linger for a bit, and smile.”  My mother has said some nice things, too, but then again, she would.

Jeremy from London has offered a terrific boost with his own, humongous fan base.  “Liked it and just tweeted it,” he wrote after receiving the summer’s first post.  Blogging is about as far out on the social media limb as I go.  His tweets, which have continued all summer long, have been sweet birdsong to my ears (and to my viewer stats).

Kathy from Utah has become my new best friend.  “Just a note of appreciation for sending us the best reads this summer!” she wrote after reading “Jewels, Fireworks and the Odd Storm:  Summers in the Sunny Côte d’Azur” (August 2, 2013).  “Thanks for sharing this smart, sassy, and truly enjoyable blog with us.”

Smart and sassy in the same sentence?  I’m calling Kathy for a quote on some future book cover.  But seriously, a gros merci to all of you, named here or not.

One particular blog post from last summer brought a new friend this season.  Kristina, a writer from Sweden, read “Antibes and World War II:  Two Tales of A City” (August 23, 2012) about the World War II history that lurks just beneath the surface of Antibes’ sandy beaches and sunny cafés; you just have to know to look for it.  The centerpiece of the story is a tall shard of limestone with a copper plaque that has gone green.  The monument stands halfway around the bay from Bellevue and commemorates the undercover mission of the H.M.S. Unbroken submarine, which surfaced in these waters one night in April 1942.  The Allied protagonist in this story of wartime France was Peter Churchill, a member of the British Special Operations Executive who headed the mission, and the French lead character was Dr Elie Lévy, a kingpin of Antibes’ Résistance movement whose nearby home on Boulevard Foch served as a secretive Résistance headquarters.

“I’ve just finished reading this amazing story,” Kristina wrote.  “I am writing this sitting at Boulevard Foch in Antibes, and as soon as I finished I will head out to have a proper look at the war memorial.”

A simple memorial sheds light – and prompts more questions.
A simple memorial sheds light – and prompts more questions.

I wrote back to Kristina, as I do to most every respondent.  A few days later, she replied, “Do you know what I discovered?  I am sitting in the very house with the marble plaque:  Here lived Dr Elie Victor Amedee Lévy.  I have walked past it many times but I haven’t noticed it before. . . .  Now I can’t stop thinking about what happened to his [Jewish] daughters.  Did the [falsified baptismal] certificates help them?  Did they survive the war?  Who owned the house that was here before? . . .”

Kristina went on to explain that she’s working on a book about the Côte d’Azur but that she’d breezed over Antibes, the very spot where her family owns this apartment on Boulevard Foch.  “There is so much history here, it is just a question of finding it,” she wrote, almost quoting the upshot of that blog post.

We decided to meet up for a coffee.  I made the suggestion in spite of what one seasoned Canadian writer advised me a couple years ago:  Befriend agents, not other writers.   (Presumably she said this in the process unfriending me).

Kristina and I have met twice in the same artsy café in Antibes’ old town, Arts Thés Miss.  The stifling afternoon heat was eased both times by a rotating fan, a couple strong coffees, a shared tasting plate of gateaux and bookish conversation.  Kristina explained social media to me and I translated a few words of French for her, and otherwise we’ve enjoyed discussing Antibes’ role in the Roaring Twenties and World War II – and what, exactly, would make a good book about this place.

Once, as a response to my post “French Language:  Form Over Substance” (July 4, 2013), Kristina wrote, “For what it is worth, I am jealous of your French.”

It was really nice to hear in a way.  Learning “the world’s most beautiful language” has removed a small handful of years from my life.  But now I wonder, thanks to new technology, if all the pain has been in vain.

Last weekend Philippe, Lolo and I moseyed into Blanc du Nil, a chain store in Antibes’ old town that sells clothing made only from white, Egyptian cotton (thus the reference to the great Nile).  As happens frequently with our bilingual family, we got talking language with the shop attendant, a woman whose dark complexion smoldered against her (patently) all-white, cotton clothing.  I mentioned the brilliance of the French-English dictionary app I carry around on my iPhone.

The woman wasn’t impressed.  As of this summer, she told us, people use their mobile phones as full-on translators.  Foreigners simply ask her to speak into their phones and voilà, a second later, a translation appears in their chosen tongue.  It costs 20 Euros.  Yes, I have a larger size.  That sort of thing.

I, meanwhile, only could think of the French subjunctive tense and how it virtually caused my premature death.  Does this app actually work?  I asked the shop attendant, hoping for massive pitfalls.

She shrugged her shoulders.  I don’t know, she said.  But the customers leave happy.

In the same email about my evolving language skills, my Swedish writer friend Kristina also asked for a follow-up on the last scene in that post.  “How was the livarot?”

I have to say I prefer the less ripe cheeses sold by Jacques Viale, the famous fromager at Antibes’ Marché Provençal, but given how smelly the creature was – and its stench was significant as we’d left the crusty meule to warm up in the kitchen for a good hour before its consumption – in spite of all this, the livarot’s taste was powerful but unexpectedly pleasing.

Kristina wasn’t the only one with feedback on the smelliest of all French cheeses.  Having visited Bellevue earlier this summer and shared the stinking meule of livarot, Philippe’s daughter Julie wrote from Toronto, “So the other day I’m in a cheese store, and lo and behold, I see livarot.  I make a face and scrunch up my nose.  The cheese curator notices and takes umbrage.  She agrees that it is pretty smelly, but then I tell her my tongue feels like pop rocks are on it when I eat it.  She tells me with this cheese it’s not unusual.  It’s actually a mild allergic reaction!”

Sometimes my own husband – brilliant and ever-reliable sounding board for these blog posts – sends me responses by email, too.  Like this one as a follow-up to “Jewels, Fireworks and the Odd Storm:  Summers in the Sunny Côte d’Azur” (August 2, 2013) in which, among other headlines that surrounded us during a short interval, we unknowingly strolled right beside the scene of a crime that soon would hit the international press:  a EUR 103 million ($137 million) theft of gems, jewelry and diamond-encrusted watches from the legendary Carlton Hotel in Cannes.

“What you missed,” Philippe wrote, “is that yesterday there was another jewelry theft in Cannes!  So the police are now doing the French thing – they’re creating a committee to study the problem!”

Reality is stranger than fiction.  That’s what makes these stories so bewitching.  With that catch, I think I’ll have to hand my French Lessons pen over to Philippe some week, too.

For all those wonderful people I’ve not mentioned in today’s post, I adore hearing from you, too.  But this post is like any other:  You have to prune so that readers have an article to read, not a book.  At the same time, you cannot prune too much.  You must stay honest to that irresistible truth.

Inbal, a new follower from Toronto, wrote at the beginning of her subscription, “It sounds like you are having quite an adventure.”

There was only one way I could respond:  This is real life, my friend.

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