(not quite) Mastering the ART of FRENCH LIVING


By Christine Muhlke

Mark Greenside, whose biography positions him as “a civil rights activist, Vietnam War protester, anti-draft counselor … union leader and college professor,” bought a house in Brittany in 1991 on a whim. He didn’t speak French. He hated to fly. And he lived in California. So began a bicontinental life with more pratfalls than a Jerry Lewis movie — except the French like Jerry Lewis.

In his cut-offs and Mr. Bean T-shirt, Greenside is so spectacularly out of sync with the French, it’s a wonder how he gets through a day. Driving, shopping, banking, showering — every mundane task is primed for failure, which Greenside draws out in cringe-inducing detail. “I balance the baguette on top of the box of tin foil, which is balanced on top of a 12-pack of toilet paper, which is under the arm of the hand holding the overflowing shopping basket,” he writes of a shopping expedition that centers on not wanting to pay a euro to use a cart. Greenside piles scorn upon himself, reflecting it through the eyes of his part-time countrymen while simultaneously pointing a finger at them. It’s an exhausting dance, one that makes you appreciate the talents of a Kelly or Sedaris.

Christine Muhlke is a contributing editor at Bon Appétit and the creator of the newsletter

Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating and The Lost Vintage
Hilarious memoir about life as an American in Brittany, (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, reminds me of Stephen Clarke's books with its astute observations, wit, and affection for France.

Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog, The Marriage Pact, and Golden State
 (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living is a hilarious look at trying to navigate life in France, literally and figuratively. Worth buying the book just for the story of the roundabout, the car accident, and the strangely accommodating car rental agency.

Keith Van Sickle, author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence
This book is funny as heck. I like to read a book before going to sleep but my wife wouldn’t let me with this one because I kept laughing so hard I was shaking the bed.

Mark Greenside is an American who spends every summer in a house he bought in a tiny village in Brittany. Somehow, despite living part-time in France for decades, he has not managed to learn the language. This leads to inevitable mishaps, all of which he describes in a hilarious style. As he puts it, “If you’re lucky, some of the things that happened to me will happen to you. If you’re luckier, they won’t.”

We learn what happens when you accidentally end up in the middle of a combination pig roast / talent show with a busload of elderly French tourists. And what it is like to try and fail (yet again) to prepare a meal that satisfies your French neighbors. There are funny stories about shopping, banking, driving (including a car accident that turns out surprisingly well) and more. Mark has an engaging style that allows him to tell these and other stories with humor and humility.

As someone who lives part-time in France myself, I think that Mark has done an especially good job at describing the cultural differences between France and the United States. And I was touched when he talked about his French friends, people with whom he can barely have a conversation, yet who have become “people I care about and who care about me.”

If you are looking for a book about France that is thoughtful, heartfelt and really, really funny, this is one you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.

— Darlene, Bonjour: A Francophile Blog 
American author Mark Greenside believes that, as a guest in another country, he should be “the foil.” That explains why his latest book, (not quite) Mastering the Art of French Living is filled with humorous episodes of his life in a village in the Brittany region of France!

I attended his talk at a local independent bookstore, where he read a few excerpts. He pointed out that while the name of the village and the names of his friends have been changed in the book, all seven stories were based on his own experiences.

In “Driving (Me Nuts),” he recounted the time he tried to get out of Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris. I’ve been to CDG so I could relate to his frustration trying to navigate one of the world’s busiest and largest airports!

Then he regaled the bookstore attendees with the story about his challenge to find the right medication from a pharmacist in “A Hypochondriac’s Delight.” Fortunately, I didn’t need to go to a pharmacy when I was in France, but I found this story both funny and informative!

After his talk, he answered questions from the audience. He also signed copies of his book. I purchased the book and he signed it:He said I looked familiar. That was nice of him to say, but I didn’t recall having met before, so the first thing to come to mind was, “Oh, I’m a Francophile, too” to which he replied, “That must be it then!”

That kindly humor is what you’ll find throughout (not quite) Mastering the Art of French Living. I recommend this book to anyone looking to read a funny living-abroad memoir!


— Jayne S, 
Every year upon arriving in Plobien, the small Breton town where he spends his summers, American writer Mark Greenside picks back up where he left off with his faux-pas–filled Francophile life. Mellowed and humbled, but not daunted (OK, slightly daunted), he faces imminent concerns: What does he cook for a French person? Who has the right-of-way when entering or exiting a roundabout? Where does he pay for a parking ticket? And most dauntingly of all, when can he touch the tomatoes?

Despite the two decades that have passed since Greenside’s snap decision to buy a house in Brittany and begin a bi-continental life, the quirks of French living still manage to confound him. Continuing the journey begun in his 2009 memoir about beginning life in France, (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living details Greenside’s daily adventures in his adopted French home, where the simplest tasks are never straightforward but always end in a great story. Through some hits and lots of misses, he learns the rules of engagement, how he gets what he needs—which is not necessarily what he thinks he wants—and how to be grateful and thankful when (especially when) he fails, which is more often than he can believe.

Introducing the English-speaking world to the region of Brittany in the tradition of Peter Mayle’s homage to Provence, Mark Greenside’s first book, I’ll Never Be French, continues to be among the bestselling books about the region today. Experienced Francophiles and armchair travelers alike will delight in this new chapter exploring the practical and philosophical questions of French life, vividly brought to life by Greenside’s humor and affection for his community.

Dear Mr. Greenside,

Lo these many years ago, I noticed your first book I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany. I put it in a wish list for a now defunct digital bookseller and, being honest here, when they went under and my list disappeared, I lost track of it. Then, I saw this book and thought, that reminds me of … oh yeah, it is the same author but ten years on. I decided why not catch up with you starting here.

I continue to be in awe of anyone moving to another country – or at least spending months out of each year there – as an adult. Not speaking the language kicks up the wonderment another notch. Buying and maintaining a second house in the US sounds like too much aggravation to me so doing this in France is way beyond my comfort zone. Perhaps your first book details more about that process but I enjoyed learning more about living in France – getting around, shopping, banking, filling out accident reports for insurance purposes, how to correctly slice cheese, more banking, how not to say “I love my life in France,” what not to serve native French people for a seven course dinner, and how to navigate the French health system. The six hour pig-fest among the senior citizens of two tiny Breton villages had me in stitches.

It was fun trying to remember my schoolgirl French lessons but thank you for including translations. I did wonder at the fact that after twenty years, you opted to “village idiot” your way through so many conversations but the last chapter answers a lot of my questions.

I would never master the art of French living either but it definitely is fun to read about someone else trying to. 

- Jayne

— James Rowen, The Political Environment
Want to read a good book? Mark Greenside obliges.

I'd reviewed some years ago my long-time friend Mark Greenside's first book – I'LL NEVER BE FRENCH (No Matter What I Do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany.

It was a cool book about how a UW-Madison grad and man of modest means had stumbled – or been dragged – into first-time home ownership 6,000 miles away from his Oakland rental.

To a small village in Brittany, in rural, Northwest France, where he communicated with more gestures than actual, grammatically-correct français.

With local residents who basically assigned him the purchase because he and they had hit if off so well during what was supposed to be for Mark just a one-time short visit.

So I'm happy to report that Mark has followed up that fun read with a smart sequel: (not quite) Mastering the Art of French Living in which we find him, mais oui, still wrestling with gender-based nouns absent from the English language.

Or highway signage which sends him and his rental car in the wrong direction. 

And at one point into another car in a roundabout. Damn signs! 

Which begins Mark's initiation into ambulance and hospital routines. To take care of the other driver, referred to officially as the victim.

He's also confronted by things and circumstances as truly foreign as his first-ever steaming plate of langoustine, baffling machinery which will not dispense to him a supermarket cart, or bank branches owned by the bank in which he has his funds, but which will not dispense him his money.

And even if you're not planning overseas home ownership or travels, there is much to appreciate in Mark's book beyond fine writing and story-telling.

Like what it means to be the outsider. 

And it what it takes to be part of a welcoming culture and community.

How patient or forgiving or demanding might we be if we often couldn't, despite our best efforts, follow instructions, obey the rules or make ourselves understood?

Especially in some pretty significant circumstances beyond, say, buying the chicken you thought you could get fresh with dinner guests arriving pretty soon.

Like having to find a doctor on a Sunday, or getting a relative to a hospital in an emergency, or dealing with the police at your accident scene – let alone explaining things to the rental car company.

These can be pretty difficult matters in our hometowns under the best, most routine circumstances. 

Now imagine them for yourself, or tourists, or immigrants – and as first-time events – with language barriers thrown in.

Seems pretty relevant these days, given what's happening along the southern border, no?

And in communities across the country where people wearing foreign clothing or speaking different tongues can be disrespected, harassed and worse.

Let alone to fellow American citizens stopped while driving black.

Finally, let me say, that what I really liked about Mark's latest book is seeing a friend again taking that leap –  and for a second time getting all the fine words and fearless self-disclosure into print – when the chance presents itself:

"Flying blind, mapless, relying on instruments, occasionally breaking through the fog and the clouds into the clear blue sky and the light. If you're lucky, as I have been, you'll discover one or two glorious unforgettables that make and change your life for better, forever. Quel surprise!"

Begging the question – would we have done it, too? 

— (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, Janine, The Good Life France

After reading Mark Greenside’s first and extremely entertaining book, ‘I’ll Never Be French (No Matter What I do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany, I couldn’t wait to start this one, and I was not disappointed!

The first book tells how in 1991 a reluctant Mark agrees to visit Brittany with a girlfriend, and how that visit sparked a love affair with France and in particular with a small village in Finistère, Brittany.

Now, over twenty years later American Mark spends his summers in France.

Although a story, right from the first page this book is jam packed with essential information for anyone visiting France or living there, in fact, I think it should be mandatory reading. The trials and tribulations of the autoroutes and the attitude of French drivers, queues anywhere, the sometimes unusual food are highlighted. Everyday life, and the myriad of other obstacles and situations that an unsuspecting expat discovers and has to overcome are reviewed.

What did I personally enjoy about the book? Well it is hard to choose, there were so many enjoyable scenarios portrayed throughout. For example, shopping is a real eye-opener here and one is wise to remember the immortal line in the wonderful film ‘A Good Life’ – “In France the customer is always wrong.”

Many of the stories are very amusing, especially Mark’s shopping trolley incident, it brought back memories of our early days when I tried to take a shopping trolley off an elderly gentleman to save him walking it back. He looked at me as if I was mad, it must have seemed to him I was trying to steal the euro in the little slot which I didn’t know about as we didn’t have them where I came from. There is also no truer sentence written than ‘buy what you like when you see it and buy in bulk.’ It never fails to astound me that the shops finish a run on a popular product never to stock it again.

I just loved his take on life here, it is wonderful, but also quirky in many respects. I have been told countless times that it is like England 30 years ago, and it is,  people take time to get to know you but then will do anything for you. Village life and neighbours are very important, as is supporting local businesses and products. However every day you are reminded you are not in your homeland when at 12 noon the world stops for lunch, and ten minutes before – the roads become race tracks.

At the beginning I said that this book should be essential reading and I really believe it should be. Notwithstanding the incredible volume of information it contains, perhaps the most important thing is the wonderful way the author has brought to life his experiences in the beautiful country of France and the generous nature of its inhabitants. Highly Recommend!

— (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, Keith Van Sickle for My French

“If you’re lucky, some of the things that happened to me will happen to you. If you’re luckier, they won’t.”

So begins the sequel to Mark Greenside’s I’ll Never Be French, his hilarious account of buying a house in Brittany and learning to live the French rural life.

His new book is even funnier than the first, as Greenside explores subjects ranging from the French medical system to dealing with French banks to—of course—food. It’s a charming and insightful exploration of la belle France.

Mastering the Art of: driving in France

The book begins with Greenside picking up his rental car in Paris and driving to his home in Brittany. How hard can that be? Hard, it turns out, very hard.

Not only is French road signage impossible to decipher, but there are all those darned roundabouts! He makes it safely through most of them, but finally meets his match and learns what it is like when you have a traffic accident in France.

Some of the things that happen seem downright bizarre, like having an apéritif with the guy you just hit while you fill out the accident report. But rest assured: in France, “c’est normal.”

Mastering the Art of: French shops and pharmacies

Shopping in France is a continuing adventure for Greenside.

How is it that in one store he is required to pick out, bag, weigh, and tag his own fruit, but in another he is practically hauled off in handcuffs for touching the peaches? And how long will it take him to discover the Secret of the French Shopping Cart? Having lived through similar experiences in France, I could only shake my head and laugh as I read these stories.

Greenside is a hypochondriac, so he spends a lot of time in his local pharmacy. And in French pharmacies, you have to talk to a pharmacist before you can buy even the simplest things. And everyone in line gets to listen to your conversation.

As Greenside puts it, “Each person is asked question after question about his or her needs, history, symptoms, and diet, whether they’re buying mouthwash or diuretics. It’s like a job interview for your body—all asked and answered in public, so everyone knows that your breath smells, or your hair’s dry, or you’re incontinent.”

Remind me to avoid French pharmacies.

Mastering the Art of: French food

Food is, of course, an enormously important part of French life and Greenside sums it up nicely: “In France, food is the national pastime: it’s religion, art, sport, science, entertainment, security, comfort and pleasure combined.”

He does a fine job of explaining what it’s like to confront new and different foods. From langoustine (delicious), to oysters (surprisingly good), to andouille sausage (just as bad as it smells).

And he tells a laugh-out-loud story about going to a restaurant for some barbequed pork and finding himself in the middle of a combination pig roast and talent show, surrounded by hundreds of elderly French tourists demanding that he get up on stage and sing for them.

Mastering the Art of: the French language

Greenside, despite living in France for years, has only the barest ability to speak the language. And he possesses a remarkable ability to confuse and mispronounce words, which he describes to our delight.

There’s the time he wanted a glass of wine but ended up saying, “Je voudrais un verre du vent” (I would like a glass of wind.) Or when he tried to book a room with a single bed for one night, which came out, “Je voudrais une chambre pour un noir avec un lait” (I would like a room for a black with milk).

He makes other, even funnier, mistakes but they can’t be repeated in polite company.

(not quite) Mastering the Art of French living: a lesson for us all

Throughout the book, Greenside compares the way French and Americans approach life, and while his stories are funny, the book is also slyly profound. I have lived part-time in France for years and have rarely read a book that captures the country and its people so well.

Greenside has come to France with an open mind and a sometimes-childlike innocence. He is often confused and can barely speak the language, but he doesn’t allow himself to become closed and guarded. Instead, he accepts his vulnerability and trusts that others will help him, and they do. This lets him make a wide circle of friends, people with whom he can barely have a conversation, but who are “people I care about and who care about me.”

Greenside considers himself a different person in France than in the US—more vulnerable and dependent, but also more trusting.

And definitely happier.

Maybe there’s a lesson there for us all.

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