I'll Never be French (no matter what I do)
— Joshua Hammer, New York Times
"Mark Greenside, the only one of this year's pack to rely on conventional transport — a plane, a train and a taxi — to get where he's going, has an epiphany during a vacation in Brittany: he loves the place, despite his inability to speak French and his ignorance of local customs. Soon thereafter, he makes an impulsive purchase of an old riverfront house in the hamlet of Plobien. 'Two days later,' he reports in I'LL NEVER BE FRENCH (No Matter What I Do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany (Free Press, $24), 'I leave France with a French checkbook I don't know how to use, a written agreement that I can't read to buy a house, committed to spending $85,000 that I don't have. It doesn't bode well for international relations.'
What follows is a charming variation on the theme popularized two decades ago by the British writer Peter Mayle in his Provence series: Anglophone city slicker resettles in French hamlet and confronts domestic mini-disasters and eccentric locals. In Greenside's case, the problems include a wire transfer for the house purchase that's accidentally rerouted to Corsica, a flood that destroys his newly refinished floor and a dispute with an irascible neighbor over Greenside's sun-blocking cypress trees. Although Greenside's struggles with French grow a bit tiresome, this slight memoir captures his blossoming Francophilia with infectious joie de vivre.
— Publishers Weekly
"In 1991, Greenside, a teacher and political activist living in Alameda, Calif., found himself at both the end of a relationship and the end of the world. The French world, that is: Finistère, a remote town on the coast of Brittany, where he and his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend spend 10 weeks. Preternaturally slow to negotiate the ways of life in a small Breton village, he gets help from Madame P., his slow-to-melt landlady and neighbor. At summer's end (as well as the end of his relationship), his attachment to France became more permanent through the quasi-impulsive purchase of an old stone house, which was made possible with the help of Madame P. She figures prominently and entertainingly through the rest of the book, facilitating several of the author's transactions with the sellers and the local servicemen who provide necessities such as heating oil and insurance. At times the author's self-deprecation comes across as disingenuous, but his self-characterization as a helpless, 40-something leftist creates an intriguing subtext about baby boomerism, generational maturity and the relationship of America to France. Greenside tells a charming story about growing wiser, humbler and more human through home owning in a foreign land."
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— Kirkus Reviews
"Fiction writer Greenside (I Saw a Man Hit His Wife, 1996) charts the unlikely trek that led him to purchase a house in the scenic hamlet of Plobien, France. When the author, then in his late 40s, reluctantly agreed to accompany a girlfriend to the western reaches of Brittany in 1991, he anticipated nothing more than a summer vacation. But this urban denizen of Oakland, Calif., became deeply enchanted by another way of living in a place and a society completely foreign to him-so taken, in fact, that he now divides his time between the United States and France. Greenside makes much of his shortcomings as an American abroad, spotlighting his abysmal French and rudimentary knowledge of Breton etiquette as social handicaps that initially both endeared him to and alienated him from his new neighbors. The bulk of the memoir centers on the many contrasts he has discerned between French and American life. For example, on practically his first hours in Brittany, he learned two things: 'In the U.S., cleanliness is next to godliness. In France, it is godliness'; and, 'In France, there's a product for everything-just as there is a worker for everything." Much later, Greenside recognizes with self-deprecating humor that his bicontinental experiences have virtually split his personality.' I don't know if it's as Marx said, because I'm a property owner, or my tentativeness as a foreigner, but whatever it is, I've come to believe change, almost any change, is not for the better but the worse,' he writes. 'In the U.S., I live as if there is nothing that cannot be improved. In France, I don't touch a thing. I leave it alone even if it is worn, bent, crooked, scratched, dented, if it skips, blinks, it doesn't matter, because bad as it is whatever I do will make it worse.' A charming travel memoir showing how comfort can sometimes be gleaned from the unfamiliar."
— Danise Hoover, Booklist Online
"Writer and academic Greenside reluctantly goes to Brittany with his ladylove in 1991. Few words are spent describing the demise of that relationship, rather the love affair described is the one he has with Brittany itself. This part of France isn't like anything he has experienced before. The generosity and fairness of the locals and the beauty and history of the place woo him until he finds himself borrowing money from his mother to buy a house. The sellers are honorable and upright as are all the repair and craftspeople it takes to maintain his new possession. But as the title of the book tells the reader up-front, this man does not exactly blend in. His language skills improve somewhat over the years, but his behavior never quite matches. No matter, he is always treated patiently and politely. There are few new insights here, but for those who love the move-to-a-foreign-country-and-survive genre, this is a fine addition to their collections."
Heidi Senior, Univ. of Portland Library, Library Journal Reviews
"This charming book, a tribute to trusting one's fellow humans and to the French love of problem solving, describes Greenside's construction of a life in France despite his minimal knowledge of the language. Led to a rental house in a Brittany village by a female companion and fellow writer, Greenside ended up purchasing a house, thanks to strong-willed neighbor Madame P., and staying long after the relationship with his companion had fallen apart. The reader will recognize themes common to accounts by other Anglo-American owners of French property: the speaker of "a little" English actually speaks none at all; the worker shows up when he wants to. Unlike other books, however, all of the main characters are portrayed positively, in some cases surprisingly so, as when the home's previous owner gives Greenside a car. The author describes denying his 'American' self while in France and presents his childlike 'French' self with honest humility. In contrast, for example, to David Sedaris in Me Talk Pretty One Day, Greenside presents his fractured French in the original, leaving some readers out of the joke."
— The Elle Lettres Readers Prize 2009 (Elle Magazine, Dec. 2008)
First Place-Mark Greenside I'll Never Be French (Free Press); reviewed by Jaime Herndon, Chapel Hill, NC
"Our first nonfiction round of the oncoming year mulls over (preferably accompanied by successive mugs of some hot mulled holiday beverage) how people drive us (or draw us) to places we would never have dreamed of going ourselves. California-based writer and teacher Mark Greenside won the day with his wry account of how love left him stranded in a small town in Brittany, France.
This often laugh-out-loud funny memoir describes Greenside's move to France, against his better judgment, to follow a girlfriend. From hating the place to eventually fitting in, he describes the society he found himself thrust into and how fresh bonds between individuals, however improbable, can make a home and an ad hoc family. Though the girlfriend soon fades away, Greenside's connections to the community endure, and this is the story of a life he never planned for himself but finds is perfect nonetheless."
— Barnes and Noble Reviews
"At first glance, Mark Greenside hardly seemed a promising candidate to extol village life in Brittany. For one thing, the Jewish New Yorker didn't speak the language; for another, he had only moved to Brittany at the behest of the girlfriend about to dump him. When she left him, the stranded expatriate has forced to fend for himself, struggling with pidgin French and mysterious village folkways. Eventually, he and his bemused neighbors came to understand and appreciate one another, thus providing us with a visitor's passport into the region already being touted as the next Tuscany."
— Anne Glusker, Washington Post
"For many Americans, France is the go-to country for culture. We revere French gastronomy, style, painting, literature. Oh, the chevre! The mille-feuille and the tarte tatin! Madame Bovary and the Eiffel Tower! The way the Parisiennes fling their scarves so artfully around their perfect necks!
Some francophiles are so besotted that they end up moving to "la Hexagone," as the French refer to their country. By now, there's a full shelf at any bookstore of tales of those lucky — or unlucky — souls who have made the attempt. These books seem to fall into one of two broad categories: First, there is the lyric paean to a region (often Provence) where life is simpler and better than in the United States, the postcard-worthy fields are full of fragrant lavender, and every village seems to have its own particular eau-de-vie, each tastier and more potent than the next. Then there is the trials-and-tribulations saga, full of shaggy dog stories of zee-French-zey-are-a-funny-race, to paraphrase writer Adam Gopnik. Both types often feature a house (crumbling wreck, funny workmen, cultural misunderstandings) or a love affair (short- or long-term, bridgeable or unbridgeable cultural differences). Two new books fit neatly into these categories: Mark Greenside's I'll Never Be French most definitely belongs to the trials-and-tribulations subgenre, while Mary Ann Caws's Provençal Cooking can be filed under AP, for Adoring Paean.
Greenside describes himself as a left-leaning Californian who was brought to Brittany by a girlfriend. The relationship didn't last long, but his love affair with France, or more specifically with a tiny Bréton village in the department of Finistère, did. He now spends half the year in the United States, and the other half attempting to understand zee funny race. In telling his house-buying, getting-to-know-the-villagers tale, Greenside captures how an American in France trying to accomplish the simplest of life's tasks can feel like a complete and utter buffoon. In one memorable episode, he describes the way his insurance agent always seems to regard him with absolute dread, wondering (or so Greenside supposes) what unanswerable question the foreigner will ask in his mangled French:
'Bonjour,' I say. 'J'ai un question.'
'Ouuuui,' he says, squinting.
'He's reacting the same way I do whenever a girlfriend says, 'We have to talk.' '
Greenside takes us through his dealings not only with 'The Insurance Guy' but also with 'The Oil Guys' and 'The Floor Guy.' While he doesn't exactly triumph, he does endure. The big mystery remains how he does this, if his French was as bad as it seems to have been. Since the book talks anachronistically of the franc, the reader realizes that these events took place in the Stone Age before the euro; with any luck, Greenside has since mastered the fine art of the French subjunctive — or at least the conditional past — in the intervening years.
The book winds up with a winning description of a 50th birthday party Greenside threw for himself, and then — baf! as the French comic books would say — the story comes to a too-abrupt end. Greenside realizes that when you try to live a bifurcated, bi-national life, there's a price to be paid (no matter how good the cheese). 'When something happens here, I worry. When something happens there, I worry. I now worry two times as much as I used to.' It's cute, but it's not enough. Greenside could have given a bit more thought to his irreducible American-ness, to the question of why it is, exactly, that he'll never be French, and to the auxiliary question of why he even thought about trying."
— John McMurtrie, Chronicle Book Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
"Imagine Larry David, the maddeningly neurotic but hilarious comic, spending a summer in a French village — against his will, of course — and you get some sense of what Mark Greenside goes through in his engaging memoir 'I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do).'
The book begins with Greenside being taken to Brittany by his girlfriend in 1991. They soon break up, but Greenside decides to stick it out and stay for the rest of his vacation — no easy task for a born skeptic and admitted Francophobe. As he recalls, 'I was in Paris in 1966, and they loathed me, and I don't think I've changed that much.'
To his astonishment, however, Greenside begins to warm to the place. The people who live there, he realizes, aren't all that reprehensible. In little time, and with a lot of help from Madame P, a sweet, maternal figure who takes this middle-aged man by the hand (literally) and acts as his guide around town, Greenside, a Bay Area writer with little income, comes to own a beautiful, inexpensive summer farmhouse.
It all makes for a heartwarming but never cloying story of a loner who finds a community he can call home. 'All my life,' he writes, 'I've disdained the connectedness, closeness, visibility, complicity — the busybodiness and dependence of small-town and suburban life, and here, in Brittany, in this village of five hundred people, I find I desire it.'
Thankfully, Greenside captures details of life in Brittany without making the place seem twee. Brittany, unlike say, the swishy Riveria, has little pretense to it — it's made up of mostly modest fishing villages and farming towns, and reading about the province's low-key, no-frills vibe is a welcome antidote to signs of French life one usually sees abroad: overpriced bistros, fine wines, haute couture and the like.
The lightest moments of the book, not surprisingly, come from Greenside, who speaks virtually no French, trying to get by day-to-day. He can barely buy milk — he asks for 'jus du vache' (juice of the cow) - let alone understand a real estate agent or negotiate with a worker who needs to replace an oil tank.
Occasionally, Greenside sets up situations that grow repetitive: He suspects someone is taking advantage of him, and — what's this? — they're actually being nice! Greenside also finds it amusing that everyone he encounters often says 'bon'or 'oui,' which has the author repeatedly commenting on the 'bon-ing' and 'oui-ing.' D'accord, already.
But these are minor missteps. Greenside's book is an otherwise fun and high-spirited read and proof that one is never too old to find true happiness in life. Even among the French."
— Elise Pearlman, Newsday
"In 1991, as British expatriate Peter Mayle published his first book on Provence, Mark Greenside embarked on his own life-altering French adventure. That summer, the writer and former North Bellmore native reluctantly followed his girlfriend to Finistère, a "departement" located in Brittany on the westernmost tip of France.
While Mayle's books revolve around a host of quirky local characters, in this disarmingly funny memoir, Greenside - a born skeptic who does not speak French and is clueless about the culture - becomes a helpless fish out of water with whom shopkeepers, neighbors and repairmen must contend. As Greenside places his trust in the local townspeople, the Bretons become some of the best friends that he has ever known, and he evolves into a kinder, gentler version of himself.
By the time his romance falls to the wayside, Greenside is in love with the tiny hamlet of Plobien - a hydrangea-tinted paradise on Earth, where swans beckon and salmon leap from the river. And when he is shown an ancient house of granite and slate 'woven together like a fine Harris tweed,' he succumbs.
Greenside now alternates his time between Alameda, Calif., and Brittany - where he still can't do anything without asking for help. His descriptions of Finistère ('the end of the world') are glorious and should rightfully make this region as popular a tourist destination as Provence."
— Laurie Hertzel, Books Editor, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
"You know all those books about moving to France, buying a house and fixing it up? Well, here's another one. This one, though, is funny. Mark Greenside (who spoke no French) and his girlfriend (who did) went to Brittany for three months. They broke up, she left, he stayed and practically the next thing he knew, he was rattling around the countryside with his maternal French landlady, who was speaking rapidly to him in a language he could only vaguely understand. And voila! Almost against his will, he was soon the proud owner of a rather gorgeous but falling-down house. Greenside's observations are funny and generous, his encounters with his beleaguered French insurance agent are hysterical, his house sounds to die for and the only truly irritating thing about this book is his annoying habit of including snippets of dialogue in French and then not translating it for the reader. C'mon, Mark. You know what it feels like. Cut it out."
— Cliff Bellamy, Durham-Chapel Hill Herald Sun
"In 1991, writer Mark Greenside was dating a poet who suggested that they go to France, where they could rent a house in the countryside in Brittany. Greenside went along reluctantly. The relationship with the poet ended, but not Greenside's relationship with the people, place and customs of Finistere, in the western part of France.
'I'll Never Be French'is Greenside's funny, uplifting and delightful memoir of how he learns to love the ways of the French people (without necessarily understanding their customs), without a good working knowledge of their language. Among the difficult lessons for a New Yorker American to learn: 1.) It is easy to get a loan for a house in France; the difficulty is getting the bank account; 2.) No one — from carpenters who fix old floors to people who fill the fuel oil tank to bakers — knows what a down payment is; 3.) Homeowners' insurance isn't what it is in the United States (and that's a good thing).
Greenside portrays Bretons as a people who are clean, and want things to be in their proper order, socially and otherwise. Yet they are generous to a fault with Greenside — particularly Monsieur and Madame P, his landlords — and take him under their wing. Even in the most convoluted of business deals, Greenside never gets taken advantage of, as he suspects.
This book is recommended to anyone who has been to France, or wants to go to France, or has Breton roots in their past."
— Jessica Harrison, Salt Lake City Deseret News
"American has funny, frustrating life in France 'I'll Never Be French' is a delight to read.
At some point in our lives most of us imagine — even for just a moment — what it would be like to just pick up and move from where we live now, putting down roots in a new country where everything is, in fact, foreign.
For author Mark Greenside, a summer vacation with his girlfriend to France gave him the chance to do just that.
In 'I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do),' Greenside shares his adventures living in a small village in Brittany.
Greenside, a native New Yorker living in California, never wanted to live in France, and after a disastrous trip to Paris in 1966, the last thing he wanted to do was return to the country.
So in 1991, when his then-girlfriend suggested a visit there, Greenside was decidedly against it. But in the end, he allowed himself to be dragged along to a tiny Celtic village at the westernmost edge of France.
Greenside's experience in that village was unexpected, and though his relationship with his girlfriend fizzled by the end of the summer, his relationship with the town's inhabitants was solidified.
Before Greenside knew what was happening, he was purchasing a home in a country where he didn't speak the language, didn't understand the monetary or banking systems, and had no knowledge of legal procedures.
Greenside's experiences setting up his new home fluctuate from surprising to humorous to pathetic. He finds that in stark opposition to his life in the United States, where he's relatively successful and knows how to get what he wants, in France he is helpless with a childlike dependence on others, and he's just fine with that. He's grateful for his life in Brittany, calling his time there 'days of grace.'
It's easy for the reader to empathize with Greenside's experiences shopping, trying to fix the washing machine or hammering out details with the oil, floor and insurance guys — who doesn't have these sorts of problems here at home?
Written in a playful and conversational tone, 'I'll Never Be French' gives readers a glimpse of French life beyond Paris. Greenside's descriptions of everyday activities and village events are refreshing in their honest simplicity.
Greenside's 'joy of seeing and being part of this communal experience' comes through in his writing, making 'I'll Never Be French' a joy to read."
— Javan Kienzle, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
"If you liked Peter Mayle's Provence, Tom Higgins' Lyons ('Spotted Dick S'il Vous Plait') or anywhere Bill Bryson went — or even if you haven't read any of them — run, do not walk, to the nearest copy of Mark Greenside's 'I'll Never Be French,' a funny, funny book."
A French-speaking New York girl talks her non-French-speaking California soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend into renting a house in the Breton village of Finistère — or, as she translates it, the end of the world.
It is indeed the end of his world as he knows it. However, he is, mercifully, taken under the wing of 'Madame,' a neighbor who, he says, epitomizes 'the French at their best: helpful, of real assistance in a crisis, making a difference, being friendly, genial — 'gentil' — Lafayette saving America, Jacques Cousteau saving the sea, Docteurs Sans Borders saving the world, being clean and 'propre' — and blaming the whole 'catastrophe' on the English. To be able to help and clean and blame the English in the same act, it's a French dream come true.'"
— James Rowen, The Political Environment Blogspot
"Mark Greenside is an old friend and former college roommate, a teacher and published short story writer, and now author of a smart and funny book — I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do) — and after reading an advance copy I have but one thing to say to you fellow holiday shoppers and lovers of good writing:
Buy This Book, especially if you have traveled to Europe and wondered, as you walked through little, picture-postcard-perfect towns, 'What would it be like to buy a little place here?'
Then imagine you are my friend Mark: you have never owned a home anywhere — in fact, you eschew owning property of most any kind.
Also, you 'speak,' shall we say, little actual French (this I witnessed during a summer more than 40 years ago when a group of us UW undergrads hitchhiked and free-loaded through Europe), and because you have held socially-redemptive, but low-paying jobs, you have no money to acquire a complete house that nice neighbors you met on another vacation to France decades later have decided you shall acquire.
What do you do with this improbable tale after ending up with a cool house in a cool spot — Brittany, France! — that all your friends now want to visit so they can continue their freeloading ways?
You write a book about it — how it happened, what you learned along the way, and what it's like to now have a foot in two cultures.
So congratulations to Mark: it's a long way from Elm Drive C and Mendota Ct., oui?
— Perspective (California Federation of Teachers Community College Newsletter) October 2008 by Fred Glass
"Merritt College instructor Mark Greenside's new book, I'll Never Be French, No Matter What I Do, is not unique in telling the story of an English speaker attempting to make his way in the French countryside. Peter Mayle's best seller, A Year in Provence, is perhaps the most famous recent example of Anglophonic adventures and misadventures in the land of wine and cheese. David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day is another. There are similarities. Like Sedaris, Greenside doesn't speak much French, and gets himself into numerous whimsical scrapes with the locals through linguistic ineptitude. Like Mayle, Greenside purchases a house (in Brittany, and much to his own surprise), and in his efforts to remodel it finds himself in various struggles with local craftsmen. But Greenside's account differs in important ways, including subtleties of tone and-although I'll Never Be French would not be considered an overtly political book-some key divergences in politics and cultural sensibility. One thing that bothered me in reading A Year in Provence was how Mayle treated his workers, both in events reported in the narrative and as characters in the book. He never attempts to do anything more than view them through the lens of stereotype, using them more as objects of his humor than as living dynamic humans. That, of course, is the prerogative of a humorist; but it also reveals a choice about the depth of one's cultural engagement in another country. By contrast, Greenside is ruefully, often painfully aware of his outsider status, and of the sharp limitations placed on normal adult effectiveness when attempting to speak with the vocabulary and understanding of a three year old. He has a great deal of respect for the rhythms and rules of life in another culture. In patiently seeking to solve the problems of daily life, he puts himself into situations where the lines between amusing and humiliating can quickly blur or dissolve. His record of his attempts to navigate these treacherous cultural and linguistic waters forms the existential core of the book. Greenside has been teaching in the four campus Peralta Community District since 1971. He began as a History and Political Science teacher, and now teaches English and Creative Writing. Greenside credits his experience in France with giving him a greater empathy for his students: 'Teachers as teachers most often are in control, or at least feel in control, in the classroom, that's the normal state for us. We make the assignments, we grade the papers, we give the final grades. It's difficult and humbling to find yourself in a situation where you essentially you have no control. And a good reminder of how students feel, especially non-native students or students whose cultural background doesn't make them feel comfortable in an academic setting.' Active over the years in the Peralta Federation of Teachers, Greenside has served as president, chief grievance officer, member of the negotiations team, and chair of the local's COPE committee. Currently he is Secretary for the union. He thinks these experiences explain one of the differences between his point of view and that of Mayle. Unlike the latter, 'I'm curious about working conditions, what a work week is, what the basic pay is, benefits are, how the health system works. It is always intriguing to me, because they are doing better than we are.' Greenside feels his decades of teaching have had an important impact on his writing. 'To the extent that I teach about writing, it makes me a better writer. It makes me more honest with myself, and encourages me to do what I tell my students they have to do. Whenever I get bummed out or displeased or don't like what I see on the page, I think about what I tell my students to get over a block or discouragement and it helps me.'"
— Ann Tatko-Peterson, Oakland Tribune
"Alameda native discovers himself in France. What happens when your soon-to-be-ex girlfriend drags you off to a tiny village in France? For Alameda native Mark Greenside, a reluctant summer vacation turns into a long-term stay and an entertaining book, "I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany" (Free Press, $24).
Greenside's story is much more than a tale of an American living with little money in a country where he barely speaks the language. It's humorous as he deals with cultural differences but also heartwarming in his encounters and growing fondness for the locals.
— Virginia Center for the Creative Arts
I'll Never Be French Has Deep VCCA Roots
It was 1990 and the last thing on Mark Greenside's mind was living and working in France. But during a VCCA residency that spring, he met Fellow and poet Kathryn Levy, whose innocent suggestion that they travel to France, literally changed the course of his life. "Kathryn is a Francophile, fluent, a lover of most things French, except their politics," said Mark. "It would not have been a surprise to anyone who knows her—except, of course, me—that she wanted to return to France, to Brittany, where she'd been before, and wanted me to go with her. I'll Never Be French is the story of our trip over and the first few years of my life in Brittany."