French by Heart

It's no secret that I have an obsession with books about France and French culture. I have read a ton of them and for the most part, they usually take place in Paris or the south of France. So when I saw that Rebecca Ramsey's book French By Heart took place in the Clermont-Ferrand region of France, I immediately got a hold of it.

Clermont-Ferrand is the home of Michelin and sits in the beautiful region of Auvergne, which happens to be where my mother-in-law currently lives. It has beautiful rolling hills, volcanoes and lots of really good food (bien sûr!). But I had never read any books on living there, particularly about an American family living there.

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I loved the book, not only because it was set in a region I am only somewhat familiar with, but also because of many of the experiences that Rebecca had I also faced while living in France and it is always fun to relate to people in that manner.

After reading the book I contacted Ms. Ramsey to see if she would agree to an interview, and she warmly did. Not only that but she will be guest posting for a project I am cooking up in May/June!

Before diving into my interview, here is a little about the book:

From the publisher:

(Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.) Ramsey adopts a sweet but never cloying tone to tell the charming story of her family's four-year stint in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Ramsey, a young mother of three whose husband's company relocates them to France, recounts what it feels like to sell the family home in South Carolina, say goodbye to everyone you know, and move overseas. Rather than tell the story chronologically, Ramsey links the narrative to everyday events recalling the pitfalls and petite triumphs inherent in each encounter.

Moreover, because the family's command of French is minimal, routine tasks often become embarrassing lessons. Ultimately, Ramsey and her family embrace their adopted country's language and customs. Entering a bookstore, she finds herself surrounded by graceful young women in high heels, short skirts, and stylish leather blazers, while she is “standing there in my big red field jacket and clunky black clogs… like a frumpy giant.”

Ramsey acknowledges telling “the whole truth, even when it makes me look ridiculous”—and this results in an endearing memoir.

My interview with Rebecca Ramsey:

[1] Have you ever had the desire to move back to France? If so, would you move back to Clermont or try a new region?

Are you kidding? I'd LOVE to go back to France. Our four years there changed my life, and it remains an almost sacred place to me. I miss so much about France–the way we'd leave our windows and doors open to the fresh air (impossible in South Carolina, with the heat and the bugs,) the ability to walk most everywhere, (we tried it here, but people kept honking at us!) and of course my taste buds miss the glorious food. (I still dream of confit de canard and clafoutis.) We'd move back to Clermont-Ferrand, definitely. It's a gorgeous place and an easy drive to almost anywhere we'd want to go.

[2] Have you and your children kept their French up?

My older kids have, as much as they can. Sarah is in college now and is thinking about minoring in French. Ben is in high school and has taken as much French as they offer. When we first moved back to South Carolina, we'd go once a week to Michelin's local school for French expats. Ben participated in a Lego robotics club with the French kids, and Sarah worked on a school newspaper.

But after a while, their schedules became too busy to continue. I think they're both interested in studying in France during college, which makes me so happy. (I'm hoping for a good excuse to go visit!)

Sam was four when we moved back, and he lost his French just as quickly as he learned it. He starts middle school next fall and will take his very first French class. It'll be interesting to see what his accent will sound like. I'm trusting that his French vocabulary is still lodged in a corner of his brain!

[3] Do you still keep in contact with Madame Mallet? Have you ever thought about visiting her?

I still send Madame Mallet a birthday card every year, and she always writes me back. It's getting harder to write a good letter the longer I'm here. It's amazing how quickly you can lose language if you don't practice every day. I try to read the news in French occasionally, but I'm afraid I've lost all confidence in my written French. Now I have to sit down with a dictionary to write even a simple note!

Todd has visited her and surprise, surprise: she hasn't changed one bit! She's still the ornery, blunt, hilarious woman she always has been. (She poked at his stomach and said he'd better watch it, that if he kept eating like an American he'd end up looking like the Michelin man.

Then she pecked him on the cheek and went to find a present to send home to me. She ended up giving him a stack of towels that she got free from a catalog company, and he had to borrow a suitcase from a friend just to bring it back.)

[4] You were able to visit a lot of places while living in Clermont for 4 years, what were your favorites?

Favorite places to visit? Hmm. I loved them all, but if I had to pick…

  1. The Dordogne. It's like stepping into a Grimm's fairytale. I have to say that I prefer its crumbling castles to the fancy ones in the Loire valley, and the food there is divine.
  2. Corsica. I wrote all about it in French By Heart, but it really is a magical place.
  3. Annecy. It's sort of the Venice of the Alps–breathtaking.
  4. Paris- of course. I could never get tired of Paris-the museums, the restaurants, just the people watching. I love flea marketing at the Porte de Vanves. The guide books describe that market as “more of a giant yard sale than anything serious,” but you can always find something great there, with any budget.
  5. My favorite places of all are probably the ordinary little villages all over France. Like St. Maurice sur Loire, outside of Roanne. There is a tiny Romanesque church there with the most amazing murals painted in the 13th century.

[5] Any French food items that you long for that you can't get very easily in the U.S.?

Food items I miss that I can't get here? How about everything? I miss the bread, of course. A good pain aux raisins. In January I always miss the galette des Rois. I miss the cheese, and I miss eating duck too. During all the mad cow craziness, we ate a lot of duck, and I never eat that here. It really is delicious.

I have found that grocery stores are beginning to carry some of my French favorites, like Nutella. (Hooray!) And Pims cookies. You haven't lived until you've tried a Pims.

[6] Are you currently working on a new book? What other writing activities are you up to? Do you read or write for blogs?

I am working on a couple projects, and hopefully, I'll be able to talk about them soon. One deals with the spiritual transformation I experienced in France, which I didn't reveal in French By Heart. I also continue writing for my blog, Wonders Never Cease.

Well, I very much look forward to that book, as I also believe that I went through a similar transformation, it will be fun to compare notes again!

Paris Breakfasts also did quite extensive review of the book on her blog as well.

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