Flirting with French

flirting with french

I just fell in love with a new book: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander (Algonquin US paperback 2014). People might raise an eyebrow when I say that a book about learning French is hilarious, but it really is text-your-friends-and-family-funny-quotes-from-the-book funny. I’m spreading the word with all of my friends in my Alliance Française classes. They’re going to love it.

William Alexander is a middle-aged American guy, who like so many of us, has a giant crush on France. He hopes to (finally) learn French, even though he is well aware that at age 57, he is on the downward slope of the cognitive and learning curve. He tells us his story with a light and snarky humility, laughing at himself so we can too. Over the course of a year, we follow Alexander as he blunders alongs on his learning challenge, only to find him facing an even greater health challenge. Through it all, Alexander’s love of France and his enthusiasm for accomplishing an elusive goal will charm and seduce you too.

So for my fellow Francophone-wannabes out there who are tormented by their own efforts to (finally) learn French, here are some delightful tidbits from the book.

The French . . . always tangle up everything to that degree that when you start into a sentence you never know whether you are going to come out alive or not.” –Mark Twain

Because it is female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine.” –David Sedaris

” ‘Je suis a stranger here,’ I said in flawless French. ‘Je veux aller to le best hotel dans le town.’ ” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Alexander has delightful three-page rant about the way the French count past sixty. Finally! Someone who shares my frustration! How many times have I tried to explain to my French teachers how silly it is that the number eighty in French is “four-twenty.” They say, “it’s just the number for eighty.” And I say, “No, it’s multiplication!” And then they look at me like I’m the crazy one. Not Alexander. He’s on our side.

And then. And then! A whole chapter on gendered nouns. Thank you! Here’s a fun list that demonstrates just how nonsensical the whole system is: a vagina and a woman’s breast are both masculine, while a beard, a screw and a necktie are all feminine. Hens are females, roosters male, and chickens (as David Sedaris knows well) are male. Alexander traces the history of gendered nouns, explaining how they came to be abandoned in the English language (the only one of the entire Indo-European family of languages to do so, believe it or not.) Apparently, we have the English peasants to thank: “Life was too short and too hard for a peasant to worry about how to address the bloody cow.

I’ve always been curious about those Immersion French programs you read about in the back of French magazines, and Alexander actually went to one. He went for two intense weeks at Millefeuille Provence, a bain linguistic (linguistic bath) in southern France. His conclusion? “The immersion approach is assumed by everyone in the field to be the best way to learn a language, and it probably is, but there’s a fine line between immersion and drowning.” So maybe that’s not the panacea for our French language acquisition either!

Every French student will be able to relate to Alexander when he describes his self-consciousness speaking French to a Frenchman. As Alexander says:

The real problem for Americans and Brits, according to some linguists, is that the phonemes of French, with its rolled r’s and nasal intonations, sound so silly to us that when we pronounce them properly we feel like we’re doing an Inspector Clouseau parody, so we shy away from the correct pronunciation.

I know exactly what he means. I call it the “A-hole American Tourist” syndrome, when we come back to the States and try to keep using our hard-won French accents, calling Paris “Paree” and the croissants “cwahssahn” — until our friends and family all roll their eyeballs and beg us to stop. Pas plus!

But still, against the odds, despite the frustration, and in the face of linguists who insist it is just not possible (c’est impossible!) to become fluent in another language post-childhood, we keep learning and trying and practicing our French. And thanks to William Alexander, we are not alone. And we’re laughing along the way. Pas mal, pas mal.


Flirting With French: Highly recommended


For Further Reading: (Only kidding a little bit. Don’t know what I’d do without it.)












–The American Girls Club in Paris, by Margie White

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val: The Hundred-Foot Journey Village

Make Your Own Hundred-Foot Journey



It’s impossible to see the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey and not fall in love with the scenery. It’s as enticing as a vintage French travel poster.

On a recent trip to Bordeaux, I realized I’d only be a three-hour drive away from the village where the movie was filmed, and because I had an extra day on my calendar, I said why not?

And that’s how I find myself in the beautiful medieval village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the Tarn-et-Garonne, along the banks of L’Aveyron.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val isn’t all that easy to get to (click here for a map), depending where you’re starting from. It’s probably the easiest to reach from Toulouse, but you can also find your way from Bordeaux like we did. Just build an extra day into your itinerary if you can. It’s worth it.

As we drove toward the village from Cahors, down the D958, we suddenly found ourselves in a spectacular little valley surrounded by limestone cliffs and wooded hills that swept down to the Aveyron River. You come around a bend and there it is – you know it from the panoramic shots in the movie. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.


Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, still beautiful in fading sunlight.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, still beautiful in fading sunlight.


We found parking just outside the city center (which with its narrow medieval streets is pedestrian only) and wandered into the middle of town where we easily found the Tourist Office at 10 rue de la Pelisserie. They just happened to have the most marvelous movie-site map of all the film locations throughout the village.


With the handy-dandy map in our hands, we started with the “cute-meet” accident scene at the beginning of the movie where Hassan’s (Manish Dayal’s) family crashes to a halt on a country road outside of town and meets Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). The tourist center map told us it was along Côte de la Rodanèze, so we drove along the road until we found the only uphill driveway. Guessing we were in the right place, we staged our own cheesy reenactment of brake failure. (I wonder, how many visitors have been doing the very same thing, most likely annoying the locals?)


Next came the Place de la Halle at the center of town with the distinctive covered market and cafés. We stopped for a glass of rosé and looked around, wondering if the village mayor was at a table nearby, patiently listening to the citizens’ complaints. This is where Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) and Papa (Om Puri) came to bend the mayor’s ear with their complaints about each other’s restaurants.

Place de la Halle, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Place de la Halle, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val


Café in the center of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Café in the center of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Up next was the street where Marguerite lived and where Hassan came courting. The map told us that was filmed on rue Darasse.





We were left to wonder: which one is the Romeo and Juliet window?




Then it was a short walk across town, past the Mairie and over to the Quartier des Tanneries. This was the area where Marguerite and Hassan took a walk upon his return to the village. This quarter was once home to tanneries, flour mills and and thriving drapery business.





We continued to stroll through the charming little streets until we stumbled upon the local theater, Le Querlys at 14 bd des Thermes. which has daily showings of Les Récettes du Bonheur (the French title for The Hundred-Foot Journey.) If only we had known, we might have built it into our itinerary, but instead, we decided to leave town to reach our hotel near Cahors before dark. You might want to check Le Querlys website to see if the film is still showing when you make your own visit. How fun to see it in French in the very town in which it was filmed.





And because readers of this blog know that the book is always better than the movie (amiright or amiright?) I can’t leave without reminding everyone that this movie was based on the book, The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais. Before the movie came out and it was subjected to the movie-cover treatment, the book had this even more beautiful cover.

hundred-foot journey











Interesting to note: author Richard Morais is an American who was raised in Switzerland and who lived most of his life overseas. He currently resides in New York and is also the author of  Buddhaland Brooklyn.

buddhaland brooklyn











Finally, one more fun fact I stumbled upon as I put this post together?  You can follow @the100ftjourney on Twitter for behind-the-scenes photos and recipes.

Seven Letters From Paris

seven letters from paris

Who doesn’t wonder about a long-lost love? Especially when life has got you down, and you’re wondering where and how your life took such a wrong turn. . . .

You pull out some old love letters, and you wonder: will they make me cringe, or was he really the dreamboat I thought he was?

And then. . . because we can, we Google him.

This is how Samantha Vérant‘s incredibly romantic Seven Letters from Paris (Sourcebooks, October 2014) begins.


Five years later, and Samantha is married (after a fairytale wedding in California) and living with her adorable Jean-Luc and his two children in southern France. She’s still stumbling over her French conjugations (who isn’t?) and coming into her own as a writer, wife and stepmom. It’s tailor-made for a romantic comedy starring, oh, who knows, Reese Witherspoon? Julia Roberts? Just saying.

Samantha and I had big plans to meet up in southern France in September. I was eager to meet somebody who felt like my younger, crazier little sister. After all, I felt like I knew her after I just finished her memoir. I even stole some slippers from my hotel to give her and Jean-Luc as a belated wedding gift!

But toward the end of an entire month in France, you can lose track of what day it is (hmmm, too many wine tastings?). Samantha and I missed our planned connection in Montauban, but that didn’t stop us from sharing a happy hour together on Google Hang-Out after I trained back to Paris. I had a good bottle of Bordeaux to finish before I had to return to Chicago, but thanks to Samantha, I didn’t have to drink alone!

I’m here to tell you that Samantha is the real deal. She’s funny and honest and brave, just like in the book. She’d be a great author for your book club to Skype with, if you can figure out the time difference!

So for all those book clubs out there looking for a really fun conversation starter: pick Seven Letters From Paris for your next book club, and trust me, you’ll have late-into-the-night chats about your own long-lost loves. (Hmmm, whatever happened to that French-Canadian firefighter you met on a ski trip in college?)

I’m happily married, but what the heck. Maybe even I’ll start Googling. . . .


Seven Letters From Paris: Highly recommended



Madame Picasso in Paris

madame picasso

I heard about Anne Girard’s new novel Madame Picasso (Mira Books, August 2014) and made sure it was packed in my carry-on bag when I boarded my recent plane to Paris. The cover is gorgeous and the book is that luxurious kind of trade paperback that feels soft and good in your hands.

Madame Picasso is the story of Pablo Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel from 1911 until her tragic death in 1915. Picasso had many other lovers, muses and wives over the course of his long life (1881-1973), but Eva Gouel can show us a side of the young Picasso we might never have known.



I began marking up the pages and taking notes of all the scenes from the book, eager to walk in Pablo and Eva’s footsteps through Paris. It’s a walk that will take you from one end of Paris to the other, from the top of Montmartre all the way across the Seine to the center of Montparnasse. I walked it all on a beautiful fall day in September. When I was done, I was exhausted, inspired and very thirsty.

Madame Picasso begins at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Eva Gouel arrives from her family’s home in the outskirts of Paris and is lucky and talented enough to get a job as a seamstress. Eva is well on her way to becoming a costume designer, but fate interrupts. Pablo Picasso comes to the Moulin Rouge one night and notices the pretty girl working behind the scenes.

The Moulin Rouge in Paris where Eva first meets Picasso

When Picasso and Eva first meet, he is already involved with his long-term mistress Fernande Olivier. He has a studio in the run-down Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartrre. The studios got their famous nickname from the artist Max Jacob, who thought they were so rickety that they rocked like a houseboat on the Seine. Once Picasso had some success, he moved out, but still kept a studio there to keep up with his artist friends and have a little privacy with his models.

There is a little piece left of Bateau-Lavoir that you can still see today. It’s located near the top of Montmartre in place Goudreau.

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located

The plaque on what is left of the old Bateau-Lavoir located at  No. 13 rue Ravignan at Place Emile Goudeau. A fire destroyed most of the building in the 1970s, leaving only the façade.


Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre

Bateau-Lavoir, Montmartre. Eva and Pablo spend their first night together here after meeting at the Moulin Rouge. Here’s a passage from the book: “Picasso squeezed Eva’s hand when they finally arrived at the ramshackle building in the center of a sloping square, lush with rustling chestnut trees. She knew this shabby old place, with its sagging roof of filthy glass skylights, was a haven to impoverished painters, models and thieves.”


The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir

The historical marker at Bateau-Lavoir tells the story of the old piano factory that was turned into art studios in 1889. This was where Picasso spent the end of his blue period, as well as his rose period with his lover Fernande.


rue Ravignan is a lovely spot near the top of the hill of Montmartre.

rue Ravignan is now a lovely little street near the top of the hill of Montmartre.



Place Emile Goudeau from below the steps, in front of La Relais de la Butte, a great place to catch a café or a beer in the sun.

Picasso had been living in Paris since 1901, and by 1911, he was sufficiently on the rise that he and his lover Fernande Olivier could afford a nice apartment on avenue Clichy. To get there from the Bateau-Lavoir, all you have to do is keep walking down the butte of Montmartre, across the bridge that spans over the Montmartre Cemetery, down to place de Clichy and past the Blanche Métro stop. It’s now a bustling, somewhat seedy area, but back in their day, it was considered very nice.

11 boulevard de Clichy, the upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier when he met Eva.

11 boulevard de Clichy, which was then an upscale apartment where Picasso lived with Fernande Olivier. In the novel, Fernande says to Eva: “It’s such a grand place we’ve got now. . . . Did you know Pablo rented me an apartment on the boulevard de Clichy? Everyone who is anyone lives there.”


Picasso lives near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge and the

In 1911, Picasso lived near place de Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge where he met Eva.

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment/studio,

Pablo Picasso in his boulevard Clichy apartment he shared with Fernande Olivier.

In the novel, a mutual friend introduces Eva Gouel to Fernande Olivier at the Dome in Montparnasse. To Eva’s surprise, Fernande calls herself “Madame Picasso” although Picasso and Fernande are not married. Eva is drawn into Fernande’s social circle and tries to avoid a love triangle with Picasso. But of course she can’t.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier.

Le Dome in Montparnasse where Eva meets Fernande Olivier. “The Dome was the best of the four cafés on the corner of the bustling boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. It was shaded by an elegant bower of horse chestnut trees and had a butter-yellow awning, Le Dome was a lively spot, harboring a tangle of closely packed tables with chairs spilling out onto the sidewalk. All of it was full of such life, young Parisians chattering endlessly about politics, art and literature.”

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verde du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

You can almost picture Fernande and Eva chatting over un verre du vin at these café tables outside Le Dome.

Eva, Picasso and Fernande meet again at Gertrude Stein’s Saturday night salon at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank. Eva and Picasso find that their initial attraction is undeniable, despite his relationship with Fernande. They make plans to meet again.

Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus not far from boulevard Raspail in Montparnasse. There is a plaque that says, “Gertrude Stein lived here with her brother Leo Stein, then with Alice B. Toklas, she received there a number of artists and writers from 1903 to 1938.”


Gertrude Stein's apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It's just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.

Gertrude Stein’s apartment still stands at 27 rue de Fleurus. It’s just a short walk from Luxembourg Gardens or boulevard Raspail.


The attraction between Eva and Picasso deepens, but Eva is shocked when Picasso is arrested in connection with the theft of the Mona Lisa. This set of events presents a nice little historical touchpoint for the story. Most people have heard about the shocking theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, but to see unfold from Eva’s point of view is really interesting. Picasso is eventually cleared of the charges and Eva surrenders to his persistent charms.

Le Petit Parisen - La Jaconde

What follows are beautiful scenes in which Picasso paints Eva in his Bateau-Lavoir studio. Anne Girard imagines the chemistry and energy that buzzed through Picasso’s studio, and bring this famous cubist painting of Eva (“Ma Jolie”) to life.

Pablo Picasso, "Ma Jolie" (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, “Ma Jolie” (Woman with a Zither or Guitar) 1911-12, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie (1913-14), Indianapolis Museum of Art

Eva and Pablo spend a golden summer together in the south of France. They stop in Cérete where Pablo meets up with Geroges Braque, and paints side-by-side with him in a large borrowed villa. Then Eva and Pablo move on to Avignon, where they run into Henri Matisse and his wife Amélie. They finally find a quiet villa in Sourges, where they spend the rest of their summer in inspired seclusion.

Eva and Pablo return to Paris as a committed couple and live at 242 boulevard Raspail. Eventually Eva finds them a beautiful well-lighted studio apartment at 5 rue Schoelcher, directly across from the Montparnasse Cemetery, where they lived from 1913 to 1915.



The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva's apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.

The view down the lovely rue Schoelcher as it runs alongside the Montparnasse Cemetery. Pablo and Eva’s apartment actually overlooked the cemetery.


Picasso and Eva's home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris

Picasso and Eva’s home at 5 rue Schoelcher, Paris. The most beautiful building on the block, still.


A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16. I can almost see what Eva saw in him. . . .

A photograph of Picasso in his rue Schoelcher studio 1915-16.

Of course, everyone knows that Eva only survived until 1915. Picasso could barely step foot in the rue Schoelcher studio again.

It was hard to leave Eva behind, but I couldn’t finish my Madame Picasso Walk through Paris unless I stopped at what might be Picasso’s most famous studio on rue Des Grand Augustins in the 6th arrondissement. It was where Picasso lived from 1936 to 1955, and where painted he Guernica in 1937.

IMG_9207 IMG_9208



After a long day walking the streets of Paris in Eva and Pablo’s shoes, you are no doubt in need of liquid reinforcement at a sidewalk café. I recommend you stop in for a glass of wine at Café La Palette on rue de Seine in the 6th, not too far away from Picasso’s studio on rue des Grand Augustins. In fact, the café boasts that Picasso used to frequent there back in the day.

And while you’re there, you can think of Picasso and Cézanne and Braque and all the other artists who drank there, but also? Make a toast to Eva, and to Anne Girard, for bringing Eva out of the shadows of history.


La Palette, rue de Seine, Paris

Café La Palette, at the corner of rue de Seine and rue Jacques-Callot, Paris


Madame Picasso by Anne Girard: Highly recommended

For Further Reading: Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

vanished smile by RA SCOTTI












The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Autobiography of Alice B. toklas