Interview with Mark Greenside, Author of (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living

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Interview with Mark Greenside, Author of (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living
Mark Greenside is the author of two books about his part-time life in Plobien, a village in Finistère, Brittany. I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do), his 2009 memoir, tells the story of how, to his surprise, he found himself buying a home in a country he didn’t even want to visit in the first place, but ended up falling in love with in just a few short months. His latest book, (Not Quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, is a collection of stories about his adventures (and misadventures) in attempting to master the challenges of daily life in France, arranged thematically into chapters on driving, shopping, banking, eating, entertaining, getting sick, and speaking French. Each of the chapters details these attempts in true stories that anyone who has ever attempted to do any of these things in France will surely appreciate and identify with. Greenside’s self-deprecating sense of humor is often laugh-out-loud funny (think Thurber), but his stories are also full of a deep and genuine affection and respect for French people and their ways. (Which is not to say that he can’t see their foibles as well…) Each chapter ends with a very helpful, informative, and quite practical list of “10 Things I’ve Learned About…” Greenside recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions in this exclusive interview for Bonjour Paris.  Janet: What do you love most about France? Mark Greenside: I love what most people love about France, Brittany, Finistère, where I live: the visual, gustatory, people pleasures of daily life. I love the flinty, glittery granite houses, walls, viaducts, and bridges; the yellow and green moss splotches on black slate roofs; wild heather; potted geraniums; red, white, and blue hydrangeas the size of bowling balls; Belon oysters; fresh-from-the-sea mussels, crab, lobster, langoustine, St. Pierre, sole, and monkfish; pre-salted (pré-salé) lamb that lived and ate on the salt marshes of Ouessant and Mont-St-Michel; filet mignon du porc; warm, fresh bread with friend-made strawberry, apricot, cherry, or quince confiture and demi-sel fleur de sel butter straight from the Guerande; the cider, chouchen, and the wines of the Loire, especially Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie; and the crêpes—a nearby restaurant boasts 530 varieties! And I love the kouign amann, fruit tarts, gateau Breton, and strawberries from Ploustel, the sweetest strawberries in the world; and the huge horizons, stormy weather, starry starry nights, misty silvery days; and the sea, and the light—the luminous northern sea light painted by Monet, Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and the people: the tough, stubborn, curious, dreamy, romantic, nostalgic, anxious, nervous, engaging, helpful, pessimistic, humorous, conservative—meaning safe, not political—people. Of course, I love all of this—what’s not to love?—but what I find most extraordinarily loveable is me. I love who I am, who I become, how I am in France, Brittany, Finistère. Like all love affairs, being in France, like being with Donna, my wife, makes me a better, nicer, kinder, more thoughtful, more generous, forgiving, accepting, open, braver, appreciative, adventurous, trusting, embracing, wondering, thankful, grateful, graceful, fun, and funny person. With both my wife and in France, I accept being dependent—a state I normally loathe. I’m open, willing, positive, and I judge both myself and others less. My brother says I’m a nicer person since Donna entered my life 23 years ago. Donna says I’m a nicer person when I’m in France. I say, what goes around comes around, and I’m a better person because Donna and France both came around, and then let me stay. Janet: What drives you the most crazy? Mark: I’m embarrassed to answer Time and Order, lack of punctuality and efficiency, which mark me for the American that I am.  Nothing happens quickly or too soon in France, except maybe death. There’s no such thing as a one-minute double-park, I’ll just hop in, grab a loaf of bread, bottle of wine, cookie, and be right out kind of moment. (The double-parking part does exist, but not the one minute.) Every purchase involves a wait: getting into a line that’s not a line, but a wedge; the salesperson having a conversation with everyone in the wedge; waiting while people search for coupons, or a checkbook, or the exact change in the smallest units of coins possible. Fast food is not fast. 24-hour service is 72-hours. A ten o’clock Monday morning meeting happens at 2:00 Monday afternoon, if I’m lucky. It could also be Tuesday afternoon or the following Monday, and sometimes it never happens. Then there’s the poor signage. Too often, signs don’t exist at all: like I’ll be in Centre Ville looking for directions to the N-165 highway, the major thoroughfare in the area, and there are no signs. There are signs to the next village, to the village dump, the industrial zone, the farm down the road, and to restaurants, hotels, and chateaux—but not to the highway that gets you there, which means I’m often driving in circles around roundabouts or on small country roads—the slowest, most complicated, redundant, confusing way to get from A to B, which brings me back to Time and Order. Amazingly, though, these are also the most beautiful routes, taking me through 16th century stone villages, past fields of grain and bucolic cows, along the coast—bringing me back to things I love. Janet: What do you have to say about the belief that French people hate Americans? Mark: It depends on where and when. The first time I was in France, I was in Paris in 1967. It was De Gaulle time and the war in Vietnam was raging. De Gaulle was a cultural nationalist, advocating for and representing the beauty and superiority of French everything, and the war in Vietnam was a universal disgrace and disaster. Put the two together and being an American in Paris was not…

Lead photo credit : Image credit: Unsplash, stevenlasry

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Leslie
    2020-08-25 08:36:47
    What is the difference between the first and second books? I enjoyed the first one. A question for Mark: Do you plan to ever stay full time in France?