Reference Points

March 22, 2009|By Chicago Tribune

I'll Never Be French (No Matter What I Do)

Free Press, $24

Mark Greenside, the author of this enchanting book and an American from California, came to France - to a small village in Brittany - at the behest of his girlfriend at the time. In retrospect, it seemed a brave thing to do, especially because he didn't speak a word of French. And the last time he was there was not a pleasant experience. Even worse, he hated to fly. "Let's go to Saskatchewan," he suggested instead. But of course, they do go, and he begins to fall in love with a tiny Breton village with 500 inhabitants.

While Greenside's book falls into a familiar pattern - the outsider observing the locals from an ironic distance - it also differs in significant ways. In fact, what makes the book so fascinating is watching how Greenside himself changes while in a strange land - how he reacts to the different culture and interacts with his neighbors. Much to his own surprise, he begins to admire the small-town atmosphere. Ultimately, he tries to accommodate his Jekyll-and-Hyde existence - bringing together his American side with his French side. It is not an easy fit, he admits, but in it he finds "familiarity and purpose."

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