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.