Thursday, April 9, 2009

Words, words, words

A while ago I confessed in my blog that I prefer not to meet writers whose work I enjoy (Close encounters of the literary kind) - but today I have to add that it can be quite a pleasant experience when it happens the other way round. I recently met a charming American expatriate living in a neighbouring village - and then read her equally charming book, Words in a French Life (Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France).

Kristin Espinasse, who describes herself as 'a former desert rat from Phoenix', fell in love with the French language and with a Frenchman (in that order) and now has French children who correct her grammatical errors when she speaks 'their' language. (That's when they're not splitting their sides at the way she mispronounces some words.)

Of course I can identify with all of this - except for the desert rat bit - because my own children cannot, for the life of them, understand my daily struggle with the gender of French nouns. They know intuitively that 'question' is feminine (la question) and 'problem' masculine (le problème). So what is their mother's problem (masculine) with this gender business? That is the question (feminine).

But even readers without French partners, children or family-in-law would appreciate Espinasse's short and humorous 'lessons' in French living - each time built around a specific word. The book tackles these rather random but always useful words alphabetically. For instance, under d you would find words like déguster, dent and douche (savour, tooth and shower), clarified by three separate anecdotes about wine tasting, the tooth fairy and a catastrophic bathroom experience in a French hotel. Each chapter starts with a word (like goût), provides its English meaning and pronounciation (goo - noun, masculine - taste), tells a little story, and concludes with everyday or idiomatic expressions (such as prendre goût a quelque chose = to take a liking to something).

Great stuff, whether you want to polish your own French, learn a few basic words - or have no desire to speak French but simply enjoy reading about life in the slow lane of the French countryside. As many people apparently do, because this book is the result of an astonishingly successful blog,, that Espinasse has been keeping for seven years. Consistently, at least three times a week, with the kind of enthusiam and self-discipline that more occasional bloggers like myself can only admire, never copy. She started it as a little newsletter about the trials and tribulations of settling in a foreign country and struggling with a foreign language - soon attracting thousands of dedicated followers - and eventually published some of these anecdotes in book form herself. Her popularity just kept growing, until finally she was approached by American publishers Simon & Schuster, which led to the publication of Words in a French Life, in 2007.

She must be an example to millions of bloggers. has by now become much more than a hobby, rather an almost full-time occupation, a way of earning a living while working from home, and at the same time keeping in contact with Francophiles all over the world.

And, maybe most surprising of all, she's as entertaining and modest in real life as on the pages of her book, as I can testify after having enjoyed coffee with her twice. And that really impresses me.