A review of Beginning French by Les Américains

Review by Phillip Howlette

Beginning French
Lessons from a Stone Farmhouse

By Les Américains (Eileen McKenna & Marty Neumeier)
2016, ISBN 978 0 9974102 0 4

The title of the book implies that Beginning French could be a simple tale of two people learning to speak a new language. For the record, this is a memoir of how Marty and his wife Eileen lived their dream when it finally came true. Driven constantly by their desire to see more of the world they worked their butts off for twenty years so they could afford to realise their ambitions. And as Marty says, “It doesn’t cost a cent to dream.” Eventually they travel to France imagining that if they bought a house there, they would become French. In their home country of the USA they would always be just ‘Marty and Eileen’ but in the part of France they settled on they would forever be known as Les Americains. The lessons they learned in the stone farmhouse will last a lifetime.

At times funny, always educational, and a little spicy, Eileen and Marty give an honest and surprisingly personal account of themselves as they struggle to keep the dream alive.

The early chapters take us through the expected and typical blunders foreigners can make in a foreign country and I suddenly remembered a book by an Englishman and his wife who, some years ago, experienced much the same thing. The difference here though is in the depth of the story as it unfolds to reveal more than just the trials and tribulations of trying to fit in to a new and vastly different world.

In some ways I felt the authors were somewhat lucky in that they seemed to have a wide list of friends and acquaintances they could call upon when things got tough. An episode with a damaged water heater suggested an almost lassai-faire attitude to their problems. Then again, what are friends for if not to call upon and pay them back with a nice dinner?

The writing is so descriptive and uncomplicated that is easy to imagine accompanying the family as they go from one lesson to the next. We go with them to buy furniture, buy food at the hypermarket, get the boiler fixed and tag along on their trips to the Dordogne and some wonderful French towns and villages. We experience the history, the culture and the environment through Marty and Eileen’s exquisite travelogues and memories. And if you think I have forgotten to mention the French food then you are in for a huge surprise. Sara, the authors’ daughter is a great cook – une chef – and adds a magical element to the story. Throughout the book we are regaled with the culinary delights that Sara manages to produce from the stone farmhouse kitchen. As a bonus the recipes to these delicious French concoctions are scattered among the pages. Brilliant.

To their credit, the authors show us more than just the good and bad stuff that happens as they fumble their way through the French part of their lives. They open their hearts and allow us to see some of the darker moments that bedevil them. The sentiments expressed in these chapters are heartfelt and to be honest a little sad.

But in the end, they come to realise that the magic of where and how they live is far more important to them than their personal vanities. A sort of sanity prevails and we are left to wonder about the next phase of their lives.

For me this was a slow burn that got brighter and faster with each chapter. I thoroughly enjoyed it and at times I found myself laughing along with the family in their adventures including the occasional mishap. In one very serious issue, to the French at least, and an endearing one to Marty, a bad case of mis-spelling left me with a very French emotion – C’est la vie!

Another bonus at the end of the book is an inclusive and useful glossary listing translations and contexts for the French words used throughout the story.

About the reviewer: Phillip Howlette lives near Newcastle New South Wales Australia and enjoys writing, painting and going for quite short walks. He has self published short sci-fi stories and a beginner’s guide to meditation on Amazon under the name of Douglas Phillips. He is a member of a small creative writer’s network and continues to write stories every week.