26 April 2012

Book review: Living Abroad in France

Excellent try, but amateurish - feels self-published.  She did a lot of work, but not enough!

When I moved to France in 2003, I read a a handful of books on Franco-American cultural differences.  Now that I've started blogging about moving to France, I thought I'd re-read the books to see how my perspective has changed, and I'm profiting from the occasion to read new ones that have caught me eye.  The review below is about a recent book that's received favorable comments.  Other reviews will follow from to time to time.

Living Abroad in France by Aurelia d'Andrea, Avalon Travel Publishing, 2nd edition, 2011.  (Also called Moon Living Abroad in France, because it's part of the Moon Living Abroad series published by Avalon Travel Publishing)

Summary: Excellent try, but amateurish - feels self-published.  She did a lot of work, but not enough!

Strong points:

- Completeness - the author touches on a vast number of topics the arriving ex-pat must deal with and helps set the tone for the paperwork challenges involved.

- Not Paris-centered - she has made a valiant effort to help the reader understand that Paris is not France.

- Upbeat - while she touches (lightly) on some downsides to moving to and living in France, she works hard to convey her enthusiasm for life in France.
- Easy to read - she's an American writing for North Americans, so it's breezy, chatty, informal.
- Scattered through the book are comments from Americans living here.
- She mentions again and again how very useful it is to read and speak French.
Weak points:
- Other topics need addressing.  The book is already at 350+ pages and may have hit a limit imposed by her publisher.  Nevertheless, the book is missing material on other topics arriving North Americans need to be alerted to.  For example, how France is organized geographically, the judicial, political, and administrative systems in France, why the State is so important here and why it's loved, and so on..
- No real explanation of how she chose her Prime Living Locations in France and why other attractive areas were excluded.  There are so many lovely places in France to settle down - from Biarritz, Pau and the Pyrenees to Strasbourg, not to mention the Loire valley, the Marais-Poitevin or Burgundy.  Why the ones she chose and not others?
- In the section on living in Bordeaux and area, arguably the wine capital of the world, she introduces one of the wine classification abbreviations used in France AOC.  In the brief discussion of wines that follows, she doesn't mention a single one from the Bordeaux area!
- No warning, except in fine print on the last page of the book, that most of the figures in the book are subject to change.
- The florid English of the two-page essay entitled 'At Home in France' at the beginning of the book.  Fortunately, the author tones it down in the rest of the book.

Negative points:
A few of those I noted.  
- Poor editing
Skimpy index.
Awful copy editing (typos, misspellings, awkward phrases, missing words, inconsistent italicizing of French).  This is the second edition. How did so many editing errors make it into a 2nd edition?

- Superficial treatment of so many topics
The author talks briefly about pronunciation, far too briefly.  A topic, which once brought up, needs a LOT more attention.  Where's the advice on learning how to pronounce French correctly?  Poorly pronounced words, particularly when combined with the wrong gender of a noun, cause embarrassing confusion.  Her abbreviated attempt to address pronunciation is painful.  For example, every explanation of how to pronounce the various uses of U is wrong; she gives the name of the Ç, but not  how to pronounce it (as an S); she doesn't cover the different ways an S is pronounced in the middle of a word, and she doesn't mention the regional differences in how final consonants are pronounced; she doesn't cover the nasal vowels; and every attempt to give a phonetic pronunciation of multi-syllable words is wrong - normally, French words don't have an accented syllable.

The Resources section is pitifully incomplete.  For example, she could have made reference to the dozens of Web sites, videos, blogs, and forums that her readers could consult for more information and for interaction with North Americans already installed here.

On the subject of job hunting she doesn't mention that a French résumé (curriculum vitae, commonly abbreviated CV) is vastly different from an American one, that only in exceptional circumstances can you expect your American résumé to be accepted.  Similarly, your American educational credentials or professional certifications (admission to the bar, doctor's license, etc.) probably don't mean anything here.  Also, be aware that age discrimination and racism are alive and well and widespread in France - it's good to be under 40 and not be called Mohamed!

On the subject of opening your own business she doesn't discuss the many regulatory barriers there are to surmount.  France is much more regulated than the US and that in ways a newly debarking North-American is not going to anticipate.  Extended research is a necessary precursor to any entrepreneuring here, even for a simple business like a B&B.  (And quite unexpectedly, there is a lot of unanticipated help available under the right circumstances.)

- Full of errors from one end to the other
When you open the book and turn the first page, you find a lovely map of France on which are highlighted her five Prime Living Locations and the handful of cities she describes more thoroughly in Section 3 of the book.  Unfortunately there's a ghastly error on the map.  Sarlat, part of the Dordogne department, is willy-nilly assigned to the region Languedoc-Roussillon, which is a LONG ways away.  See the maps on pages 240 and 258 for a better idea of where Sarlat and Languedoc-Roussillon are.

The French is awful - multiple bad translations.  For example, on page 14 we find bon journée, bon soirée, and vous etes très gentile.  This would flunk French 101!  They should have been bonne journée, bonne soirée, and vous êtes très gentil(le).  Although she did get the first two right on page 340, it's also on page 340 that she added bon soir (should be bonsoir) and un réservation (should be une réservation) to her list of of French errors.

The French history is inadequate and occasionally laughably wrong.  For example, on page 31 we learn Napoléon III (1808 - 1873) was supposedly ousted because of WWI (1914-1918)!

The author thoughtfully includes a list of the national holidays in the French Phrasebook (not in the Employment chapter of the Daily Living section, where I'd expect to find it - the Index is no help trying to find the list).  Unfortunately, her list of national holidays is missing two: l'Ascension and l'Assomption.  Since 1) every calendar in France marks the national holidays and 2) doing a Web search on jours fériés france also gives the list, it's a curious error.
Since I can't comment on the rest of the Prime Locations, I'm going to wrap up my list of negative points with a subject close to home, namely her review of Bordeaux and the Dordogne valley.    
Bordeaux is an obvious choice for a prime location in this region.  But why just the towns of Bergerac and Sarlat?  Arcachon, the Atlantic Coast, the Entre-deux-Mers and Bazadais areas are also excellent choices.
The Bordeaux neighborhood she refers to is Caudéran, not Caudéron
It's not Saint-André, but the Clinique Bergonié that's the world-famous cancer treatment center.  And why not mention the hospital Haut-Lévêque that attracts patients from all over Europe for its cardiovascular treatment programs?
The Chartrons neighborhood was never an industrial hub - it was the center of the wine-trading business.
The Stade Chaban-Delmas is not the western boundary of the Victor-Hugo - Saint-Michel neighborhood, and in the restaurants around the church Saint-Michel you find couscous and North African dishes, not tapas.
The largest synagogue in France is not in Bordeaux, it's in Strasbourg.  Moreover, the synagogue in Bordeaux wasn't built by the Jews as she says, it was designed by a Catholic architect (the same one who designed the church Sacré-Cœur in Paris), built by the city and offered to the Jewish community.
You can't buy a tram ticket from the Bordeaux tram driver, you can't even talk to him.
The name of the town is Périgueux, not Perigueax.
I confess I can't figure out how she got such stuff wrong.  She gives lots of apparently useful info I didn't check - one can't help wondering about its accuracy.  


  1. Harvey! Merci beaucoup. This is a very nice piece, as usual. The more I read your notes the more i realize that you know more about France that I do. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I've posted this review to amazon.com. In the interests of fairness, let me point out that, where I've given the book 2 stars, four others gave it 5 stars (the highest possible score).