112 Gripes about the French: a book review

gripes about the French book review

I recently read this little treasure of a book, and I loved it so much I took photos to remember its fabulousness. You just know it is is going to be full of gold with a title like ‘112 Gripes About the French‘. It is a book that was, according to the introduction, given to every American soldier who came to France during World War II as a means to educate them about what to expect in France and when dealing with the local French people once they landed there. It was first published in 1945 by the Information & Education Division of the US Occupation Forces in Paris and intended to respond to questions and difficulties raised by the US forces on the ground.

gripes about the French book review

‘112 Gripes about the French’: a story of cultural shock in time of war

Written in the form of questions and answers, it is informative, entertaining and occasionally jaw-dropping. It tells a story of culture shock, with its assumptions and misunderstandings; it tells of friendship and respect and humanity at its best and worst. I highly recommend it as an insight into the European and American mindset of mid-twentieth century, and into the very human dilemmas and difficulties soldiers face at any given time (be it then or now) when they are dropped into a foreign culture in the midst of traumatic circumstances. It highlights the complexity of human interactions and how much work is involved in trying to understand one another.

gripes about the French book review

A quick look inside the pages of ‘112 Gripes about the French’

Of the above pages, question 3 and 5 are the most fascinating to me. Gripe number 3 is especially interesting, because it highlights just how easy it was for misunderstandings between soldiers and local people to arise, and how little knowledge of the local situation foreign soldiers must have had for the issue to even be raised.

3. “The French don’t invite us into their homes”
They don’t have the food. (the Germans took it). They don’t speak English and we don’t speak French. It’s hard to extend hospitality under those conditions.
Ask those soldiers who have been invited into a French home what it was like.
How many American homes were you invited into when you were stationed near a ‘soldier town’ in the States?

5. “I’ll never love the French.” “I hate the French!”
You don’t have to love the French. You don’t have to hate them either. You might try to understand them.
The more important point is not to let how you are feeling blind you to the fact that they were and are our allies. They were in 1917, too.
The most important question any people can ask itself is this: ‘Who fights with us? Who fights against us?’

 

Basically, this is a fascinating short read that is worth checking out if you are interested in history, particularly WWII and French/US relations, and cultural differences.

 

Please note that this post contains affilliate links. If you choose to buy the book through the link, I will receive a small commission which will be used to fund this site, at no extra expense to you.

Advertisement

Courageous Parenting: stepping away from the comparison wars

daring greatly - courageous parenting

A couple of days ago, I reviewed Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It was an engaging and deeply challenging read, and I was so impacted that I decided to devote a couple more posts to discussing the contents.

Brown spends an entire chapter addressing Wholehearted parenting and has many wise and challenging things to say about our culture of comparison. This is one of those chapters where I just want to quote everything because all I’ll end up doing is paraphrase what she said and make a bad job of it. I managed to get it down to this one powerful message, that we can’t expect to teach our children how to become healthy adults if we can’t model it ourselves. No pressure or anything but she is so right of course.

 

“Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the ‘never enough’ culture, the question isn’t so much ‘are you parenting the right way?’ as it is ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be? In other words, if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We can’t use fear, shame, blame, and judgment in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection – the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives – can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.”

 

I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but here in the UK, competitive parenting often feels like a real battle and it has a hideous name, the ‘mummy wars’. And it is SO easy to fall prey to that way of thinking, to toe that black and white line of ‘my way is the best way’ and everybody else’s different parenting choice borders on child abuse. Yes, it can go that far language-wise in some corners of the internet. Breastfeeding vs formula feeding, attachment parenting vs controlled crying, dummies, how many crisps, is he walking yet, which pre-school, is their lunchbox healthy enough, are they getting enough sun, the list goes on. And on. We compare, we worry, we agonize over every little choice and hope our little precious babies will turn out ok despite the fact that we haven’t got a clue what we’re doing. It’s EXHAUSTING.

I hear that whilst we can’t help but observe other parents do their thing, this way of comparing and judging others is not quite as relentless in some other places as it is in the UK. Why this should be I have absolutely no idea but whatever the reason it’s not that British parents care more about their offspring than anywhere else in the world. The reality, of course, is that we all parent differently and there are (mostly) no rights nor wrongs, if this wonderful forum thread about parental practices from around the world is anything to go by (although, no car seats? I did judge a little. So what, sue me).

Being human and all, whilst I feel I know myself better and this has led to being far less concerned about other people’s opinions than I was in my early twenties, there are nonetheless times when I have to fight against making comparisons. We all have our insecurities and there are a few areas where I feel unsure or ‘less than’; from time to time, I will read something or see someone who seems to have it more together, or whose child appears to do better, and I will doubt myself. I can’t help it, and there’s not much that can be done about the actual experience of these emotions. I do however have a choice in how I respond within and without myself. Should I express those feelings or not, should I share my opinion, should I lean into the discomfort and question my motives; in all cases my response should be led by compassion rather than judgment, and it goes both ways. I should be compassionate and not judgmental towards myself and towards the object of my discomfort too.

This is just one of the many things I have taken out of Brown’s chapter on parenting. For more, do check out her book.

 

Daring Greatly – A book review

daring greatly book review

I can’t remember exactly how I decided to add Daring Greatly to my birthday books’ wish list. I first came across it when it was recommended on one of the blogs I follow. It sounded interesting but I wasn’t as excited about it as I was about reading Quiet or Bread & Wine. Maybe because it sounded a bit heavy; after all it is about the concept of vulnerability and was written by a ‘shame researcher’. A what researcher? There is such a thing? How very un-sexy and utterly depressing. But it was a bestseller and everyone was raving about it so I was intrigued.

Anyway, my birthday happened and there is was. And maybe because it was the book I was anticipating the least, I decided to read it first.

Oh. My. Word.

Wow.

Initially I wondered how it was that in a world where bestsellers include Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (two books I am NOT going to link you to), a book on vulnerability could make such a big splash. And then, about oh, maybe 2 pages in, I knew exactly why. This book is insightful, profound, challenging and highly quotable. When I was thinking about which passage to highlight in this post, I wondered how I would manage to keep it concise when I could include entire pages from the book. In fact, I had barely started when I put this up on Twitter:

 

 

What It’s About

So this is a book on the subject of vulnerability. But what does it mean, and why is it important?

Ultimately, it is about learning to live wholeheartedly, embracing discomfort and being fully engaged in our relationships, work, home and parenting. The phrase ‘daring greatly’, as Brené Brown explains in the opening paragraph, comes straight from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech known as “The Man in the Arena“.

She argues that “Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”

This statement bears the weight of her research. She has interviewed a huge amount of people to draw her conclusions, and she presents the results with great clarity. She investigates our culture of ‘never enough’ and the myths that surround vulnerability, such as the idea that being vulnerable is a weakness, and she shows that true courage means risking the pain of rejection for the sake of connection. She also identifies the various ways with which we try to shield ourselves from shame and hurt (such as perfectionism and oversharing, to name but two) and how this ‘protection’ actually stops us from true healthy connections. This is no mere theory however, Brené Brown also offers strategies to learn how to drop the shield. In the final chapters, she connects her research outcomes to the real world specifically in the areas of work, education and parenting.

One Highlight From Many

One of the great gifts this book has given me is that of language. I was worried that the book would be heavy, dry and academic. I shouldn’t have feared. Anyone may pick it up and uncover deep truths about human nature, belonging, shame, connection and relationships, in accessible words that resonate long after you’ve finished reading them. For me personally, it gave language to things within me that I was aware of but which I could not have articulated in any meaningful way. Until now.

For one thing, it brings shame to the foreground and gives you words to throw at it when you feel like it’s getting at you, like shame resilience, self-love and courage, like knowing that you are enough.

One of the most interesting reactions I had to the book occurred when I was reading the chapter on Understanding and Combating Shame. Brené Brown was sharing her own internal struggles during the time that her TED Talk went viral (more on TED at the end of the post). As she was sharing her innermost fears about the criticism she knew she would get from certain corners of the internet, I as a reader experienced an immediate closeness to her and a rise in empathy for what she had gone through. I shared in her discomfort and most wanted in that moment to reach out through the page and tell her that I understood, and that I thought she had done an incredible job. I wanted to encourage her and tell her that she was not alone. It didn’t matter that I have never experienced the exact same circumstance or that I’ve never met her. It was our shared human experience of shame and discomfort and her honest disclosure that made her real to me.

This is what vulnerability does. It brings us closer, it makes us care about each other, it opens up relationships and makes communication easier. When we are vulnerable, we invite others in, put our differences aside and say ‘see, we are the same after all’. We experience connection.

Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.

In Conclusion

I was so inspired by this book that I plan to write a couple more posts on the subject. In the first I will focus on the chapter on parenting and I will close by reflecting on a couple of areas that bring up feelings of vulnerability within me, that reading the book challenged me about, and I hope my grappling with these issues inspires your own journey.

This is a book to read and re-read, so go buy it. But if you’re still not sure whether it is for you or whether it is worth spending money on, I would encourage you to check out the TED talk that started it all. If you’ve never heard of TED, go check out their website, you won’t regret it.

 

 

French Parents Don’t Give in – A Book Review

French children don't throw food

A couple of years ago, when the book ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food‘ was published, I reviewed the accompanying Wall Street Journal article by the author Pamela Druckerman. I didn’t disagree with everything but I had a number of ‘issues’ and I had a bit of a rant. It turned out to be one of my most popular entries on the blog.

Unbeknown to me, she released a follow-up last year called ‘Bébé Day By Day‘ in the US and ‘French Parents Don’t Give In‘ in the UK, and when I stumbled upon it at the library last week, I just couldn’t resist and had to check it out.

And would you believe it, I actually quite liked it. It’s a quick read, with one entry per page and covering 10 aspects of parenting: pregnancy, babyhood, sleep, food, learning, patience, the cadre i.e parenting philosophy, motherhood, couple relationship and authority. I share some thoughts below on the entries I found most helpful, and the ones that set my teeth on edge.

Pregnancy

French mothers eat sushi (sometimes): people have this idea that nothing will keep a French person away from their food and drink, even pregnancy. But that’s not actually true. French women are as aware of the risks of catching Listeria and Toxoplasmosis as British women are (and drinking and smoking are big no-nos). More so even, I’d say, as they get regularly tested for toxoplasmosis throughout their pregnancy, whereas it’s all left to chance in the UK. So similar food restriction recommendations are in place, with the knowledge that contamination is rare so sushi, and prawns and the like, need not be treated as if they were radioactive. This is good news considering the number of times I forgot that I ought not to have pepperoni on my pizza…

Epidurals aren’t evil: no they’re not, but Ms Druckerman forgets to mention something very important here. In France, pregnancy and birth are in the main highly medicalised processes. Think about the difference between the UK and US versions of One Born Every Minute. In the UK, you see lots of women giving birth and walking through the pain with just gas and air. In the US version, everyone has an epidural. It’s the same in France. Most women are monitored to within an inch of their life. Unless you are intent on a natural birth and you go out of your way to find a local birthing centre (which is by no means guaranteed) and fight tooth and nail for the kind of birth you want, it will be expected that you will just have a heavily medicalised hospital birth. So of course epidurals aren’t evil. But they are the norm in France, and doctors are gods among men so this is a bit misleading.

Babyhood

Formula isn’t poison: breast is best but formula isn’t evil and most people who’ve had it are healthy, blah blah blah. How many times have I heard this. I hate this rhetoric so, so much and it’s especially ironic when you think that breastfeeding isn’t the norm in France at all. And you know what, I agree. Formula isn’t poison, and there should absolutely be no guilt attached to whichever way you choose to feed your baby. But using highly emotive words like ‘poison’ is not helpful to anyone on either side of the fence on this issue and it causes a great deal of damage to the conversation. Misinformation about breastfeeding really annoys me, especially when we are talking about health, because whilst it is absolutely true that formula is the next best thing after breast milk, it is also as ‘like breast milk’ as the moon is close to the earth, close enough I guess but also thousands of miles away. And breast is best is not a good argument, breast is not best, it is normal. Rant over, I am moving on.

Sleep

Argh, argh argh, there is so much to dislike about this chapter! The myth of the baby who sleeps through at 3 months, ‘tell baby it’s bedtime. Explain that the whole family needs rest.’ AAAAARRRGH!

I do like the idea of practicing ‘La Pause’ however i.e not rushing to pick up the baby as soon as it stirs. Sometimes picking them up is the thing that wakes them up.

Food

Unsurprisingly, I liked everything in that chapter, probably because most of the suggestions already feature in our house. One did stand out to me, about giving just one snack a day in the afternoon. In the UK, you tend to have a snack time in the morning as well, and I find myself offering food to Little Girl far more often than that. I wonder if it is possible to cut back by keeping a routine of an early lunch around 11.30 am and a restorative snack around 4 pm. In typical French fashion, my girls don’t often eat a separate dinner to us adults in the evening, and they certainly do not eat it at 5 pm (which is still afternoon as far as I’m concerned). We eat between 6.30 pm and 7.15 pm and so a decent snack can go a long way.

Learning, Patience, The Cadre, Motherhood and Authority

All five sections were full of interesting and positive suggestions: not becoming a praise addict; teaching children not to interrupt; slowing down response time so they will learn patience;  learning to cope with frustration as a crucial life skill; explaining the reason behind the rule (also known as treating your children like the intelligent people they most likely are); not becoming a ‘taxi-parent’. All great stuff, but very common-sense and it made me wonder what sort of culture the author is addressing. Not the one I am a part of it seems, but one where overbearing helicopter parents say yes to all of their children’s demands.

Your Relationship (Adult time)

Your baby doesn’t replace your partner: this is SO TRUE. I remember reading a thread on a parenting forum where the question asked was who do you love the most in your house, your children or your partner. The overwhelming majority said their children were their whole world and if one had to give, it would have to be their partner. I was astonished. I don’t understand this at all. I think it is especially important to take care of your relationship with your partner and to carve out time for it. My children are absolutely not my priority all of the time, and this does not mean that they are neglected in any way. When your children grow up and leave, what then? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with a stranger? I don’t love my children in the same way that I love my husband, and I don’t see why I can’t have both.

Fathers are a separate species: now, this one led to an actual ‘WTF, Pamela Druckerman?’ moment from me. The whole entry is so condescending to men and implies that parenting haplessness is to be expected from them. I don’t even have the words to say how much I think this is a lot of bull. Well, I do, but I’ve already written too much so we are going to Let It Go. For now.

Conclusion

On the whole, this is nevertheless a little book I can recommend to parents. It is a flawed but entertaining read. ‘French parenting’ is still really NOT a thing in my opinion and the book (probably both books but I still haven’t read the first) should not be read as you would an expert parenting book. Ms Druckerman is open about the backlash she got after the first book was released in her introduction and she admits it herself, she is not a parenting expert but a journalist, and these are her observations as a parent. Also, there are recipes at the end of the book, of the type that Parisian nurseries offer to their charges. Read and be amazed.