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Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Quasimodo sauvant la Esmeralda des mains de ses bourreaux  |  Oil on Canvas by Elisa Victorine Henry (1790 – 1873)  |  In the collection at the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris.

The French Conversation Manual I found in my parent’s basement that first piqued my interest in learning French. | Photo © Kristin Blakeman

My fascination with the French language began in the basement of my childhood home, where my dad’s turntable and record collection lived. Thumbing over the album spines, I’d tip my head sideways, trying to read the titles, pausing to pull out anything that looked interesting. Hidden among the volumes of Chopin, Satchmo, and Miles Davis, was a blue and white striped LP jacket and matching French Conversation Manual. Curious, I carefully slid the record from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable until the cheerful music of the introduction crackled through the speakers. I was soon following along as the male voice said, “Bonjour, comment allez-vous?” then paused, giving me time to repeat it before moving on to the next expression. Before long, I was carrying on both sides of the conversation between myself and the imaginary French waiter in my parent’s basement.

Growing up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, my exposure to French culture was limited to singing “Frère Jacques” in Kindergarten and watching Warner Brother’s sappy, sentimental Romeo, Pepé le Pew, on Saturday mornings. My knowledge of French cuisine included the midwest supper club staple “French” dressing and the thick, spongy, grocery store loaves of  “French” bread.

I discovered Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1982 Hallmark Hall of Fame version starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Quasimodo, Derek Jacobi as Dom Frollo, and Lesley-Anne Down as Esmeralda. Admittedly, it is one of the worst productions of the classic tale, without a single scene filmed in Paris, let alone France. Nonetheless it captivated my eight-year-old imagination. Seeing Audrey Hepburn glide down the Louvre’s staircase in Funny Face, and watching Julia Ormond return transformed by Paris in the 80s remake of Sabrina further increased my infatuation with France.

Kay Thompson, Fred Astaire, and Audrey Hepburn in a publicity photo from the Paramount Pictures 1957 film Funny Face.  |  Public Domain

Un, deux, trois…

Middle school brought my first opportunity to study French formally. My instructor, Madame S., a tall, slender blonde, was always fashionably dressed in heels, a stylishly tied scarf, and perfume in a time and place where most of our fashion sense came from last season’s JCPenney catalog. She also must have had the patience of a saint to try and teach the nuances of French “U’s” and elegantly rolled “R’s” to a class of giggly, awkward adolescents with too-large glasses and braces, who were quite regularly still tripping on their shoelaces. All the baguette in Paris would not have been enough to make grenouille roll trippingly off our midwestern tongues, no matter how wide-eyed and well-intentioned we were.

I found myself utterly enchanted by the language. Soon it was French Forensics (who knew this was even a thing?!) and French Summer Camp. When I headed to college, I received a semester’s worth of retroactive credits by testing into 3rd year French. Don’t ever let anyone tell you high school French is a waste of time that will never do anything for you! Nearly 30 years later, I’m still waiting for a similar dividend on my single painful year of calculus.

Unfortunately, my college professor lacked both the style and personality of my earlier French teachers. His visible contempt for our clumsy pronunciation and constant reprimands quickly eroded my enthusiasm. Any satisfaction I found in making it through Maupassant’s Bel-Ami disappeared faster than I could say “un cafe, s’il vous plait.”

“The French, it seems to me, strike a happy balance between intimacy and reserve. Some of this must be helped by the language, which lends itself to graceful expression even when dealing with fairly basic subjects…. And there’s that famously elegant subtitle from a classic Western.
COWBOY: “Gimme a shot of red-eye.”
SUBTITLE: “Un Dubonnet, s’il vous plait.”
No wonder French was the language of diplomacy for all those years.

– Peter Mayle, Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France

Prêt à Voyager | Ready to Travel

After completing my B.A. in Communication Arts, my mom and I prepared to depart for our first trip to France in the summer of 1995. With a recent Lyme’s diagnosis, she wasn’t feeling her best. To complicate things further, Europe was in the throes of a record-breaking heatwave, protests were popping up over France’s continued nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and the Armed Islamic Group was targeting public transport systems. Despite the sultry temps, a tick-borne illness, civil unrest, and bomb threats, we set out undeterred, not wanting to miss our long-awaited trip.

You can read the full story of our trip here, but suffice it to say, next to nothing went as planned. From the moment we arrived, and despite our very best efforts to avoid them, we managed to make every first-timer-in-France mistake in the book. The next two weeks were a series of misadventures ranging from absurd to comical.

Our tiny hotel was far more shabby than chic and insufferably hot. During our 5 days in Paris, we ate the same Chinese takeout at least three times. Due to bomb threats, we were evacuated from the Louvre after only 20 minutes inside. Two days later, we were abruptly shooed off our return train from Versailles somewhere between the palace and our hotel.

We got lost–a lot–and often while searching for the rare and elusive public “toilettes.” We tried to see and do it all, cramming as much into our two-week vacation as we had into our bulging suitcases. We got around on foot and by train. After mistakenly boarding a clattering TER train with its hard plastic seats and half-open windows, we quickly learned the critical distinction between the faster regional trains and the local variety that meander through every hamlet and pause at each whistle-stop on the line.

When I inquired about the location of a pharmacy in Rouen, our hotelier seemed insistent that we instead needed the paramedics. He finally set the phone down after I repeatedly assured him that the American woman in Chambre 12 was not about to die in his hotel.

While visiting the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo, we found ourselves locked in a tower that housed a dusty maritime museum. The woman who’d collected our entrance fee not an hour before had, apparently, decided to close up early, leaving us and a French couple locked inside.

After failing to find favor with French cuisine, sudden evacuations, an unexpected incarceration, and five sweltering nights in that tiny Parisian hotel, France felt decidedly more like hell that the chic paradise of our dreams. I’m sure there were moments in the restless delirium between jetlag and heat stroke when we would have happily traded in our tacky American tennis shoes for a pair of magical ruby slippers to transport ourselves home. Fortunately, we persisted, sustained by croissants, jambon-beurre, and Chinese takeout.

Despite the setbacks and missteps during that first trip, we ended up having a marvelous, and very memorable time. We still get a good laugh recollecting our adventures. Little did we know then that more than 20 years later, we would begin another chapter of adventures together in France.

Paris, July 1995 on my first trip to France.

“The world is a book – with each step we open a page.”

– Alphonse de Lamartine

Giverny 1995. Photo © Kristin Blakeman

Bébé Changes Everything

When I returned home after our trip in ’95, life resumed. As I began my career in graphic design, French and France moved to the back burner, remaining there for the next 18 years. While looking at pre-school options for my daughter Madeleine, a local French immersion program caught my attention. The idea of an immersive learning experience from native speakers at such a young age intrigued me and rekindled my own interest in French. Before long, I had enrolled in classes as well, hoping I’d find the return to French after a 20-year hiatus as familiar as riding a bike. In some ways, it was. In others, I felt every bit like a squeaky antique that had been gathering dust in the garage for 2 decades. With a little practice, I was thoroughly enjoying reacquainting myself with the language that had so captivated me years before. Watching my daughter soak it up only added to the fun and fueled my motivation to keep going.

Mimi outside her French immersion school in 2016.

Cousin Love, Summer 2018

Mimi on the steps of Nana’s new house, 2017.

Retirement & Rekindled Dreams

In 2016 my mom decided to follow her dream of retiring abroad. During her 37-year teaching career, she had spent many summers traveling in Europe. With retirement came new opportunities to travel, and with grandchildren in The Netherlands and the U.S., she hoped to find a European home to split her time between the two continents. We spent five weeks exploring southwestern France in search of areas that might suit her.

By early 2017 we’d scoured the region and fallen in love with a home in the center of La Tour Blanche, a quiet hamlet with a romantic name in the Dordogne. Unfortunately, it turned out the siblings who had inherited the house had decided they weren’t quite ready to part with it after all. They took it off the market after leading us on for several weeks. Disappointed, we waited, hoping they would change their mind or put it back on the market. When they didn’t, we returned to a house we had seen on a whim in a small town on the Charente river near Cognac.

The home, originally built by a neighboring mill owner, checked all the boxes in terms of size and location. It was big enough to comfortably host visiting friends and family with a pleasant private garden at the back. The town had a daily market, shops, and restaurants all accessible on foot. It felt authentically French, but with a comforting smattering of Anglophones from around the world. We even discovered a few other Americans who had been similarly charmed by the area’s rolling green countryside and laid-back lifestyle. Most importantly, it was on the train line with daily TGV service from Paris, making it possible to get from Chicago to our corner of France in under a day.

The stone house had character, good bones, and an abundance of potential. In other words, it was a fixer-upper. Having been unoccupied for at least five years, it was more than a bit musty. From the look of things, it hadn’t had an update in at least 60 years. I counted 14 different wallpaper patterns and at least twice as many varieties of spiders, which I soon learned is to be expected in old stone houses.

As is common in vacant homes in France, the property was devoid of appliances, heat, and electricity. During our first viewing, the estate agent opened the shutters to illuminate the interior. Even on a frigid, gray January day, the huge windows flooded the rooms with light revealing the little details that one by one reeled us in.

The classic center hall retained its terrazzo floor, wood paneling, and huge double doors at the front and back. The salon and dining room with their nearly three-meter ceilings had lovely original plaster ceiling rosettes and floor-to-ceiling faux-bois doors that folded open making one large room. A walnut staircase with its faceted crystal finial gracefully spiraled up to the third-floor attic. The single enormous bathroom was spacious enough to divide it into three full baths giving each of the upstairs bedrooms a private bathroom–an American style creature comfort that is difficult to come by in France. A former office with a small passage connecting it to the kitchen provided a perfect opportunity for a ground floor bedroom and bathroom.

Compared to Chicago’s pricey real estate market, the asking price seemed like a relative bargain, even with the improvements required to bring it up-to-date. With a house, a contractor, a long wish list, and a healthy dose of blissful ignorance about the project we were about to undertake, we took the plunge and started the next chapter of our French adventure.

Of course, there were the typical hiccups, delays, and surprises that accompany any renovation no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on. That first summer, our extended family of three generations–four adults and four kids under six–camped out on Ikea beds and couches in the ground floor rooms while construction continued around us. By the following summer, we were able to move upstairs and settle in further, adding curtains, more furniture, and decorating with our latest brocante (flea market) finds. In 2019 we welcomed more friends and family, finally able to relax into the familiar rhythms of summer without the chaos of construction.

Our French Fixer Upper, June 2017.

Looking for treasure under the layers of wallpaper.

14 Varieties of Wallpaper!


I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

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