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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Learning to be French (and failing) by Anna Bibby


If you’ve ever dreamt of upping sticks, moving to another country where you don’t speak the language and then renovating an ancient house in an equally ancient village, Anna Bibby’s account of doing just that will either inspire you or put you off the idea altogether. Either way, it’s an absorbing read.


Back in 2008, holidays were not a high priority for independent art gallery owner Anna Bibby. So when the then 53-year-old Aucklander was persuaded to spend a month in the south of France, no one was more surprised than Anna herself at how it would transform her life.


Quite unexpectedly, she fell in love with the French lifestyle, sowing seeds of discontent about life back home. As she writes in her book, “Returning to Auckland, to my horror, equated with putting on a much-loved pair of comfortable shoes only to find that they now rubbed in all the wrong places, hurt my feet, and gave me blisters.”

While many of us experience post-holiday blues, few of us do anything about it. Anna Bibby is one of those few. It was time for a new pair of shoes!


Fast-forward to May 2010, and Anna is again flying to France, this time to take up residence there. Since her holiday she’d revisited the country and bought a house in the medieval village of Martel. The village was perfect, the house not so much. It would need a lot of work. Her book outlines the massive task she undertook. But more than that it is the wonderful story of how a single, middle-aged woman from New Zealand, who doesn’t speak French and struggles to learn the language, works her way into the heart of French village life. Along the way she learns how to deal with the local artisans (including a plumber who is often as destructive as he is constructive), befriends (and offends) the forthright neighbours, finds romance with a Portuguese stonemason and becomes surrogate maman to local canines, eventually opening her home as a chambre d’hôte (bed and breakfast). Lovely photographs throughout the book capture the beauty of the village and surrounding countryside and reveal the home’s stunning transformation.


In a world where Covid is still limiting our travel options, Learning to be French (and failing) is a delightful way to take a French adventure without leaving home.


Reviewer: Rowena Mara

Allen & Unwin


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