About this time of year, we book lovers keep our eyes peeled for potential books for summer reading. Maybe it’s the extended daylight hours. Maybe it’s just the feel of summer in general. Either way, choosing good books for our summer leisure is a tradition we keep.
If you’re looking for a book that will at times make you laugh out loud as well as inform you about what it was like to grow up in France in the aftermath of World War II, I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography is well worth your time. Jacques Delacroix penned an unflinching account of his very interesting life, holding very little back.
Delacroix calls his book “an immigrant’s story” because he ultimately became a citizen of the United States. When he was 18 years old, the author had participated in a program sponsored by the American Field Service enabling students to live in another country for a period of time. He was surprised by the lack of population density in the suburbs and he was delighted by the backyard pool his host family had. His first misstep was holding a young woman close during a slow dance at a pre-school term event. It probably seems quaint to young people now, but there was a time in America when it wasn’t proper to dance that way, especially with a stranger.
Delacroix recounts experiences with a friend he made, nicknamed California R. in the book, and their exploits both stateside and later in Europe are most definitely entertaining.
One of the most comical adventures occurred when Delacroix and his friend decided to see what it was like in communist territory. That adventure included a brush with the authorities that would probably not have the benign outcome today that it did then.
There is a great deal of firsthand observation about customs, foods, clothing, and manner of living. On the one hand, my own childhood was similar to that of Delacroix. On the other hand, it was strikingly different. The US was never in Nazi hands, but France’s experience was quite different:
“[After the occupation] the Germans were quietly seizing the economic levers of French society. They began to loot the country systematically, one step at a time. Fuel restrictions, then food rationing set in, getting worse by the day. Soon, the only cars available to civilians were powered by charcoal, and bread was made largely with chestnut flour because wheat had vanished from that world-class wheat growing country.”
In the memoir, there’s ample evidence of good humor as the author recalls his coming of age. As I read I realized just how different things are now when it comes to sexuality. Women were bound by propriety, at least outwardly. Parents didn’t make children the center of their lives at that time—there was little in the way of arm-chair psychology when it came to parenting. It was an era of ‘Be seen, not heard’ as my grandmother used to tell me, and when I strayed, she called it “upsetting the apple cart.” In his book, Delacroix talks about his own abilities in that regard.
His mother did what my mother did sometimes—threatened a stay at a reform school. It was an empty threat, but it carried weight.
Delacroix’s book is a captivating construct of times that were different despite the fact humanity has pretty much remained the same. There isn’t much this author hasn’t done. Among other pursuits, he served in the military, worked in a bar, became an academic, and somewhere in between, worked as an urban planner.
I’d highly recommend I Used to Be French for anyone interested in history and other cultures. You will not be disappointed. The book is written as a collection of essays that pretty much flow in chronological order, and that makes it a convenient read if you head to the beach or patio. Delacroix also blogs at his site, Facts Matter, and he can be found on Facebook too.
I met Jacques on Facebook—I forget exactly how. I enjoy reading his posts and sometimes have engaged with him over political issues. I’d peg him as a small ‘l’ libertarian type for the most part, but I also admit that he defies a label because he is, to use a word coined by my daughter, a very “thinkative” type.
One passage that stuck with me has to do with Jacques’ exploits in what was then communist Yugoslavia. He explains that the “Yugoslav Communist elite saw their country as part of the ‘non-aligned movement” that was “not Soviet, not Stalinist, not submissive to the Kremlin, but not part of the capitalist West either.”
He brings up Castro, and that evoked my own memories of seeing photos of the young revolutionary when he visited the United States. Those photos can be found at the Library of Congress online. Delacroix wrote:
“…liberation movements were going full force then in the underdeveloped countries, colonies as well as former colonies. The overall mood was influenced by the folklore of Castro’s revolution, only two years old. Then, Fidel, the stubborn tyrant, still cut a romantic figure in his pressed fatigues. That kind of influenced the mood in much of the world. He provided an heroic, likable model for Third World revolutionaries everywhere. It’s true that he had been processing his opponents through firing squads all the while but hardly anyone in the Western press remarked unkindly upon it.”
That passage, as much as any, indicates that where the Western press is concerned, not much changes at all.
Delacroix’s memoir reflects a life well-lived and lessons learned. His essays span experiences from Europe to the US. After reading it, I once again realized that while so many things have changed since I was a girl, not much has really changed when it comes to the human race. The author’s style is conversational—you feel as though you’re sitting there with a glass of wine listening to these fantastic stories. That in my opinion is the mark of a successful memoir.
(KBD/April 6, 2017)