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Allons, mes enfants
John S. Littell's French Impressions: The Adventures
of an American Family

by Caroline Kettlewell

John S. Littell's French Impressions is a delightfully funny look at something that is ignored in most travel accounts: traveling to distant lands with small kids in tow.

If you ever have traveled any significant distance--say, beyond the edge of the yard--with a small child in tow, then you know. Forget the Sir Edmund Hillarys and Roald Amundsens and the Stanleys and the Livingstons whom history has named the great adventurers: true courage is venturing forth upon the world in the company of very young children.

In July, 1950, the Littell family, including four-year-old John and 15-month-old Stephen, set sail for a year in France, armed with a stack of diapers and financing from the G.I. Bill. Frank Littell, realizing a lifelong dream to travel to France, would study in a yearlong Master's program at the University of Montpellier. Mary and the kids were along for the ride.

So begins French Impressions, a memoir, of sorts, of the Littell family's year in post-war France in a sleepy, southern, backwater town. It is through Mary's eyes that the story unfolds, and it is a very funny book in many parts, as Mary struggles to hold together family and home with two small children and a bare grasp of the most rudimentary French.

French Impressions:
The Adventures of an American Family

John S. Littell
New American Library
354 pp.
$22.95 order now logo

I don't know if this book would be as entertaining to a reader with no experience of travel with children, but it is a welcome addition to the ranks of the literature of wandering, a genre where children are largely conspicuous by their absence.

There's no denying that the sub-five set do not make for absolutely ideal fellow journeyers. From the first chapter, as Mary's dreams of a leisurely trans-Atlantic boat journey are shattered by the realities of ten days shipboard with her restless kids, the misadventures are woefully familiar to anyone who has ever gone travelling with their tykes. There is the disastrous effort to sup with the civilized folk in the dining room, the endless circuit after circuit after circuit of the boat with a tireless toddler who has just mastered the art of walking. And this line: "Anyone who has children knows that traveling with them is like a medieval progress: You need a baggage train to haul your possessions from place to place." Oh, yes, indeed.

For many parents, these are just the beginning of the reasons to stay home, and the Littells senior entertain many doubts about the wisdom of their plan. On the high seas, their fellow passengers are quick to make things worse, assuring them of all the dire things sure to befall the Littells junior, from language difficulties to death. When the boys come down with their first cold in France, Mary is certain the worst predictions have come true until a doctor assures her otherwise. Then they discover that the pension where they planned to live the year is a dank and dismal cavern of a place populated by doddering ancients. John is miserably homesick, and resurrects an imaginary friend. They suffer moments of near-penury when the G.I. Bill money is held up in bureaucratic snafus.

But the Littells persevere, and Mary touches but lightly on the low points, keeping instead to a lighthearted account of their year abroad. They decamp from the pension and find the perfect apartment. They discover the pleasures of good French bread and chocolat. The local café, the Bar d'Oc, becomes their regular spot. John enrolls in the Jardin d'Enfants, the local French kindergarten, and takes to it so well that he announces that thenceforth he shall be known as Jeannot.

And then of course there are the usual comical anecdotes of the cultural divide. The Littells weather a disastrous attempt to mount a traditional American Thanksgiving in a country where the turkey seems a virtual unknown. Mary is completely incapable of more than the most rudimentary French, and depends on her four-year-old child to translate. And she finds herself an indifferent cook whose greatest accomplishment is tuna salad, in a country obsessed with the finer points of cuisine. In one of the hilarious passages of the book, in a chapter titled "The Great Mayonnaise War," Mary discovers to her dismay that, in France, mayo is made, not bought. In learning the technique from her grocer, Mme. Perrin, she finds that opinions run strong and tempers very high indeed among French housewives as to whether the fork, or the spoon, is the proper implement for the making of it. As to the question of adding dried mustard, it seems revolutions have occurred over less.

All these scenes are deftly wrought in Mary's breezy voice, as the Littells learn to survive, and then to thrive, in France. But this is the odd thing about French Impressions: it was actually written by John Littell, the former four-year-old. Or, as the book's cover puts it, "John S. Littell, based on writings by Mary W. Littell."

Mary was a writer, John explains in the foreword, and she had "a successful career writing for magazines such as Parents and Woman's Day." She often wrote of her family's adventures in Montpellier, turning to a diary she had kept from that year for reference. She died, however, in 1975, her stories never collected together in one place. And so, writes, John,


I have used her writings as a template and added a substantial amount of both published and unpublished material. The result, I think, is a chronicle of a vanished way of life--both French and American--and a record of those funny, frustrating, and finally fascinating twelve months in France.

I chose to write this book from my mother's point of view and in her voice because that was the only way the story made sense to me. I was only four years old at the time and hardly a keen observer of the passing scene.


French Impressions is a kind of tribute by John Littell to his mother, the book perhaps she always meant to write and never did. It is an odd act of ventriloquism--a nonfiction, first-person account not written by the speaker. At first I found the idea jarring, and perhaps if the foreword were briefer it would not have taken me most of the first chapter to imagine myself out of John's third-person point of view and into Mary's head. But the story takes hold, and succeeds in the manner of books like A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun: it makes you yearn for a fantasy idyll complete with the friendly café, the colorful locals, the casually exquisite cuisine. In short, a life outside the ordinary routine. What's comforting about French Impressions is that it assures us that a petit enfant's arrival need not spell the end of our departures.
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