Interview with Janet Hulstrand, Author of “Demystifying the French”

Interview with Janet Hulstrand, Author of “Demystifying the French”

Travelling to France and baffled by the cultural code? Keen for insights even as a long-time expatriate? Pick up a new book by Janet Hulstrand— writer, editor, writing coach, teacher, and France Today contributor– called Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You. Peppered with amusing personal anecdotes, this practical guide is written to help you avoid common mistakes with the French. Hulstrand shares the perspective she has gained in nearly 40 years of time spent living and working in the Hexagon. Says Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce: “a triumph! And funny! I laughed out loud in lots of places. The glossary alone is a treasure. So much good advice for travelers to France…” Here we interview Janet about her writing inspiration, travel recommendations, and more. Her book is available to purchase on the Amazon link below.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?

There are a lot of other books, and some really wonderful ones, that aim to demystify the French. But it seemed to me there was room for a relatively short, snappy book that would address two different kinds of reader. One is the person who has never been to France who would benefit from some simple explanations of the most fundamental things it’s important to know about how to navigate daily interactions with French people before coming here. The other audience is split between people who love France and can’t get enough of reading about it; and those who “love France but not the French.” The first part of my book is addressed to that first kind of reader: five basic tips about what to do (and what not to do) in order to get off on the right foot with the French. The second part goes into more depth about what makes the French “tick,” at least as I see it. I hope that that part may help some of those who have mixed feelings about the French feel a bit better about them. And that Francophiles will identify with and enjoy reading about some of the things I have experienced, for both better and worse, as I learned to love the French.

A recommendation for first-time visitors to France?

I am not the first one to say this by any means. But the most important thing to know is that it is important to always begin every interaction with every French person you encounter with a friendly, polite “Bonjour” before you say anything—ANYTHING!—else.

Janet Hulstrand in Essoyes. Photo: Kevin Sisson

Why do you think culture shock is experienced so profoundly by Americans in France?

I think it’s hard for Americans to grasp the importance of doing things a certain prescribed way (“comme il faut”), as the French tend to do. Americans are much more flexible in the way they approach the world. The French see this as doing “n’importe quoi” (which means “any old thing,” or even “all wrong”). It is not a compliment! So it takes a lot of extra thinking for Americans to successfully navigate daily social interactions in France. We’re not used to thinking that hard about the right way to do things, but it’s important to the French. So, when in France I think it’s important to understand that this is the way things are, and to show respect for it.

Where did you learn French? Any recommendations for studying and acquiring the language?

I studied French in high school, and a little bit in college, so I had a pretty good academic foundation when I came to France for the first time. But I think the only way to really become fluent, to be able to speak and understand spoken French, is to immerse yourself in a French-language environment. When you’re not in France, you can keep the language alive by reading French, and especially by listening to it on the radio or television. And there are of course many places where you can take classes. I studied at the Alliance Française both in New York and in Paris, and learned a lot in both places. But I think the most important things to remember are that a) Most French people appreciate it when you at least try to speak the language; and b) You’re never going to be perfect, so don’t try. Just be comfortable with the fact that you’re going to make lots of mistakes—and that’s okay! The important thing is to communicate with others, as best you can, in this beautiful language.

Do you have a favorite place in France?

Yes, I do. My favorite part of France is a little village in southern Champagne, Essoyes (it’s pronounced ESS-wah), which is situated about halfway between Troyes and Dijon. It was the summer home of the Renoir family for many years, and it is where I spend most of my time now.

You have taught writing courses for many years. Is there any specific advice you like to give to aspiring writers?

Yes, the most important thing is to believe in yourself, and just do it! Don’t worry about if your writing is “any good” or not in the beginning. Just write, and write, and write some more. At a certain point you’ll know when to take the next steps. Those steps are not the same for everyone, but if you believe in yourself and in the importance of your writing, when the time is right you’ll find the way.

Janet Hulstrand at home in Essoyes

Who are some of your favorite authors and why? 

Oh what a delightful question! Some of my all-time favorite writers are James Baldwin, James Joyce, James A. Emanuel, and James Thurber. (I can’t help it that they all have the same first name, nor that they are all men! These really are the writers I return to again and again.) For writing about France, I love David Downie’s books, and also Jeffrey Greene’s. For writing about the French and French ways, Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau, Polly Platt, Harriet Welty Rochefort, and Diane Johnson, especially Le Divorce.

What are you reading right now? 

Right now I am reading Almost French by Sarah Turnbull, which is a book I have had on my reading list since it first came out, but somehow I never got to read it until now. It is the story of how the author (an Australian) came to adjust to life in France, and it is wonderful!

What is your next project?

I have been working on a memoir for longer than I should say without going into a protracted explanation of why it is taking so long. It’s called A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred, and it is the story of how in my family it took three generations of women with a passion for reading and writing to end up with one person lucky enough to live a writer’s life. I am that lucky person! And I am looking forward to getting back to work on that book—which is, among other things, a tribute to my mother and grandmother.

Demystifying the French by Janet Hulstrand

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