Woman's yearlong sojourn to France leads to self-discovery
By Lou Fancher
Dismay, desire and determination led Karen Eberwein on a nearly-one-year sojourn to Cénac-et-Saint-Julien, a tiny village in Southern France.
Seeking a language experience beyond frustrating textbooks or online classes, the 56-year-old Bay Area writer and former Walnut Creek resident moved to France and enveloped herself in the conversations and culture of the 1,000 people who live and work in the town located on Route de Noix (Route of Walnuts) in the Dordogne Valley.
Her 146-page book, "24/7 French Lessons: My Quest to Learn French in a Dordogne Village," tells the story of gracious strangers turned into "hosts" and how she formed friendships that led to self-discovery.
"I was surprised by how quickly the people opened up to me," she says. "I was wise to arrive on Dec. 1, 2013, in winter. I was a curiosity and became their community project. They wanted to help me learn."
A native of Patterson, Eberwein says her earliest "French obsessions" trace back to her grandmother's photographs of France's formal gardens and architecture. The pictures resonated, and although she studied the language in school, she never felt she mastered it and the realization rankled.
Eberwein, retired from her computer software-related occupation and dividing her life between homes in the Bay Area and Wanaka, New Zealand, decided it was the perfect time for an adventure.
Her book includes humor-filled stories about truffle hunting, cursing in foreign languages, middle-of-the-night croissant baking, ordering meat without MSG and more. Poignant, respectful observations about French people's courtesy and customs, a light sprinkling of language "lessons" and Eberwein's full-color photographs add depth to the travel memoir.
Her three favorite places, other than the village she called "home" for 11 months, all had in common a lesson about warmth and acceptance.
"Connections formed with strangers helped restore my faith that people could be kind and friendly. It's easy to listen to the news stories and be fearful. When you get out there, you find people are really friendly."
The welcoming atmosphere -- best symbolized in the book when she begins to receive the both-cheeks kiss in greetings -- released a bolder, more inquisitive Eberwein.
"I'm more outgoing, more assertive now. I gained a lot of confidence There's more faith in other people, so I'll take a chance."
Almost two years after her return, she feels the fluency she gained slipping away, but holds onto it as best she can by participating in French-speaking groups and listening to online news and radio. "The main thing I've lost is that I walked everywhere," she says. "I thought when I got back I'd leave my car in the garage ... but that's not happening."
Indeed, to travel to one of her favorite restaurants, downtown Walnut Creek's Va de Vi, Eberwein must drive. But there, she dreams about future endeavors.
"I think about Japan, but that's just a fantasy. Maybe Italy. Oh, just imagine learning the languages in either country."