Foreign Exchange

Illustration by Mimi Mangrum Numer
A tête-à-tête with two Frenchies in Savannah. By Scarlett Ruggiero

 I came to Savannah from Paris in 2014, and while it’s impossible to not feel welcomed here, being French in the South isn’t always easy. Why isn’t everybody smoking and talking at the same time? Where are les terrasses and boulangeries and pains au chocolat of my youth? Contemplating life in a place where cheddar is more common than Emmental, I reached out to fellow French expat chef Jean-Yves Vendeville, head of the culinary department at the Savannah Technical College.

Vendeville is a busy man. He worked all around the world before coming to Savannah in 2008 to manage the culinary program at Savannah Tech. This spring, he’s organizing a baking competition for La Châine des RÔtisseurs, the world’s oldest and largest food and wine society.

I smile when he picks up the phone and answers, “Allô?” —without an “h,” of course. It’s incredible how the sound of the French language comforts me, how it reminds me that France is never as far away as I imagine. Here, Vendeville walks me through how he fell in love with Savannah and how he made the city his home.

When was the last time you lived in France?

Ooh la la, not since 1970s.

You have lived in Savannah for 10 years now. Do you feel like a Savannahian?

Oh oui, absolutely! I don’t feel like a stranger at all. I am a Savannahian.  Believe me, I am happy to go back to France, but Savannah is home now. Voila.

Do you miss France?

Not really, no. I am still very attached to France, and I still love my country, but I am very happy here. If anything, I miss the vineyards, the little villages in the South. I am into wine, you see—I am trying to get my sommelier certification on French wines. I just need to pass one more exam. [The certification process] opened my eyes about wine because I had that French arrogance “if it’s not French it’s not good,” but I’ve changed a lot. I learned to appreciate wine from other regions.

How do you see Savannah changing in the next 10 years?

Now that we have a strong restaurant culture in Savannah, I think Savannah will keep evolving in a good way. Savannah will always keep its charm.

What is Savannah’s charm, exactly?

I think people here are very welcoming, less morose than the French. There is also a particular Southern beauty here—the historical houses, the trees, the flowers. That’s what attracts people.

Are there any spots in Savannah that feel like home?

I like Forsyth Park, and everything around it. In Provence and in Paris we have very pretty gardens and parks too. I went to see the Green-Meldrim house the other day. It was pretty extraordinary. [The original owner’s] great grandson, Julian Green, was born in Savannah but spent his life in France—he wrote all his novels in French, about the South. He became so famous that he became a member of the Academie Française. They’re organizing a reception in May, and the French consul asked me to take care of it, so I’m in charge of the hors d’oeuvres and French wine.

One last question: Do you want to grow old here?     

Of course! I don’t think I am ever going to leave. I found the place to end my days! On est bon là! (writer’s note: this is French expression, not quite translatable, but something like, “we’re good here!”)

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