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Monday, July 22, 2024

The good, the bad and the ugly of life in rural France



French Village Diaries the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life
Sunflowers and sunny skies




As we approach our twentieth anniversary of arriving in France, we have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life - and all in one week. 

Note - to keep things on a happy note, all the photos in this blog are from our days out enjoying the sunshine.



French Village Diaries the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life
The Cognac vineyards


The good

Since my last post about the year without a summer, we were treated to almost four continuous days of sunshine and heat, which miraculously coincided with days off work for both of us. It would have been the ideal time to head away, but that wasn’t possible with Mini the dog’s age-related issues – which are to be expected now she is 16 ½. Not ones to waste our days lounging around, we set off on the bikes every afternoon, exploring some hidden gems in the Charente vineyards, and Marais-Poitevin marshes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on our skin. This felt so good after bike rides in the rain, cycling into head winds, or summer commutes cool enough to cause goosepimples and runny noses. There is something quite special about real summer cycling where you learn to appreciate the subtle temperature changes as you ride into the shade of the trees, or follow a cooling river, enjoying the caressing breeze as you move through the air.

 

We drank in the endless vistas of smiling sunflowers, saw young deer sheltering in the vineyards, dusty combine harvesters working the wheat fields, and stopped to admire old lavoirs or wash houses. We fuelled our 235kms of pedalling with patisserie stops where croissants, éclairs (coffee and Grand Marnier) and tartelettes (apple and lemon) were appreciated on shady benches. Summer in rural France is good.


 

French Village Diaries the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life
Grand Marnier éclair


The bad

Despite getting much less usage than the bikes, the time had come to replace all four tyres on our car. Adrian got a few online quotes before booking an appointment at Feu Vert in Niort, paying up front as requested. We live about an hour’s drive from Niort and as we approached the garage, in plenty of time for our appointment, the phone rang. The line wasn’t good, but I understood enough to realise that the tyres hadn’t been delivered, so they were calling to cancel the appointment to fit them. This was frustrating. They had taken our money four days ago and we’d now committed to a two-hour round trip, to coincide with our days off, and had nothing to show for it. Had we lived closer, we might have been able to save ourselves the wasted journey, but this is one of the downsides to living in rural France. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad as cancelling the order was straightforward and the full refund arrived within the 48 hours promised. Adrian is now back online, searching and checking availability of four low-profile, all-season tyres.


 

French Village Diaries the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life
Romanesque church, Charente


The ugly

Heading out and about from the village this last week, the vehicles we have seen more of even than the combine harvesters, have been Gendarme vans, normally a pretty unusual sight around here. There were convoys of them in Niort, heavily manned check points appeared on the way in and out of Chef-Boutonne and the only car that we saw on the quiet backroads heading to the château on Sunday morning, was a Gendarme. The reason for this activity is the controversial construction of mega-bassines or huge water reservoirs, that has put our local area on the global map.

 

The idea behind the reservoirs is that farmers who irrigate their crops build a reservoir, fill it from the rivers over winter, so they won’t run out of water during the drier summer months. Sounds simple, but this causes a massive imbalance for the local ecosystem and water table levels, that affects us all, purely for the benefit of a few farmers who choose to grow water-thirsty (mainly maize) crops. Add to this the huge financial costs to their construction, that are massively funded by the state, along with the responsibility we all have to conserve water, and this has become a highly controversial topic. Greta Thunberg was among the activists visiting the pop-up water village in Melle over the weekend, and she shared the following about the reservoirs on social media:

 

“Construction of mega-basins have accelerated in recent years partly as a result of the climate crisis and more intense and frequent droughts. But this is no way a solution…This only digs us deeper into an already deeply flawed policy-system that benefits big agro-industrial interests representing a small minority of farmers, while ruining the environment and destabilising the climate”.



French Village Diaries the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life
Cycling the Sèvre Niortais in the Marais Poitevin

 

I am not a fan of the bassines, but when thousands of protestors from all over the world arrive in our quiet corner of France, accompanied by thousands more Gendarmes, riot police and helicopters, the situation quickly got ugly. Whilst many protestors were genuine, there were others who had weapons confiscated, and I can’t help but think of the negative environmental impact of all these extra vehicles on the roads.

 

So as not to finish on an ugly note, something else happened last week that highlights why we are happy with our rural French village life. At the same moment we were about to fill the boot of the car with lots of garden waste to take to the tip eight kilometres away, the village gardener’s truck pulled up outside and Monsieur began to unload the commune’s lawnmower. When he saw what we were doing, he took one side of our loaded groundsheet and with Adrian’s help emptied it into the truck, saving us an afternoon’s work. That is why he will always find a cup of coffee by our front gate when he turns up to mow the patch outside our house in the mornings.


 

French Village Diaries the good, the bad and the ugly of rural French life
Tartlettes au citron et aux pommes


I’m working this week, so I hope summer returns and encourages lots of visitors to enjoy all that the Château de Javarzay has to offer. 

Saturday, July 20, 2024

Book review of The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath


French Village Diaries book review The Lost Queen Carol McGrath
The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath

The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath

1191 and the Third Crusade is underway . . .

It is 1191 and King Richard the Lionheart is on crusade to pitch battle against Saladin and liberate the city of Jerusalem and her lands. His mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine and his promised bride, Princess Berengaria of Navarre, make a perilous journey over the Alps in midwinter. They are to rendezvous with Richard in the Sicilian port of Messina.

There are hazards along the way - vicious assassins, marauding pirates, violent storms and a shipwreck. Berengaria is as feisty as her foes and, surviving it all, she and Richard marry in Cyprus. England needs an heir. But first, Richard and his Queen must return home . . .

The Lost Queen is a thrilling medieval story of high adventure, survival, friendship and the enduring love of a Queen for her King.

Acclaim for Carol McGrath's ROSE trilogy:
'Powerful, gripping and beautifully told' KATE FURNIVALL on The Silken Rose
'A tour de force of gripping writing, rich historical detail and complex, fascinating characters' NICOLA CORNICK on The Stone Rose
'A beautifully narrated novel' K J MAITLAND on The Damask Rose


French Village Diaries book review The Lost Queen Carol McGrath
The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath


My Review

Living in the modern-day Nouvelle Aquitaine, I am fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her extraordinary life as Queen of France (as wife to Louis VII) and of England (as wife to Henry II) in the Middle Ages. This is a period in history that seemed to elude me at school, therefore, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to step back in time with this book, and it didn’t disappoint.

Even in her later years, when this book is set, Eleanor is not afraid to trek across France, cross the Alps in winter and head towards the heart of the crusade action in the east Mediterranean. Her mission this time, for this wasn’t her first epic journey, is to accompany Berengaria, a princess from Navarre, who will become her son, Richard the Lionheart’s bride, and Queen of England. Their journey is long, slow and arduous, with harsh winter weather and danger from enemy attack, and all that before the treacherous sea crossings they must then undertake.


French Village Diaries book review The Lost Queen Carol McGrath
The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath


This book gave me a fascinating insight into the period, life on the road and at court. Berengaria and her ladies came alive as they occupied their days sewing, storytelling and singing as they awaited news from the battle lines, always ready to drop everything when messengers informed them of a return of the King and his troops. There were frustrations when her ideas or points of view were dismissed and the fear of not producing an heir hung over her. They too lived the highs and lows of victories, defeats, injuries and losses, as the Christian Franks and the Saracens fought over Jerusalem, the Holy Land desired by both Christians and Muslims.

I still find it quite bizarre to think that Richard, with his French lineage was King of England (despite spending little time there), married a Spanish princess in Cypress, who then travelled to the Middle East on a crusade to take Jerusalem as Queen of England, despite never having set foot on English soil.

I do love an historical fiction that adds flesh and personalities to my limited knowledge of real-life events in this period, and I especially enjoyed the vibrant colours of the silks, flavours of the fruits, and perfumes of the middle east as I immersed myself within its pages.

This book definitely whetted my appetite and made me realise I don’t read enough fiction from this period.


Purchase links

French Village Diaries is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk at no extra cost to you.

Amazon UK purchase link 

Purchase here 



French Village Diaries book review The Lost Queen Carol McGrath
Carol McGrath


About the author

Following a first degree in English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing from The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in English from University of London. The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAS in 2014. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister complete this highly acclaimed trilogy. Mistress Cromwell, a best-selling historical novel about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Henry VIII’s statesman, Thomas Cromwell, was republished by Headline in 2020. The Silken Rose, first in a medieval She-Wolf Queens Trilogy, featuring Ailenor of Provence, saw publication in April 2020. This was followed by The Damask RoseThe Stone Rose was published April 2022. Carol is writing Historical non-fiction as well as fiction. Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England was published in February 2022. The Stolen Crown in 2023 and The Lost Queen will be published 18th July 2024. Carol lives in Oxfordshire, England and in Greece. 

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French Village Diaries book review The Lost Queen Carol McGrath
The Lost Queen by Carol McGrath

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Book review of A Love Letter to Paris by Rebecca Raisin

French Village Diaries book review A Love Letter to Paris Rebecca Raisin
A Love Letter to Paris by Rebecca Raisin


A Love Letter to Paris by Rebecca Raisin

Late at night when I wander the streets of Paris, my thoughts turn to her… How do I tell her how I feel? Perhaps, I need to show her…

The pretty little streets of Montmartre are abuzz with a rumour. Apparently a mystery matchmaker, known only as ‘Paris Cupid’, has somehow helped the city’s most famous bachelor find love.

But old-fashioned romantic Lilou is staying very quiet. She’d just wanted to set up her best friend, and to get on with her life selling whimsical old love letters, in Paris’s famous St. Ouen market.

She hadn’t imagined her little Paris Cupid project could ever have attracted so many people looking for true, heartfelt romance. Though the truth is that Lilou adores helping people find the right person. Even if her own love life is nothing short of disastrous.

But then a message arrives. And it’s just for her. Someone is in love with her. Someone who knows her secret. But they’re keeping their own identity secret too… Could it be from cheerful, talkative, flame-haired Felix? Or quiet, beautifully handsome Benoit? Or even Pascale – who drives Lilou mad every day?

After so long of helping others find their soulmate, is it time for Lilou to find love of her own in Paris herself?


French Village Diaries book review A Love Letter to Paris Rebecca Raisin
A Love Letter to Paris by Rebecca Raisin


My Review

Lilou was an easy character to fall in love with. Her day job involved delving into the past, sourcing and selling antique letters and diaries that shared intimate information and spoke of long-ago romances. She is old-fashioned enough to mourn the loss of the handwritten letter, yet up to date enough to set up an online dating service with a difference. Her idea is to take couples back to the slow and steady courtships found within the letters she sells, and she pours her heart into finding them the right match. Add in characters with charm and humour, as well as interesting secrets, all set not just in Paris, but in the antique paradise that is the St Ouen market, and I could happily have moved into the pages of this book and lived alongside them. As the story progresses, hearts are revealed and tantalising slowly, so is the mystery of the secret admirer.


French Village Diaries book review A Love Letter to Paris Rebecca Raisin
A Love Letter to Paris by Rebecca Raisin


Every time I picked it up, I was wrapped in a warm fuzzy glow, whisked away from real life and could feel the smile playing on my lips. This has to be the most romantic book I’ve read in a long while, and yet there is barely a kiss.

If you need a romantic break to Paris this summer, start with this book, it’s another cracking read from Rebecca Raisin.


Purchase links

French Village Diaries is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk at no extra cost to you.

Amazon UK purchase link here

Purchase here 



French Village Diaries book review A Love Letter to Paris Rebecca Raisin
Rebecca Raisin


About the author

Rebecca Raisin writes heartwarming romance from her home in sunny Perth, Australia. Her heroines tend to be on the quirky side and her books are usually set in exotic locations so her readers can armchair travel any day of the week. The only downfall about writing about gorgeous heroes who have brains as well as brawn, is falling in love with them – just as well they’re fictional. Rebecca aims to write characters you can see yourself being friends with. People with big hearts who care about relationships and believe in true, once in a lifetime love. Her bestselling novel Rosie’s Travelling Tea Shop has been optioned for film with MRC studios and Frolic Media.

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French Village Diaries book review A Love Letter to Paris Rebecca Raisin
A Love Letter to Paris by Rebecca Raisin

Monday, July 15, 2024

The year without a summer

French Village Diaries year without a summer
Arriving at work in the rain, June 2024


Yesterday was the 14th of July, France’s fête nationale, and as I welcomed the morning visitors into the Château de Javarzay (and out of the rain), we were all in agreement, the weather this year is rotten.

 

“It’s more like autumn than summer, I’ve put my coat on to come out today” exclaimed one lady and another agreed, “I thought the weather this spring was bad, but summer is no better so far”.

 

It’s depressing, and the longer the gloom of cloudy days that block out the sunshine hang over us, the lower our moods are slipping. I know the blog has been quiet, aside from the book review tours I’ve signed-up to do, and this ongoing lack of sunlight has certainly played its part.

 

Water restrictions

Way back on 13th of October, when the sun still shone consistently for days in a row, we were put on water usage restrictions. The water table was at an all-time low and rain (or the lack of it) was on everyone’s lips. As if to prove that she had the upper hand, Mother Nature sent in the rain on 14th of October, and there are some days when it’s hard to remember a week without heavy rainy days, strong winds or storms since then. By Christmas, the water table was at a healthy level, by Easter, it was full to bursting and many local rivers flooded, the water rising to levels not seen in over forty years. There are still waterlogged areas in some of the local fields and the summer sunflower crops are late, the first flowers only just beginning to open.



French Village Diaries year without a summer
The level of the Boutonne river, December 2023


 

We are now sun deprived and fatigued by the rapid growth rate of the grass and weeds that have become even more difficult to keep on top of. The cherry crop rotted on the trees. We didn’t bother with a potager as the weeds would have strangled the courgettes and keeping the tomatoes free of blight would have been more stressful than beneficial. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the figs are of giant proportions and the plum crop is looking great.



French Village Diaries year without a summer
Giant figs, July 2024

 

The year without a summer

There have been times when it feels like summer just isn’t going to arrive, but I learned recently of events in 1815 that caused 1816 to be known as “the year without a summer”, and the more I delved into the history books, the more grateful I became for our lives 108 years later.

 

In 1815, one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions recorded, occurred at Mt Tambora in Indonesia. As well as the devastation, death and destruction locally, a sulphur-filled ash cloud formed that caused disruption over part of the United States, Europe and China throughout 1816. This resulted in temperatures being colder than normal and more days recorded that were wet or with heavy cloud cover, than sunshine – something that feels very familiar this year, although we haven’t suffered with the summer frosts or snowfall that also hit them. The effects of this were catastrophic on the wheat, potato and grape harvests in Europe and it couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for France. Following the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), France and Europe were already economically struggling, so the poor harvests led to famine and illness, including a typhus epidemic. The death rate in 1816 was ten times higher than the normal average for that time. As is often the case when pushed to our limits, we realise how strong we are, and great things arise from the devastation.

 

The first bicycle

Many horses that families relied on for transport and to work the land had either died of starvation or were eaten to avoid the family starving, which led to Baron Karl von Drais inventing the Velocipede. These two wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machines were patented in 1818 and regarded as the first bicycle. I can’t thank him enough as cycling has certainly helped to keep our spirits up, even if the weather has meant far less longs days out on the bike than usual.



French Village Diaries year without a summer
Cycling in the Charente, summer 2024



Frankenstein

Mary Shelley and friends spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland and instead of relaxing in the sunshine, the weather kept them all indoors, searching for other things to do. The dark days of that summer inspired her to write Frankenstein, that was first published in 1818.

 

Jean-François Cail’s potato grater

I’d like to add another event to this list, that ties in nicely with my life and the museum at the Château de Javarzay. Part of our museum is dedicated to the incredible life of French industrialist Jean-François Cail. He was born in Chef-Boutonne in 1804 and finished school at the age of twelve, as there was no money to pay the fees. Most young men at that time would have become farm labourers, but as he turned twelve in 1816, it is no surprise this wasn’t what he wanted from life. Whilst looking for a metalwork apprenticeship he began making a potato grater, piercing holes in an iron sheet, that he sold at the weekly market. This simple device helped to make a potato flour that could be added to the wheat flour and used to make bread. With the poor wheat and potato crops that summer, anything that could reduce waste and help to put food on the table would have been lifesaving. From his humble beginnings he became a great industrialist, building railway locomotives and infrastructure, as well as modernising agriculture and running sugar refineries all over the world. Knowing what I now know about the year of no summer, I like to think he was more than a little bit influenced by this event.



French Village Diaries year without a summer
Jean-François Cail museum, Château de Javarzay


 

While I’m totally fed up with our lack of summer, at least we haven’t had to endure the hardships of those living through 1815 and 1816.


You can read more about the Château de Javarzay in these posts here:

My five top tips for a visit

The stonework

Mysterious markings

Monday, June 24, 2024

Book review of Couples Retreat by Lorraine Brown

French Village Diaries book review Couples Retreat Lorraine Brown
Couples Retreat by Lorraine Brown


Couples Retreat by Lorraine Brown 

Two writers. One pressing deadline. No time for romance...

Scarlett and Theo have one bestselling novel to their names: the psychological thriller they wrote together years ago. None of the books they've written separately have sold anywhere near as well...

Now at risk of being dropped by their respective publishers, their agent tells them that working together is the only way to save their careers and sends them off on a writers' retreat in the south of France.

It wouldn't be the worst way to spend a summer--except that they've accidentally been booked on a couples retreat instead, and spending so much time together stirs up some very inconvenient feelings!

With their careers on the line and a pressing deadline, romance is the last thing on their minds...

Beach Read meets The Proposal in this gorgeously escapist and wonderfully bookish romcom set in the south of France

French Village Diaries book review Couples Retreat Lorraine Brown
Couples Retreat by Lorraine Brown


My Review

Scarlett and Theo, two writer ‘friends’ with issues and history need each other. They may not have spoken in six years, but writing a second book together is the only way their agent can see a future for their writing careers. Reluctantly agreeing, they are prepared to work together, but what they are not bargaining on is the emotional journey of a couples retreat with group therapy sessions. Picking through their feelings and emotions, they learn a lot about both of their pasts, presents and ultimately their futures too. 

I instantly felt for Scarlett. I could feel her vulnerability, her need to always step in and put others before herself, and (uncomfortably) recognised some of her traits in my own behaviour. There are lots of humorous moments in this book that worked well with the emotional scenes where difficult times from the past were shared openly. It was an entertaining read that also highlighted the benefits and importance of facing up to our feelings, emotions, and the other rubbish we all carry around with us.

Their best seller had been written in alternating chapters, but cleverly, this book is written just in Scarlett’s voice. It worked - nicely keeping Theo a simmering mystery, meaning I kept wondering what his chapters about their time in Cannes, and his take on the therapy sessions would have been like to read.


French Village Diaries book review Couples Retreat Lorraine Brown
Couples Retreat by Lorraine Brown


The south of France provides a warm, colourful backdrop to this book. From seafront walks to afternoons exploring the villages inland, the healing powers of France certainly play their part, as well as providing inspiration for two writers desperate to recreate the magic they’ve lost.

Full of tension and simmering chemistry, with lots of humour around the awkwardness of the situations they find themselves in, this book radiated energy and fun, meaning it was a perfect pick-me-up escape that I looked forward to reading every evening.

This is one to add to your holiday reading pile this summer.

Purchase links

French Village Diaries is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk at no extra cost to you.

Amazon UK purchase link 

Purchase here


French Village Diaries book review Couples Retreat Lorraine Brown
Lorraine Brown


About the author

Lorraine lives in London with her partner and their 10-year-old son. She previously trained as an actress and has recently completed a postgraduate diploma in psychodynamic counselling and now delivers counselling sessions to university students alongside her writing. UNCOUPLING is her debut novel and was published in the UK by Orion Fiction on 18th February 2021 and in the US by G.P. Putnam's Sons on 24th August 2021 (as THE PARIS CONNECTION). Her second novel, SORRY I MISSED YOU, was published in September 2022 and her third, FIVE DAYS IN FLORENCE,  on 20th July 2023. For monthly updates, a behind-the-scenes look at the world of publishing and Lorraine's monthly favourites (including TV, movies and books), please go to her website and sign up to her newsletter. 

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French Village Diaries book review Couples Retreat Lorraine Brown
Couples Retreat by Lorraine Brown

French-themed reading bingo

This year I’ve set myself a reading challenge bingo, with twenty-five different types of French themed books to tick off. This book nicely ticks off “A romance set in France”.


French Village Diaries French themed reading bingo challenge 2024
French themed reading bingo challenge 2024