Sunday, September 30, 2012

Interview with author Julia Stagg

One of the best things about blogging is that I get to meet some lovely people who share my passion for all things French, one of the things that is not so good is that most of these friendships are only ever on-line ones. Julia Stagg is one such person who I’ve got to know a little on-line and is the author of three books set in the Pyrenean village of Fogas.  I’m just sure Julia and I would get on well in real life; sitting outdoors on a warm evening, clinking glasses of wine, nibbling aperos and chatting well into the night.  Maybe one day, but at least Julia was nice enough to spend some time answering a few questions about her books and her love of France and French life.

FVD: Hello Julia, welcome to French Village Diaries and thank you for virtually agreeing to join me on my terrace, now first question - what can I get you to drink?

JS: Oooh – if you happen to have picked up a bottle on your recent travels to the Ariège-Pyrenees, a glass of Hypocras, please. If not, I’ll settle for a kir. And can I just say, your garden is gorgeous!

FVD: Why thank you so much, but I’m afraid it will have to be a kir!  I have read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the first two Fogas books, L'Auberge  and The Parisian's Return , and what comes across really well is your in-depth knowledge of French village life.  How long were you living in France?

JS: Mark (my husband) and I arrived in France in 2004 and stayed for 6 years. But it felt a lot longer – in a good way! Running the auberge put us at the heart of the community, and often at the heart of the gossip too!

FVD: Snap!  All the best people arrived in 2004!  Did you find it easy to adjust to the French way of life?

JS: Considering that I never had a strong desire to move to France and had a hate-hate relationship with the language after my schooldays, yes, we adjusted very quickly. We’d both lived abroad before so that aspect of it wasn’t difficult. And compared to the USA where we lived for a while, we found French culture very similar to our own – especially the humour! I think once you begin to appreciate jokes in another language and can make others laugh, then you have settled in. As for my own relationship with France, I think having no high expectations helped! The Ariège-Pyrenees is a stunning region so I quickly fell under its spell and the people welcomed us from the first. And the language then followed. I’ve gone from being someone with a French mental block, to a person who now seeks out French books and films just to be immersed in it once more!

FVD: I can totally agree with you there, my French friends find it very amusing that I only scrapped a grade D in French when I was at school!  Like two of the characters in your first book, L’Auberge, you and your husband ran the village auberge – that must have been quite a challenge!  What was worse, running a business in France or getting your catering skills accepted by the French?

JS: Ha! That’s a question and a half! Setting up a business in France is not for the faint hearted. We seemed to spend a lot of time sitting in bland hallways waiting to see someone powerful who needed to sign a piece of paper so we could move on to the next stage. And of course, it all had to be done in person, which slows things down. But if you are going to live in another culture, you have to accept things will be different – and not always in a way you like! Once the business was up and running we still hit obstacles – an accountant who wasn’t up to scratch; new regulations for the hotel industry that seemed designed to bust small businesses; and of course, the notorious red tape! To counteract that, we learnt that the Hôtel des Impôts was the place to go for help. One of the women who worked there once spent the best part of an hour trawling through the Code for taxes so she could recoup money that our negligent accountant had cost us by not applying for certain tax breaks that were due to us. She did it too and we walked out several thousand euros better off. Amazing!

FVD: Wow – she must have been new!

JS: So, on to the next bit – getting my catering skills accepted by the French. Far easier! The trick is to serve freshly prepared food, preferably straight from your garden or locally sourced, and to keep things simple. We did a menu du jour, with a choice of homemade starters and desserts and it worked a treat. That said, we weren’t in Paris or even Toulouse where restaurants are of a higher standard. To be honest, the local competition in our mountain valley wasn’t up to much. We were competing with tough steak and chips and three day old mousse au chocolat… Of course, we still had the rare customer who was wary once they realised we were British. Often they would book for a week’s accommodation but only book a meal for the first night. Then, after they had eaten, they would sidle up to the reception desk and ask if they could change their booking to demi-pension for the week. That was as good as a Michelin star for me!

FVD: Now you are back in Yorkshire what do you miss most about daily life in the Pyrenees?  What (if anything) was a relief to leave behind?

JS: I miss the mountains. They make my soul sing and were what persuaded us to take on such a huge challenge in the first place. I also miss the good friends we made but that said, we worked such crazy hours in the season that we didn’t have much time for a social life. I think my life is better balanced now, although that has nothing to do with a change of country, just a change of occupation. I also miss daft little things like opening shutters in the morning; the sound of the bells on the cows across the river; the Saturday market in St Girons; the thrill of living in another language.

FVD: oh, yes, I still love opening the shutters in the morning, and although we don’t have cowbells, it is the church bells that I love to hear.
JS: What don’t I miss? Power cuts! We seemed to have more than our fair share in the Ariège – no doubt brought on by the vast quantity of trees that covered the mountains. There was always a high chance of one of them falling on a power line in a storm. Made running an auberge difficult at times…until we bought a generator! I also don’t miss (and I know this is controversial!) the long lunch break. When you’re running a business it really doesn’t help when your morning is effectively reduced to a two-hour time slot in which to get things done. And no, I don’t believe that the workers all retire to some great luncheon out the back while the shop/bank/office is closed for those two hours. For most of my neighbours who worked in the nearest town 16km away, it was an inconvenience too as they had to return home for lunch and then drive all the way back in. Their working day was made longer and for no extra pay. Personally, I think the nostalgia surrounding this practice is held only by the well paid fonctionnaires who can afford to eat in a restaurant every day! And the restaurant owners of course!

FVD: Do you think you may move back at some stage?

JS: I never think of life in terms of moving back. It’s always moving on. And until we moved to France, I had never lived anywhere longer than two years since I was 18. We spent 6 years in the same place in the Ariège which shows how special it was to us and when we left, it wasn’t because we no longer loved it. It was simply that my situation had changed, I was now a full time writer and it suited us better to be in the UK. So I suppose the answer is no, we won’t be moving back. But yes, there’s a high chance we might move on and I wouldn’t rule out the Ariège!

FVD:  Now you know what happens when you get two girlies together with a bottle of something nice, we just couldn’t stop chatting, so pop back later to read the rest of this interview, thanks!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Freedom Fries and Cafe Creme by Jocelyne Rapinac

Freedom Fries and Cafe Creme is a collection of short stories by Jocelyne Rapinac that the publishers Gallic Books kindly sent me to read over the summer.  Jocelyne is French, but has lived in the US, Switzerland and the UK, so it is no surprise that some of the characters are French, some of the stories are set in France and a lot of the recipes have a French twist – a perfect combination for me!

I like short story collections, but they have to pack a punch and give me something to sink my teeth into.  I also like the characters to make an impact so I’m left thinking about what might happen to them after we’ve left them.  These did just this and I could easily (and probably will) read it again.

Even in La Belle France we had the odd less than perfect summer day, but this book was the ideal distraction and great company on the sofa with a coffee and a croissant. I defy anyone to read it and not feel hungry, especially as at the end of each chapter the recipes that have whetted your appetite are thoughtfully included.  How often have you read a book where a meal or a dish is so exquisitely described you think how nice it would be to give that a try?  I’ll definitely be trying some of these, so many of them seem to be easy to follow, simple but delicious too.  I have put the book in a prominent position in my cookery book cupboard – yes I really do have an entire cupboard just for cookery books!

My only little niggle was that at times I felt like I was being preached to.   Despite being the sort of Mum who chose to stay at home and embrace the whole home cooking is best regime, it still seemed a bit over the top that it was always the ‘Super-Mum multi-tasker’ characters and their poorly behaved (because of it) children who were portrayed in a negative light.  However it is still a good read (with great recipes).  Happy reading!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Girl on Paper by Guillaume Musso

As part of my summer spent in the company of a good book and a sun lounger I have just read The Girl on Paper by Guillaume Musso, the number one bestselling author writing in French today.  Only I cheated and read it in English thanks to Gallic Books who bring the very best of French literature to English readers.

When author Tom Boyd is at his lowest, following a public break-up with his fiancée, he knows he will never write again and even living is proving hard work.  One night, a beautiful, naked stranger walks into his life, claiming to be a character from his novel, trapped in real life by a printing error.  Can she turn his life around and help rekindle the romance with his fiancée?  Can he write again and by doing so can he help get her back into the book?

This book is everything I ask for in a girlie fiction read; emotions and feelings by the bucket load, a love interest (or two) and a great story line – totally implausible in the real world, but believable when told by a good story teller.  I like a book to be able to take me away from the real world every now and then.  There is an exciting chase across the world that introduces other characters and snippets of their life.  These add an extra something to the story as a whole, and like any good chase it is full of ‘just got away’ scenarios that keep it moving at a great pace.  It even has a smattering of French characters and the magical city of Paris gets to play its part too.  A perfect holiday read.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker

french village diaries book review The Devil's Cave Martin WalkerThe Devil's Cave: A Bruno Courrèges Investigation (Bruno Chief of Police 5) is the fifth book in the Bruno, Chief of Police series, by Martin Walker. It has been many, many years since I read a crime book (I think Sherlock Holmes when I was a teenager) but as this is set in sleepy southwest France the publishers thought I might enjoy it. They weren’t wrong and the old saying of ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’ certainly comes true here as I would have been sure to walk past the dark ominous looking front cover. I have certainly been missing out on a great series here as I really enjoyed it. Martin has a very readable writing style and his descriptions of French life are spot on.  

Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police in a small Dordogne town, is a bit of a ladies man (well he is French), but I can see the attraction. Any man who makes, uses and always has in his freezer, a supply of homemade stock is my kind of man. Added to this he has a veggie garden, ducks, chickens, a pantry full of home bottled produce and is able to whip up a tasty meal and I was all for packing my bags until I remembered he was only a character in a book. 

When a female body is found on a boat, bearing the ghastly signs of a black magic ritual Bruno springs into action. The victim is unknown and nobody is coming forward. This is the last thing Bruno needs. As the story progressed, the plot twisted and turned and the mysteries deepened, jobs around the house and the family got ignored and I know my heart rate had risen by the end of the book. I wanted to put it down, if only to make it last a little bit longer, but resistance was futile. I gave up in the end and let Bruno lead me to my sun lounger!

I am now off to add to my Amazon wish list as I have to catch up on the first four books. 

Thanks to Quercus books for introducing me to Martin’s work.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Walking the Hexagon by Terry Cudbird

Continuing my summer travels around France from the sunlounger, I was delighted when Terry sent me a copy of his book Walking the Hexagon: An Escape Around France on Foot to review, as the whole concept of this book excited me from the moment I came across it.  Taking the back roads in France is one of my favourite things to do and either by bike or car I am always amazed at the variety of the regions, landscapes, architecture and agriculture.  Walking around France, sometimes alone, Terry is at one with his surroundings and describes what he sees so well I wanted to get my map out, pack a bag and head off.

Terry describes himself as the fat kid at school, just like me, who was always last in sport, just like me, and who found ‘exercise’ in middle age, again like me, and says one of the reasons he undertook this adventure was to escape from facing up to the realities of his parents dementia back at home. Even when he is isolated in the Alps his journey is often interrupted by messages from home or confused calls from his Mother, it can’t have been easy for him or his wife, but it did add a personal aspect to the book.

I will admit my first impression was that it was a substantial sized book, crammed with words and I wondered if it would be a bit hard going to read.  However, although the 4000 mile walk was a challenge for Terry, he writes a very readable book that keeps moving at a great pace and I found the map for each chapter helpful and the photos a nice additional touch.

With the memories of our recent road trip along the Pyrenees, up to Carcassonne and east to the Cevennes it was great to be familiar with the beginning of Terry’s mammoth adventure.  Whilst we dabbled ignorantly into Cathar country, Terry was able to enlighten me with a potted history of who the Cathars were, why the Church disliked them and therefore why they ended up burnt at the stake.  He includes lots of information as he makes his way around France, and when he is finishing his journey down the Atlantic coast using one of the Santiago De Compostela routes he educated me further!  We too are on the route so I can now understand why it is not uncommon to see unusual sights locally; a young man in full length (claret) robes with his donkey, an older couple leading a pony and a large dog, both carrying panniers, cyclists with scallop shells in their bags.  Some of these I would have noticed, but not really understood the significance of without Terry’s explanation of his experience following the route. 

I know Terry is still walking bits of France, so maybe we will hear more from him in the future, I hope so.