Saturday, June 22, 2019

Book review of A Stranger in Paris by Karen Webb

French Village Diaries book review A Stranger in Paris Karen Webb
A Stranger in Paris by Karen Webb

Following on from her fantastic answers to my France et Moi questions yesterday (see here if you missed it), here is my review of Karen Webb’s first memoir, A Stranger in Paris.

As her university life finished, Karen followed her heart, and a lover who’d said, “move on and forget me”, to Paris, ready for a new adventure. Here she found herself thrust into a Parisian family with little chance to find her feet before taking the reins and looking after three young children. One super cool pre-teen, who thinks she is too old for an au-pair and who speaks better English than Karen does French, learning the difference between after school snack (gouter) and dinner, ironing Monsieur’s undies, and becoming ‘staff’ to grandma in her remote chateau are just some of the issues she has to face in the first few months. Luckily for Karen, her friend Jessica always seems to come up with a solution to her problems, right up until things go a little off-plan. I loved Jessica, although I’m not sure she was always the best influence. 

Leaving the wealthy suburbs for the city, Karen has a close call with well-meaning (I guess) mafia, some no-hope boyfriends and finally a sympathetic boss who gave her the chance to stay and make a life for herself in Paris. For me this book highlighted the kindness of strangers, but also the odd behavior from those who should have been kinder. Living with nothing; no language, no money and no furniture, her determination to work hard to find her place had to be admired and even though she admits she wasn’t living the Parisian dream, she did at least have the courage to give it a go and never give up.

Karen certainly has a tale or two to tell of life in Paris in the 1980’s and it was a great read, unless you are a parent to an 18-year-old who is planning Paris as his next move in a few years – eek!

This book takes us through her first year working in Paris and in places becomes almost a study in cultural differences as she gives her insight into working among the French and what makes them tick. I found this especially interesting and it certainly left me wanting to read more. I’m glad to hear book two should be out later this year.

A Stranger in Paris is published by Impress Books and links to Amazon can be found below.

Friday, June 21, 2019

France et Moi with author Karen Webb

French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Karen Webb A Stranger in Paris
Karen Webb, A Stranger in Paris

Welcome back to my ‘France et Moi’ interview feature where this week I am talking to memoir author Karen Webb about what living in France means to her.

Karen left Aber Uni in 1989 and ran away to Paris chasing a French boyfriend who had fled to the tropics to escape her. Alone in the city she worked in an American software company before retraining as a language teacher, eventually setting up her own language school. With two children, her father, and a car-load of animals in tow, she moved her entire family to Gascony in SW France in 2005, where lack of available work (other than picking garlic or stuffing geese) entailed a change in career from teacher to estate-agent. Karen now lives in Lectoure, is married with two children and runs her own real-estate agency:

French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Karen Webb A Stranger in Paris
Karen Webb, A Stranger in Paris
Karen graduated with an MA in Creative Writing as a mature student at Lancaster University in 2015, and after this devoted herself to fulfilling her life-long ambition of becoming a published author. The result is the release of “A Stranger in Paris” the first book of a trilogy, recounting an often “unexpected” life in France. I’ll be posting my review of A Stranger in Paris on the blog tomorrow.

Firstly, I think France is a special place and it is famed for many things including its cheese, wine and diverse holiday locations plus, dare I say it strikes and dog poo littered streets. What do you think makes France so very unique and ‘French’?

Karen: For me there is Paris and there is France. From 1989 till 2005 my life was spent in the capital city. If I think back and try to capture specific memories, I can feel immense nostalgia for a life which is utterly different from my rural life in SW France. 

Paris to me is the Champs Elysées at Christmas with tree-lined avenues of a thousand twinkling lights. It is the grand façades of shops with minimalistic displays of fashionable items I could never afford. 
Paris is squeezing my car into the tiniest of spaces, bumping the vehicle in-front and behind to make sure I fit in. It is driving home late at night, whizzing round the Arc de Triomphe and then down the Avenue de la Grande Armée, the voice of my first French driving instructor bellowing in my ear: “Foot down! Accelerate! If you stop you are DEAD”    
Paris is the double séance at the cinema in St Germain des Prés before a bowl of hot onion soup. It is the thousand different and wonderful Art déco cafés in which to eat: the linen table cloths, the platters of oysters and sea-food piled high and carried in by a waiter dressed like a penguin. In spring it is the pink blossom on the trees, and a trip to WH Smiths on the rue de Rivoli to pick up an English paperback, before wandering in Le Jardins des Tuileries, amidst dust and pigeons to sit beside the pond and watch children sailing paper boats as they have done for a hundred years. It is the inimitable smell of rubber and urine in the metro and the screech of doors closing on a huddle of passengers packed in like sardines.  And yes there are poo-smattered pavements, in Paris but with the stars in your eyes and your head in the clouds, it is easy to dance around the odd turd in the City of Light.  
French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Karen Webb A Stranger in Paris
Lectoure, Gascony
Gascony is another country. A world so far removed from Paris that I may as well have slipped back in time to another world. It is open fields, and huge (at first) terrifying night skies, where there aren’t as many street lamps to light the way home. It is directions given with confidence, by farmers in blue-zip up overalls with accents I cannot at first understand: “turn left at the oak, by the bins, down the track past the pond, until you get to the gates in the Back of Beyond. “
It is sunflower fields and garlic, melons and grapes, peregrine falcons puffed up on frosty mornings on the telegraph wires or hovering for prey over dark earthen ditches. It is mouse-poo in the cupboards and the smell of wood-burning fires in old and damp stone kitchens. Gascony is flaky pastry apple-pies, dank truffles and fruity red wines. It is summer sunshine in narrow streets filled with tourists in socks and sandals; it is the relief at the end of August when the last white camper-van pulls away, and the trees turn golden brown, as once again it is possible to drive the fifteen miles between town and home passing only a tractor.  

Paris and Gascony are a million miles apart but both to me are unmistakably “French”.

2) You arrived in Paris aged 21, having followed your heart, and with very little French. Can you tell us what the best thing about being immersed in French life was, and the scariest thing?

Karen: I have always loved words. For me the best thing was always learning a different language. When I first arrived, I would absorb every poster and each billboard I passed, reading the words and saying them in my head. I remembered my best friend at Uni (Scarlett in the book) calling her French boyfriend from a red phone-box in Aberystwyth and watching as she fed the coins into the slot, as she turned into a French person throughout the course of the conversation. I watched how her mannerisms changed speaking another language and her personality too. I thought it was a fascinating thing to become a French version of one’s self. 

For many years the worst thing was that gap between hearing and complete understanding. This was particularly difficult when trying to stand my ground at work, or with my French mother-in-law! I discuss these problems a lot in book 2, and it is fair to say that often in the early years I was reduced to a snivelling wreck and would cry from the sheer frustration of not being able to answer back and defend myself. This is hard enough in your mother-tongue but a nightmare in a second language when you have the vocabulary of a five year old!

3) Do you have any top tips for wannabe au pairs looking to start their French adventures?

Karen: My advice to wanabe au-pairs is seriously - don’t! Unless you have a serious desire to work with children, or in teaching and you enjoy spending time with them. 

I would encourage anyone wanting to do this to have baby-sitting experience and basic household skills! It is fair to say when I was an au-pair I had about as much knowledge of looking after a house and children as the five year old girl assigned to my care. Looking back now it seemed an ideal solution to experience Paris - but today I am sure there are easier ways! 

Later, as a mum myself, I also had au-pairs come to work for us - and in all honesty our experiences even as a host family were just as bad! 

4) Having lived in France and spoken French for many years do you have any top tips for my readers on how to learn French? 

Karen: The only real way to learn French is to go to France and remove yourself as much as possible from anyone who speaks English. It is amazing how quickly anyone can learn when totally immersed in the language. 

When I first arrived in Paris I listened to a lot of French music. My favourite is Charles Aznavour whose music always tells a story. I enjoyed learning the lyrics in French and patting myself on the back when I recognised the words or could even sing them myself. 
My favourite is “Je n’ai rien oublié” which is a song full of ambiance and poignancy. It tells the story of a man who meets the one true love of his life in a café at closing time, a life-time after they parted. The couple sit together and Monsieur explains how it was her father who drove them apart, how he has never found love or married, but hopes she is well, married and happy. He says so poignantly and kindly, despite the grey hair and wrinkles which we imagine, that she has not changed, only her hair, perhaps a little....
There is a whole movie in this song and it never fails to move me with its understated pain and heartbreak.  

French songs are always rich in detail, and the nature of French language allows for easy rhyming schemes. By learning songs, it is easy to pick up the intonation and flow of language.  
Another French singer to look out for: Serge Lama. “Je suis Malade” is a very powerful song. 
I love musical theatre so learning French through “Les Miserables” and “Notre Dame de Paris” was fun!
“Belle” is a particular favourite from “Notre Dame de Paris” - suggestive in parts! Once you get the nuances you are on the road to being properly French!

5) Do you have any embarrassing language mishaps you are happy to share?

Karen: My language mishaps .....
A funny one always came up when talking about weddings. I always heard it said that the bride’s father would drive her to the hotel. I registered this fact many times over the years. 
I imagined some French tradition in which father and daughter sat alone in a hotel and the father gave advice or ran through the facts of life before taking her to the church. 

It turned out they were saying the father led his daughter to the “autel” which is the altar but is pronounced almost the same as the French pronunciation of “hotel”. 

Another funny one was when I heard of veal calves at the butcher’s shop which were particularly tender as raised “under sea level” or “sous la mer” - I imagined a variety of veal that were bred in coastal regions and somehow imagined they wallowed in salty water by the beach which made their meat nice and juicy. It turned out the veal were raised or fed by their mother “sous la mère” and far from the sea after all. 

One final funny misunderstanding came whenever I drove out of a village and saw the name of the village crossed out with a red line.  For years I imagined the French regularly changing the names of their villages and crossing out the old ones. I didn’t understand until I came to drive myself that the names of the villages were not changing but that it was to indicate one had driven out of the said village. 

6) With your experience of working alongside French people, I have to ask what do you think makes them different to us and gives them that je ne sais quoi?

Karen: Working in France and in French comes easier to me now than working anywhere else. I have worked in France for my entire adult life. 
One thing I have noticed is that there is a natural tendency to initially see all the objections and problems to an idea or to proclaim that something is impossible to fix when it isn’t (usually with much shoulder-shrugging and gesticulation).  

However, I have learnt to ignore the initial wave of objections and in the end - it always comes good. There will be a solution and most often it is found. The secret is not to become initially disheartened. This is always the case whenever I make a suggestion to my French husband. I listen to the wave of objections and then finally he will tell me what a good idea something is. 

The other thing in business is that French people love a meeting. So much so there are meetings about meetings about meetings. This is a tradition - as are the long lunches with wine and three course meals. Don’t expect a sandwich at your desk. 

7) France has many different cheeses, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tomme, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?

Karen: An interesting question, but as a Gemini with two contradictory twins to handle on a daily basis, I feel I must choose one soft and one hard cheese for each twin. 
So, I plump for the deliciously soft and creamy “Forme d’Ambert” which is not so bitter on the tongue as a Rouquefort and which mushes deliciously on baguette and salty butter. And with this I choose the cheese every “cheese-monger” in France dreads being asked to cut: the hard and dried up orange Mimolette. The one which breaks the counter each time a slice is cut. 

8) Every region in France has its own culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish? 

Karen: A regional dish I love - found more often in a Parisian bistro than in SW France is the “Os à la moelle” which is a huge bone, like a dog bone, with soft marrow to suck out. Often served with boiled potatoes and stew. Great with a bottle of fine red wine. 
In recent years I have become almost entirely vegetarian - but I do have happy memories of this dish, albeit during the Mad Cow crisis, it was banned from most restaurants in France and is now making a slow come-back. 

9) France has some beautiful cities and there are a few that constantly battle to be my favourite, what is your favourite French city and why? Do you miss living in Paris?

Karen: A hard question because I love so many. Paris has been my favourite city for years and yes, I do miss living there. I often think when I retire I would like to go back and fulfil my twenty-year old self’s dream of living in a flat up in Montmartre. 

10) If you could travel to anywhere in France for a weekend away (money no object) where would you go?

Karen: If money were no expense I would choose to go to Arcachon for a massage at one of the nice thermal centres there, and I would eat sea-food and drink champagne at a lovely market-side place on the port which serves fish straight from the nets. I love salty butter and oysters! Pink Champagne of course. 
French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Karen Webb A Stranger in Paris
A Stranger in Paris, Karen Webb
Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed your first memoir about the beginning of your Parisian adventure, but I think there is more to tell! Can you let us know a little bit about your second memoir and when it will be available? 

Karen: The second book sees the narrator (I won’t say “me” as although it is a memoir it is easier to put a distance between me and the character) do a lot of growing-up in a short time. There are lighter episodes in the first section of the book, which take place in a cowboy language school, where the main character works as an English language teacher and soon realises that a variety of students who come for lessons are motivated by many things other than learning English. Marriage to a wealthy bourgeois man brings with it a litany of problems not least a terrifying French mother-in-law, who just happens to be a Magistrate, along with some scenes which were difficult to re-live when a family tragedy back home in England forces the narrator to address many of the problems she initially ran away from and which result in her old English life crashing into her new French one and changing things forever. 

A lot of the book is an analysis as to what it means to be a traditional French wife in high society, having shot from rags to riches, and yet how to reconcile this new life and all the demands her new family make upon her to become the “perfect Parisian wife”,  with a crumbling family in the UK - and all the consequences on her life this demands.  It is currently called “French for All That” though the publisher IMPRESS may change this!
I hope it will be ready for publication for Christmas. 

Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you. I am looking forward to reading more in book two.

A Stranger in Paris is published by Impress and links to Amazon can be found below. It is beautifully written and with some quite heart-stopping moments as we follow the young Karen around Paris, alone. You can read my review of A Stranger in Paris here on the blog tomorrow. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book review of One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

French Village Diaries book review One More Croissant for the Road Felicity Cloake
One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

Felicity is a food writer hooked on cycle touring, so decides to bring together her two passions and plot herself a 21 stage Tour of France (just like the great Tour de France cycle race), but bases her stages on the home towns of some of her favourite French foods. This ticked all the boxes for me; memoir, cycling, cycle touring, France, food and croissants, I honestly can’t think of anything else I need in a book and I couldn’t wait to get reading.

French Village Diaries book review One More Croissant for the Road Felicity Cloake
Inside cover One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake, illustrations ©Sara Mulvanny

Sometimes camping and travelling alone, sometimes accompanied by friends or family and with the luxury of a real bed to sleep in, this book is a review of meals and the cycle rides or train journeys that join them together. We follow her route from the oysters, moules, omelettes and crepes of Normandy and Brittany, south to the beef of Limoges and hot chocolate of Bayonne before she heads east to indulge in Cassoulet and Provençal fish soup, among other delights. From feasts in Lyon as she heads north to the home of mountain cheeses and choucroute in Alsace, her journey comes to a close as she cycles through Champagne country and makes her way to Paris for a well-researched croissant fest. There is no doubt this book will make you hungry as you read it and even I was surprised at how much I didn't know about the food of France.

A boulangerie croissant has been my weekly treat on a Sunday morning for many years and I too enjoy indulging daily while on a bike tour, but once again Felicity takes it further, scoring her croissants out of ten – why have I never considered this? I also really enjoyed the Pause Café sections, quick bites of useful France-related information conveniently slotted within the chapters and for those of us who enjoy cooking, Felicity includes her recipes for us to try too.

There is rain (lots of rain), steep climbs and erratic opening hours that would challenge even the most ardent Francophile and while her mood is constantly changing and she sheds the odd tear in frustration and disappointment, she robustly takes it all in her stride and never loses her love for France or a good meal. There was more than one occasion that I took my hat off to her with the variety (and quantity) of food she managed to put away, especially the offal-based delights French-born people naturally love, but don’t often get a warm reception from the overseas palate. Even her friends seemed to be able to order and enjoy the obscure.

Every now and then I come across a book that describes one of my dream ideas and this is one of those books. If I’m honest, I was initially a little upset that Felicity has beaten me to it, although I have to admit she probably made a better job of it than I would have done.

One More Croissant for the Road, published by Mudlark, an imprint of HarperColins Publishers is currently available in hardback and ebook versions, links to Amazon can be found below.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Bruncliffe weather, The Dales Detective Series

French Village Diaries The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman
The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman

The rain is pouring down once more today, yesterday we had text message alerts to warn of thunder storms (which thankfully didn’t happen) and last week we were battered by the 100km/h hurricane winds of tempête Miguel, yet it is almost the middle of June.

French Village Diaries The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman
The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman

I’ve snatched the odd moment in the garden, pulling up damp soggy weeds and wading through wet grass that sticks to my legs as I check out the cherries, trying their best to ripen in what little sun we’ve had. Always keeping one eye on the steel grey skies threatening rain any moment. Mostly, I’ve been reading. Anything to distract from the weather outside, but in the early hours of last Friday, with the wind rattling the roof tiles and keeping me awake, I’m not sure my choice of book was the best distraction.

French Village Diaries The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman
The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman

I was in Bruncliffe, in the Yorkshire Dales, home to Julia Chapman’s The Dales Detective series where feisty, independent Delilah can’t help but get involved with town bad boy Samson and his new detective business. It was winter in Bruncliffe, the weather was unpredictable; cold, wet and windy, seemingly just like June here in France, although we were at least spared the snow. I had no trouble imagining myself pounding the fells with Delilah and her dog Tolpuddle on their morning run in the rain.

I first came across Julia’s writing when she took us to the heart of the Ariège in the Pyrenees with her Fogas Chronicles. Five novels that told of the goings on of a mountain community, with local politics, romance, cycling and bears all served up with lots of humour and quirky rural French life. I loved them and was quite sad when life took Julia back to the north of the UK and her France series came to an end.

French Village Diaries The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman
The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman

Aside from the weather, I’ve enjoyed my visit to the town of Bruncliffe almost as much as my time in Fogas. It is also a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, but some have secrets they don’t want shared, and with murders covered up as suicides in book one, unfortunate accidents that aren’t all they seem in book two and a mysterious death from twenty years ago to unravel in book three, there is no shortage of mysterious goings on for Samson to uncover. I’ve combed through the evidence, pointed my finger at the suspects and loved the sparks that fly between Samson and Delilah, as I’ve tried to come up with the answers and discover who did it and why. Despite the grizzly goings on these are cosy mysteries with lots of humour and the characters now feel like friends.

French Village Diaries The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman
Les Detectives du Yorkshire

If you haven’t yet discovered the Dales Detective series, now is your chance as books one and two are currently only 99p each on Kindle UK and book four is available to pre-order on Amazon. Julia will also be doing a Yorkshire bookshop tour to celebrate the publication of Date with Poison later this summer and for those of you who want to practice reading in French, the series has been translated and published here in France and is a ’so British’ best seller. 
French Village Diaries The Dales Detective Series Julia Chapman
Yorkshire bookshop tour Julia Chapman Date With Poison

I really hope our weather begins to pick up soon, much as I’ve loved being in the Dales, I don’t need Bruncliffe weather here in France this summer, I need sunshine!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

6th June 2019, D-Day 75

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
Just one of the 18 Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Normandy

6th June 2019, D-Day 75 years on

Today marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, or Operation Overlord, a massive 7000 vessel seaborne invasion by the Allied Forces on the beaches of Normandy that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe and the end of the Second World War.

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
Pegasus Bridge, Normandy, D-Day remembered 75 years on
Over 150,000 British, American and Canadian troops landed on an 80km stretch of coastline at Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach with bicycles, bulldozers, tanks, jeeps and trucks, as well as over 11,000 aircraft to support them. By 11th June over 300,000 troops and 54,000 vehicles had landed in France. This still remains the largest military invasion and even today these are huge numbers to comprehend as are the number of lives lost. 

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
Landing craft bulldozer as used by my Dad's cousin Cyril, aged 19
In our current troubled political times, with radical nationalism on the rise, never has the message of world peace and unity, remembered with the commemoration of D-Day, seemed so important. In the memory of those who died for our freedom, we must never again let a war on this scale become a possibility.

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
Memorial in Arromanches, Normandy
With Ed, aged 18, now a similar age to many of the troops who landed on D-Day, watching the footage on the television this morning it feels more poignant than ever before. My Dad’s cousin Cyril was only 19 when he was one of the first to land on Gold Beach on D-Day. He was driving a bulldozer that was used to search for mines and then to help push the landing craft back into the sea, living on the beach for around eight weeks. I cannot imagine the horrific sights he must have seen in that time and certainly don’t want Ed to experience anything like that, ever. Miraculously Cyril survived and spent the rest of the War in France, Belgium and Holland and returned to Normandy many times over the years, with his family, for the commemorations.

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
German bunker, Normandy D-Day remembered 75 years on

My Granddad Albert, although not part of the D-Day landings, was also in France for about three years during the Second World War, where he served in the Royal Artillery. He would have been 36 years old at the time of the landings and had a wife and young family at home. Details about his time in the War are sketchy, but he was certainly part of the liberation and repatriation teams working in France, Belgium and Germany and we have a very fragile flag that was given to him by a grateful French villager as they passed through – or so the family story goes. 

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
Inside German bunker, Normandy
We will remember them

French Village Diaries D-Day 75th anniversary 6th June 2019
Ruins of German bunker, Normandy

This post has been linked to Lou Messugo's #AllAboutFrance

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