Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author Jamie Cat Callan about what France means to her.
French Women Don't Sleep Alone, Bonjour, Happiness!: Secrets to Finding Your Joie De Vivre and Ooh La La!: French Women's Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day. You can read my review of her most recent book here.
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’?
Jamie: Ah, La Belle France! In America, we have Uncle Sam, but in France, you have Marianne - a beautiful woman as the national emblem. And I do believe this feminine sensibility permeates the culture, from the voluptuous statues in the Tuileries, to the artfully arranged macarons at Ladurée, and let’s not forget the luscious lingerie at Cadolle. Everything in France conspires to please the feminine eye, and I believe this is what makes France so unique and so “French.”
2) What is your first memory of a trip to France? What is your favourite holiday location in France?
Jamie: I first arrived in France in 1976. I was just out of college and I was on an exchange program. I arrived in February and Paris was cold and grey and my French was terrible. I was miserable. I thought this place is not for me! And then something happened. Yes, I fell in love—not just with a boy, (although I did do that too), but with the city of Paris. Slowly, but surely, the City of Lights got under my skin and seduced me, changing me forever. And yet, she never quite revealed all her secrets to me and so even now, over thirty years later, I must return to Paris again and again.
And while, I will always be faithful to The City of Lights, my favorite holiday location in France is a little village in the southwest called Auvillar. I’ve been there several times on writing and teaching fellowships. (The Virginia Center for the Arts has an artist residency program there and they have generously awarded me several fellowships.) I love the slower pace of the Midi-Pyrénées, the sunshine, the fig trees, the outdoor markets and the people themselves. They are all so warm and open and welcoming!
3) Have you ever spent time studying in France, or on a school exchange in France? If so what was the best thing about being immersed in French life and the scariest thing?
Jamie: I studied French at the Alliance Française in New York City and again while in Paris. That said, I was never great at learning a new language! And I guess this is the scariest thing about being immersed in French life. I always (and often, still do) feel as if I am a child surrounded by grownups who know how to act and speak properly. Like a child, I want a cookie (or a croissant or a glass of wine) and I am forced to use up all my vocabulary in a short time, and I am left feeling so vulnerable. And perhaps this is not just the scariest thing about being immersed in French life, but ironically, it’s also the best thing. I love that feeling of seeing and hearing the world with new eyes and the challenge of searching for the words and the struggle to express myself. It’s delightful. I love feeling so alive to the world. And because my French is not what it should be, when I’m in France, I know I must be completely attentive or I will surely miss something.
4) Do you have any top tips for learning French?
Jamie: I love the classes at the Alliance Française. Currently, I visit with my French tutor, Madame M. every Wednesday and we speak French for two hours. I do believe that if you’re not in France, it’s important to find fellow-francophones in your hometown. Also, it’s helpful to rent French films and watch French tv shows. Oh, and I love Laura K. Lawless and French Lessons on About.com.
5) Do you have any embarrassing language mishaps you are happy to share?
Jamie: Oh dear. Okay. I was once in a restaurant in Auvillar with my friend Denise, who speaks much better French than I do. I wanted to ask the waiter for a bottle of water, so I said, je voudrais un boîte d'eau
And Denise looked at me, a little crosseyed and told me I had just asked the waiter for a box of water. We had a good laugh over that. He must of have thought—those crazy Americans, they drink their water from a box!
Note to self: Bottle of water is bouteille d'eau.
6) Imagine you are sitting outside a French café at 10.00am on a sunny morning watching the world go by, what do you order from the waiter?
Jamie: An espresso. If it’s really warm, I’d order a citron pressé.
7) What is your favourite regional French dish? Do you ever cook French food at home?
Jamie: My French friend, Isabelle gave me an amazing recipe for Salted Cake with Bleu Cheese and Prunes. At home, we make it with bleu de Bress. Yummy! And be sure to use dried prunes, not fresh prunes. Even though Isabelle calls it a “cake”, it’s really a savory bread and goes great with a crispy green salad. Isabelle comes from the countryside near St. Etienne, and this recipe was handed down to her from her grandmother. The full recipe is in my book Bonjour, Happiness!: Secrets to Finding Your Joie De Vivre
8) France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tome, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?
Jamie: Ooh La La! Jacqui, this is a great question! I think I’m some sort of goat cheese from the sunny southwest. I’m a bit soft, sweet-natured, creamy, but I can also be unexpectedly zesty and very lively. I get along with everyone, so I’m a good compliment for any occasion.
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?
Jamie: J’adore Toulouse, also known as the Rose City. The light is so lovely and I so enjoy sitting in a café at Place du Capital and people-watching. I love the ancient parts of the city and walking through the cobble-stoned alleyways—which is actually how I broke my ankle and ended up staying at the hospital there for nine days. I think it was this very unique experience that truly made me fall hopelessly and forever in love with La Belle France.
10) How does France inspire your writing?
Jamie: All three of my books French Women Don't Sleep Alone: , Bonjour, Happiness!: Secrets to Finding Your Joie De Vivre and the soon to be released Ooh La La!: French Women's Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day are about French women and France. I find that every trip to France gives me new information and inspiration. With each new book, I meet more and more French women who are happy to share their thoughts on love, romance, joie de vivre, fashion and style. That said, when I return to America and have time to process what I’ve experienced from the perspective of being far from La Belle France, I see the differences and the similarities with great clarity.
11) When you are writing about France, if possible do you prefer to write in France and if so do you have a favourite location?
Jamie: When I’m in France, I take copious notes during and after my interviews. I take tons of photographs. I collect meaningful objects. I even draw pictures of things. And then, I go home to Cape Cod (where I live with my husband—he’s a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and I sit at my table, looking out at the water, and I slowly piece all these things together and write my books. I should say, that my studio is filled with pictures from France, metro maps and little souvenirs I picked up along the way. Tangible things inspire me and bring me back to my time in France, but truthfully, I need to be home to write. Plus, I think my husband likes me around!
12) Do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?
Jamie: Yes, Ooh La La!: French Women's Secrets to Feeling Beautiful Every Day is about to come out. Please buy a copy and write to me if you like it. Or, find me on Facebook! Merci beaucoup!
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.