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!