Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where I’m talking to author Susie Kelly about what France means to her.
Susie lives in Poitou-Charentes with a menagerie of assorted animals, and is passionate about animal welfare. Her first book Best Foot Forward - A 500-Mile Walk Through Hidden France told of her solo trek from La Rochelle to Lake Geneva and since then she has entertained with tales of travel in France by campervan Travels With Tinkerbelle - 6,000 Miles Around France In A Mechanical Wreck and by bike The Valley Of Heaven And Hell - Cycling In The Shadow Of Marie Antoinette. She has also written about her life in France Two Steps Backward and her latest book Swallows & Robins - The Guests In My Garden tells the funny side of running holiday gites.
First question, 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’?
Susie: To me it's the enormous diversity that makes France so special. So many regions each with its particular culture, customs, cuisine and landscape, and yet all part of the same country. And the way they drive. That's very curious.
2) What is your fondest memory of time spent in France?
Susie: Having lived here for over seventeen years there have been so many wonderful moments, but I think the one that most touched me was the first time one of our French neighbours came and asked if I would look after their dog while they went on holiday. It made me feel as if I had been accepted into the community.
3) Having lived in France and spoken French for many years do you have any top tips for my readers on how to learn French?
Susie: I don't think there's any substitute for listening to French on the radio, the television, or face to face, and reading. Once you begin to pick out a word here and there, every so often, you start to get an idea of what they are talking about. Then you catch a few more words until you understand progressively more and more. I've learned most by dealing with builders, plumbers, vets and bureaucrats and especially when I was working for a company and spent most of my time on the telephone. That really focuses the mind! Everybody can learn the language to some degree if they want to.
4) Do you have any embarrassing language mishaps you are happy to share?
Susie: None of my own, but I once heard an Englishman in a builder's merchants placing an order and asking if they could "baiser le prix." The shop fell silent and the cashier went rigid with shock.
5) 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?
Susie: A grande crème and a jalousie smothered in pecan nuts, like those they used to make at the boulangerie in Montjean.
6) France has many different cheeses do you have any particular favourite?
Susie: Apart from Epoisses, I don't think there's any French cheese I don't love. But pushed to choose one, it would probably be an Ossau Iraty bought direct from a producer in the Pyrenées.
7) Have you ever owned a 2CV? If so do you have fond memories of your time together – I bet it had a name didn’t it?
Susie: Yes. I had a 30-year-old 2CV called Tinkerbelle. Her bodywork was blue, her roof red. I didn't discover for a year how to find the correct gear until a passenger pointed out that there was a diagram on the dashboard. The floor in front on the driver's side had rusted away, leaving a gaping hole through which you could watch the road passing by. I covered it with a floor tile, which worked very well. The webbing on the front seat gave way one day while I was on a steep hill waiting for the lights to change. As they did, I found myself sitting in a hole, trying to operate clutch, brake and accelerator while holding myself up with the steering wheel. She was a wonderful character, and I so much regret selling her. We named our camping car Tinkerbelle after her.
8) If money and commitments were no object where in France would you like to own a property and what sort of place would it be?
Susie: A cottage on a beach in Brittany; an apartment in Paris; another cottage in the Aspe valley in the Pyrenées, and a holiday home in the Jura.
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?
Susie: I'm not really a city person, but I do love Poitiers. The town center is small and friendly, with a very picturesque medieval quarter of colombage and cobbles. There are beautiful parks, plenty of small specialist shops, a range of truly excellent restaurants catering for every taste and pocket and a superb library. Over the last few years the square and the area around the Hotel de Ville has been entirely redesigned and pedestrianised, and all the lovely old trees chopped down, which caused an outcry at the time. The work has taken several years during which traffic has been utter chaos and caused great frustration and indignation amongst the locals. However, having recently seen the result, I think that it works well and when spring arrives and the new trees come into leaf the square will regain its popularity.
10) How does France inspire your writing?
Susie: It awakened an interest in history. When travelling around the country I found that looking at and visiting old buildings made me want to know what had happened in them and which historic figures had been there. Old buildings per se do not interest me. It is their history and its effect that fascinates me and which I enjoy researching and writing about.
Finally, do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?
Susie: I have three non-fiction and one fiction work in progress. Only one is specifically French, but I'm not ready to talk about it yet. Please ask me again in a year. ☺
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.
Susie: It's been a pleasure, Jacqui. Thank you for asking me.