Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author and walker Vic Heaney about what France means to him. Vic, who lives in the Pyrenees, celebrated his 70th birthday in 2010 in a slightly unusual way, undertaking a 70 day walk from the South of France to where he was born in the North of England. The walk raised money and awareness for pancreatic cancer research and all proceeds from his book Vic's Big Walk also go direct to pancreatic cancer research.
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’?
Vic: There is a much more relaxed lifestyle. There are obviously cultural reasons for this but also the fact that there are roughly the same number of people as the UK but spread out over a country which is more than three times the size helps – less people per square mile. There are many fewer cars per person, again spread over much more area and better roads. More people in France still seem to live in rural areas and to work in low pressure jobs. So everything seems to be so much calmer.
Add to that all the visible history – in England most of the town centres were demolished in the 60s and replaced with concrete blocks with or without coloured plastic panels.
The strikes here do not affect us much so they play no part in my attitude. But I do loathe the fact that in any town you have to walk round with your eyes glued to the ground because of the dog droppings.
2) What is your first memory of a trip to France? What is your favourite holiday location in France?
Vic: My first visit to France was as we drove across it on the way to visit my daughter in Italy. As we drove down the autoroutes, the overhead temperature signs dropped to below zero. We stayed overnight somewhere in the middle of the country and awoke to find the place covered in deep snow. This was in late May! 1991 I think. The wine growers had lost much of their crop. It was not a good introduction but we had seen enough of this beautiful country to visit many more times and eventually to move here as a resident.
The first place to which we made a deliberate trip was Carcassonne, because I had read a description of it in a book. For the past 16 years I have lived within 55 kms of Carcassonne and I still think it is one of the most stunning sights in the world – especially on 14th July, when the spectacular fireworks display multiplies the population of the town to an epic degree.
3) Having spent some time living in France do you have any embarrassing language mishaps you are happy to share?
Vic: Nothing specific. My wife spoke decent French before we arrived here. I learned French at school but with no particular interest in the subject and 40 years had passed before I spoke to a French person. I have improved a lot and can get by but I am shame-faced to say that I have always sheltered behind my wife in this regard because it was so much easier for us to get things done.
4) 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?
Vic: I am a simple soul. I would order a grand crème and drink it while I munched on a pain aux raisins or croissant amandes which I would have bought separately at a boulangerie. France is the only country I know where this is an acceptable practice.
5) What is your favourite aperitif and ideal location to be drinking it?
Vic: Blanquette de Limoux, our local bubbly and 100 years older than champagne. We are not in the Champagne region so they can not call it champagne, despite its history – it is said that the champagne makers came to Limoux to find out how to make it. But there is a silver lining – because it can not be called champagne it is considerably cheaper.
My favourite place to drink it would be at the buvette by the lake here in Puivert, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, surrounded by spectacular scenery and my closest friends and family.
6) 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?
Vic: I have not yet met a cheese which I did not like so I will not choose – just bring it on.
7) Do you have a favourite French regional dish?
Vic: As a vegetarian, one of the worst things about France is that they do not understand the concept of not eating meat. So there is not a regional main dish which interests me. I don’t eat many sweets but I am very partial to a crème Catalan, something I discovered late in life and a specialty of this region.
8) When you were walking through France did you have any strange encounters or nice surprises?
Vic: Nothing specific but I did meet many lovely people and continued to be impressed by how much beauty there is in this country. And, unlike the rest of my journey which took me through England, there were many days when I could not hear traffic.
9) 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?
Vic: I could think of no better place to be than the area where I live, which I have heard described more than once as “Paradise”. But it would be nice to have a place by the sea as well. It is the one thing I miss, having grown up by the sea and having worked upon it as well, in my first job as a Merchant Navy Radio Officer.
Finally, do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?
Vic: My first two books are out there – Vic's Big Walk and Living In The Real Cyprus . Two more are planned – “Swim The Atlantic?” – a memoir, and “Vic’s Shorts” – a selection of short stories. The proceeds from all books go to pancreatic cancer research. I also seem to have moved into another career presenting my book, mainly reading from it with some humorous links, then selling (no obligation to buy) personally dedicated and signed copies. I am happy to be approached to do these talks.
Another project I have on the stocks is that my wife and I have decided, for family reasons, to move back to UK after 20 years of living overseas. If you had asked us 6 months ago we would have said “no way!” but things change and it is time to move on. I have little hope of selling our house – built by a drum major in Napoleon’s army – in the current French financial climate, so we may end up shuttling between the two places, as many do.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.
Vic: Thank you also, Jacqui. Any time.