Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to writer Helen Aurelius-Haddock about what France means to her. Helen has lived in Poitou-Charentes France since 2004, writes a blog about food and France, regularly contributes to a number of French lifestyle websites and has had articles published in the Daily Telegraph, French Property News and Flavour Magazine.
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. What do you think makes France so very unique and ‘French’?
Helen: I think I'd have to say that the French houses, especially the older ones in the countryside are quite stunning. I've lived here for nearly ten years now and I am still bowled over by the breathtaking places I pass when I am out and about.
The other "French" thing about it is the fascination the French have about food. You can engage them on pretty much any subject, but in the end, it will all come down to food. It's like a religion for them!
Also, they seem to still have a very strong sense of family loyalty here, and they spend a lot of time together - usually eating!!!
2) When you first arrived in France what was the best thing about being immersed in French life and the scariest thing?
Helen: The best thing was realising that we had at long last achieved our dream of many years and had finally found a place to live in France.
Sending our youngest daughter Eve to school here was a real high too. We'd sent our eldest Holly off to university to study French in Bristol just before we left, and were delighted that both of them were going to have a close affinity to the country we had come to love.
The scariest thing was being offered a job about three weeks after arriving!
I was approached to teach English in a number of local primary schools, but I had always taught adults in the UK.
I had visions of them tying my shoelaces together under the desk and putting a live mouse in my school bag. I decided to turn them down, as I wasn't too confident that I would be able to handle a class full of ten year olds.
3) 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?
Helen: That's easy! I always have un grand creme avec du lait froid - I love French coffee but its so strong - I am quite crafty asking for cold milk as the waiters always seem to give you more, which "softens" the coffee for me. If it's early, then I must have a pain au chocolat - I just can't resist them.
4) Every region in France has it’s own culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish?
Helen: I am a real foodie, so France is a bit of gastro paradise for me. One local dish I love is "rillons" - pork belly, slow cooked in the oven with red wine, bay leaves garlic and fresh herbs. I cook it when family comes to stay and it gets devoured very quickly. Delicious!
5) Is there anything French you won’t eat?
Helen: Yes, Andouillette. Shall we move on?
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?
Helen: Gosh, that's a hard one, let me think.....Ah, I'd be a Chabichou. It sounds like "shabby chic" and I guess that sums up me and my lifestyle really! Tastes great too!
7) How would you explain that very unique French concept of ‘terroir’?
Helen: With great difficulty! I like to think of it like this:
Imagine a "vigneron" standing in a narrow lane. To his left is a vineyard, to his right is a vineyard. They both grow the same grapes, but the one to his left is on a higher gradient than the other. It gets a tad more wind and sun. I can guarantee the vigneron will tell you that the wines taste completely different from each place, because the "terroir" is different. I tend to agree with this tenet of wine lore, and after years of wine tastings, I can attest to this fact being true.
8) France gets a lot of good press about it’s health care system, have you any experience of using it and how do you rate it?
Helen: I am a big supporter of the French health care system.
About five years ago, I became ill and underwent a number of tests. I was diagnosed as having genetic hemochromatosis. Although it is a hereditary disease, I was the first one in my family to be diagnosed with it. The genetic test was swiftly carried out, along with a battery of others, leaving no stone unturned. My health care and support system here is excellent, and have often wondered how long my illness might have gone undiagnosed in the UK. It is no coincidence that, according to the World Health Organisation, France comes out as one of the top health care providers in the world.
9) How does France inspire your writing?
Helen: My writing is about France, so to be immersed in the life and culture day in day out is ideal. I live in a very peaceful place, which provides an ideal location to write with the minimum of disruption.
It has so much natural beauty that the landscape often talks to me through my writing. It's quite spontaneous really.
Finally, you are currently writing a novel set in France. Is this your first book and can you tell us a little bit about it and when we will be able to read it?
Helen: I don't want to give too much away, but I will say this: It is a novel about moving to new pastures, and in the case of the main character, they are making the move alone. Trying to start out in a new place as a family or couple is hard enough, so the themes of loneliness, isolation and fitting in will be explored within its pages. The novel will be published in the Autumn of this year.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you and good luck with the novel.