Friday, May 27, 2016

France et Moi with author Vanessa Couchman

Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author Vanessa Couchman about what France means to her.

French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Vanessa Couchman
Vanessa Couchman
Vanessa Couchman has lived with her Swedish husband in an 18th-century farmhouse in Southwest France since 1997. She works as a freelance writer and also writes fiction. Her first novel, The House at Zaronza, set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front during World War I, was published in 2014. (Click here to read my review). She is working on two other novels and also writes short stories. When she’s not doing all that, she’s very fond of singing, walking, yoga and restoring a 15th-century chapel with a group of local volunteers.  

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’?

Vanessa: We live in la France profonde and, for me, it’s the slower pace of life and the privilege of living in such lovely surroundings that appeal. The French have a deep attachment to their rural past and it has been a revelation to me to learn about how people lived here in the not very distant past. I love that feeling of connectedness with time immemorial, although one shouldn’t romanticize it. French rural life was often hard.

I also like the fact that there is so much regional variation. Although France is a unified country on the face of it, there is a lot of local individualism that is reflected in the different dialects, dishes and architecture. For me, there is no “one” France. It’s a mosaic of so many different influences.  

2) What is your first memory of a trip to France?

Vanessa: In the 1960s before motorways, my father took the scenic route to the south of France over the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Unfortunately, coming down the other side the car’s brakes failed, although he didn’t let on, so he put the car into reverse. When he stopped at the bottom, the tyres were smoking and, in the absence of water, my mother poured orange squash on them! We limped along to the nearest village where we sat in the café while the local mechanic spent hours making temporary repairs and the other villagers turned up to inspect the odd foreign car – and us. Luckily, the rest of the holiday passed without incident.  

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?

Vanessa: Despite learning it at school, my French was hopeless when we arrived – not assisted by the impenetrable local accent. What saved me was taking lessons in a group for four years. That’s probably the key tip I can give. But I’d also suggest reading as much as you can in French to expand your vocabulary and not being afraid to speak to French people, even if it’s daunting at first. Also, getting involved with local associations and clubs is a great way not only to improve your French but also to integrate further into the local community and make friends.    

4) With plenty of space and lovely scenery, France is a great place to explore. If you were to take a day off from writing where would you go?

Vanessa: Gosh, that’s a difficult one. I have a bucket list as long as my arm! Since we live en pleine campagne, I’d choose a day trip to a city. We live 1 ½ hours’ drive from Toulouse, the pink city, but very rarely go there, despite the fact that it’s steeped in history and full of things to do. I’d wander around the streets and have coffee in the magnificent Place du Capitole before visiting a museum. I’d certainly have lunch in one of the restaurants above the market halls, where you sit on benches and carve chunks off the bread before passing it on.  (FVD: Toulouse is on my bucket list too).

5) Every region in France has its own culinary specialty; do you have a favourite regional dish? Do you attempt to make it yourself?

Vanessa: We live in duck country and I’ve eaten every possible permutation of recipes that include duck! However, a speciality of the Aveyron (the next department to ours) is aligot, a mixture of mashed potatoes, young Tome cheese and plenty of garlic. You beat it with a wooden spoon until it’s elastic and unctuous. It goes very well with grilled sausages or meat and is traditionally eaten at local fêtes because it’s best made in large quantities. In view of that, I’ve never tried to make it and you can buy very good ready-made aligot. A little goes a long way.

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?

Vanessa: I love smelly cheeses; the smellier the better. But I’d hesitate to describe myself as one of those! So I’ll choose a Brillat-Savarin, named after the savant of that name. It’s a creamy but flavoursome cheese, so it combines sophistication with earthiness (I have my tongue firmly in my cheek here...) 

7) 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?

Vanessa: Mmm. Too early for a kir, my favourite apéro. So how about a café noisette, strong coffee with a dash of milk? Or, if I’m feeling slim, a hot chocolate.

8) Do you think the French have a different attitude to food than the British and if so, is it a healthier one?

Vanessa: I think they do, but it’s changing. There is still the attachment to the main meal at lunchtime (something I have never got used to), which is said to be healthier. But few office workers these days indulge in the two-hour lunch break. And obesity is on the increase in France because of snacking and grazing.

In my experience, French people are very proud of their local dishes but are not very adventurous when it comes to trying different types of cuisine (a generalization, I know, but I’ve seen a lot of examples). And, of course, there’s the paradoxe français, which allows people to eat large quantities of cheese and foie gras and quaff red wine with impunity. Local French people buy far more cheese and meat than we do but they live to a ripe old age.  

9) Best French tipple, and yes I know there are many to choose from?

Vanessa: It has to be champagne but I’ll settle for a good Sancerre, a flinty, dry white from the Loire.  

10) How does France inspire your writing?

French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Vanessa Couchman
The House at Zaronza
Vanessa: Where do I begin? I’ve lived here for so long that I feel a fraud writing about the UK, where I now feel a bit like a fish out of water. Most of my short stories are set either in France or on Corsica, the beguiling Mediterranean island that has belonged to France since 1768. I set my first novel on Corsica, which we have visited six times. It’s a place apart, with a fascinating history and culture and I find it incredibly inspiring. But there is also so much history in my own locality that I draw on that a lot, too. Writing historical fiction is my preference and there’s no shortage of subjects in France.

Do you have any current projects you would like to tell my readers about?

Vanessa: I’m working on two novels. One is set on Corsica in the 18th century, and is based on a true story. I’ve written about half of that. The other is a spin-off from The House at Zaronza, following a minor but interesting character into World War II in SW France. And I still intend to write the sequel to The House at Zaronza!

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.

Vanessa: Thank you for asking me, Jacqui. It’s been fun!

You can read more from Vanessa and follow her writing via the following social media links.
France blog, Life on La Lune
Writing site
Amazon author page
Facebook page

I thoroughly enjoyed her novel set in Corsica, so I have included a link to Amazon below. For a limited time The House at Zaronza is reduced to only 99p on Kindle UK.