Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to memoir author Gayle Smith Padgett about what France means to her. You can read my review of Passion for Provence, 22 Keys to La Belle Vie here.
Gayle Smith Padgett, a UCLA graduate, has two master’s degrees, neither in French. After studying in Mexico and South America, she worked as a language specialist in California and Virginia and later as a management analyst and US government liaison in Heidelberg, Germany. In 2011, she and her husband moved to Provence, where they continue to crack French codes.
To find out more, visit her website here.
Firstly, I think France is a special place and 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’?
Gayle: The top prize in the What-Makes-France-So-Very-Unique category has to go to the high priority given to quality time with friends and family— while still being incredibly productive. But a close second goes to the reverence for food—from the place it comes from to how it’s presented.
2) When you first arrived in France what was the best thing about being immersed in French life and the scariest thing?
Gayle: The relatively relaxed pace—compared to the United States—is such an alluring part of life here, which leads to the also very enticing occasional extended lunch. The scariest thing was that my husband had to have an operation to replace a cervical disc. It was a tense time, but the surgeon in Marseilles was fabulous and it all worked out extremely well.
3) Having lived in Provence and spoken French for many years do you have any top tips for my readers on how to learn French?
Gayle: Everyone is different, but for me, it’s a combination of study and practice. For the study part, I’ve had luck with the series of materials used to prepare students for the official diplomas recognized by the French Ministry of Education. Using these materials, I passed the first level called the DILF: Diplôme Initial de Langue Française, and now I’m chugging along through the next level called the DELF: Diplôme d’Études en Langue Française. For the practice part, joining groups and clubs is a fun, no-pressure way to chat with native French speakers in real-life scenarios.
4) With plenty of space and lovely scenery Provence is a great place to explore. If you were to take a day off where would you head to?
Gayle: Outdoor markets are a big draw for me, so I’d head to the charming village of Lourmarin for the Friday market—sunny skies permitting. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue also has a terrific market— on Sunday—but I’d avoid high season. In July and August, it’s so crowded, you’ll never get out of waddle mode after ten o’clock. (The same advice goes for visiting Saint-Remy’s exceptional Wednesday market.) My husband Ralph, who is an avid birdwatcher, would head to the Camargue, that spectacular birding area south of Arles where the Rhône feeds into the Mediterranean Sea.
5) Every region in France has its own culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish?
Gayle: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where we live, is a distinctly agricultural area, and the local produce is outstanding. You can’t beat a house-prepared ratatouille, made from farm-fresh veggies and local olive oil. It’s a whole new world compared to the store-bought version. Oh, and when in Marseilles, it’d have to be bouillabaisse.
6) France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tomme, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?
Gayle: Since I’m immature for my age, I guess that’d make me a fresh goat cheese. Incidentally, chevre is one of my absolute favourite cheeses, especially delightful in a salade au chevre chaud.
7) What is your favourite thing to buy in a Boulangerie/Patisserie?
Gayle: So many delectable choices. On special “carb” days, a buttery croissant is stellar, but otherwise a crusty, rustic baguette is my standard choice. But, then I can’t help lathering on butter studded with salt crystals. I guess, it’s all in moderation!
8) Can you describe your perfect French apéro for us, including the drink, the nibbles, the location and the company?
Gayle: The location would be our terrace in nice weather, and for company, our local buddies, a mix of French neighbors and expats. We’d begin with some bubbly and then move on to crisp, pale rosé. Along with olives, (particularly les olives cassées from Mausanne or Mouriés), cherry tomatoes, nuts, cornichons (love the brand, Maison Marc), we’d have a charcuterie and cheese platter served with baguette slices. I’d also add my latest new nibble recipe, made with endive leaves. First, creamy Boursin goes on each leaf, (placed in circles on a platter), followed by walnut pieces and a slice of apple. A sprinkle of chopped fresh basil adds a colorful touch.
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?
Gayle: I adore Aix-en-Provence, where we lived for eighteen months before moving to Saint-Rémy. I’ll be forever enthralled by its beauty and vibrancy. As a university town, it has a very spirited vibe. The plane tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, the charming squares, graceful fountains, stunning architecture, not to mention the fabulous art museums—the new Caumont Art Center is incredible—all combine to capture hearts easily.
10) 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?
Gayle: After my Lotto win, I’d snap up a honey-colored stone mas—traditional farmhouse—with grey-blue shutters and a magnificent view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, near the plateau where Cezanne liked to paint in Aix. From there, it’d be an easy twenty-minute stroll downhill to town, but a tougher climb coming home, which is a distinct drawback to this location. But, since resources are no object, I could simply call my driver!
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.
If you’d like to read more about Gayle you can visit her website here and her fun memoir is available in ebook and paperback format. Links to Amazon can be found below. You can read my review here.