|Karen Webb, A Stranger in Paris|
Welcome back to my ‘France et Moi’ interview feature where this week I am talking to memoir author Karen Webb about what living in France means to her.
Karen left Aber Uni in 1989 and ran away to Paris chasing a French boyfriend who had fled to the tropics to escape her. Alone in the city she worked in an American software company before retraining as a language teacher, eventually setting up her own language school. With two children, her father, and a car-load of animals in tow, she moved her entire family to Gascony in SW France in 2005, where lack of available work (other than picking garlic or stuffing geese) entailed a change in career from teacher to estate-agent. Karen now lives in Lectoure, is married with two children and runs her own real-estate agency: www.blissimmo.com
|Karen Webb, A Stranger in Paris|
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’?
Karen: For me there is Paris and there is France. From 1989 till 2005 my life was spent in the capital city. If I think back and try to capture specific memories, I can feel immense nostalgia for a life which is utterly different from my rural life in SW France.
Paris to me is the Champs Elysées at Christmas with tree-lined avenues of a thousand twinkling lights. It is the grand façades of shops with minimalistic displays of fashionable items I could never afford.
Paris is squeezing my car into the tiniest of spaces, bumping the vehicle in-front and behind to make sure I fit in. It is driving home late at night, whizzing round the Arc de Triomphe and then down the Avenue de la Grande Armée, the voice of my first French driving instructor bellowing in my ear: “Foot down! Accelerate! If you stop you are DEAD”
Paris is the double séance at the cinema in St Germain des Prés before a bowl of hot onion soup. It is the thousand different and wonderful Art déco cafés in which to eat: the linen table cloths, the platters of oysters and sea-food piled high and carried in by a waiter dressed like a penguin. In spring it is the pink blossom on the trees, and a trip to WH Smiths on the rue de Rivoli to pick up an English paperback, before wandering in Le Jardins des Tuileries, amidst dust and pigeons to sit beside the pond and watch children sailing paper boats as they have done for a hundred years. It is the inimitable smell of rubber and urine in the metro and the screech of doors closing on a huddle of passengers packed in like sardines. And yes there are poo-smattered pavements, in Paris but with the stars in your eyes and your head in the clouds, it is easy to dance around the odd turd in the City of Light.
Gascony is another country. A world so far removed from Paris that I may as well have slipped back in time to another world. It is open fields, and huge (at first) terrifying night skies, where there aren’t as many street lamps to light the way home. It is directions given with confidence, by farmers in blue-zip up overalls with accents I cannot at first understand: “turn left at the oak, by the bins, down the track past the pond, until you get to the gates in the Back of Beyond. “
It is sunflower fields and garlic, melons and grapes, peregrine falcons puffed up on frosty mornings on the telegraph wires or hovering for prey over dark earthen ditches. It is mouse-poo in the cupboards and the smell of wood-burning fires in old and damp stone kitchens. Gascony is flaky pastry apple-pies, dank truffles and fruity red wines. It is summer sunshine in narrow streets filled with tourists in socks and sandals; it is the relief at the end of August when the last white camper-van pulls away, and the trees turn golden brown, as once again it is possible to drive the fifteen miles between town and home passing only a tractor.
Paris and Gascony are a million miles apart but both to me are unmistakably “French”.
2) You arrived in Paris aged 21, having followed your heart, and with very little French. Can you tell us what the best thing about being immersed in French life was, and the scariest thing?
Karen: I have always loved words. For me the best thing was always learning a different language. When I first arrived, I would absorb every poster and each billboard I passed, reading the words and saying them in my head. I remembered my best friend at Uni (Scarlett in the book) calling her French boyfriend from a red phone-box in Aberystwyth and watching as she fed the coins into the slot, as she turned into a French person throughout the course of the conversation. I watched how her mannerisms changed speaking another language and her personality too. I thought it was a fascinating thing to become a French version of one’s self.
For many years the worst thing was that gap between hearing and complete understanding. This was particularly difficult when trying to stand my ground at work, or with my French mother-in-law! I discuss these problems a lot in book 2, and it is fair to say that often in the early years I was reduced to a snivelling wreck and would cry from the sheer frustration of not being able to answer back and defend myself. This is hard enough in your mother-tongue but a nightmare in a second language when you have the vocabulary of a five year old!
3) Do you have any top tips for wannabe au pairs looking to start their French adventures?
Karen: My advice to wanabe au-pairs is seriously - don’t! Unless you have a serious desire to work with children, or in teaching and you enjoy spending time with them.
I would encourage anyone wanting to do this to have baby-sitting experience and basic household skills! It is fair to say when I was an au-pair I had about as much knowledge of looking after a house and children as the five year old girl assigned to my care. Looking back now it seemed an ideal solution to experience Paris - but today I am sure there are easier ways!
Later, as a mum myself, I also had au-pairs come to work for us - and in all honesty our experiences even as a host family were just as bad!
4) Having lived in France and spoken French for many years do you have any top tips for my readers on how to learn French?
Karen: The only real way to learn French is to go to France and remove yourself as much as possible from anyone who speaks English. It is amazing how quickly anyone can learn when totally immersed in the language.
When I first arrived in Paris I listened to a lot of French music. My favourite is Charles Aznavour whose music always tells a story. I enjoyed learning the lyrics in French and patting myself on the back when I recognised the words or could even sing them myself.
My favourite is “Je n’ai rien oublié” which is a song full of ambiance and poignancy. It tells the story of a man who meets the one true love of his life in a café at closing time, a life-time after they parted. The couple sit together and Monsieur explains how it was her father who drove them apart, how he has never found love or married, but hopes she is well, married and happy. He says so poignantly and kindly, despite the grey hair and wrinkles which we imagine, that she has not changed, only her hair, perhaps a little....
There is a whole movie in this song and it never fails to move me with its understated pain and heartbreak.
French songs are always rich in detail, and the nature of French language allows for easy rhyming schemes. By learning songs, it is easy to pick up the intonation and flow of language.
Another French singer to look out for: Serge Lama. “Je suis Malade” is a very powerful song.
I love musical theatre so learning French through “Les Miserables” and “Notre Dame de Paris” was fun!
“Belle” is a particular favourite from “Notre Dame de Paris” - suggestive in parts! Once you get the nuances you are on the road to being properly French!
5) Do you have any embarrassing language mishaps you are happy to share?
Karen: My language mishaps .....
A funny one always came up when talking about weddings. I always heard it said that the bride’s father would drive her to the hotel. I registered this fact many times over the years.
I imagined some French tradition in which father and daughter sat alone in a hotel and the father gave advice or ran through the facts of life before taking her to the church.
It turned out they were saying the father led his daughter to the “autel” which is the altar but is pronounced almost the same as the French pronunciation of “hotel”.
Another funny one was when I heard of veal calves at the butcher’s shop which were particularly tender as raised “under sea level” or “sous la mer” - I imagined a variety of veal that were bred in coastal regions and somehow imagined they wallowed in salty water by the beach which made their meat nice and juicy. It turned out the veal were raised or fed by their mother “sous la mère” and far from the sea after all.
One final funny misunderstanding came whenever I drove out of a village and saw the name of the village crossed out with a red line. For years I imagined the French regularly changing the names of their villages and crossing out the old ones. I didn’t understand until I came to drive myself that the names of the villages were not changing but that it was to indicate one had driven out of the said village.
6) With your experience of working alongside French people, I have to ask what do you think makes them different to us and gives them that je ne sais quoi?
Karen: Working in France and in French comes easier to me now than working anywhere else. I have worked in France for my entire adult life.
One thing I have noticed is that there is a natural tendency to initially see all the objections and problems to an idea or to proclaim that something is impossible to fix when it isn’t (usually with much shoulder-shrugging and gesticulation).
However, I have learnt to ignore the initial wave of objections and in the end - it always comes good. There will be a solution and most often it is found. The secret is not to become initially disheartened. This is always the case whenever I make a suggestion to my French husband. I listen to the wave of objections and then finally he will tell me what a good idea something is.
The other thing in business is that French people love a meeting. So much so there are meetings about meetings about meetings. This is a tradition - as are the long lunches with wine and three course meals. Don’t expect a sandwich at your desk.
7) France has many different cheeses, 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?
Karen: An interesting question, but as a Gemini with two contradictory twins to handle on a daily basis, I feel I must choose one soft and one hard cheese for each twin.
So, I plump for the deliciously soft and creamy “Forme d’Ambert” which is not so bitter on the tongue as a Rouquefort and which mushes deliciously on baguette and salty butter. And with this I choose the cheese every “cheese-monger” in France dreads being asked to cut: the hard and dried up orange Mimolette. The one which breaks the counter each time a slice is cut.
8) Every region in France has its own culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish?
Karen: A regional dish I love - found more often in a Parisian bistro than in SW France is the “Os à la moelle” which is a huge bone, like a dog bone, with soft marrow to suck out. Often served with boiled potatoes and stew. Great with a bottle of fine red wine.
In recent years I have become almost entirely vegetarian - but I do have happy memories of this dish, albeit during the Mad Cow crisis, it was banned from most restaurants in France and is now making a slow come-back.
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? Do you miss living in Paris?
Karen: A hard question because I love so many. Paris has been my favourite city for years and yes, I do miss living there. I often think when I retire I would like to go back and fulfil my twenty-year old self’s dream of living in a flat up in Montmartre.
10) If you could travel to anywhere in France for a weekend away (money no object) where would you go?
Karen: If money were no expense I would choose to go to Arcachon for a massage at one of the nice thermal centres there, and I would eat sea-food and drink champagne at a lovely market-side place on the port which serves fish straight from the nets. I love salty butter and oysters! Pink Champagne of course.
Karen: The second book sees the narrator (I won’t say “me” as although it is a memoir it is easier to put a distance between me and the character) do a lot of growing-up in a short time. There are lighter episodes in the first section of the book, which take place in a cowboy language school, where the main character works as an English language teacher and soon realises that a variety of students who come for lessons are motivated by many things other than learning English. Marriage to a wealthy bourgeois man brings with it a litany of problems not least a terrifying French mother-in-law, who just happens to be a Magistrate, along with some scenes which were difficult to re-live when a family tragedy back home in England forces the narrator to address many of the problems she initially ran away from and which result in her old English life crashing into her new French one and changing things forever.
A lot of the book is an analysis as to what it means to be a traditional French wife in high society, having shot from rags to riches, and yet how to reconcile this new life and all the demands her new family make upon her to become the “perfect Parisian wife”, with a crumbling family in the UK - and all the consequences on her life this demands. It is currently called “French for All That” though the publisher IMPRESS may change this!
I hope it will be ready for publication for Christmas.
Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you. I am looking forward to reading more in book two.
A Stranger in Paris is published by Impress and links to Amazon can be found below. It is beautifully written and with some quite heart-stopping moments as we follow the young Karen around Paris, alone. You can read my review of A Stranger in Paris here on the blog tomorrow.