Wednesday, April 14, 2021

For Ben; One Year on, The road to Bangkok (and back)

French Village Diaries For Ben; One Year on The Road to Bangkok
#ForBen The Road to Bangkok

Today is the day we should have been heading south east to the Correze for a few days away to celebrate our wedding anniversary this weekend. Thanks to current restrictions, the furthest we got was twenty kilometres to the nearest Lidl for the weekly shop. The fields of bright yellow colza, the blossom in the apple orchards and the wisteria dripping from stone cottages, certainly brightened up the drive, but left me wondering what sights and colours we’d have seen on our way to the Correze.


Instead of the routes Adrian had planned for us while away, our cycling will have to stay closer to home, but for the next fortnight it’s the kilometres that will count, not where we go.


Last April we lost our nephew Ben, and in his memory, we took part in a virtual challenge with teams logging their kilometres as they covered the distance from Loughborough in the UK to Istanbul in Turkey, and back again. This event reached thousands of people and raised over £30,000 for mental health charities working towards suicide prevention in young people.


French Village Diaries For Ben; One Year on The Road to Bangkok
#ForBen The Road to Bangkok

This year, Ben’s squadron friends and family set their virtual sights on Bangkok and walkers and runners have been logging the kilometres since Ben’s birthday on 2nd April. They are now halfway there and have opened up the challenge to cyclists too, in the hope we can get them there and back again before 27th April, the first anniversary of Ben’s death.


There are no teams this year, just a link to log your activity, on foot or two wheels. If you’d like to join us, here is the link to use.


To check on the progress of the challenge, click here.


To read more about the challenge and follow the regular updates, see the For Ben Facebook page here.


Finally, here is the link to the Virgin Money page, which has already got a total of almost £5,000 which will be split between Papyrus, Shout and CALM.

French Village Diaries For Ben; One Year on The Road to Bangkok
#ForBen The Road to Bangkok


We are living in extraordinary times that have put a lot of pressure and stress on us all. Mental health issues, now more than ever, need to be talked about and addressed, not ignored or stigmatised.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Covid-19 confinement, part three, week one

French Village Diaries covid-19 confinement part three, week one
Moody skies during lockdown

One week into confinement, part three.

We’ve survived the first week of the current four-week confinement period, although I’m finding things are feeling rather different this time. Last year, there was something reassuring, and almost refreshing about the enforced pause to our hectic lives, and the knowledge that the three of us were together and safe. My daily lockdown diary gave me focus and we caught up with lots of chores we never seemed to have time for in life before Covid-19. One of the things that has been bothering me this week is that the words for a daily diary just weren’t there. I know the idea of the diary is to document how I’m feeling, living through these mesures de freinage nationales, as the French government are referring to this period of confinement, but with no mojo, it wouldn’t have made inspiring reading. There is something quite fatiguing about living through 101 days in confinement followed by 110 under curfew and now another 7 locked to within ten kilometres from home and subject to a 19h curfew every evening.


Ed has chosen to stay in Poitiers for some of this confinement, not quite ready to relinquish the independence he has only recently regained. While I don’t begrudge him this glimmer of normality, letting him go back to Poitiers last weekend was a worry, but he still managed to put a smile on my face. I’d texted him to ask if he’d seen any Gendarmes on his eighty-kilometre journey to the neighbouring department. His reply, “None, do you imagine a war zone or the occupation when there’s a lockdown?”. Well, yes, Ed, I absolutely do, and knowing I’m over-thinking things is beginning to do my head in.


French Village Diaries covid-19 confinement part three, week one
In the bluebell woods

This lockdown isn’t even as severe or restrictive as the previous ones, more shops and services are now deemed essential and we have no time limit on our exercise. We are limited to a ten-kilometre radius for exercise and if I’m nit-picking, which I am, ours is a reduced-size, squashed circle as it crosses into the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments, and crossing a border is a no-no for exercise under the current rules. Luckily Adrian can be quite creative with his route planning and it certainly put big smiles on our faces when we found our first flowering bluebell wood, within our 10km, on our Friday evening bike ride.


I’m still very much enjoying having Adrian home all the time, but let’s just say you have no idea how ridiculously excited I was, in fact it could even have been the highlight of this first week of confinement, when I cleared the crap that constantly accumulates on the kitchen table and created enough space for my breakfast preparation area. No longer will Adrian and I be tripping over each other as he puts the coffee pot on while I prepare the breakfast. My jars of oats, berries, nuts, dried fruits and honey, are safely in their own zone far away from his sugar bowl and coffee tray. It’s the little things that make all the difference.


Top 20 France expat blogs 2021

Another boost to my mood this week was the email from MoneyTransfers letting me know that French Village Diaries had been included in their Top 20 Expat blogs in France, up there with names like France Media Group’s FrenchEntree, as well as many other successful blogs I’ve been following for years (see here for the full list). Adrian would like his QA/proofreading skills to get the mention they deserve at this point too. Thanks darling, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Onwards and upwards, together we can do this.

Friday, April 9, 2021

France et Moi with author Jane Smyth

Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to memoir author Jane Smyth about what France means to her. You can read my review of her book French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motors here.


French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Jane Smyth French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor
Jane Smyth and her two Fox Terriers

Jane was born and brought up in south Birmingham and although she is now living in Worcestershire, she can still return to her Brummie roots by taking a short train ride to the city. She spent the last 28 years of her working career teaching at a college in the West Mids and was a Senior Teacher and lecturer in IT before retirement. She has a keen interest in photography, for which she has a qualification and has a lifelong love affair with sport and fitness, playing netball in the Birmingham and Worcestershire netball leagues and then taking on and qualifying as a fitness instructor. She has abandoned teaching fitness, and much prefers to be a class member these days. She loves skiing and plays golf badly.  She is married to Rob, has two grown children, 3 beautiful granddaughters and two fox terriers.


Jane, 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’?


Jane: France is such a diverse country in terms of its scenery and countryside. Having travelled to virtually every region over the years, we have been smitten at just how beautiful it is. I think the only thing missing in terms of landscape is a desert and an active volcano! There aren’t too many places in the world either, where you can be skiing in the mountains one minute and be lazing on a beach two hours later.  


As for the French, they are a unique bunch, one minute fiercely partisan and the next seemingly hankering after another revolution. I’d hate to see what would happen if there were proposals to reduce the two-hour lunchbreak to one! They also have a stockpile of non-verbal expressions to call upon that you’ll never see anywhere else, my favourite being that dismissive shrug of the shoulders. Just love it!    


Where did your love of France and living the French dream begin?


Jane: Camping holidays with our young children embedded our love of the country, which became more entrenched each time we visited. Apart from the quality and locations of the campsites, plus the amazing cuisine, those early holidays allowed us to explore so many interesting and fascinating places, some well-known and others not. With quiet roads, driving became a pleasure rather than a stressful, teeth-grinding battle through traffic, unless you ventured into a city or struggled along the Cote d’Azur in August! We also found the French to be accommodating and friendly and made firm friends, some of which we’re still in contact with today. Wherever we travelled in the world and however much we loved the places we visited, it was France that called us back and we always found time within our busy lives to visit at least once a year.  What eventually led to my French house owning fantasies, was reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence but you’ll have to read my book French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor to see where it all went from there.


French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Jane Smyth French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor
French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor by Jane Smyth

With plenty of space and lovely scenery France is a great place to explore. If you could be anywhere in France, right now, where would you be and what would you be doing?


Jane: Because of Covid and lockdowns we haven’t been able to get to our French house, Les Hirondelles, for several months, so that’s where I’d be. Higher up the valley the ski resort might still be knee deep in snow. With the resort closed because of the pandemic, a walk through the snowy scenery would be on the cards. If the snow has disappeared from around our house lower down, I’d be tidying up the outside area, revealing the wild spring flowers, breathing in that pure mountain air and taking the opportunity to sit and admire the view down the valley.


Do you speak French? If so at what level would you say you were?


Jane: I can get by in most situations, but never claim I can speak French.  Once you admit that, you’re presumed to be fluent and will face an onslaught of rapid-fire French which I have no chance of understanding.  Setting a level is a tough one. I’m not a beginner, but I wouldn’t say I was at an advanced level either. I’m probably intermediate with the odd hole when it comes to exam level grammar. Our neighbours say we speak well but I think they’re being kind and very, very forgiving!


Every region in France has its own culinary specialty, when you are back in the Haute Provence, is there a special dish you always look forward to eating? 


Jane: Hard one this. During the skiing season, death by cheese is the speciality, with Raclette, Tartiflette and Fondue on offer to ensure you don’t eat again for a week. I have yet to finish half of any gooey, delicious serving. I love a salad Niçoise in the summer (although this is strictly a dish from the coast), or I might swap it for a salad Colmarsien which usually contains the local Tomme mountain cheese and goat’s cheese, plus ham. A favourite restaurant serves trout direct from the lake it sits beside. Whatever I choose, it HAS to be accompanied by an ice cold glass (or two) of the local Provençal rosé wine. Utterly delicious.


What is your favourite thing to buy in a Boulangerie/Patisserie? 


Jane: Impossible to name one thing as we have a bakery in the village, so the bread is ferried across the road, still warm from the ovens, not just baguettes, but a whole variety of different types, including speciality loaves. We may also be persuaded to buy a tarte aux pommes or tarte aux framboises. I avoid what I call ‘mountain cake’, as it’s so dense and heavy, that dropping a slice on your foot is likely to break a toe AND it’s as filling as all those cheese dishes. Another favourite is a Pain Bagnet which I can only get from a Patisserie in a village quite a distance away.  This is basically a Salad Niçoise in a soft bun, the size of a small dinner plate. It’s all you’ll ever need for lunch on the hoof. We usually buy one each when we pass by on our long journey back to the UK.


France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? Maybe, a hard and mature Tomme, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or even the salty and serious Roquefort?


Jane: I’d have to be a mix. Our local Tomme, particularly as it’s mature like me, but it does come in large rounds and I’m not large or round. A creamy, soft crottin of goat’s cheese, soft because my granddaughters can wheedle almost anything out of me. Finally, a tasty, (wishful thinking), hard (don’t cross me) and slightly sweet Compté.


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


Jane: A Kir with Crémé de Cassis or Framboise, best start to any meal.  A coupe de Champagne or a glass of Provençal rosé.


France has some beautiful cities with stunning architecture, which is your favourite French city to spend time in and why?


Jane: I like to visit Paris once in a while. The architecture is fabulous, and it’s stuffed full of the most interesting places. A wander around the Pére Lachaise cemetery to say ‘bonjour’ to the likes of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and a host of other renowned individuals passes a pleasant few hours and as I like impressionist art, the Musée D’Orsay is a must. Paris aside, our friends recently showed us around Lyon, which we’d never visited before and were completely taken with. As a culinary haven, it contains superb restaurants to suit all pockets, many in the old centre, a rabbit warren of old streets and buildings. The revamped ‘Confluence’ area, where the Rhone and Soane meet, has been completely transformed from an industrial wasteland to a smart, lively area, with riverside cafes and bars and a stunning modern shopping centre. We’ll definitely visit again. 

French Village Diaries France et Moi interview Jane Smyth French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor
French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor by Jane Smyth


Your first memoir French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor, takes us along as you find the holiday home in France you have always dreamed of owning, do you have any plans to write another book, either memoir or fiction? 


Jane: I have a few ideas bubbling around in my head, memoire and fiction, but I need to focus on which and plan out what I want to write. In either case it means doing research. My two ideas for fictional books, both set in France, will be built around real events and places. The research is the easiest bit, some of which I’ve already started, but I need to think about characters and plot. As for the memoirs, I need to grab hold of relevant individuals to glean more anecdotal evidence that I wasn’t privy to.   


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


French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor is a great fun read and a perfect escape to France. Links to Amazon, where it is available in ebook and paperback format, can be found below. Read my full review here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Book review of French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor by Jane Smyth

French Village Diaries book review French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor by Jane Smyth
French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor by Jane Smyth

My review today is for French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor, a memoir about searching for a holiday home in France, by Jane Smyth.


In this very readable account, we follow along as Jane and Rob take those first steps towards turning their internet dreaming into a house-hunting mission in France. Their area of choice is the Haute Provence, nestled between the Alps and coast, close enough to ski in the winter months and wander through lavender fields in the summer. It’s where the French who live in the busy tourist areas of the Mediterranean coast retreat to for the summer, to escape the heat and crowds. It may not be an area of France I know well, but Jane’s descriptions painted such a beautiful picture that I’m already checking the maps and wondering about a possible cycling holiday there.


As well as their search, Jane generously shares the funny incidents that have happened to them over many years of holidaying in France. From their first meeting of their new neighbours and the comings and goings in the village, to disasters at their holiday home, and doggy tails from days out and about with friends. It was a privilege to share their French dreams and I felt her sense of peace as she enjoyed a quiet moment on her balcony with a view, at the end of the day.


This book is a great fun read, Jane comes across as the sort of person I could happily sit and chat with over an apéro, and I just know that the conversation would be full of laughs. As one chapter leads to another funny story, it was easy to get sucked into Jane and Rob’s adventures and forget about the worries of the world.


French Dreams, Dogs and a Dodgy Motor is available in ebook and paperback formats and links to Amazon can be found below. 


Jane will be joining me back on the blog this Friday for my France et Moi feature where we’ll learn more about her love of France. 


You can find Jane on Facebook where she shares book news and photos of their French holiday home, here.  

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Easter and new Covid-19 restrictions in France

French Village Diaries Easter and new covid-19 restrictions in France st amant de Boixe charente
St Amant de Boixe Abbey

Happy Easter

It’s Easter weekend and the village church bells have fallen silent, as French tradition tells us they’ve sprouted wings and flown to Rome for a Papal blessing. They will return joyous and jubilant to ring in Easter morning, bringing with them chocolate winged bells and Easter eggs.


I am not so jubilant as our wings have been clipped once more with the latest Covid-19 restrictions on movements that will come into force this evening. So long as we keep to a ten-kilometre radius from home (and within our dept) we can move freely for any reason, without a time limit, and won’t need an attestation for leaving home, although we must carry proof of address with us. 


Travelling further afield it gets a bit more restrictive and our friend the attestation is back, but more on that later. One year into life with Covid-19 and I’ll admit, I have reached the point where I am craving normality, so even if the restrictions are less severe this time, I’m feeling them. Only a few weeks ago, Adrian and I bravely made a (fully cancellable) booking for a five-night break for our wedding anniversary later this month. It was an apartment, an easy drive from home, offering us a safe, self-catered, socially distanced place to stay, in an area we haven’t visited before. We hoped we could spend our days cycling along the Dordogne gorges, cross into the Cantal for a circuit around the Massif de Sancy and enjoy the backroads and local delicacies from the patisseries of the Correze. Following President Macron’s address on Thursday evening, we have cancelled our reservation, although we are hoping we can re-book for May. 

French Village Diaries Easter and new covid-19 restrictions in France st amant de Boixe charente
The stained-glass window in the abbey


The last few days, the weather has been warmer, so we’ve taken the opportunity to get out and about on our bikes, ensuring we made the most of being able to be more than ten kilometres from home. On Thursday we cycled a fifty-three-kilometre loop around the Charente, stopping, as pilgrims have done for centuries, at the Abbey at St-Amant-de-Boixe, the bikes looking small and insignificant against its huge façade. The door was ajar, and the cool interior offered a welcome change from the heat outside, especially as the magnificent blue glow from the stained-glass window drew me in. 


French Village Diaries Easter and new covid-19 restrictions in France Cornuelles patisserie easter charente
Cornuelles, a local delicacy

We treated ourselves to cornuelles, a local biscuit delicacy only made between Palm Sunday and Easter, that was traditionally sold at the entrance to church with a sprig of box tucked into the hole in the middle. It was an almost perfect afternoon adventure on the bikes, cycling through Cognac vineyards and wide, open fields offering vast vistas. The only thing missing being a bar or café for liquid refreshments, but sadly these have been closed since the end of October.


French Village Diaries Easter and new covid-19 restrictions in France cycling Deux-Sevres lavoir
Flapjack at the lavoir

On Friday we went north from Melle, in the Deux-Sèvres, for a thirty-seven-kilometre ride through narrow lanes surrounded by fields of flowering colza (rape), its zingy yellow a cheery sight after a dark winter. The land here is hillier than our usual routes from home, so an old lavoir (wash house) provided a great refreshment stop for a homemade flapjack and as the boulangerie in Melle was open on our return, we also enjoyed our favourite treat of flan, a little compensation for our cancelled holiday and impending restrictions on movement.


We had plans for today too, but when we awoke to a cold north-easterly wind that was bending the trees outside the bedroom window, we opted for indoor chores, some gardening and getting the washing dried outside instead. It feels a little cruel that the weather is against us on our penultimate day of freedom for the month of April.

EDIT - blog updated Sunday 4th April with new attestation

The Attestation

The attestation can be found online (download here

Here are the valid reasons to leave home:

1 – travel to and from work, for essential work meetings, deliveries, to and from a place of study

2 – health appointments including vaccinations

3 – family emergencies or to assist those who are vulnerable

4 – admin or court summons


5 – moving to a new house

6 – essential shopping, collecting parcels, visiting libraries or religious places within your department (if you live close to a dept border, you may travel to within 30km of a neighbouring dept).

7 – outdoor physical activity, within a ten-kilometre radius of your home (but officially only staying within your dept). Attestation not required but can be used if you don’t have a valid proof of address.

8 – walking your pets during curfew, within a one-kilometre radius of home.

French Village Diaries Easter and new covid-19 restrictions in France
Attestation for movement