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.
|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 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.
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.