Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. Show all posts

Monday, 25 February 2013

Snow in Paris

Victoria Beckham looked frozen as she watched her husband make his debut for Paris St-Germain last night. I’ve just spent two days in Paris and I’ve rarely felt so cold. The temperature never lifted above -2 degrees, there was a biting wind and flurries of snow fell all weekend. My daughter wore three jumpers and I kept my Brora fingerless gloves and scarf on indoors and out. We had to dive into cafes every half an hour to stop our teeth chattering. Yet when I glanced at the papers this morning Victoria had stepped off the Eurostar in an unfastened coat, with her ankles bare and no gloves. She’s clearly tougher than the rest of us.

But never mind the cold, Paris is one of the prettiest cities on earth. We stayed at the super-stylish Mama Shelter, which boasts chic rooms, friendly staff, reasonable prices and a great brunch. Even though it’s slightly off the beaten track (in the 20th arrondissement) buses whizz past every ten minutes to whisk you into the centre for the princely sum of two euros – which meant we were at Bastille in fifteen minutes and in the Rue de Rivoli in thirty. As we chatted on the number 26 bus a Paris-based sports journalist from the UK tapped us on the shoulder and said he never usually heard English voices “on this route.” He made us feel like real locals.

Instead of sticking to our usual haunts we decided to visit an area we hadn’t been to before –the Batignolles, where Manet had his studio and artists like Degas, Renoir, Monet and Cezanne used to gather (at the Café Guerbois on the Avenue de Clichy). It boasts a pretty park, a village-like atmosphere and lots of quirky shops and art galleries. My daughter bought a pink hyacinth at the lovely flower shop below – I only hope it survives the winter on her student windowsill.

Mama Shelter is a five-minute stroll from the famous Père Lachaise cemetery so on Sunday morning we headed down the rue de Bagnolet and through the ancient archway. It’s the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous in the world. Among the renowned names buried there are Chopin, Moliere, Proust, Colette, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Not surprisingly, with a total of 69,000 tombs at the cemetery, a map is essential.

Actually, a snowy Sunday morning in February was definitely the time to visit this historic graveyard. A distant church bell tolled solemnly and the pale grey sky gave it a gothic, rather eery air – like something out of a Balzac novel in fact. Actually - and rather appropriately - he is buried there too.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Friday Book Review - The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Reviewing a book by an author you’ve met in real life can be tricky. But actually, when the author is as talented as Jojo Moyes it’s not difficult at all.

Over the past year Jojo has become one of our most successful novelists. Me Before You, her tear-jerking story of a hotshot city financier who becomes wheelchair-bound after an accident, was one of the top five paperbacks of 2012 and has sold more than 500,000 copies in the UK so far. Her ninth novel, it’s now a New York Times bestseller and this week MGM acquired the film rights. Me Before You is an amazing book and if you haven’t yet read it, go and download it NOW.

As I wrote in my House With No Name review last year Jojo is one of those writers who surprises her readers with every novel. While lots of novelists play it safe and stick to familiar themes and subjects, she always chooses something different. To date she’s written about everything from brides crossing the world to meet their husbands after the Second World War (The Ship of Brides) to a businessman planning a controversial development in a sleepy Australian town (Silver Bay).

And her latest, The Girl You Left Behind, is different again. It’s the story of two women, unrelated and separated by 100 years, who are united in their determination to fight tooth and nail for what they love most. One is French artist’s wife Sophie Lefèvre, who is forced to make a terrible decision in the hope of being reunited with her beloved husband during the First World War. The other is young widow Liv Halston, who a century later finds that her future is inextricably linked with Sophie’s past.

There’s no doubt that Me Before You is a hard act to follow but Jojo has managed it with style and panache. The Girl You Left Behind isn’t quite as spellbinding as its predecessor but it’s still utterly compelling and the two stories are skillfully entwined and meticulously researched. At first I found Sophie’s story – her courage, pragmatism and determination to keep her family safe against all odds – far more gripping than Liv’s. But as the novel progressed Liv and the ex-NYPD cop she falls for completely won me over. I can’t wait to see what Jojo writes next.

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin, £7.99)

PS. Jojo Moyes is speaking at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival on Sunday April 21.  You can book tickets here.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The best boulangerie

The woman at the front of the queue was in full and belligerent flow. I don’t know who she was talking to on her mobile but she was certainly giving them what-for, effing and blinding away and yelling that she f…... wasn’t going to be treated like that.

The weary-looking shop assistant (at a chemist's in a nearby town) had clearly seen it all before. She didn’t turn a hair, just waited for the woman to finish ranting, raised her eyebrows ever-so slightly and then slapped her change into her hand. The loud-mouthed customer grabbed her shopping and stomped out without saying a word to the assistant. No thank you. No nothing.

I haven’t blogged about France for ages but it suddenly struck me how different shopping on the other side of the Channel is. At my favourite boulangerie the lovely proprietor is so charming that her devoted regulars don’t mind how long they wait to be served. Her freshly-baked baguettes and tartes aux framboises are so delicious that the lunchtime queue snakes out of the shop and down the pavement - but no one bats an eyelid, let alone complains about the wait.

When we get to the counter she always greets us personally, compliments my children on their French and smiles as we fumble for the right number of euros. She packs everything into exquisitely-wrapped paper parcels, tells us a bit about her time working as a hotel receptionist in London and wouldn’t dream of letting us leave without a cheery “au revoir, bonne journée.”

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

When to take the Christmas tree down

It’s my first post of 2013 and time to look forward. Actually I threw caution to the wind this morning and was rash enough to tell my local radio station (live on air!) that my twin ambitions for the year are to complete my new novel and to learn to speak fluent French.

But before I could get started on either, there was the thorny question of when to take down the Christmas tree. And even more pertinently, what the hell to do with it after that. I don’t get as fed up with the Christmas tree as my mum used to. She always put hers up early and by Boxing Day was bored of it. By dawn on December 26 she’d dismantled the whole thing, baubles, stars, fairy and all, and stuffed it outside.

This Christmas, our tree lasted till New Year’s Day, when it looked such a sorry sight that it simply had to go.

Stumped for ideas about where to take it I scanned the council website. The recycling page came up trumps, listing a plethora of collection points across the city. They are open for the first two weeks of January and best of all, the trees get recycled into woodchip to use in Oxford’s parks.

My husband nobly said he’d take the tree to our nearest site on foot and set off in the chilly afternoon air. But for some reason he was gone an awfully long time.

“Was there a problem?” I asked when he finally arrived back.

He grinned. “No,” he said. “But I went twice.”

“Er, why?”

“Because we never got round to taking last year’s Christmas tree. So I walked back and dragged that along too.”

He got some very strange looks as he hauled the tree, completely brown and with a few dead sticks attached, through the streets of Oxford. A man selling copies of The Big Issue did a double take when he saw it. “Is that this year’s tree?” he asked. “You should go and get your money back.” 

PS. My picture shows a flooded Port Meadow on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A December weekend in Paris

As regular readers will know, my student daughter is at university in Paris this year. She’s settled into a flat on the Left Bank and, three months on, her French is pretty fluent. She says she still sounds English but that’s hardly surprising. Unless you’ve spoken French from the age of two or three it’s impossible to sound completely français.

I’m trying not to be a clingy parent, I really am, but I’d been counting the days till I could whizz across the Channel to stay with her. I booked a Eurostar ticket weeks ago (£99 return) and, finally, the big day arrived.

Paris has always been one of my favourite cities and December is the perfect time to visit. The Boulevard St Germain twinkled with chic white lights, a team of carpenters was busy building white wooden huts for the annual Christmas market and the shop windows were a vision of festive loveliness.

With temperatures dipping towards zero (I’m SO glad I delivered my daughter’s duffle coat – she really needed it), we spent loads of time catching up in Paris’s brilliant cafés.

My favourite place for breakfast was a tiny bakery (below) in the rue de Buci (6e). It’s called, quite bizarrely, The Smiths. When we asked the waitress why, she explained that the architect was a huge fan of the band and named it after them. But Morrissey apart, The Smiths sells a café crème, croissant and orange juice for 5.5 euros, which seems pretty good value. The French are clearly a hardy lot because even though it was freezing lots of people were sitting at tables outside. Luckily, The Smiths, like most other cafes, supplies blankets on the backs of chairs so you can wrap up warm as you sip your coffee.

Meanwhile the Rose Bakery is brilliant for lunch. Rose Carrarini (author of the fabulous cookery book, Breakfast Lunch Tea) co-founded Villandry in London in 1988 and later went on to open the Rose Bakery, an Anglo-French bakery and restaurant in Paris. Some people were sceptical about how the French would take to a menu featuring cakes, scones and brownies, but it was a roaring success. Ten years on, there are three branches in Paris, as well as others in London, Seoul and Tokyo.

When we arrived at the branch in the Marais (30, rue Debelleyme, 3e) the queue stretched the length of the narrow restaurant and spilled out on to the pavement. Within 20 minutes though, we got a table and happily sat down to lunch. Everything is kept simple – with brown paper laid on the table, hunks of warm wholemeal bread and huge carafes of water. The only tricky moment comes when you have to choose what to eat – it all looks (and tastes) delicious.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Hotel review: Mama Shelter in Paris

If you’re looking for a chic hotel in Paris that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg then Mama Shelter could be the place for you. I’d been wanting to stay there for ages and last weekend I finally got the chance.

Situated near the Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th district (or as Parsians would say, the vingtième), it’s not the most central location. The metro is a brisk ten-minute walk and then it’s eight stops to Hôtel de Ville. But if you don’t mind that (and we didn’t at all), then give it a try. 
Designed by Philippe Starck and opened in 2009, Mama Shelter boasts ultra-modern rooms with crisp, white linen, Kiehl’s shampoo and soap, iMacs and free Wi-Fi. Best of all, the prices are reasonable by Paris standards. My daughter and I paid 79 euros each for a room with twin beds and an en-suite shower.

From the chic dining room (boasting every make of trendy chair you can possibly imagine) to the rooftop terrace, Mama Shelter is gorgeous to look at. I particularly liked the giant mirrors with details of the day’s events in Paris scrawled across the glass and the low blackboard ceilings covered in chalked drawings and graffiti.

On Saturday morning we had coffee at a traditional café en route to the metro station at Gambetta but on Sunday we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at Mama Shelter. The cost was 15 euros each, which seemed a little on the steep side – until we tried it out. As we helped ourselves to limitless coffee, fruit, yoghurt and croissants we realised we didn’t need to eat again till supper-time.

It was a balmy 26 degrees in Paris on Sunday so we sat outside on the long, narrow terrace overlooking a disused railway line. With its huge outdoor lanterns, massive sofas and friendly staff, Mama Shelter has an urban charm all of its own.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 1

“I can’t believe I’m leaving you in Paris,” I told my daughter as we hugged goodbye on the Boulevard St Germain.

“I’m more worried about leaving you on the metro," she replied, deftly handing me a train ticket and a bright pink Post-it note with scribbled instructions to Charles de Gaulle Aéroport.

We’d just spent two action-packed days together and it was time for me to head home while she embarked on her new student life in France.

Determined to allay her fears, I strode confidently through the metro gate (getting my suitcase wedged in the barrier in the process) and hopped on the train to Châtelet-Les Halles.

But after that, everything came unstuck. As I waited in vain for the RER (the express train that connects the city centre to the suburbs), I started to panic. My flight was due to leave in 90 minutes time and I was still miles away.

Then suddenly a couple walked past and murmured something incomprehensible. “Je suis Anglaise,” I replied – my default response when I haven’t got a clue. The man replied in faultless English and told me the train to the airport wasn’t running.  We apparently needed to get a train to Mitry-Claye, a place I’d never heard of, then catch a bus.

It sounds ridiculous but I instinctively knew I could trust the pair. I hurried on to the packed Mitry-Claye train behind them and we hurtled through the grey suburbs of north-east Paris together, past places I’d be afraid to walk alone. The man told me he was originally from Cameroon and was on his way home to South Africa from a business conference in the US. He and his wife had stopped off in Paris en route to see friends.

When we finally reached Mitry-Claye I lost sight of them in the melée. As hordes of passengers tore down the platform in search of the airport bus, a few RER staff in red T-shirts apologetically handed us a tiny biscuit each. Not exactly what you’re after when you’re about to miss your plane, but still.

I pushed my way on to the packed bendy-bus, wondering where my new friends had got to. As it pulled away I spotted them standing patiently at the barrier. My bus was full and they’d clearly been told to wait for the next one. I waved like a maniac and mouthed “merci.” I don’t think they saw me…

PS. The kindness of strangers Part 2 is here.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Crest Jazz Festival and the amazing Charles Pasi

As the moon rose over the mountains, the sky turned from pink to mauve. Below us, stalls sold tartines and glasses of Clairette de Die (the local sparkling wine), while little children skipped hand in hand with their parents.

My daughter leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘I’ve never seen such a well-behaved audience at a festival before,’ she said, astonished that everyone was clapping along in unison.

This was Crest Jazz Vocal, one of the highlights of my summer. We’d bought tickets to see Mountain Men, a zany Franco-Australian jazz duo, and Charles Pasi, a French blues singer and harmonica player who’s so talented I can’t believe he isn’t a superstar already. Actually, he was a finalist in the international Memphis Blues Festival in 2006 so he’s doing pretty well.

The Crest jazz festival has been going for 37 years and attracts audiences of all ages. The best moment of the night was when Charles Pasi beckoned the front few rows to join him and his band onstage. We were sitting near the back, I’m glad to say, but loads of people jumped up with alacrity. An elderly man in a dazzling white suit and jaunty hat danced wildly, a woman with a rucksack on her back jived fit to drop and even one of the Mountain Men couldn’t resist joining in. Charles Pasi and his band took it all in their good-natured stride.

At that moment something brushed the top of my head. I whirled round to see a tiny flying creature soar up, up and away. It was a bat! 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Mont Ventoux chronicles

As we drove south, through olive groves, lavender fields and dusty tracks twisting up the scorched Provençal hillside, I felt more and more nervous.

My son, sitting in the back of the car with his sister, was as happy as Larry – especially as the distinctive peak of Mont Ventoux appeared above the skyline.

We’d left at dawn so he could attempt to cycle up Mont Ventoux for the first time. He only took up road biking a month ago, but he’d set his heart on doing it before his 18th birthday. A commendable ambition, I know, but I was full of trepidation.

Mont Ventoux, all 1,912 metres of it, is famed in cycling circles. There are higher mountains in France but Mont Ventoux stands on its own, right at the heart of Provence. There’s an abandoned weather station at the top, while just below the punishing peak is a shrine to the memory of Tommy Simpson, the British cyclist who died from heat exhaustion during the 1967 Tour de France. “Put me back on my bike” were his last immortal words.

We arrived in the village of Bédoin at 9.30 am, took the bike off the car roof and my son raced away. The rest of us adjourned to a cafe down the road to keep our minds off his climb.

We’d arranged to meet him two-thirds of the way up - to hand over two more water bottles. But to our astonishment he’d got a lot further than we’d expected. When we caught up with him he gave us a cheery wave, said he was feeling fine and kept on pedalling.

We met him at the summit, which looks a bit like a lunar landscape, and it turned out he’d done the whole ride in just under two hours – his goal for his first attempt.

Then came the moment he was really looking forward to – the glorious ride down, followed by a stop at the bike shop in Bédoin to buy an I conquered Mont Ventoux cycling shirt...

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

View of the Olympics from France - and David Walliams's new book

The south of France is usually heaving with UK visitors at this time of year. But in sun-baked Avignon I didn’t spot any British tourists at all (apart from us, that is). The newsagents’ stack of English newspapers looked untouched and there wasn't a whisper of an English accent at the historic Palais des Papes.

I suspect most people are at home glued to the Olympics. And come to think of it, maybe the French are too. 

Our neighbours at the House With No Name popped across the field to say hello yesterday and told us they’d been watching the Games avidly.

“What did you think of the opening ceremony?" my daughter asked them, wondering what on earth they’d made of Mr Bean, Mary Poppins, the Queen apparently parachuting out of a helicopter and hundreds of children jumping up and down on luminous hospital beds. Serge, our neighbour smiled benignly. ‘C’etait bon, mais très bizarre,’ he said.

Good, but strange. Hmmm. I reckon that just about sums it up.

PS. My review of David Walliams’s wonderful Gangsta Granny is one of the best-read House With No Name posts. So loads of readers will be thrilled to hear that Walliams’s fifth children’s novel will be published on September 19. Ratburger, illustrated by the inimitable Tony Ross, promises to be a treat. It’s the tale of a lonely little girl called Zoe and her ice cream loving father who battle to save Zoe’s newly adopted rat, Armitage, from the clutches of a villain called Burt. Walliams is the fastest growing children’s author in the UK and publisher HarperCollins describes his new story as “packed full of zest, jeopardy and classic Walliams wit.” Walliams himself says it’s his “scariest and funniest book yet.” Watch this space for a House With No Name review.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Shopping for bargains at the brocante

Sunflowers, lavender, long lunches, delicious wine – there are so many heavenly things about life in the south of France.

And browsing for bargains at vide greniers (literally, empty attics) and brocantes is yet another. Every town is full of posters advertising flea markets, car boot sales and salvage yards and when you’re renovating an old farmhouse they are the perfect places to snap up old furniture.

Last week we went to a brocante in Valence and it proved to be a real treasure trove. The first item we spotted was one of those freestanding metal lockers, the sort you find in old schools. They sell for hundreds of pounds in Shoreditch but this one cost 30 euros, an absolute steal. Sadly someone else thought so too because the locker had a sticker saying vendu. The man running the brocante told us they always get snapped up in a trice.

But despite our disappointment there were still bargains galore to be had. We bought the distressed table above, a retro dining chair, a set of shelves and a huge kitchen table. Our only problem was how on earth to get it all home in an average-sized saloon car. Then the man in charge of the brocante stepped forward – and guess what, they delivered too. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Lunch under the plane tree

I adore eating outside. My family is so hardy that we’ve been known to have lunch al fresco as early as March and as late as October - through wind, rain and freezing temperatures. And we don’t use one of those environmentally-unfriendly heaters either.

But in France, eating outdoors is even better. Breakfast is on the terrace, which has a stunning view but is currently too full of bikes, rubble, weeds and an old fridge for my liking. At lunchtime it’s too baking hot so we move round to sit under the plane tree, where all the old farmers used to drink Pastis and watch the sun go down. And then in the evening we’re back on the terrace for a glass or two of Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine.

Sometimes we drive to my favourite town (above) and treat ourselves to lunch at a café in the village square. The restaurant has a huge awning to shield everyone from the fierce mid-day sun and we sit there for hours, watching the world go by.

There’s also the added advantage of strolling across to my favourite shop (below) afterwards. It’s piled high with stunning china of every shape and hue. I buy a new mug or teacup there every year, and swear that drinking a café crème out of them every morning is one of the pleasures in life. Especially when it’s on the House With No Name terrace.

Pictures: Emma Lee-Potter

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Even Kirsty Allsopp would be impressed

Seven years after trundling up the potholed track to view the House With No Name, we’ve just spent our second holiday there.

It’s far from luxurious but the place is definitely starting to feel like home. Take the attic. When we first climbed the steep stairs up to the top floor, one room was propped up with steel girders. Why? Because the walls were so dodgy they had to be pinned together. Literally.

The stunned notaire accompanying us kept muttering “tout à faire” as we stomped up and down. Another attic room was filled with a lifetime of rubbish, including a spooky-looking trunk covered in cobwebs. We never discovered what was inside - but at least it had gone by the time I signed on the dotted line.

Fast forward a few years and even though there’s so much work to do, the attic is now an oasis of calm. Well, by day at least. It’s slightly more raucous by night because the dormouse has crept back into the roof and scrabbles about like crazy in the early hours of the morning.

But to give an idea of the attic’s transformation, here’s what my daughter's room was like before…
And the picture at the top shows what it’s like now.

I reckon even Kirsty and Phil from Location, Location, Location would be impressed!

PS. “Why aren’t you at the Olympics?” asked the puzzled man at the garage as we filled up the car near Avignon. He blithely assumed that everyone from the UK is in London to watch the Games. But like countless others, I’ve spent hours online attempting to buy tickets and ended up with absolutely none. 

PPS. If you're keen to get into the Olympic spirit, my novella, Olympic Flames, is set at London 2012. It  follows a talented young showjumper desperate to win her first gold medal in front of her home crowd. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bike fever at House With No Name

Bike fever has hit House With No Name with a vengeance. The bike rack on the car grows more sophisticated by the day, the house is full of giant tubs of carbohydrate protein and my son’s bought a bike computer that maps everything from time and speed to altitude and heart rate.

But most surprising of all is that his obsession is catching. His dad took him to Oxford’s brilliant Beeline Bicycles to buy a puncture repair kit and came home with a ton of cycling gear. For himself. Next, my daughter declared she was going to cycle to the boulangerie every morning to buy croissants so her bike was duly strapped to the roof too.

A few days later they all embarked on their first bike ride together. First up was a speedy lesson on bike cleats, then they were off. Actually they had to walk the first bit of the way, terrified that the weed-infested bumpy track might damage their precious tyres. The next-door neighbours looked stunned at the sight of les Anglais trooping down to the road in their garish Lycra and bike helmets.

My husband and daughter sensibly chose shorter routes but my son returned two and a half hours later, dripping in sweat and beaming. He’d done a round trip over the hills, cycled up a mountain my old 2CV would struggle with and got back just in time for a carb-loaded supper.  

Monday, 23 July 2012

The dormouse in the attic

Lines of Cypress trees silhouetted against a pink sky, fields of golden sunflowers, ancient farmhouses with their shutters closed to keep them cool.

Those were the sights that made my heart sing as we drove south through France earlier this month. With London gearing up for the Olympics we decided to escape the mayhem and head across the Channel instead. Not surprisingly, the French were far more preoccupied with the Tour de France than London 2012. Even in the local épicerie people were talking about “le gentleman Wiggins” and his amazing triumph.

When we arrived at the House With No Name after the ten-hour drive south it was almost midnight. But it was definitely like coming home – even though there was a wilderness of weeds and the broadband was up the creek.

We weren’t totally sure if the loir in the attic was back in residence or not. My daughter says she heard scrabbling in the roof in the middle of the night but didn't know whether it was real or she was dreaming.

The most surprising thing of all, though, was seeing the sun for the first time in months. As we sat on the terrace on the first morning we all blinked in bewilderment, a bit like loirs coming out of hibernation after winter. My son, who’s spent most of the summer so far cycling in the Oxfordshire wind and rain, was so stunned that he went straight out and bought his first-ever pair of sunglasses. 

Loir – a dormouse in French.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Flat-hunting in Paris

My daughter and my husband are in Paris this weekend. Their mission? To find a flatshare for her year at university there. Luckily they struck gold on the first day so they’ve spent the rest of the weekend with our dear Parisian friend Anne Marie. They've visited the Louvre, wandered along the Boulevard St Germain and watched the Bastille Day parades (complete with military jets trailing patriotic streaks of red, white and blue across the sky).

I am so envious - and plan to visit my daughter lots in the coming months. Paris, I reckon, is one of the most civilised cities on earth. Everyone looks stylish – even the pigeons seem sleeker and less down-at-heel than their ragged UK cousins.

I remember sitting with my daughter in a café at the Palais Royal (above) a couple of years ago. An elegant orchestra played Vivaldi in the square, elderly ladies walked tiny dogs on long leads ("rats on strings,” said my husband) and roller bladers whizzed past at death-defying speed. Thanks to the dire exchange rate, the prices were eye-wateringly high – eleven euros for a lunchtime baguette and a glass of bourgogne blanc. But considering we sat there for hours, enjoying the music and soaking up the atmosphere, we probably got our money’s worth. Even better, all the museums and galleries we visited let under-26s go free, so sightseeing didn’t cost us an arm and a leg. Just an arm.

Other highlights were dinner at La Coupole, the famous brasserie where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were regulars, and a visit to an amazing emporium called Merci.

Launched by the founders of chic children’s fashion store Bonpoint, Merci is utterly gorgeous. Housed in an old factory in the fashionable Marais district, it sells furniture, flowers, clothes (new and vintage), pictures and Annick Goutal perfume. All the profits go to a children’s charity in Madagascar and there’s even a used-book cafe where you can sit in an old leather armchair, sip an espresso and peruse the books. My son called it a “do I really need it” sort of shop - and, devoted dad though he is, I can guarantee that my husband definitely won’t have set foot in the place this weekend.

PS. I adore Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations and if you’re a fan too, take a look at her new blog. Plumdog Blog relates the adventures of a sweet little dog called Plum, with pictures and words by Emma. It’s adorable.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A year in France

When our children were little we took the plunge and uprooted to the French city of Orléans, on the banks of the Loire. My husband was offered a job working for a dynamic (and scary) Australian tycoon who’d snapped up a French business, so we crossed the channel, rented an old house covered in vines and enrolled our daughter at the local école maternelle

Ten months later the scary tycoon changed his mind about the project. We moved back to the UK and took up where we'd left off – older, wiser and a bit better at speaking French. But sorting my office out this week, I came across some columns I wrote in Orléans and the memories came flooding back. Here are some extracts:

“My daughter finishes school this week for the long summer holiday. Despite being the only non-French child in the whole school she’s coped brilliantly. She can now speak a few words in French, count to ten and has made firm friends with a group of five-year-olds in the next class up. One of them, a little girl called Philippine, lives near us and the pair of them kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet and hold hands all the way to school.”

“My two-year-old son’s hair, bleached even whiter by the sun, is the subject of much comment in the boulangerie. ‘That hair will keep you in your old age,’ one old man told me admiringly.”

“The French are intensely proud of their cheese. Charles de Gaulle once claimed there were more than 400 varieties of the stuff so we’re trying as many as we can. But my husband was stunned when I went to Paris for the day, stumbled across a branch of Marks & Spencer and couldn’t resist buying a packet of mature Cheddar. ‘It’s absolutely sacrilege,’ he protested when I got home. ‘How can you buy English cheese in France?’”

“I never realised how seriously the French take their holidays. Instead of staggering their time off work throughout the year, everyone goes away in August. By late July my daughter’s schoolfriends have all disappeared to the seaside, my husband’s office is virtually empty and even the local grocer has shut up shop for the month. When our neighbours realise we’ve booked our grandes vacances for September, they are absolutely astonished. 'Oh la la,' exclaims Marie Therese, our next-door neighbour. 'You’ll be the only people in the entire district in August.'”

“All the houses in Orléans, old and new, have shutters – to keep them secure and, in high summer, cool. We have seven pairs on the ground floor alone and closing them at night and opening them in the morning is quite a job. I haven’t quite got the knack of it yet. As I opened the dining room shutters this morning I almost beheaded a woman walking along the pavement.”

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Hopelessly addicted to tea - and my own special Teapigs blend

From PG Tips to M&S’s Empress Grey, I’m hopelessly addicted to tea.

I drink about eight cups a day, and very often have two on the go at once. When we cross the Channel to France I make sure I’ve got a few packets of tea stashed in my luggage because French tea just doesn’t taste the same at all. And when I gave up alcohol in the New Year, the only drink I didn’t get sick of was tea.

So you can imagine my excitement last week when I got an email from a fantastic tea company called Teapigs. I’d entered a competition to write a 60-word paragraph about my passion for tea and guess what? I was one of the lucky winners. The prize? My very own special blend created by tea taster Louise (above).

And sure enough, on Saturday morning a packet of “Emma’s special blend” arrived in the post. It’s called Super Power Earl Grey and it’s delicious. I’m rationing myself to one pot a day – and when I get to the end of the packet I’m going to be utterly bereft. Forget haute couture fashion, I’m now a devotee of haute couture tea…

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Reading an Alastair Sawday guide changed my life

The arrival of Alastair Sawday’s newsletter in my inbox always brings a wry smile to my face. The founder of Sawday’s Special Places to Stay will be completely oblivious to this fact but reading one of his guidebooks completely changed my life.

I’m not joking. Nine years ago, desperate to book a last-minute summer holiday, I bought a copy of his guide to self-catering properties in my local WH Smith’s and began ringing some of the places he recommended. I’d left it far too late and virtually everywhere was booked up, but the owner of a gite in the south of France said she’d suddenly had a cancellation and could offer us one week. We snapped it up like a shot and a couple of weeks later were en route to the Drôme, a wonderfully unspoilt region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps. As we drove halfway down a remote French hillside to our destination I had no idea that this place was going to have a major impact on all our lives.

In the following years we returned time and time again to the Drôme, enchanted by its lush, green landscape and majestic mountains. For some unfathomable reason it’s far less famous than Provence, its tourist-run southern neighbour, but just as beautiful. Lots of people have never even heard of it – and those who have discovered it want to keep it that way.

But more importantly, the owner of the farmhouse where we originally stayed became a dear friend. So much so that when we bade farewell to her after yet another blissful holiday I suddenly heard myself saying “I’d love to buy a small place here. Please will you keep a look-out for us?” Within months she’d spotted a rundown farmhouse for sale 20 miles away and sent me an email saying ““Beautiful place. Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside. Very old farm with heaps of charm.”

So that was it. The next year I bought the House With No Name - a rambling 16th century house with a tumbledown roof, a plague of rats and a heap of rusting cars 12 feet deep in the barn (I’m not exaggerating). And it all began with Alastair Sawday.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The annual French exchange

As the exam season kicks in with a vengeance, my student daughter hit on a brilliant idea to revise for her impending French oral. She and her flatmate booked a budget flight to Lyon and spent two days immersed in speaking French. It was a far better (and more fun) idea than the usual method of improving teenagers’ language skills – the dreaded French exchange.

Apart from my schoolfriend Sarah, who became lifelong pals with the French girl she exchanged with, I’ve never come across a success story.

When I was 16, I swapped with a sweet French girl called Marie-Line who lived in a fishing village on the Normandy coast. I was desperately homesick, barely uttered a word of French and had nightmares for weeks after walking into the basement and discovering a massive tank of crabs, fish and other creatures from the ocean swimming around – the results of her father’s latest fishing trip.

My daughter did a French exchange at the age of 12, which was far too young. It came about after a French business contact of my husband’s suggested it – and we reckoned it would be churlish to refuse.

When Jean-Paul delivered his daughter Sabine to our house she was clearly appalled by the whole idea. She loathed the food I cooked, couldn’t understand a word I said in either French or English and spent the week buying up her body weight in sweets. It wasn’t her fault at all that she hated the whole experience but it certainly didn’t do anything for the entente cordiale. Worse still, when her father politely rang the following week to thank us for having Sabine to stay, he added: “Oh, and I hope you didn’t let her eat any sweets. I forgot to tell you that she isn’t allowed them at home.”

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