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

Friday, 20 April 2012

Friday book review - The Parisian's Return by Julia Stagg

Ever since I first set eyes on the House With No Name, I’ve been addicted to reading books about France. Recently, as well as re-reading Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, I’ve whizzed through Je t’aime la Folie by Michael Wright and, of course, Karen Wheeler’s wonderful trilogy about hanging up her high heels and moving across the Channel.

And this week I’ve discovered another author who’s brilliant at bringing the intricacies of rural France to life. Julia Stagg lived in the mountainous Ariège-Pyrenees region for six years, where she ran a small auberge and “tried to convince the French that the British can cook.” Now based in the Yorkshire Dales, she’s written two novels about the inhabitants of a tiny French village – L’Auberge and The Parisian’s Return.

I’ve just read The Parisian’s Return and even though it’s set the opposite side of France to House With No Name country, it evokes the French way of life so vividly it made me want to hop on the Eurostar right away.

The character at the centre of Julia’s novel is Stephanie Morvan, a single mother who’s moved to the village of Fogas to make a new life for her and her daughter. She works at a local restaurant and dreams of launching her own organic gardening centre. But the whole community is thrown into turmoil when Fabian Servat, the tricky nephew of the couple who own the village grocery, returns from his hotshot job in Paris to take charge of the store. Worse still, Stephanie almost kills him twice in quick succession – once by braining him with a stale baguette and then by crashing into his bike on a lonely mountain road.

Charming, funny and authentic, the novel covers everything from inheritance law in France (complicated!) to wine (thanks to Julia I now know that if I ever come across a 1959 Bordeaux it’s worth a lot and I should sell it, not drink it). But the bits that resonated most were her wise words about the people who move to isolated villages in France to “get away from it all.” As she perceptively points out, the newcomers who make it work are the ones who keep their feet firmly on the ground, speak French and become friends with the locals.

“… those who eventually called this place home arrived with their eyes wide open and not a rose-tinted lens in sight,” she writes. “They appreciated the distinct seasons which made the mountains so beautiful to live in but sometimes so hard to live with. They understood the vagaries of the weather and the curses and blessings they bestowed. And they didn’t fight the pace of life, where there was no such thing as a quick hello, only a slow goodbye.”

The Parisian’s Return by Julia Stagg (Hodder, £7.99)

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I love France - but I can't actually speak French

I had an inspiring French teacher at school called Miss Burgess. She drilled me so well that more than 30 years later I can still remember the words for an armchair (un fauteuil) and a spoon (une cuillère).

The problem is that even though my brain is stuffed full of Miss Burgess’s vocabulary and I can read French pretty well, I can’t actually speak the language. When I’m in France I understand the gist of what everyone’s saying but by the time I’ve worked out how to reply, it’s five minutes too late and the conversation has moved on. I’m far too hung up on getting my verb endings right when I should be gabbling away regardless.

One of my most embarrassing moments came when the painter arrived to decorate. The moment I shook his hand my mind went completely blank and I couldn’t think of any French words at all. It took a few second before something popped into my head. “Au revoir,” I spluttered. Oh dear. It didn't go down well.

I reckon the best way to learn French is to concentrate on speaking it from the word go. I’ve just received a copy of a brilliant new book for children called My First 100 French Words and wish it had been around when I was little. Written by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar and illustrated by Clare Beaton, it lists 100 basic words – from numbers and colours to toys and transport – and gives a simple pronunciation guide for each one.  It’s a fun way to introduce young children to speaking a new language – and great for grown-ups too in fact!

My First 100 French Words by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar (b small publishing, £5.99)

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Little Paris Kitchen - book and TV series

My favourite piece from yesterday’s Sunday Times was an interview with new cookery sensation Rachel Khoo in Style magazine.

Rachel is the hotly-tipped young chef whose gorgeous-looking cookery book, The Little Paris Kitchen, hits the bookshops this week. Not only that, from March 19 we’ll be able to see her in a six-part BBC2 series of the same name.

But the reason the feature caught my eye in the first place was that Khoo’s career took off after she moved to Paris from Croydon six years ago to work as an au pair. When the art and design graduate arrived in Paris she couldn’t speak a word of French and didn’t have any culinary expertise. Now look at her. She used her earnings from her au pair job to pay for her cordon bleu training and at 31 is an established food stylist, writer and cook. From her tiny Parisian kitchen she whisks up delicious delicacies like potato and pear gallette with Roquefort and cassoulet soup with duck and Toulouse sausage dumplings.

It can’t have been easy starting a career from scratch in an unfamiliar city, and she admits that it was “difficult and lonely” for the first two years. I can well imagine. I was an au pair in Paris for a few months when I was 18 and even though the family I worked for was lovely, it was tough. I remember wandering around Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame on my day off, not knowing a soul and having to fend off leery old men who said they wanted to paint my picture. Hmmm. A likely story.

Now I’m worrying about my daughter, who’s studying French at university and will be off to live in Paris soon. But if I got by with my hopeless French and Rachel Khoo made such a stunning success of her move, then I’m sure she’ll have an amazing time. And return with impeccable French too…

Friday, 2 March 2012

Friday book review - Tout Soul by Karen Wheeler

From Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence to Michael Wright’s J’aime la Folie, I love books about people who’ve thrown up their safe lives in the UK and started exciting new ones in France. But the writer who really strikes a chord with me is Karen Wheeler. She’s the former Mail on Sunday fashion editor who hung up her high heels and fashionista life and moved to a house in a small village in rural Poitou-Charentes. Well, she’s still whizzes back and forth across the channel to pursue her career as a beauty journalist, but for most of the time she’s in France – or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch.”

I’ve never met Karen but I feel as if I’ve known her for years. I’m an avid fan of her blog, Tout Sweet, and was thrilled when it turned out she read House With No Name too. She once added a comment on my blog saying that House With No Name’s windows would look “tres chic” in pale grey. Guess what? I took her advice and she’s absolutely right. They look chicer than chic.

So I was thrilled to discover that Karen had decided to write a series about her new life in France. She told House With No Name about them in yesterday’s interview and with the third book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, out next week, I couldn't wait to read it.

I don’t want to give anything away but at the end of the second book Karen seemed to have it all - a dog called Biff, a charismatic Portuguese boyfriend and loads of friends, some French, others ex-pats. The new book opens with her dashing across the departure lounge at Stansted Airport after a journalistic assignment in the UK, wearing sky-high Prada heels, laden with organic vegetables and desperate to get back to her idyllic life in France.

Only it turns out that it isn’t so idyllic after all. Out of the blue comes a shattering discovery and as the year progresses Karen needs to summon up every ounce of fortitude she possesses.

If it sounds downbeat and depressing, rest assured – it isn’t. Karen writes in such a vibrant style and conjures up life in France so beautifully that you can see her small village, with its narrow streets, little square and three cafés, in your mind’s eye as you read. She said in yesterday’s interview that she hoped that in amongst the sad bits there is an “uplifting message” at the heart of the story, and there really is. Certainly some of the sad bits made me cry, but the overall theme of the book is one of love, joy and appreciation of the important things in life. Like friendship, kindness, an adorable dog, a stunning, sunflower-filled landscape and the odd glass or two of champagne.

Karen's latest book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, is available for download now, from Amazon. The print version will be launched on March 7 at £10.99, and to coincide with the launch, the e-book version of Karen's first book, Tout Sweet: Hanging up My High Heels for a New Life in Rural France, will be available at a special promotional rate of £2.99 from March 7.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Interview with Karen Wheeler - author of Tout Sweet, Toute Allure and Tout Soul

Whenever I worry about my whirlwind decision to buy the House With No Name, my run-down farmhouse in the south of France, I quickly turn to my growing library of books by other people who’ve done pretty much the same thing. My absolute favourites are the three books that former fashion editor Karen Wheeler has written about hanging up her high heels and moving to a small village in rural Poitou-Charentes. The first two are Tout Sweet: Hanging up my High Heels for A New Life in France and Toute Allure: Falling in Love in Rural France, and the third, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France is out next week.

There’ll be a review of Tout Soul on tomorrow’s Friday Book Review, but in the meantime Karen kindly agreed to answer some questions from House With No Name.

Why did you decide to move to France – and when? Did you ever consider moving to a city or did you want to be in rural France?

Karen: It was a random series of events that led me there, all described in my first book Tout Sweet: Hanging up my High Heels for a New Life in France. I would never have considered moving to a city, as I’d lived in London for most of my life, and as cities go, it’s a pretty hard one to beat. I wanted countryside, fields and unspoilt countryside at my door. And I wanted that whole rustic French vibe: red and white checked tablecloths, jasmine and hollyhocks, and logs piled up in wicker baskets by the fire.

It sounds really tough to leave friends in London and make a totally new life in a different country. What advice would you give to anyone contemplating moving to France?

Karen: For me, it wasn’t a tough decision at all. Instead, it felt like an amazing opportunity had dropped out of the sky. My advice would be to move somewhere that is within walking or cycling distance of a village, rather than a remote hamlet. And don’t move there if you’re doing so in order to save your marriage. It’s surprising how many couples do, only for their relationship to go into meltdown shortly after arrival.

How good was your French when you arrived – and are you fluent now?

Karen: It was passable – I had A level French and for my history degree (admittedly a long time ago) I worked a lot with original documents from the French Revolution, so I could read it fluently. Conversation wise, there is definitely room for improvement, especially when I’m cross, which is usually with France Telecom. Then words often fail me.

When I’m in France the main things I miss are Earl Grey tea bags and M&S. What do you miss most about the UK? 

Karen: Apart from friends, M&S food hall is the number one thing that I miss. Someone once said that eating out in rural France is a lesson in repeated heartbreak. Cheese and wine aside, I would say the same about French supermarkets: harmful additives and hydrogenated fats are shockingly prevalent.

And what are the best things about living in France? Best food, drink, way of life?

Karen: For me it is the beauty of the Poitevin countryside. The Poitou-Charentes is a very under-rated area of France with some stunning walks and cycle rides. My favourite thing is cycling through dilapidated hamlets and old villages at sundown on a summer evening, with Biff (Karen’s dog) running along by my bike.

Your village sounds heavenly. Is it really called Villiers – and have you given your French friends different names? How have they all reacted to the books?

Karen: I changed the name of my village and also the names of my friends – with the exception of Luis. The overwhelming response to the books has been positive; and my friends have been very generous in letting me write about events in their lives. That said, I do hold back on a lot of stuff and I try to focus on peoples’ most endearing traits. One day I might write the unexpurgated version! For me, real life is much more interesting than fiction. There are some wonderful characters hiding out in the French countryside.

Your new book tackles a heartbreaking time in your life. I don’t want to give the story away but was it a tough decision to write about your love life and innermost thoughts?

Karen: Yes, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this book at all. The most common piece of reader feedback I’ve had about first two books is that they are very uplifting and “better than anti-depressants” but Tout Soul covers some very sad territory. Writing it has been a form of therapy for me. It’s weird but when I write my books, I do them for myself first and foremost – creating the sort of book that I would like to read. It’s only when they are published and out in the word that I panic and think: “God, do I really want people to know that about me?”

I’m actually a bit mortified when I think about the stuff that I’ve revealed in Tout Soul – some of it really quite embarrassing in the cold light of publication day. But I wrote it with my heart rather than my head (had my head been in charge I probably wouldn’t have written it at all).

A friend who works in the book world read it very early on and said that I come across as a bit mad in places. But I recently read A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, in which she meticulously picks apart the process of grieving, following her husband’s death. As Didion points out, “The power of grief to derange the mind has been exhaustively noted.” I could relate to so much of what Didion describes in her book and I think that many of my readers will be able to relate to the emotions described in Tout Soul – particularly the feelings of loss, guilt and regret.

The book was also written for someone who made a lasting impression on my life. And despite the sad events, the ultimate message is, I hope, an uplifting one: that life is the most amazing privilege.

Will there be more books in the series? Note from me: Please say yes!

Karen: I kept telling myself that Tout Soul would be the last – that I can’t go on writing about my life forever – but then something really funny happens or I meet a really interesting character and I think “Just one more book!” Plus, I really enjoy writing the books. I feel like I’ve found the thing that I was meant to do.

So yes, I’m about to start work on the fourth in the series, to be published next year, called Sweet Encore. (Unfortunately, I’ve run out of plays on the word “Tout”.) I can’t reveal the subtitle yet, as I don’t want to give too much away. This book is going to be a bit of a surprise. And after that, who knows?

Is your dog, Biff, as adorable as he sounds and looks?

Karen: YES – probably even more so in real life. He’s a very charismatic little dog – fun, fearless and affectionate. He charms everyone that he meets, apart from the local cats. I’m completely besotted with him.

Karen's latest book, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, is available for download now, from Amazon. The print version will be launched on March 7 at £10.99, and to coincide with the launch, the e-book version of Karen's first book, Tout Sweet: Hanging up My High Heels for a New Life in Rural France, will be available at a special promotional rate of £2.99 from March 7.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A tasteful shade of pale grey

Most weeks I don’t give House With No Name a second thought. Friends are keeping an eye on it for us and I’m pretty sure the cheeky dormouse who moved into the attic in the summer is having a whale of a time there with his pals.

But now the weather’s getting warmer (hooray!), I can’t wait to get out to France. I’ve got a picture of my tumbledown farmhouse above my desk and can’t help marvelling at how different it looks from five years ago. It has new windows, custom-made in Germany (much cheaper) and painted a tasteful shade of pale grey, a gorgeous south-facing terrace and a new tiled roof. I never thought I could get this excited about a roof, but it really is a work of art.

Before the work started we got a message from the local mayor. Friends told us we should get round to his office double-quick. “He wants to meet you,” they said, “and he’s only there on Tuesday afternoons.” This sounded scary. Was the mayor going to put an immediate stop to the building work because we’d failed to get a crucial bit of paper? Or did he simply want to give “les nouveaux Anglais” the once-over?

It turned out to be a bit of both. The deputy mayor was in charge that day and was ultra-charming. He told us the local commune numbered precisely 222 (all French, except for us and a Dutch family who bought a small chateau 25 years ago) and invited us to a sheep-roast in June. We politely expressed regret and said we’d love to, but our teenagers would be doing exams. You never know, maybe another year.

STOP PRESS (I've always wanted to write that!): Coming tomorrow. A fascinating interview with Karen Wheeler, beauty writer extraordinaire and author of Tout Sweet, Toute Allure and Tout Soul.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Parking and coffee - the French way

I thought I was clued up about France, but thanks to Michael Wright and his brilliant C’est la folio column in the Daily Telegraph I’ve just discovered something new.

Apparently, if you invite French guests to dinner they will always turn their car around when they arrive, ready for a neat, speedy getaway at the end of the evening.

It’s a brilliant idea – and one my mother took up years ago. She got so fed up with the embarrassment of doing a complicated 36-point turn as her hosts watched that she hit on the idea of always parking her car with the bonnet facing in the direction of home.

I started copying her example after I had lunch with friends in Northamptonshire. They had a very narrow driveway and as I reversed gingerly out, I suddenly saw that their smiles and waves had turned to frantic gestures and looks of horror. But too late. I backed straight into a bollard on the pavement in front of their very eyes, destroying my bumper and most of the bollard in the process...

PS. Michael Wright also pointed out that nobody in France puts milk in their coffee. It just isn’t done. In fact if you even dare to order a café crème after midday in France you’ll get a withering look. It must be a petit café or an espresso. Nothing else will do. In similar vein, if you ask for a “well done” steak you’ll get very short shrift. I once asked for my steak to be “bien cuit” in a chic brasserie in Paris (above). The waiter looked surprised and seconds later the chef, in his cooking whites, stormed out of the kitchen and shouted his head off at me for daring to ask for such a thing. “Not in my restaurant,” he yelled at the top of his voice.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The loveliest hotel I've stayed in

The icy weather and sub-zero temperatures are making me dream of the House With No Name. Of long, lazy lunches under the plane tree and games of boules on the dusty courtyard. I’m kidding myself of course because it’s minus six degrees in our part of France and I’m just hoping that the cheeky dormouse living in the attic hasn’t moved all his mates in.

I got to thinking about France because a brochure for one of the loveliest hotels I’ve ever visited has just arrived in the post. Twenty-five miles from Avignon, Hotel Crillon le Brave (above) is perched on a Provençal hilltop – with amazing views across tiled roofs to vineyards, olive groves and majestic Mont Ventoux in the distance.

We stayed there en route to the House With No Name one year and it was my idea of heaven. The evening began with a glass of chilled rosé on the terrace. A jazz duo played softly in the background and as darkness fell, we had dinner by candlelight, spellbound by the dark clouds gathering over 6,000-ft Mont Ventoux. The immaculately-attired Maitre D didn’t bat an eyelid. “There will be a storm in the middle of the night – not before,” he assured us. “I know Mont Ventoux well and I am confident.” His prediction was right, of course. After torrential rain overnight, we woke next morning to brilliant sunshine and blue sky.

When it opened 20 years ago Crillon le Brave consisted of one house and 11 rooms. Now it has 32 rooms and seven buildings, a mini spa and the most charming hotel staff, all bilingual. But it’s the stunning decor that’s the icing on the cake. Pale grey shutters and woodwork, blissfully comfortable beds, stylish bathrooms and cool terracotta floors. Now if only I could make the House With No Name look like that…

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Pret A Manger goes to Paris

The most memorable lunches I’ve ever eaten have been in France.

From a posh restaurant lunch in a medieval hilltop village near Cannes to a freshly baked baguette and some brie de meaux under the plane tree at the House With No Name, le déjeuner in France is special. It’s certainly not something to be gobbled at top speed in between phone calls at your desk. When my daughter started school at the école maternelle round the corner from our house in Orléans, classes stopped for an hour at noon and virtually every child went home for a proper lunch.

Most French people I know take time over lunch They wouldn’t dream of going to a sandwich shop or takeaway – which is why I was taken aback by the news that Pret A Manger has just opened its first branch in Paris. A cheery notice on the Pret website reads: “We've opened our very first shop in  La Défense, Paris... and we're 
really very excited! So, if you're planning a trip to Paris any time soon, do pop in and say bonjour! Our second shop on Marbeuf, Paris, opens in a few weeks (our builders are on a roll!)…”

I’m a big fan of Pret A Manger – the Pret sweet potato and lentil curry soup is sublime – but I’m not convinced the French are ready to give up their traditional long lunch break to eat sandwiches. And what they’ll think of the plastic cutlery, triangular bread and indeed the name Pret A Manger is another matter (strictly speaking Pret should be Prêt after all…)

But maybe there are enough time-pressed office workers and ex-pats to make the venture a success. When we lived in France I remember making special trips to buy Cheddar cheese at Marks & Spencer in Boulevard Haussmann every time I was in Paris. My husband got very irritated. “It’s absolute sacrilege to buy English cheese in France,” he said. But I still did.

PS: The old M&S in Boulevard Haussmann closed in 2001. But M&S recently opened a new store - on the Champs-Elysées, no less. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The gut instinct that made me buy the House With No Name

A new report says it’s far better to make decisions on gut instinct than dawdle too much and agonise over what to do.

The research, reported in the Daily Telegraph, issues stark warnings claiming that people who think too much before coming to a decision risk damaging their love lives, careers and even their health.

It’s not the most festive message of the week, I know, but there’s definitely something in it. The speediest decision I ever came to was to buy the House With No Name, my ramshackle farmhouse in the south of France. If I’d spent ages struggling over what to do for the best, I’d never have been brave enough to go ahead.

Actually, the main spur was having an intrepid husband and wildly enthusiastic children who egged me on like crazy.

The first time I’d heard about the place was when one of my dearest friends sent me an email saying: “Beautiful place. Great potential. Most beautiful setting. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with some ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

I’m the weediest person on the planet and much to my horror – and before I’d even set eyes on the place - my husband put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was much lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the elderly owner and her four grown-up children. Except, er, it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up a couple of weeks later to see it, accompanied by the estate agent and the notaire (Uncle Tom Cobley and all in fact), the owners were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in the nearby town. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to wreck their plans by saying “I'm sorry. This is all a horrendous mistake. I’m catching the next train home.”

So in my case, I took precisely zero minutes to decide to go ahead and buy the House With No Name. And even though my gut instinct took a little bit of persuading, I’m so glad I did.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Michael Wright and Carol Drinkwater on living in France

Soon after I signed on the dotted line and the House With No Name officially became mine (help!), I wrote my first and only fan letter. Well, actually it was an email, but it was to a journalist called Michael Wright.

I’ve been reading Michael’s Saturday column in the Daily Telegraph for eight years now and I’m still as gripped as ever by his tales of leaving his safe South London life for a dilapidated French farm with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company. In the intervening years he’s married the lovely Alice, a childhood friend and former intensive care nurse, and they now have two little girls.

Actually, my fan letter turned into a rambling missive about how Michael’s hilarious accounts of moving to the Limousin had steadied my nerve about buying my tumbledown wreck with a dodgy roof and years of building work ahead of me.

But within hours an encouraging email from Michael pinged into my inbox, cheering me up no end with its positive talk. “The secret with your farmhouse is, I think, to make friends with some of the local French and to ask around about a good builder who is sérieux,” he wrote. “Make friends with this man, and make him feel that he wants to help you. Ask him to recommend people too, to do the things that he won't touch. One day it will be, I feel sure, a wonderful house again.”

Wise words, so when I spotted that Michael was speaking at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival I booked a ticket straight away. He was teamed with actress Carol Drinkwater, who played Helen Herriot in the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small and has written a clutch of bestsellers about her olive farm in Provence. The pair hadn’t met before the event but they made a great duo. Carol told how she and her now-husband, TV producer Michel, found the olive farm (and fell in love with it and each other at the same time), while Michael recalled how moving to France on his own helped him “to become the kind of man I always hoped to be when I was a child.”

Along the way the two writers reminisced about their early years in France. Even though Carol is married to a Frenchman, she perfected her French by doing a course at Nice University. Michael, however, took a slightly different approach. As well as chatting to neighbours and poring over Balzac and Baudelaire, he found that reading photo love stories magazines helped him learn colloquial French. He also joined the local tennis club, where the art of losing with aplomb, he said, was his “contribution to international relations.”

The massive marquee was packed to the gunnels for the event and we were so entranced by the pair’s tales that afterwards scores of us queued up to buy signed copies of their new books – Michael’s Je t’aime à la Folie and Carol’s Return to the Olive Farm. I snapped up both but didn’t look at what Michael had written inside my book till I got home. “To Emma,” he’d scrawled. “Cheering you on in your dream!”

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The house that wasn't called anything at all

This autumn it’s five long years since I first clapped eyes on the House With No Name. But even so, I can still remember every detail of that first extraordinary visit.

As the tyres of our rented car crunched up the pot-holed track I took one look and gasped in horror. I hadn’t expected to fall in love at first sight but the tumbledown farmhouse ahead of us was a bit of a shock. The place looked more like Alcatraz, California’s infamous jail, than the blurred black and white photograph on the estate agent’s particulars. It had an intimidating wire fence, a trio of satellite dishes stuck wonkily to the front and a barn with no roof tacked on the side. Most daunting of all, a scary-looking Alsatian prowled the perimeter, making me want to turn and head straight back down the track.

At the top of the drive we braked beside a pair of massive green wooden gates (above) and got out of the car. Glancing up at the side of the house, I groaned inwardly again. Ancient battered shutters dangled off their hinges at the first-floor windows and a maze of electrical wiring ran across the wall like strands of spaghetti. The garden was full of weeds and for some reason a couple of rusting car doors had been propped against the fence.

Suddenly I became aware of several pairs of eyes scrutinising me carefully. It was clear the owners were trying to gauge my reaction. But even if my French had been fluent, and it certainly wasn’t, I couldn’t have found the words to express my dismay. The long and the short of it was that the place was a wreck.

I’d first begun thinking about buying a bolt-hole in France just a few months after my mother died. The following year, still grieving and muddling through the days, I decided it was time I did something bold and life-changing. My mother had left me some money and, drawn by the idea of living by the sea, I hit on the idea of buying a two-up two-down in St Ives. We’d had a few family holidays there and I loved the thought of my children learning to surf while I wandered around the Tate St Ives gallery and lunched at the Porthminster Cafe. My husband wasn’t at all impressed. “Why don’t you do something more adventurous?” he said. “Like buy a bolt-hole in France?”

So that’s what I did... and five years on, after a lot of hard work by our fantastic building team, I'm so glad.

PS: “Why’s your blog called House With No Name?” the novelist Anita Burgh asked me at a writers' lunch in Oxford today. Good question - so for the benefit of new readers here’s why. When I first heard about the house I immediately asked what it was called, thinking that if it had a pretty name like La Villa Les Lavandes or La Maison des Roses it would be a sign I should buy it. Totally ridiculous I know, especially when I learned that the house wasn’t called anything at all. “So how does the postman know where to deliver the mail?” I asked. The estate agent shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said. “He just does.”

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pining for France – and worrying about the dormouse in the attic

Six weeks after leaving the House With No Name in friends' capable hands, I’m pining for my tumbledown farmhouse in the middle of rural France.

I’m worried about the fate of the loir, the sweet-looking dormouse that kept us awake scratching in the attic all night. Will it have outwitted Monsieur Noel, the charming pest man, or will it have departed this world once and for all? I’m anxious that our neighbours might have taken offence because I dropped a canapé they gave me in a plant pot when they weren’t looking and I'm fretting that the dodgy roof of the adjoining barn might have collapsed.

But most of all I’m missing the way of life in the Drôme, the unspoiled region between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps I fell in love with six years ago. It isn’t half as famous as Provence, its southern neighbour, but the countryside is far greener and more lush, with majestic crags and limestone cliffs that tower over the landscape.

If I was there now I'd be looking forward to the bustling Friday morning market at Dieulefit, where we buy freshly-baked bread, fruit and vegetables. The name Dieulefit comes from the saying Dieu l’a fait (God made it) and the area's known for its clean air and artistic connections. Artists and ceramicists flock to sell their work at the market – from pretty watercolours to hand-thrown plates the Conran Shop would give its eye-teeth for.

My other favourite places are the village of Saou (above), with its shady square and restaurant under the trees, and the ski resort of Col de Rousset. Not because I like skiing, mind you, but because in the summer months you can take the chairlift to the top, hire mini-scooters and helmets and whiz down the mountainside. Typically, my daredevil teenage son loves zooming down the red run at breakneck speed so much that he does it four times on the trot.

Then there are the villages perchés, the tiny hilltop villages perched high above the surrounding countryside. Le Poët-Laval, where an order of 12th Century knights kept watch from their fortified keep, is one of the most beautiful. After climbing to the top to admire the view across sunlit fields of lavender we stop for tea and homemade lemon cake at La Bouquinnerie, the charming café and second-hand bookshop halfway down.

I need to go back...

PS: If you would like to subscribe to House With No Name and have the blog wirelessly delivered to your Kindle, it's now available here.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Don't go into journalism for the glamour

Journalism can be exciting, nerve-racking, mind-numbingly dull and, at times, very very annoying. But unless you’re a film critic or showbiz correspondent, it’s rarely glamorous. One minute you’re reporting a murder trial at the Old Bailey that gives you nightmares, the next you’re up to your knees in mud writing about an eccentric recluse living on a Thames houseboat.

When I worked in hard news I’d arrive in the news room at 7am knowing full well that by the end of the day I could be anywhere – Paris, New York, Scunthorpe, you name it. Actually, if I’m honest, it was Scunthorpe more often than Paris.

It’s hardly surprising that there are barely any women news reporters with young children working on national newspapers. I’d leave home at the crack of dawn and was often on the tube to Euston or Heathrow by 8am. My husband still quotes the time I left a note on the kitchen table saying “gone to Nairobi. Don’t know when I’ll be back.” A British doctor had set out to climb Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, six months earlier and had vanished into thin air. My news editor decided I was the person to find him – a tall order considering the police had totally failed in their attempts. Not surprisingly, I returned home a complete and utter failure ten days later.

Now I’m a freelance writer, journalism is still full of surprises. I recently had to write a piece about a school in the wilds of Northamptonshire. I spent the morning chatting to the head, was shown round by two delightful pupils, who proudly insisted on showing me the contents of every single cupboard, and then got invited to stay for lunch. I haven’t had a school dinner in nearly 30 years so, curious to see what they’re like post Jamie Oliver, I agreed.

As I walked in, the head directed me to the end of a long wooden table that looked like something out of Hogwarts. Grace was said and we all sat down. But as I gazed along the table I noticed lots of expectant faces staring back at me. And then I realised why. I was sitting at the head of the table – so it was my role to be the dinner lady and dish up the roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and watery cabbage. As I said before, you don’t go into journalism for the glamour…

PS: I reckon this gorgeous vintage table (above) I bought in the Pedlars sale is one of the best travelled pieces of furniture around. Originally from France, I spotted it on the Pedlars website and reckoned it would be perfect for the House With No Name. It’s crossed the Channel more times than I have this summer!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Lunch under the plane tree in France

French shops pride themselves on their service. Shop assistants always greet customers when they arrive, check whether your purchase is a cadeau and wish you a cheery au revoir, bonne journée when you leave.

My favourites are the amazing patisseries, where the displays look like a work of art. At Anne’s, in Dieulefit, the lovely proprietor is so charming that her customers don’t mind how long they wait to be served. Her pizzas and tartes aux framboises are so renowned that the queue often snakes out of the shop and down the pavement.

When we get to the front she always greets us personally, compliments my teenagers on their French and waits patiently while we fumble to find the right number of euros. She packs everything up into exquisite paper parcels, tells us a bit about her time working in a London hotel and says she looks forward to seeing us soon.

My latest discovery is the amazing D.Cochet (above) in the town of Crest. Yesterday we bought a tarte aux poires there. The smiley assistant wrapped it in a dashing purple box and we hurried home. An hour later we sat with friends under the plane tree at the House With No Name, the terrace where generations of local farmers have sat and put the world to rights over a glass of Pastis. My teenage daughter brought out a home-cooked red pepper and courgette flan, rosemary potatoes (a la Jamie Oliver) and salad, then cheese (always served before the dessert in France) and finally the tarte aux poires. And yes, it was every bit as delicious as it looked.

PS: On the down side, the rodent problem at the House With No Name continues. My daughter rushed downstairs two days ago to report that she had actually spotted the noisy loir (a dormouse). Most nights we’ve heard it scratching and scurrying about busily in the roof but this time it had been brave enough to sneak through the roof insulation and into her room. She’d woken up in the middle of the night to see its bushy tail disappearing back into the tiles. Eeek. Monsieur Noel, the amiable pest man from Montelimar, arrived promptly that afternoon in his immaculate white van, and got cracking on the problem. Whether the loir dares to show his face (or tail) again remains to be seen…

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London reflects - the view from France on the riots

When I wrote in my last blog how our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seemed “the best place in the world” I had no idea how prescient those words would turn out to be.

While we were happily sipping coffee, worrying whether the mysterious scratching sounds in the roof were coming from a loir or a fouine (both rodents and both equally alarming) and planning a housewarming party, London had turned into a war zone overnight.

The French rarely take much notice of UK news but even here, in the middle of nowhere, everyone’s talking about the riots. The story features on page four of today’s Le Figaro under the headline Londres s’interroge après une nouvelle nuit de violences (London reflects after another night of violence) and the man in the local boulangerie asked my husband for an update when he popped in to buy croissants this morning. 

The best piece I’ve read so far is by Mary Riddell in today’s Daily Telegraph. “London’s riots are not the Tupperware troubles of Greece or Spain, where the middle classes lash against their day of reckoning,” she says. “They are the proof that a selection of young Britain – the stabbers, shooters, looters, chancers and their frightened acolytes – has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation.”

She’s so right. I can’t remember a time when the divide between haves and the have-nots has been so terrifyingly wide.  A whole generation of teenagers in our most disadvantaged areas have next to no hope in their lives.  They may possess the latest smart phones and coolest trainers on the block but a large proportion of them don’t have caring families, skills, qualifications or any passions in life.

PS: On a lighter note, the first party at the House with No Name went with a swing. As the sun went down over the Roche Colombe we drank Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine, and toasted everyone who has helped bring the house back to life. When one of my dearest friends first spotted the tumbledown house six years ago she emailed me to say it was “a very old farm, with heaps of charm.” And do you know what? It is.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Breakfast at a sunlit café in France

My lovely teenage daughter has arrived from London, laden with treats. From the depths of her suitcase she produces a mauve box of M&S Empress Grey tea bags (they’re simply the best), three mosquito nets, some Rococo fudge for her brother and a copy of last night’s Evening Standard. Even though I left my reporting job on the paper years ago, I’m an Evening Standard addict and the thought of reading it in deepest rural France is one of life’s little luxuries.

I take the paper to the Café de Globe to read in the sun over a coffee. After years of getting the etiquette of French coffee completely wrong I now know it’s essential to order a café crème. If you ask for a café au lait the waiter (with a very withering look) will present you with a bowl of coffee topped with an alarming mass of whipped cream. On the same note, never ask for a café crème after midday in France. It must be a petit café or an espresso. Nothing else will do.

My teenage son dashes across the street to buy croissants from the boulangerie and we sit and eat them with our coffee. I can’t imagine Starbucks being impressed by customers arriving with breakfast from another shop but it seems utterly normal in France.

The pavement outside the Café de Globe is so hot that the waiter hurries out to extend the awning and give us a little more shade. The café is packed with old men drinking Pastis and poring over Le Figaro and workers from the Crest Jazz Festival (see above) chatting about last night's storming performance by pianist Chucho Valdes. When I open my Evening Standard. I’m stunned by the terrible news from home. While we have been merrily painting, decorating and rearranging furniture at the House with No Name, stock markets across the world have plunged into turmoil, an Eton schoolboy has been killed by a polar bear in Norway and there's been a riot in Tottenham.

Suddenly our pretty sunlit café in the south of France seems the most peaceful place in the world to be.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The alarming rise of SMOGs and why boys are brilliant too

I know it’s the silly season but this week’s newspaper stories about mothers who only want daughters really take the biscuit.

The papers are reporting a rise in the number of mums who are horrified by the thought of raising boys and reckon girls rule. First spotted by Mumsnet last year, they’ve been dubbed the Smug Mothers of Girls (or SMOGs for short).

One mother (presumably of boys) was so horrified by the SMOG phenomenon that she wrote: “I find that some mums who only have girls find boys annoying and are alarmed and judgmental about their behaviour. They tut when boys chase pigeons in the park or shout nearby.”

My lovely son (and no, I’m really not biased) celebrated his 17th birthday yesterday so for what it’s worth, I thought I’d throw in my opinion. He’d be the first to agree that he’s slightly chaotic but he’s also incredibly kind, funny, independent-minded and a mine of quirky information. Yesterday, thanks to him, I learned about the intricate detail that goes into constructing a BMX ramp, discovered a website called Cracked (he calls it “an exciting menagerie of factual articles”) and debated the pros and cons of Aerogel, a new insulating material.

Over the years he’s terrified the living daylights out of me with his scary biking exploits (one of which resulted in a collar bone broken in three places and several stints in hospital) but I couldn’t be prouder of him. Hmmm. Reading back over this, I’m definitely in danger of turning into a DMOB (Defensive Mother of a Boy).

PS: We’d planned to celebrate my son’s big day with a special breakfast on the half-built terrace at the House with No Name. My husband rushed off at dawn to buy croissants and pains au chocolat but when he got back the removal man had arrived from Oxford. He was supposed to be joined by a local monsieur called Remy – but Remy never showed up. So we all pitched in to help, my son marking the first few hours of his anniversaire by lugging sofas, tables and beds in the scorching sun. Did he utter a word of complaint? He's a boy. Of course he didn’t.

PPS: He’s given me his permission to write this!  

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

How to dress in summer

Looking summery and stylish when the temperature soars is a tricky feat to pull off.

Suddenly exposed to a few sunrays after months of drizzle and cold, most of us look as though we’ve never encountered summer before. Apart from a handful of style icons like Alexa Chung and Natalie Portman, we haven’t got a clue what to wear during the summer months. I certainly haven’t. I’ve worn black tights till the end of July, horrified at the thought of exposing my pale legs.

When I headed into London recently I looked around at my fellow commuters and realised I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue. Some were in skimpy frocks more suited to Ibiza nightclubs, some had opted for those horrible flouncy skirts that don’t look good on anyone and a few were still buttoned up to the neck in winter outfits.

Judging by this week’s pictures of David Cameron and George Osborne, it’s doubly hard for holidaying politicians. Forced to cast aside their slick city suits and polished brogues, their attempts to go into relaxed mode go horribly wrong. First the PM was snapped sipping cappuccino in a Tuscan café wearing wintery black loafers and no socks. Then the Chancellor was seen in LA sporting loose-fitting jeans, grey jacket and a very unchic red and black mini-rucksack.

But the worst offenders in hot weather are the men who emerge in too-short shorts, open-toed sandals and beige socks (a combination that should have been thrown in the bin years ago) and pudding-basin sunhats that even David Beckham would be hard-pressed to look good in. The British as a nation, I reckon, are in need of an urgent summer makeover.

PS: If, like me, you dream of escaping to a new life in France, do read Karen Wheeler’s accounts of her decision to hang up her high heels and move to rural Poitou-Charentes in western France. Or as she calls it, “the land of the long lunch." When I reviewed her first book, Tout Sweet, a couple of years ago, I wrote: “I’m loving former fashion editor Karen Wheeler's new book... If she can do it, I keep thinking, then so can I.” I still stand by every word. And today it’s being published in the US (the American cover is shown above), so I hope it sells stack-loads of copies.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The art of speaking French

“You only ever say three things in French,” said my son. “Bonjour, s’il vous plait and merci.” Crushing words, but the trouble is he’s right. Even though I studied French till the age of 18, spent four months in Paris as the world’s worst au pair and lived in Orléans for a while, I’ve forgotten virtually everything. Worse still, by the time I’ve figured what to say in French, five minutes have passed and the conversation has moved on to something even more incomprehensible than before.

Luckily my husband and teenagers are doing far better. My daughter has the advantage of having spent a term at an école maternelle in Orléans, on the banks of the Loire, when she was four. She was the only non-French speaking child in the whole school and when I left her on her first day she looked petrified at the prospect of not being able to communicate.

Her French school was a world apart from the nursery class in Blackburn she’d left behind but she loved walking home for lunch everyday and not having any school on Wednesdays. Then again, she hated having to sleep on a mat for an hour in the afternoons (“some children take dummies,” she told me indignantly), learning that peculiar swirly French writing and not being able to chatter nineteen to the dozen to the other children in the class.

After two days of her new régime she stomped home in a complete strop. “I’ve been here for two days and I still haven’t learned how to speak French,” she said crossly. But within weeks she’d picked up a smattering of the language and could count to ten, order croissants at the bakery and greet her new best friend Philippine.

But 15 years on, I reckon those tricky months at French school made a real difference. She’s still a firm Francophile and even though lots of secondary pupils drop languages like a hot coal at the age of 14 she didn’t. She’s now studying French as part of her degree and excitedly making plans for her year in Paris (or Montpellier or Avignon – opinions gratefully received!) next year. Which is great by me.

PS: If you’re looking for a great beach read, Tasmina Perry’s Private Lives (Headline Review, £14.99) is out this week. Set in the world of glamorous movie stars, go-getting media lawyers and super-injunctions, it’s just the ticket for holiday time.

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