Showing posts with label Michael Wright. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Wright. 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)

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.

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!”

Friday, 6 May 2011

How it all began

I'm so excited. Five years after I bought the House with No Name, the first phase of the renovation is almost complete and we'll be staying there this summer. Our architect and builder friends have worked miracles, keeping its character while transforming it into a place of charm. Lots of readers have asked how I came to buy it in the first place so I've gone back to my old diaries and reprint the story here.

With the pound sinking like a stone and endless press reports about the British selling up in France and hurrying back across the Channel, what possessed me to buy a derelict farmhouse near Avignon? It’s got a dodgy roof, a major damp problem and a garden littered with old scrap – and two years after I signed on the dotted line the place is still completely uninhabitable.

I first began thinking about buying a small house in France when I met friends who’d sold up in rain-soaked Cumbria and moved lock, stock and barrel to a rambling house halfway up a stunning hillside in the Drôme, a little-known region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps.

Next I became transfixed by Matthew Parris’s A Castle in Spain, the story of his spur of the moment decision to buy a ruined castle in the wilds of Catalonia. Parris called it “one of those foolish challenges that grip us in middle life.” How true.

Then I was enthralled by C’est La Folie, Michael Wright’s uplifting Daily Telegraph column of how he bade farewell to his safe south London existence and moved to a farm in the Dordogne with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company.

Within months – and without giving the matter nearly enough thought – I’d thrown caution to the wind and done exactly the same thing. Well, without the aeroplane or the cat.

I’d vaguely asked a friend who’s lived in the Drôme for 35 years to look out for a holiday bolthole and out of the blue she sent me an email about a farmhouse for sale. “Beautiful place,” she said. “Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

Much to my horror, and before I’d even set eyes on the place, my husband rashly put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was far lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the 80-year-old owner and her four grown-up children. Only it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up two weeks later to see it, accompanied by my two teenage children, the estate agent and the notaire, the vendors were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in a nearby town.

I took one look at the house and wanted to scarper. I’d envisaged buying a low-maintenance, two-up two-down with a sunny terrace and here I was, halfway to buying a tumbledown six-bedroom wreck with half a roof, water seeping through the walls and a bathroom inhabited by a plague of rats. The garden was a three-acre jungle and the whole place needed, as the estate agent so delicately put it, “bringing back to life.” The notaire, immaculate in a pinstripe suit and snazzy black polo neck, was visibly shocked. He wrinkled his nose at the damp and scuttled back to his car at the first opportunity.

But despite all this, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to wreck the owners’ plans by saying “sorry, it’s all a horrendous mistake. I’m not touching this dump with a bargepole.”

The following day I pitched up to the lawyer’s office in the sleepy nearby village of Puy St Martin and signed the compromis de vente.
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