I was absolutely delighted when Vanessa Couchman agreed to contribute a guest piece on my blog. Not only is she a highly talented novelist, but her writing skills also extend to producing short stories and a hugely popular blog. These abilities together with a shared love of France make her the perfect choice. Here's what she has to say.
Why France is a gift for writers
First, thank you, Beth, for inviting me. Your posts are so interesting. And your article about a town near us that I thought I knew well, Saint-Antonin-Noble Val, taught me some new things!
My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in Southwest France nearly twenty-five years ago. My various careers all involved some form of writing. Then I turned to penning non-fiction (a blog, magazine articles) before launching myself into the deeper waters of historical fiction.
In normal times, France is the world’s number one tourist destination. Few countries offer so many attractions and advantages for visitors. France is also a happy hunting ground for writers. When Beth kindly invited me to write an article, after floundering around for a subject, I thought, “Why not explore what makes my adopted country, and my region in particular, such a writer’s paradise?”
Who could fail to be inspired by the landscapes, towns and villages? France isn’t only Paris, but sadly some visitors don’t venture outside the capital to experience the wonderful variety of the provinces.
The French regions remain resolutely independent and proud of their culture, heritage and scenery. De Gaulle is reputed to have remarked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (What a challenge, to track down and eat your way through all 246! I suspect there are more than that…)
Our region alone, Occitanie, is a land of remarkable diversity. It is bordered in the South by the Pyrénées, which you can see on a clear day from viewpoints not far from us, and the Mediterranean.
To the East stretches the high plateau of the Aubrac, studded with vibrant wild flowers in the spring and blanketed with snow during the winter. We visited with a coachload of French people in late May one year. This is when the transhumance takes place. The cattle are driven to their summer pastures after over-wintering indoors. The Aubrac is only a couple of hours’ drive from us, but the weather belongs to another continent. It was freezing cold. We heard it snowed the following day.
The extinct volcanic mountains of the Auvergne, where we love to walk in spring and autumn, lie to the North. The West is bounded by the rolling, green countryside of Gascony. Dramatic gorges carved out by the rivers over aeons crisscross the landscape.
Few countries have preserved their historic towns and villages, cathedrals and châteaux more carefully than France. Our region has its share of plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France). They are often medieval in origin and set on a hilltop with stunning views.
Inevitably, they are tourist hotspots in the summer months. You can’t blame people for visiting them, but I have the good fortune to see them out of season. I like to wander around the empty streets and imagine how people lived in times past. As recently as a century ago, they were working villages, but the mechanisation of agriculture and the lure of an easier life in the towns drew the younger generation away. A wonderful backdrop for so many stories.
I am a self-confessed history nut. I studied the subject at university, but it really came alive for me when we moved to France. A country that has experienced wars, occupation, revolutions, ousted its monarchy more than once, and gained and lost an empire, often in blood-stained conflict, can’t fail to stir a writer’s story-telling DNA.
Our region is absolutely steeped in history. Today’s tranquil and picturesque villages conceal tales of more chaotic times. I often wonder what happened to the ordinary people during these turbulent episodes.
Our village alone is an example. The staunchly Catholic village and its equally staunchly Protestant neighbour were often at loggerheads. During the Huguenot Rebellions in the 1620s, our village became a temporary HQ for Louis XIII.
To entertain visitors, we took a Tourist Office tour of our village, and discovered many hidden gems. High up on the wall that flanks the road into the village, we saw this figure, cheekily poking out its tongue at its despised neighbours, should they have the audacity to venture this way. That rivalry continues today. Memories in country communities are long.
I love to collect stories and snippets for later use, as a magpie hoards shiny objects. They bring history to life. Not all of them are happy or uplifting, though. We heard a tale of a young woman during the 1900s whose parents kept her shut in their pigeonnier (dovecot) when they discovered she was pregnant. Having a baby out of wedlock brought disgrace on the whole family. I have shamelessly used this one in a novel, without the identifying details, of course.
French as it is spoken and French as it is taught in UK schools, at least in my time, are two different things. My husband lived in Limoges for a few years and spoke French well. I had the grammar and a smattering of vocabulary (“my postillion has been struck by lightning”), but somehow I couldn’t fit them together in any useful way.
When you combine this with the broad regional accent of the Southwest, which adds an extra ‘e’ to the end of every word, I was lost. Thus “vin” becomes “veng-er” and “comment”, “commeng-er”. Our elderly neighbours, whose first language was Occitan, were unintelligible. There followed four years of intensive French courses, from which I emerged rather better equipped to communicate.
We still made many mistakes. French neighbours invited us to dinner. The conversation turned to smoking. My husband said to the rather grand lady next to him,
“Vous êtes fumier?”
In fact, he had asked her if she was a heap of manure, certainly not a compliment in French. A shocked silence ensued.
I broke the ice by snorting with laughter. Everyone joined in, and the party became livelier after that.
Before French became the standard language, the people of our region spoke Occitan, a cross between Spanish and French with Latin roots. Occitan was not a written language, and words and phrases could vary between villages. Our friend Claude, now in his seventies, recalls that his parents spoke only Occitan at home. He doesn’t speak Occitan, although he understands it. The language was banned at school when he was a boy.
Occitan is now enjoying a revival. You can still hear it spoken by some of the older people. They get annoyed if you refer to it as “patois”, as I once did.
“It’s a proper language!” Jeanine said, wagging the inevitable finger. “Don’t call it patois.”
I recommend Graham Robb’s excellent book, The Discovery of France, which explores the different cultures of France, with particular reference to language groups. It’s full of interesting and quirky anecdotes. For instance, I learned that people in parts of the Pyrénées could communicate across large distances with a whistling language. Sadly, it has died out.
If you’re a people-watcher, as I am, or a spy, as my husband prefers to put it, seat yourself at a café table in any French village and prepare to indulge your obsession. Our village’s weekly market is a microcosm of Southern France.
You rarely see men kiss each other in the UK, but it’s part of the panoply of greetings that enlivens French encounters in the market. One year, our friend René advanced on my husband and gave him three smacking kisses along with traditional New Year wishes for good health. My husband took it like a man.
Market habitués include the huddles of elderly men who chat while their wives choose the produce; the stall holders who arrived at first light and are fortifying themselves with ham baguettes and glasses of red wine at 10 am; the queue for the cheese stall, which diminishes slowly as each customer debates the merits of the cheeses before leaving with a bag groaning with them; and the man who plays the flute to his chickens. He claims it charms them into laying better.
As a writer, however, one has to resist the temptation to caricature people: the sophisticated Parisian, the crafty peasant, the snobbish bourgeois. You’ll find elements of all of those, naturally. But in France they are individuals, just as they are elsewhere. They share elements of culture, education and upbringing that are different from our own. This can give the appearance of cohesion. In reality, it’s a veneer.
The so-called French joie de vivre, for example, is a bit of a myth, along with the bicycle-riding, beret-sporting onion seller. Some of the local fêtes can be boisterous events. The noise level increases in direct proportion to the quantity of wine consumed. However, French people can be rather restrained and not always easy to get to know. It is worth persevering.
I recently read Two Vagabonds in Languedoc, by Jan and Cora Gordon. They were British artists who spent four months in 1923 in the village of Najac, not far from us. The book captures their observations of village life. While they make generalisations about the lives of peasant-farmers, each of the people they portray has their own quirks and character traits.
For country-dwellers, the peaceful invasion by foreigners is a new departure. Generally, they appreciate the high standards to which crumbling properties are restored, and the new life that incomers bring to the local economy and the community. You hear rumblings from time to time, but overall we have been welcomed with open arms by our neighbours.
The food (and wine!)
French cuisine is, of course, world-renowned. It’s even inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage. I would argue that there isn’t a single French cuisine, but many. Every region has its signature dishes, which inspire heated arguments among their supporters. Mention the duck, sausage and bean stew, cassoulet, to the people of Castelnaudary, Toulouse or Carcassonne, and they will all forcefully claim to have invented it.
If you haven’t read Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, you have a treat in store. When it first appeared in 1960, Britain had emerged from post-war rationing only six years earlier, and mass tourism was in the future. Her book presents a colourful, tantalising picture of France, liberally larded with anecdotes and stuffed with dishes she discovered during her travels. It’s not a cookbook. Elizabeth David assumes you know all about cooking times and techniques. Rather, it’s an analysis of a country through its food.
We spent many happy holidays in France before moving here. We enjoyed local dishes and copious meals at ridiculously low prices compared to the UK. You can eat badly in France, usually (but not always) in places that cater for the passing tourist trade.
I have a strange talent for remembering menus from years back. Having spent a long morning viewing houses in April 1997, we were late back to our car. It was already 1.20 pm. Knowing the French attachment to lunch at midi on the dot, we were wreathed in humble apologies when we entered the village’s only restaurant.
“No problem,” said the waitress with a smile. “Sit here, and I’ll bring you the soup.”
You helped yourself from the platters the waitress placed on the table. The soup was followed by fat asparagus with ham and hard-boiled eggs, a tender veal stew with fried potatoes, a platter of cheeses and the sweetest strawberries I have ever tasted: my introduction to locally grown Gariguettes.
We drank the unlabelled bottle of red wine. It dawned on us only later that it was a whole litre. No wonder we felt light-headed.
The cost of this feast? 120 francs (about £12). For two. This wasn’t haute cuisine, but it was fait maison from carefully chosen local ingredients, appetisingly cooked and appealingly served.
Naturally, incidents like these, and the local dishes, have found their way onto my blog and into my fiction set in the region.
I had better stop there. My circuitous route through the fascination France exerts on writers (and travellers) can only be partial. I haven’t even mentioned the vast literary and artistic heritage or other aspects of French culture. Neither have I referred to the things that ail France. No country is a Utopia, and negative aspects can provide as much meat for the imagination as positive ones. But, if nothing else, I hope I’ve been able to convey the diversity of France, which offers endless possibilities.
Vanessa Couchman and her husband moved from London to Southwest France in 1997. She writes historical novels and short stories set in France or on the dramatic Mediterranean island of Corsica. She has also written a blog about French life, Life on La Lune, since 2010. Quirky true stories often find their way into her fiction or onto her blog, and she likes nothing more than pottering around ruined châteaux or exploring the lesser-known byways of France. Author website: https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com.