Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Towards the title


A few things have brought a smile to my face recently.... I reached 100 K views on my Google plus page, there was a slowing down in the number of Instagram followers who were deserting me each day (my daughter keeps telling me to stop taking social media so personally), the banner and publicity material that I had ordered for my market stall arrived and looked, to me anyway, beautiful and exactly as I had hoped, the flyer for my book talk at the library was finalised, and the attendees for the talk itself ran to a waiting list with a full-house on the day. But, nothing compared to having 'But you are in France, Madame' placed on the shelves of a proper bookstore.

I'll be lucky to pocket a couple of dollars per book sold, so the thrill came not from the expectation of financial gain. It came from a sense of validation. The book industry is a tough industry to enter, understand and stand out in and the last three years (two for the writing and one since pushing the button on 'publish') have been hard, filled with self-doubt and disillusionment. I needed this small something to help keep me going.



For those who do not know my family's story, I began writing 'But you are in France, Madame' several months after arriving back in Australia after 3 1/2 years of living in the French Alps. The first few months for the family (years for me) were difficult. I talked a lot, in those early days, about what we had experienced in France. Eventually, talking was not enough and I started to write. Admittedly, I had no certainty of ever finishing something as enormous and unknown as a book and even less of publishing it. I wish I had known how things would turn out as I would have enjoyed the process so much more. Throughout the two years that I was writing, a long list of magnificent book titles presented themselves to me, revealed their unsuitability in the days that followed and were swiftly relegated.

You don't eat sushi outside Paris came, went, came back and stuck and was the title that I eventually used to submit my book to a selection of Australian publishing houses. It was a throw-away line from one of our French friends. We had met in Australia but caught up with him and his family in Italy, in the beautiful city of Florence at the end of our first year abroad. It was a joy to see them and to re-live the time that had passed since both families had undertaken their latest adventures. Affected by the difficulties that were stymying our transition to successful French living, we nonetheless tried to conversationally minimise our deceptions. Our host was not to be fooled. "You don't eat sushi outside Paris", he answered. This was his way of reassuring us and acknowledging that there were indeed rules to be followed but that it was particularly difficult to follow them if you didn't know that they even existed.

I see now that this first title was too obscure plus I didn't hear back from the publishers, so went back to work re-drafting the entire manuscript, including the title.

I loved my next attempt and even had a cover made up for Five go to France (see above). I don't have short hair and my husband is not blond, but the illustrator somehow captured a little of the personalities of the three children in her drawing, despite me giving her only the title and not much else to go on. Potential copyright issues from the publishers of Enid Blyton, whose books I loved as a child, made me pull the rug on that title too.

The story behind the next and final title But you are in France, Madame is one that I have recounted before. It was the conclusion to an actual conversation that I had and a subtle reminder of the existence of a special French something that we were learning to live and appreciate. It felt right, especially when coupled with the photo taken by my husband of our son, running through the streets of Noyers-sur-Serein on one of our family holidays.

My French friends, on the other hand, they smile and nod their heads when they first see the book in print. They require no further explanation of the title.



Thursday, 10 November 2016

Escape to France



I am sharing with you today the latest press release for my book 'But you are in France, Madame' and in my next blog, I will be reflecting on a few personal milestones that I have passed since pressing the 'publish button' one year ago.

PS If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book, there is a clickable link to the right of this blog page which will take you to the purchasing options. Thanks, as always, for your interest.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Planning our year in France


We have been back living in Australia for a few years. Whilst, in a practical sense, we feel less present than when we were living in France, we are still very much attached. Physically, we have our French village house, which is also our business as it is rented out for holiday lets; emotionally we have our friends, our photos and our memories. 

At various points around our current house we are reminded of our French story. Above my desk is a large canvas photo of the view up to the castle that we had from our balcony and an old postcard holder in our living room makes an excellent display for our French photos. Even curled, I still love stopping, flicking through a packet of images and reminiscing. 

Plus, we have our hopes and plans for the future.

An old postcard holder is an excellent way to display our thousands of photos from France
Strangely, I don't recall the exact moment that we decided to uproot us all and try living on the other side of the world, knowing no-one and only one and a half of us knowing the language (my son was only six...he's the half). But, I still remember quite distinctly the moment that we set our sights on living in Annecy.

Up until that day, we had done a lot of talking, hours of Internet searching and written many long lists of things to do and to decide. We knew by then that we wanted to be close to an international airport, not too isolated but not in a big city, be in an area where we could truly integrate with French speakers and preferably where skiing was an option.




It was mid-afternoon and we were on holidays in Adelaide. The fact that we were on holidays is probably significant as it meant that my husband and I were actually together at that time of day. He had packed a Lonely Planet Guide to France and was flicking through it. The book opened to Annecy and he started reading, he then looked up at me and asked if I knew of the town. Hmmm, did having a page of the Year 7 text book that I used to teach French, dedicated to the beautifully clean Annecy Lake, count?

Finding schools and accommodation seemed to be the most urgent tasks and we had several false starts before we came across a school in Annecy that had both a primary and secondary section, and was able to accept all three of our children. One thing organised and still so much to do. From one day to the next, I declared to a girlfriend that I had come to an important, perhaps surprising, decision - that I was pulling the plug on our year away. Packing up our house, organising our extraction from our entire Australian lives (think insurances, subscriptions, schools, work, clubs...), balancing our finances to be able to go for such a long time, being so far away and intimidated by doing everything in French, even the task of buying light enough suitcases to give us more flexibility with our flight weight allowance, was huge. If I then added to that the bureaucratic expectations of living in France, the difficulties I was having finding suitable accomodation, working out the best way to transfer money (the exchange rate was at a 10-year low) in addition to school runs, normal household chores, birthday parties, confirmations, health checks...it was just overwhelming.

The next afternoon I went and bought our airline tickets.

But, in reality, Annecy was a gamble. I had heard good things about it, that was all.

Last weekend, I wrote an introduction to a book that I was preparing.

C’est le plus bel endroit du monde.” (Winston Churchill)

Churchill was not the only one to think this way. We first stopped to explore the village of Talloires on the Annecy Lake a couple of weeks after our arrival in France. It was an overcast day and the lake’s blue shades, about which Mark Twain had written so beautifully, had been replaced by reflective hues of cloud grey. The mountains were slightly obscured and the streets were empty. A photo of me strolling along Rue André Theuriet that day turned out to be strangely portentous. There, in the background, long before thoughts of purchasing or living permanently in France had entered our heads, was our house; the one that we ended up buying many years later.

Our initial infatuation, over the years, turned into a constant love affair. Living there, we had experienced highs and lows, some predictable and some not-so, but it was the feeling that we got, the lurch in the pit of the stomach, the fleeting reflections that lingered, the sounds, fragrances and beauty that kept on floating by well after our return to Australia that convinced us that we, like Churchill, like Mark Twain, Cézanne, Gide, President Nixon and Napoleon 3, to name just a few, had found a special place in Talloires.


Then at the end of an hour you come to Annecy … which breaks the heart in your bosom, it is so beautiful.” (Mark Twain)

I am sure that we could have found other places in France that would have suited us just as well as Annecy. But, to feel so deeply we had to go and let go in the first place. 




Wednesday, 21 September 2016

One holiday ... 8 or 9 ski stations ?


It is rather presumptuous of me to be posting about skiing. Summer has only just been declared 'over' for another year and, even though the first flocons de neige have made their appearance on mountain summits, causing lake-level murmurings of joy and shivers of anticipation, it will still be a while before the majority of us get to boot up, jacket on and take off. *

In a blog long, long ago I wrote about skiing: my experiences as an adult novice, my clothing challenges and the up-and-down relationship that I have with the overall experience. I am a summer girl who has lived most of her life through mild winters and exceptionally hot summers. The cold takes some management. In this same article, I also wrote about my first trip to the snow with my, then very young, children. My overall recollection is that it was harrowing. The temperature was partly to blame, but the chair-lifts were the stuff of nightmares, very sore arm muscles and a guilty conscience for days thereafter, as I relived the possibility of my small offspring slipping out of my embrace and plunging into the void below.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read this morning in an article about the best ski stations in France that children in classes run by the ESF (Ecole du Ski Français) now wear magnetised vests. I don't know how wide-spread this practice is, but the safety aim is clear. The claim that they self-release at the top puts my active imagination back into over-drive.

Aside this little vestimentary addition, the article attempted to categorise the stations and came up with an impressive list: Best for beginners, best for intermediate, best for advanced, most reliable snow, most charm and romance, best for partying, best for families, best for snowboarders, best value and best for weekends. Naturally, all up for debate.

From home in Talloires, we can be on the slopes of La Clusaz within forty minutes. We know it well and would agree with its inclusion in many of the categories. Because of its proximity to an international airport, it made it onto the 'Best for weekends' list (Australian readers, sorry! Article aimed at European travellers). If you add in Manigod, Le Grand Bornand and St Jean de Sixt, a single Aravis lift pass gives you access to a respectable 220 km of slopes. More than enough to keep most of us busy for a weekend.


What if you like to ski and you have the luxury of time? La Clusaz is still an excellent possibility, but might I suggest that staying somewhere off the mountain might be an inspired idea? For one, you have the luxury of choice. Why not wake up each morning and choose a ski station depending on the best weather report? We have eight or nine that we would happily go to just for the day. Secondly, if there are members of your party who like skiing but do not want to ski every day, holidaying off the mountain gives them the possibility of many more non-snow-related activities (art galleries, museums, shopping, cinemas, walking tours...). Thirdly, even staying on the slopes will not guarantee that you won't have a decent hike to the lifts each morning. It is true that off the mountain you will have to commit to a drive each day, but for most of the season, we could drive nearly all the way to the lift office, park, dress and purchase our ticket within a few easy steps of the car.  Finally, consider the cost. I know for myself that if I stayed on the slopes, I would buy a use-at-all-time pass, which would have the added pressure of making me feel that I needed to ski constantly to make the most of it. Add to that, the very high cost of winter rental, restaurants and services on the slopes and you have another good reason to stay further afield.


I know that this will not be a good solution for everyone, but we have had several sets of guests stay with us throughout the winter months, some of whom had previously been convinced that there was no other way to holiday in the snow than to stay up high at a single station, but whom, by the end, even after discounting the attraction of our free accommodation, were more than happy with the options that a non-ski-resort stay offered.


*The use of all of these prepositions was for all my English-as-a-second-language French friends who have told me how much they love these pesky little add-on prepositions! (see below ... and for the full article click here)
  • Tickets are available from the box office.
  • Not enough data is available to scientists.
  • No figures are available for the number of goods sold.
  • There are plenty of jobs available in the area.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

it's all in a name


A few years ago, soon after the New Year, I received news that my girlfriend had given birth to her fourth child in Florence. We met in Melbourne, she is French, had her first child in America, second in France, third in Melbourne (named Victoria) and fourth in Florence. And no, it wasn’t a little baby Florence, it was a Nouvel An..toine...nice play on words, thanks to Antoine’s talented multi-lingual father.

It is all in a name. We named our daughter 'Molly', for no other reason than we liked the name. We followed this with May, after my maternal grandmother. Prior to her birth, my husband and I debated the fact that due to her surname also beginning with 'M', this would give her a triple M set of initials. We also reflected momentarily, when we scrutinised our choice for embarrassing pronunciations, innuendos and acronyms and realised that with both names meaning Mary in different countries, we were effectively naming her Mary, Mary... Still, this was not enough to put us off our original choices.

In France, having a second name is rare, although a double-barrelled first name is quite common (think Jean-Phillipe, Jean-Paul, Marie-Claire, Anne-Laure...). All of my children have a middle name and when I filled in forms for them in France, I usually went for broke and included them all. As a result, when she started at collège, Molly was down on all the class lists as Molly May. She was initially amused, then mildly taken-aback, but quickly adopted the two-name first name as a badge of honour. She has many of the same characteristics as my grandmother: adventurous, people-oriented, sporty and affable and is delighted that it pleases my mother, May’s daughter, enormously, to have her remembered.

Molly’s Principal contacted me in the first week of her starting at her new school to request permission for her to join a special English class for students of an English-speaking background. Really? I was flabbergasted that such an option would be considered, as my older daughter’s experience, admittedly in a different collège, had been initially to ask her not to waste her time attending English classes and in the following year picking fault with her…English. Of course, I responded affirmatively to the Principal, checking nonetheless what she would be doing in her couple of now-spare periods. She would be required to attend ‘étude’ also known as ‘permanence,’ which were supervised study classes.


I was happy with this option thinking that it might give her more time to grapple with her other subjects in her second language. A small group of ‘surveillants’ supervised these sessions. Most were young and they often did not stay for long at the school as they were filling in time earning a bit of money whilst they were studying or waiting to start studying. Molly, despite being garrulous and outgoing, enjoyed these silent sessions and had a favourite amongst the supervisors. He was a young guy, named Teddy, and in a not-too-subtle mocking of the utility of his own schoolboy English, he took to greeting her with a ‘Molly May, how are you today? Where is my umbrella?’ all said in a thick French accent and with a big smile. Something about that French charm, but we all found this quite irresistible.

My handwriting is not the best. It never has been good; after all I did not go through primary school in France where the emphasis on perfect formation of tiny linked letters begins in the first year of school. My ‘v’ and ‘u’ in particular get confused often but when joining a new skiing group, Molly’s name had been written ‘Mohly’ on the lists. Naturally enough, and probably quite appropriately, I was blamed, as I had filled out the enrolment forms. The positive outcome was that the confusion led to a conversation between my daughter and her instructor about the origin of the name, her background and nationality, so the ice was broken and a relationship established.

My older daughter brought a form down to the kitchen for me to sign. With three children, it was a fairly constant stream of paperasserie (paper work), so often I graced each document with a fairly cursory glance and a rapid signature. However, every signature had to be preceded with the words 'lu et approuvé' or at least the place in which you were doing the signing and the date. The date, I understood, but the place? Did it really matter if I said that I was in Paris or Sydney when putting pen to paper? In any case, on this occasion, I had barely got through three letters of our village name, when over my shoulder were flung the words, ‘could you please write neatly this time’ and then moving closer to watch me, ‘honestly didn’t you learn to write at school?’ And it wasn’t even Mary Mary (and you know how that rhyme continued) who was speaking.