Thursday, 22 February 2018

Whatever you feel, really feel.

Path next to the Pont du Diable

Just over twenty-one years ago, I was toughing it out in a labour ward in Melbourne. My mind was firmly on things other than the traffic, visible through a flimsy curtain. Despite my lack of attention to what was happening outside and the agony of what was happening inside, I burst out laughing. Something had caught my eye.

"Don't take pain, take Panadol*" read the advertising on the side of a bus.

It happened again today - not the childbirth, but the distracted awareness of a passing bus. My mood was a lot more melancholic, as I had just finished walking alone along the beach, watching the waves through the mist of the salt spray and conscious of the noise of the cafés which, like the waves, were pumping, full of couples, families, not-a-care-in-the-world groups of beautiful singles.

"Whatever you feel, really feel."

I have no idea what the ad was for. Here's hoping it wasn't for condoms, as that would be completely ironic in light of my previous story.

But, the words on the bus, whatever they were for, legitimised my state of mind.

Three years ago, my husband, son and I headed back to France to finalise the purchase of our first French home. First, not because we have many, but, because a first, just like the child about to be born above, is memorable. The melancholy came from missing them both - France and the family-life that began at that moment; both of which, in the natural way of things, keep changing, keep me guessing, but perhaps most importantly, keep me feeling.

* Paracetamol-based tablets.

If you would like to read more stories from our family's French adventure, please don't hesitate to contact me on for a print copy of 'But you are in France, Madame' or click on the following link for a Kindle copy.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Round, wooden thing that you put cheese on

Should you look inside one of my kitchen cupboards, you'd see a large range of drinking glasses - mostly recognisable as former jam, pickle or Vegemite pots. Open another door and a plastic bag, bulging at the seams, will not launch itself at you, as it has been solidly packed with flimsy supermarket shopping bags, ready for their second and subsequent uses, and wedged against the cupboard hinges. Look closely at my right summer sandal and you might detect the faint marks of the clamps and glue used to reattach the strap to the sole, and if you flick through family photos of a decade ago, you won't see those sandals, but you might see the jumper, jeans or dress that appear in my recent holiday snaps. I am not a hoarder (my children's memorabilia and my teaching books aside), so that's not the reason for such peculiarities. It is; however, one of the reasons that I adore everything about the French vide-grenier.

These joyous community events give pre-loved trash and treasure the opportunity to begin afresh, just like my array of glassware. Up and down village streets on vide-grenier day, I wander, intermittently aware of the friendly banter, good-spirited bargaining, occasional loud-speaker announcement or distant chimes from the cows and goats in the surrounding fields. The excitement does not leave me until I have perused, assessed and walked past each stall, picked up and cradled several items and made eye-contact and subsequent small talk with one or two stallholders, deserving of my attentiveness after a night of minimal sleep and maximum preparation to enable my colourful, visual tableaux.

Unsurprisingly, such events are not as frequent in winter. So, there is no alternative during these months, but to head further afield and discover more beautiful country routes and picturesque hamlets. Hardly a chore, this is exactly what we did recently and which led me right past the subject of today's blog - cheeseboards.

I hadn't paid much attention to the details of our destination. I didn't know the village, but knew that the drive through the Bauges would be possible, as the big dump of snow predicted for the week would not yet have impacted easy circulation. Usually, it is enough to note the name of the village, type it into our GPS and, when within a two-kilometre radius, follow the line of people walking from make-shift carparks to vide-grenier central. This time, we parked in front of the church...easily, which was not a reassuring sign, and, stretching from the drive, looked around. No crowds, no sounds, no tempting hot oil smells from the barquettes de frites.

Avoiding eye-contact with my own tribe,

"I might have got it wrong. Perhaps I misread the date, but let's go for a walk."

It took as long to get dressed - hats, scarves, gloves and jackets - as it did to check out the village. There was a sign on the school fence saying that a case of chickenpox had been confirmed at the école, but, whether directly related to this or not, there was no-one there.

My family are kind. They made no fuss, pretending that this crumbling wall on that ancient barn was an excellent reason for an hour-and-a-half in the car.

After fifteen minutes of sustained, deliberate looking, I turned to my husband,

"What if we were to actually look up the address?"

And, lo and behold, we were in the right village, on the right day, and nearly-the-right place, with fifteen minutes before the event was due to conclude.

We raced back to the car.

It looked promising from the road. With each newly sighted piece of bunting, van and trestle table, my spirits lifted.

Leaping out of the car, not bothering this time with careful dressing, I raced to the first stall, noting that there was a flurry of newspaper at the three alongside. Yikes, they were packing up and I had not even begun my slow browse.

A chipped Ricard jug caught my attention. I'm not opposed to chipped anything, but searching for the price, my eyes slid downwards to a circular piece of pock-marked wood.

"What do you think?"

"Get it", said my husband.

"Mmm, do you really think so?"


Interpreting my cautious decisiveness as a reluctance to pay the price, the stallholder offered me a five-euro reduction.

"Plus the jug?" I asked cheekily.

He nearly went for it, too, but outsmarted me by proffering another, even more battered than the first, and suggesting that I pay for just the more expensive and get the two.

"That's ok. Thanks anyway. Bonne journée, Monsieur."

Grinning happily, I thanked my son who, taking the board from me to carry it back to the car, allowed me to fit in a quick, unencumbered lap of the Méry event.

If you would like to read more stories from our family's French adventure, please don't hesitate to contact me on for a print copy of 'But you are in France, Madame' or click on the following link for a Kindle copy.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

We made it to February 5

We made it to February 5, our day of departure, and against all odds we were ready. Busy until the very last minute and with the pressure of being the only responsible parent, I had no time on that last day to give in to excessive emotion. The children on the other hand cried through the morning, again on the bus home from school and as I turned the key for the last time in our beautiful old wooden door before hiding it under the stone in the corner of the garden bed near the barren wisteria, and taking my seat in the car. This time our suitcases, like us, were well-travelled and worn; this time the excitement of our departure four years previously had been replaced by a dullness, and this time, it was not the rain but the snow, which had stopped falling to make possible our departure, which started falling in earnest the next day. (extract 'But you are in France, Madame')

It is hard to believe that five whole years have passed since our return to Australia. I look at the photos of the castle above, as we looked at them every day and in all seasons from our balcony in France, and the emotion is still there. I was weary, exhausted actually, from packing up a whole house, three children...our entire French lives. Some items, I sold on the French equivalent of eBay, le bon coin; some things I gave away; I sorted and packed boxes and boxes to be shipped back to Australia; our travel suitcases had to be carefully packed to include items that we would need immediately upon return; utilities had to be cancelled; the house had to be cleaned; friends had to be farewelled and normal everyday cooking, shopping, washing and mothering had to be fitted in, too.

We arrived back early in the morning to a hot summer's day. On the other side of the world, we had been suitably dressed in jeans, jumpers, thick coats and scarves but sweltered uncomfortably through the long customs queues in Sydney. Fragile and smelling less than desirable, we emerged into the Australian sun where underneath the animated chatter of our reunion with my husband we were silenced by the different light intensity and the sounds and smells that were no longer familiar.

The following day, I ventured into an Australian supermarket feeling lost and decidedly out-of-place. I wandered aimlessly picking up, putting down and picking up again a packet of Hot Cross Buns from the shelves, needing the comfort of my favourite bun despite wanting to resist the judiciously placed display for an Easter still far away. To these I added a few items that I thought I could use for making up the long-forgotten-about school lunch boxes, wincing at the copious layers of wrapping that enveloped all of the easy morning options. That was enough, I had to leave. Passing through the checkout, I realized that I only had one little foldable bag with me, a grabbed souvenir from the roadside throwaways on the Tour de France and apologized to the male cashier as I was trying to squash everything into it as quickly as I could. He looked at me and asked kindly if I was ok packing my own bags. For a brief moment, I had no idea what he was talking about and then realized that that was no longer how things were done. (extract 'But you are in France, Madame')

For many of you who have been following our adventures through this blog, or who have read our story, you will know that the adventure did continue. But, in both directions, I still make mistakes. It takes time before I remember to take our re-usable bags to the supermarket when we return to France, to say 'bonjour' before beginning a conversation, to find the right words once everything is properly back in French, to anticipate the shops shutting at lunchtime, or to hop into the driver's seat on the right side of the car in order to remain on the right side of the road. Despite the passing years, the emotion is still strong. Our last week in France is always hard, as I countdown not only all the jobs that need to be done to restore our house to perfect holiday rental conditions, but the days left to savour morning walks to the bakery, throwing open the shutters to greet the day and the mountains, unashamedly sitting idly by the window watching the snow fall, anticipating the treasures that I will find (not necessarily buy) at the permanent second-hand stores, perusing the lunchtime set menus and knowing that there is no need to schedule further afternoon activities, catching up with old friends, walking and skiing amidst the grandeur of nature...

To finish, let me share some village news. Jean Sulpice, head chef and owner at Le Père Bise in Talloires has just been awarded two Michelin stars, which is another excellent reason to visit our special place in France. Click here to read the full article from L'Express

I am again linking up to All About France. Head over to read other French-themed stories.

Or, as always, if you would like to read more of our family story, 'But you are in France, Madame' please don't hesitate to contact me on or click on the following link for a Kindle copy

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

A snowy Christmas lunch and The Book Podcast interview

In a previous post, I mentioned an interview that I did with Rosemary Puddy of The Book Podcast. It was still Christmas here in France when the interview was posted and was a lovely way for me to finish the day, which had in fact been a little different from start to finish.

Being reduced in number, my husband and I decided that a snow walk and lunchtime picnic would be fun. On the drive up to our starting point at the Col des Aravis, we could have been forgiven for thinking that it was just any ordinary day. Epiceries, boulangeries, cafés, restaurants, magasins de souvenirs et de vêtements were all open for business. In fact, my daughter pointed out that we struggle to find anything open on a regular Sunday in the year in France, but on Christmas morning, everything seemed open.

The snow had fallen in abundance, unlike last year, when all those who had booked holiday ski chalets were severely disappointed with the lack of skiing and the changed festive ambiance. Additionally, the sun was bright and the sky a stunning blue and Mont Blanc was cleary visible. We were not the only ones out walking and, on reflection, it would have been a good way to shake out the cobwebs for those families that had celebrated in traditional French style on Christmas Eve.

Not completely forgoing Christmas traditions, our dinner menu once we were nicely tired out and back home was nearly exactly what we had seen posted on the boards outside the Col des Aravis restaurants - smoked salmon, chapon and bûche de Noël with a little coupe de champagne.

We were out in the snow again today much closer to home doing our own post-Christmas exercise with a little tobogganing when the cloud rolled over. It was a good reminder to us that the mountain weather needs respect. Even knowledgeable of a certain walk, the fog can disorient and be dangerous. No worries, though, for us today, as our tobogganing slope was roadside.

I hope that your festive season has been what you were hoping for.

If you would like to listen to the interview that I recorded with Rosemary on The Book Podcast, click here to listen.

If then you would like to read more of our family story, 'But you are in France, Madame' please don't hesitate to contact me on or click on the following link for a Kindle copy  here is the Amazon link for a Kindle copy

And finally, for more French-inspired stories, hop over to this month's link-up at All About France

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Thanks for nothing ... or the invisible man

For a long time, I refused to subscribe to Facebook, Instagram or any social media. I hated the thought of having to put forward a perfect public image, because, no matter how many people tell me that that isn't what happens and that people post themselves warts and all, I don't see it.

We've been back in France for less than two weeks. For those of you who follow this blog, you would already know that our trip here was less than perfect. But, since then you would have seen snow, Christmas markets, skiing, restaurants, delicious-looking French food, nature walks and smiling, happy family pics. Now for the underbelly...four doctors visits, five trips to the chemist, weigh-you-down jet lag, cancelled trips to the CERN facility, which was to be the highlight of my son's first week, postponed social events due to illness and the thought that this year we will be celebrating Christmas as a reduced family troupe of 4, not the raucous extended family gathering of 15 of last year. But, still our FB and Instagram posts look pretty good.

This morning, my husband and I were at the supermarket. I was calm, strolling the aisles, reminiscing fondly about the time a few weeks after our first arrival in France (long before But you are in France, Madame) when my husband, knowing not much French, swiped a massive jar of cornichons (gherkins) off the shelf. With a resounding crash, it ended up in a puddle and it was only thanks to my daughter's robust lack of fear of making mistakes that the whole affair was sorted in her developing French.

He, my husband, on the other hand, was subject this morning to the invisible-man phenomenon...again. I'm non-plussed, but he can be standing in front of the yoghurt, cheese, wine or canned tomato displays, obviously making his selection, when frequently he will be forced aside as someone (usually a woman) will weasel her way into the narrow gap in front of him, to reach for her product. No 'excuse-me', no 'sorry', just a slide, grab and body contact exit. Today, though, two days before Christmas, the aisles were a parking lot of trolleys and trolley-pushers. Caught in a jam, he felt the first nudge from behind, turned, spied the woman behind the offending trolley and turned away, patiently waiting his turn to move forward like those he was jammed up against. He felt the second jab. Same trolley, same woman. Surprised, yes, but still with nowhere possible to go. Third jab from behind the laden trolley and incomprehension. It was very lucky that he is a veeeery patient man, otherwise her Christmas may have gone off the rails just like her trolley was attempting to do to my husband.

Some years ago and still living in France, we were showing friends around our special patch. We went into a gift shop, had a short browse and, with a chorus of overly grateful 'mercis', we turned to exit. "Thanks for nothing", in good-enough English, came back at us. I was horrified, mortified. I was a French devotee, doing all that I could to win people over to my side, taking them out, proud of where I was living and what I was doing. This was a personal affront, one which to this day remains with me and prevents me from ever stepping back into that store.

But - I was also at the doctors this morning - for the third time in 9 days. He may have been taken-aback initially by our presence, but laughed when I asked him as we were packing up to go, if he was "Le Père Noël". Not unkindly, especially when I elaborated that, as he was the village doctor and the village mayor, plus I had seen photos of Father Christmas at the village school that resembled him, that he could feasibly be 'him' too.

Off to the chemist and business concluded, I was asked if I had yet been given a copy of the store's Christmas calendar. "No". But, how lovely. I walked out with my festive tube. A quick chat with the friendly waitress at the coffee shop and it was starting to come back to me. That was what I missed. Not the pushy trolley pusher, not the distrust for any English speaker (who actually spoke French), but a sense of belonging. Living alongside people with whom I could share light-hearted moments, who acknowledged me, accepted my family and I as part of the community and who appreciated that we were there to give, not just to take.

Wherever you are, whatever you do at this time of the year, I wish good things for you.
Thanks for being a part of this virtual community. If you haven't already done so, but would like to read more of our family story, "But you are in France, Madame" here is the Amazon link for a Kindle copy

If you would prefer a print copy, an Affiliate link is to be found in Kristin Espinasse's French word-a-day blog. A purchase here costs no more and would be so very much appreciated by us both.