Farewell My Love
My Dear France
I’m on my way to you possibly for the last time. I am filled with sadness because this will mark the end of a sixty year love affair with you, but I have reluctantly decided that it has to be.
Before I take my leave of you, I wanted to tell you what you have meant to me, how important you have been in my life and why a part of me will be toujours francaise.
I first encountered you via your language, both written and spoken. I remember loving the sound and rhythm of your speech and how beautifully and seductively it rolled around my mouth and sounded to my ears. The first time I set foot on your soil in Brittany as a shy, unsophisticated thirteen year old, I was too embarrassed to see if you’d understand my schoolgirl French, but just being surrounded by the sights of the beautiful countryside and the mellifluous sounds of your spoken word was enough.
However it was all too much for my mother, who’d never been abroad before, and my father, who’d come home from the war determined never to leave Suffolk again. I have an enduring image of my mum standing hopefully in the butcher’s shop and saying the word “Oxo?” whilst rubbing her fingers together as if crumbling a cube of the only thing that would make her two week stay bearable. My parents didn’t eat ‘dry’ food and the fact that you didn’t seem to do gravy was the death knell of their relationship with you. Maybe their disaffection was all I needed to fall hopelessly in love. After all, at thirteen the disapproval of your parents is the perfect spur to contrariness.
The next thing I fell in love with was your food. I couldn't wait to get back to you, so three years later, aged sixteen I returned to a small town called Cholet in Maine-et-Loire. I was there for a month to become properly fluent in your language ready for my ‘A’ levels and had the greatest of good fortune to stay with La Famille Bailly. Hard to overstate the impact that experiencing such a totally different way of life had on me. These people (father, mother, three girls, Genevieve, sixteen, Marie-France, eighteen and four year old Chantal, with their brother Hubert who was twelve) could not have been more different from my own family. They laughed a lot, and unlike my brother and I, the siblings all seemed to like each other and enjoy spending time together. Mealtimes were a revelation, especially the evening meal. At home, food was for sustenance rather than pleasure, so we ate the meat (and gravy) with two veg that my mum prepared for us quickly and with minimum fuss and absolutely no enjoyment either in the food or the act of sitting together at the table.
My cottage in The Drome Provence in the Rhones-Alpes region of the south-eastern corner of France
How different it was in your culture! The focus of the day was the time the family could all come together to talk, laugh, listen to each other and to taste, savour and slowly digest the absolutely delicious meal that Madame Bailly had spent time preparing. I ate exotic vegetables like red peppers and aubergines and courgettes. Salads were ‘dressed’ not with salad cream but with a mixture of a flavoured oil and the ‘vin aigre’ which Mme B made herself from the residue of the wine that they drank every evening. She also made her own ice-cream (imagine that - not a block of Wall’s Vanilla Brick sliced and served as a treat in wafers!) but properly creamy, rich delicious frozen cream. One night with a nod to their Morroccan roots, we were served a lamb tagine with couscous. I remember recognising apricots in the rich, delicious and utterly exotic ‘stew’ and thought how much my mother would have shuddered in disapproval. However, the best thing of all was the way that the meal lasted all evening. At home, ten to fifteen minutes was the maximum time my father would sit at the table. Our main meal of the day would be served, eaten, cleared away and washed up within thirty minutes. No wonder my dad always had indigestion! But in your country, my beloved France, you live to eat rather than eat to live. You gave me my first taste of the pleasure that comes both from delicious flavours and time spent in delightful company.
It was four years before I managed to come back to your warm embrace. This time it was a month in Paris in the summer of 1967. I was now a student at university in London, still learning your language and still very open to all your charms. This visit sparked a desire for a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that French women exuded. Think Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Greco, Francoise Sagan and Jean Seberg in the ‘nouvelle vague’ films of Jean-Luc Godard on which I wrote my dissertation. I went with Diana, a college friend who was also studying French, and we had a brilliant time in your fantastically sophisticated capital city. We walked everywhere so that we had quickly mapped the centre and knew exactly how to get from the Arc de Triomphe via Les Champs Élysées to the Louvre via Les Tuileries and onto La Place de la Concorde. We read French literature (well ‘Bonjour Tristesse’, anyway), listened to the music of Jacques Brel and saw lots of films. We also hung out on the famous ‘Rive Gauche’ where we visited the cafe 'Aux Deux Magots’ in the hope of bumping into Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre or better still Simone de Beauvoir.
Me in a Pazuki blouse on one of my many beloved holidays in France
It was at that point that my passionate love affair with you could have slowly died. In 1970 I married someone who had little interest in your charms, apart from the sunshine of your Mediterranean coast for a few family holidays. But I never got over my love and longing for you, and when the opportunity presented itself at the age of fifty, I decided to fulfil a lifelong secret desire to buy my very own small slice of French heaven. The Drome Provence is a department in the Rhones-Alpes region of the south-eastern corner of France. It is a fabulous combination of fertile valleys and rocky outcrops. At Easter 1997 I was staying there at the home of a friend when her French builder boyfriend, Andre, told me of a property for sale. At first sight I experienced what you call in your language a veritable ‘Coup de Coeur’ or a ‘Coup de Foudre’. A heart-stopping moment akin to being hit by a bolt of lightning. The ruined cottage up a hillside on six acres of land with spectacular views across the valley below was on sale for £20,000. I didn’t hesitate - I turned to Andre and said “I’ll buy this if you will rebuild the cottage for me.” A fortnight later I’d signed an Acte de Vente and two years later I moved into my lovingly restored and rebuilt French home for the first time.
Since then you have surrounded me with the warmest of embraces at a time when I found myself divorced and very much in need of that comfort. I couldn’t have wished for a more welcoming or more generous lover. Every year I packed up my car with excited enthusiasm and headed back to you via Eurotunnel to Calais, to begin my five hundred mile journey south. For the past twenty-odd years I’ve spent some of the happiest and most satisfying times of my life in the warmth of your summer sunshine. My dearest friends and my lovely family have joined me round the swimming pool and also round my large dining table to savour the very best that your beautiful and bounteous country has to offer. But now, with great sadness and some reluctance, I have decided that our sixty year love affair must come to an end. With deep regret I have decided to sell my house and end a love story which has endured for sixty years.
Why? Because, before long the journey will be too much for me. Because the house is twenty three years old and will soon be in serious need of extensive maintenance. Because the taxes and upkeep I pay is considerable for a place that I have managed to visit for only 3 weeks in the past two years and because when I die, my daughters will have all sorts of complications if my estate contains a house abroad, especially since we are no longer in the EU. So, my darling France, we must part company, but I will never forget you. Your language, culture, literature, countryside and people have enormously enriched my life.
Thank you for all of it and Farewell My Love.
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