A writer’s life in Drôme

Fiona McClean didn’t know Drôme when she went on an artists’ course there, but it has proved to be an enduring source of inspiration, as Andy Duncan discovers

At the turn of the millennium, Fiona McClean signed up for an artists’ project in France. She barely knew France, much less Drôme, where the course was held, and what she certainly would never have guessed was that she would still be here over a decade later, with two published books to her name. After all, she barely spoke the language, but that holiday represented a profound shift in Fiona’s perception of her life up until that point.

The result is that, today, she is happily ensconced in a village in the Rhône-Alpes department of Drôme, where painters swap their art with fellow painters, where the night sky pulses to the sound of myriad outdoor concerts, and where you might pop into neighbour’s house to find a clown performing in the kitchen. All a far cry from the treadmill Fiona had found herself pounding back in that faraway life in England.

“In 2000, I was invited to go on a course arranged by friends for an organisation called Art in Situ. It was a group of 12 French artists and 12 British. The aim of the holiday, which was in a little hillside village called Roche-sur-Grane, was to produce an exhibition in France of the artists’ work.”

Despite a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with the life she was living in England, the future was far from clear, and there was no method in Fiona’s decision to go on the holiday beyond her passion for painting. “I was attracted to it as it provided some time – away from work – to paint. I had no plans and not even an idea I might have a future in France. However, I was 40 at the time and I really wanted a complete change in life. I thought I was reaching my last opportunity to transform my life. I wanted to get away from my job as a graphic designer in the UK.”

Life then took Fiona on a journey that was as unexpected as it was sudden. On the course, she met a Frenchman who shared her ambition to work as an artist. Fiona left her job, moved to France to be with him, and in 2002 they married.

Her French was poor back then, and the only experience she’d had of France prior to the course was a visit to an uncle who lived just outside Paris. She also struggled at first to give the structure to her days that office work in England had provided. But, as a painter, Fiona found inspiration in the spectacular surroundings of her new home. Her life in France began in a remote part of Drôme, residing in a large mobile home owned by her husband on a huge piece of land. She describes it as an existence that was hand-to-mouth, but very close to nature. And it is the nature that has shaped her artistic approach ever since. “From the beginning, I really threw myself into painting. I suppose I was overwhelmed by the countryside and I couldn’t help but paint it,” she says.

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“These landscapes have had a huge influence on my painting style. Back in Britain, it simply didn’t occur to me to paint countryside. I painted chefs, I painted horses, I painted things and people. And I never thought that I would ever paint something as vast as the countryside because I couldn’t get my head around how to paint it. But in France, with the light and the colours, my style has changed completely. It has become more abstract. When you are painting the countryside, you have the opportunity to look at shapes and forms, and they develop.”

Even now, the landscape holds a strong pull on Fiona, who says: “One thing that I miss when I go back to the UK is the mountains. I feel a sense of coming home when I see them.”

The area has proved to be a big draw to other creative types, painters and performers alike. As Fiona says: “People are attracted to this part of France because the countryside is so dramatic. You have the forests, rivers, mountains and the fields. You have the extreme climate, the cold in winter, the hot in summer and the mistral. There is a real richness here. I am attracted to the drama of Drôme. It is beautiful.” This drama also makes it an ideal place for outdoor adventures, Fiona points out, with opportunities for skiing, rock climbing, canoeing, walking, and cycling all nearby.

In 2004, on selling her house in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, Fiona swapped the mobile home in the wilderness for a house in the Drôme village of Pont-de-Barret. Surrounded by mountains, it has a pretty centre and a river running through it. Fiona instantly saw potential in the house that had been overlooked by others. It is a big 1970s property, which Fiona believes didn’t enchant other prospective buyers as they tend to favour stone houses. However, Fiona, who found the house after an eight-month search, fell in love with it. “It had masses of space for studios, and was light and airy,” she says, before adding: “There was something about it that I liked.”

It has an apartment downstairs that Fiona either rents out or that friends use when they come to stay. The garden is 3,000m² and has apple trees, pear trees, cherries, grapes, figs, apricots and walnuts. “It’s really an orchard with a little bit set aside for wood and a little vegetable garden, where I grow courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers and the usual things. It is just lovely to have your own fruit trees. It is nice to be able to go out and, say, pick a cherry. From the kitchen there is a view of a mountain called St-Ruphémie, which I once climbed in the middle of the night with a group of friends. We had a picnic at the top, looking over all the villages.”

Indicative of the artistic allure of the area, the village boasts a creative community, while village and surrounding area alike have an extraordinary cultural calendar. All this has been a major factor in helping Fiona to integrate.

“The village has a fête every two years, where people open their houses, and in each house they have, say, an opera singer, or a theatrical display or a dance. It is all done by the local villagers. It is a very intimate experience to go into somebody’s house and find that you are listening to an opera singer standing halfway up the stairs, or watching a clown performing in somebody’s kitchen. It is very lovely. And I love going to concerts so that was another good way of meeting people. There are lots of concerts in the surrounding area. And the French people seem to love socialising, so even if the music isn’t great, you’ll get people dancing and having a great time.”

And despite not speaking French when she first moved to Drôme, Fiona has thrown herself headlong into integration. Confessing to being a shy person, she has overcome this by taking on voluntary work at an animal sanctuary in the nearby town of Montélimar; with Restaurants au Cœur, an organisation that gives food to people on a lower income; and for a wildlife company, building hedgehog houses. She even joined a knitting group, saying: “I’m not a knitter, but it was a good way to meet some lovely people.”

These days Fiona is reaping the benefits of all these energetic attempts at integrating, describing the village as the kind of place where you can just wander across the road and see somebody for a cup of tea. “It is a very welcoming place. Initially, I met some English people and gradually my French improved enough for me to feel confident about meeting some French people and making some French friends.”

These days, to keep improving, Fiona has group French lessons every week, as well as a private lesson once a week. She describes her friends as a mixture of British expats and French, and there is a lively language exchange between the French and the British here. “Once a month there is a French-British meeting that I attend,” Fiona says. “This is a meal arranged for French people to meet British people and to practise their English, though often we chat in both languages. We all contribute a dish, it is held at the organiser’s house and is very informal. Also, often, French people are keen to learn English, so there are opportunities to speak English to French people in order to help them speak your language. This always ends up as an exchange as you discuss the language and the differences between words.”

Fiona also attends a monthly English writing course in the village of Dieulefit, where an English professor teaches English and French attendees the techniques of writing. Indeed, among the many significant changes to Fiona’s life since she moved to Drôme is that she has become a published author. “I hadn’t written before I came out to France,” Fiona recalls. “When I arrived I had a spell of illness, which meant that I had a lot of solitude and a lot of time on my hands. I wrote long emails to friends about my life in France. And then I remembered that, when I was 20, I had an idea for a novel. So I thought it was a good chance to write it now. I put it on a community-writing website, and it was spotted by a publisher who asked me to finish it. So I did and it was published a year later.”

That book, From Under the Bed, was a dark drama published in 2011, and prompted comparisons with Sylvia Plath, no less. Just published, her new book, The Cappuccino Kiss, charts a woman’s escape from one relationship, only to become embroiled in a love triangle. Unlike the first, UK-based book, this one is set in France. “I started writing it based in Italy,” Fiona reveals, “but I realised where my heart was, which was France. It’s a dark story and it’s not about France, but it is situated in France. I love Châtillon-en-Diois, where it is based. I went there with friends and fell in love with it. And I just had a desire to include my knowledge of France, and the countryside and the people.”

Fiona has just embarked on an online writing course with East Anglia University, intending to use it as a springboard for writing her third book. But she isn’t deserting her painting, and is planning a series of paintings based on sketches she did of people getting their hair done at a hairdresser’s in a nearby village.

And, on the subject of the future, Fiona is adamant about where she sees herself spending her days. “I will never leave France,” she asserts, adding that she has the complete backing of family and friends. “My brother looks rather enviously at my life out here! Initially my mother was a little concerned that I was going to be so far away. But she eventually concluded that I would be better off in France than in England. She saw that France was a really lovely place, from the photographs I sent her and the phone calls we had. And my friends thought it was great. They said to go for it. And I did. Even though my language isn’t great, I miss Drôme when I’m in England; I miss the language and I miss the people. It is my home.” LF