“Looking up from my desk straight at the sea is incredible” – Ellen Alpsten

“Looking up from my desk straight at the sea is incredible” – Ellen Alpsten

Novelist and journalist Ellen Alpsten spent her student days in Paris and went on to buy a home in Pyrénées-Orientales, which provided the perfect place for her to write her debut novel, Tsarina

How did you come to study in Paris?

I spent my gap year in Paris in a chambre de bonne below the roof of a house on the Place de Parvis outside Notre-Dame. Having grown up in the northern Kenyan highlands and then a small Bavarian village, the impressions were deep and lasting: it was love at first sight. I studied at the Sorbonne and made great friends. Some of them studied at the IEP de Paris, a school that trains politicians. I liked the mix of Politics, History, Philosophy and Economy and, after a detour of two years studying law, was lucky to be accepted!

What did you enjoy most about the experience?

I walked the city’s streets and alleys endlessly, visiting museums and parks and sitting in little cafés, savouring my noisette for ages, watching the whole of Paris go by. It was fascinating to completely immerse myself – reading their books, processing their thoughts, sharing their passion for French cinema and music, being invited to the countryside with French friends’ families. I also met my husband there, while strolling through the Sunday market in the 7th arrondissement. He’s a Swede though!

Did you already have a connection to France before you studied in Paris?

I was disastrously bad in my French lessons – the teacher told me I’d never get anywhere. But my father is very much a Francophile. He grew up in the DDR and fled through a night forest to West Germany, aged 16. Learning French was his dream, so we spent a lot of holidays camping in many different places, including the Côte Vermeille.

Why did you decide to buy a home in France, and in Cerbère in particular?

My husband and I met in Paris and moving to London was supposed to last only a year. Two decades later we are still here and having a house in France was part of our dream. I remembered the unspoilt and wild landscape of the Côte Vermeille – the sandy beaches, the hills rising towards the Pyrénées, the rugged coastline and a plethora of coves. Cerbère, a village in Pyrénées-Orientales in Occitanie, is hidden at the end of a winding coastal drive. It is the last village in France, nick-named lovingly ‘le bout du monde’, wedged between the Med and the mountains; famous for the whole of Europe once having changed trains there.

Can you describe your house?

The original advert showed only the stunning sea view – the house itself, on a slope overlooking the village’s horse-shoe bay, was in utter disrepair. The daughter of the very first owner still lived there, on her own, aged 96. The walls were covered with laminated 1960s wallpaper, there was no toilet in the bathroom, a leaking gas tube led to a tiny cooker and a shady patio was buried under layers of pine needles. Yet it had good bones – three bedrooms and two bathrooms over three floors, which allows privacy and space for even multi-generational holidays, and of course that view, which appeases any worry in the world. We thought we could fix it in a weekend, leaving the kids with the grandparents! Silly us. A decade later, it’s still a labour of love.

How much time do you spend there?

We are always go for Easter – the blossom is out and the sunshine is guaranteed. We’ve come to feel part of the village and I always invite the neighbours over for an apéritif to catch up with them. If it isn’t let then we visit in summer, too, though it is very hot. Every time we stay we make a point of doing something we have never done before. There’s so much nature and culture to appreciate in the area, and the village itself is so incredibly genuine.

How does it inspire your writing?

It is removed from everyday worries. Life’s slower pace permeates you; looking up from my desk in the salon straight at the sea is incredible – even when writing about the snowy plains of Russia! London life can be very busy. To create, you need headspace. Cerbère offers a simplicity which is perfect for slipping into another sphere.

What does the future hold?

I’m considering using the house as a location for writing retreats. Writing a novel is a dream for so many people but so often they’re not sure how or where to start. The house is the perfect place to escape to for inspiration and is ideal for small groups to be together for discussions and brainstorms.

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten is published on 14 May 2020


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