In her latest book, My Four Seasons in France, Janine Marsh shares the joys of rural life throughout the year in Pas-de-Calais
You moved to France over 10 years ago now. How has life changed in that time?
For me personally life has changed enormously; 10 years ago my days were spent mixing buckets of plaster, learning how to build walls and acting as gofer for my husband Mark as we began to transform our decrepit old house into somewhere we wanted to live. Now, though we’re still working on that transformation (it really is a long, long labour of love), I spend several months a year exploring France as a travel writer – and I write books! I arrived having never had an animal of my own. Now I have 72 animals and am a maid to several cats, dogs, ducks, chickens, geese and hedgehogs. Some things don’t change. We never thought for one moment when we came here that all these years later we still wouldn’t have a mobile phone signal in the village and internet speed so slow it drives us mad. But, on the other hand, I love that daily life here is pretty much the same. The cows still get escorted across the road from one field to another, a traffic jam is where you get stuck behind a tractor and the market is where you shop, meet your friends and go for a glass of wine afterwards in the local bar.
Is there a memory that particularly stands out for you?
There are so many, but this memory will never leave me. It was the day we moved here, a sunny September day, full of promise. We were excited, nervous, scared at making the move. I was ready for most things and had planned how to deal with emergencies like rats nests, giant spiders and a power cut. But I wasn’t prepared for what actually happened. The septic tank in our garden exploded. A farmer neighbour came to help us clear it up, dragging a cylinder-shaped storage tank of the sort you usually see carrying milk on the back of a tractor. However, instead of pushing the button to drain the septic tank, he pushed blow. I won’t go into detail but the ensuing mayhem lured neighbours to our garden to drink beer and watch proceedings in awe. It earned me the nickname in the village of Madame Merde.
What can readers look forward to in your new book, My Four Seasons in France?
What life is really like in rural France. I hope it will make people laugh, be inspired to follow their dreams, visit my part of France (Pas-de-Calais) and know that dreams can sometimes come true, though it’s not always easy. A French lady living in London just wrote to me after reading the book and paid me the biggest compliment: “You get real France, you see how it really is, you understand the people. Reading your book filled me with nostalgia for my old home and a longing to return…”
What do you enjoy most about the different seasons in Pas-de-Calais?
I love every season – they’re very distinct here in the north. In winter we usually have snow and cold weather and it’s the perfect excuse to light the wood fire and settle down with a cat (or five) on my lap, dogs at my feet and a glass of red wine. Spring brings a burst of life to the area, pheasants, wild boar, deer, hedgehogs, storks even, can be seen roaming the traffic-free roads. Summer is perfect here, not too hot (I remember a friend in the south of France telling me she could only sleep in the height of summer by donning her nightie straight from the freezer!) but just right for lazing on the beaches of the Opal Coast, seal-spotting at the Baie de Somme nearby, barbecues with neighbours. And autumn for apéros with friends in cosy cafés and sensational sunsets.
Do you have a favourite season in France?
I think it’s probably spring though it’s honestly hard to choose. I love how the garden starts to come to life, each day the leaves on the trees grow a tiny bit bigger and the fruit trees blossom. The farmers coax the fields to life, ploughing and sewing seeds. The flea markets start up and the street markets seem more colourful with the sun lighting up striped awnings and making the stallholders smile. As soon as April starts I listen out for the first cuckoo and I’m ridiculously happy to hear it. I love the whole vibrant, vivid awakening of the countryside in spring.
What makes the Seven Valleys such a special place to live?
It’s a beautiful area which is hardly discovered not just by Brits but by the French themselves. It’s lush with forests and crisscrossed by streams, quilted with fields and peppered with tiny little hamlets and historic towns like Montreuil-sur-Mer. People love their traditions, heritage is close to their hearts. They love to party, eat good food, support local artisans and markets. The superb coastline of the Opal Coast means you’re never far from the sea, and the history of the area is immense. And, the people are friendly and welcoming.
Would you ever want to live anywhere else in France?
I don’t think so. I can’t say for sure because I’m still discovering France, it’s a huge country and I constantly find new places to fall in love with. When I travel I ring Mark and I say, “Oh I love Mayenne, you need to come and see it, we might want to live here,” or “I love Charente… Champagne… Alsace…” But then when I get home from my travels, Mark collects me from the station at Etaples, we drive to our tiny little village with no shops and no bars. We go up and down the hills of the Seven Valleys, we pass tiny hamlets where there’s hardly a sign of life. We enter our three-road village and park the car and the cats come running, the chickens cluck, the ducks quack, the dogs bark in welcome and I feel I’m home. Really home.
Five words to describe your life in France?
Chickens, dogs, cats, books, DIY.
What have you been reading during the lockdown?
History books on France mostly – especially French Kings and Queens. I find it fascinating how British and French history is so intertwined. I re-read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – my most favourite ever book about France, I just love how he uses words to create pictures. And I’ve been cooking quite a bit, going through cookery books gathered over the years. I especially love recipes by Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux Jr. When I first came to France I could barely make a crêpe and my French friends used to say, “You are Flop Chef not Top Chef”. But now I can make French onion soup and flammekueche and plenty more thanks to neighbours who, appalled that a grown woman couldn’t cook, took me under their wings and into their kitchens to encourage me.
My Four Seasons in France is your second book, do you have plans for more in the future?
Well I said never again. But… with all this extra time being confined to home I have been tinkering with an idea for a novel. I woke up in the middle of the night with the title in my head and the bare bones of a story. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and went back to sleep. In the morning I read through the notes I’d made, half asleep and was filled with excitement about the story, which is set between London and Paris, so… watch this space!
My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life is out now and available on Amazon.
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