Today, I continue my occasional series of interviews with people who have made their life in France or who have a particular attachment to it. Jane Dunning’s love affair with France began in earnest in the 1990s and she has since stayed in 100 different locations around the country, often on house-sitting assignments. I think you can say she’s a Francophile! Jane is also the author of two novels set in Provence: more about those below.
Welcome, Jane, and thanks for joining us today. I know you don’t live in France but you spend a lot of time here. What and/or who sparked your interest in France?
I first visited France in 1978, staying in the heart of the Limousin, followed by a few holidays in Corsica in the 1980s. I really wanted to go to the Côte d’Azur but thought it would be too expensive, so places like Corsica’s Calvi and Propriano were the next best thing. Of course, I loved them both, but it was 1990 before I got to Provence. It was holiday brochures like Bowhills and Vacances en Campagne that sparked my interest. I can remember to this day seeing a house for rent in a place called Le Plan de la Tour (Var). That village name really intrigued me. Each year, I couldn’t wait for those two brochures to arrive by post so I could choose my next holiday house!
Which is your favourite region of France and why? If you could live in France, would you choose that region or a different one?
I love Provence mainly because of the sea. So much of France is far from the sea or doesn’t have the dramatic coastline of the Alpes-Martimes, Var and Bouches-du-Rhône. I love the villages, the palms, plane and olive trees, and fields of lavender. My favourite area is around Cap Ferrat as it’s surprisingly unspoilt and low-key for such an internationally renowned place. Avoiding high season, of course! I also love the Var and the Vaucluse, which is where many of the lavender fields can be found.
I understand you have been house-sitting different properties in France for a number of years. How do you find suitable places for house-sitting? Do you go back to the same ones or choose somewhere different each time?
Our first house-sit was in 2008 – four dogs, three houses and two swimming pools on a Provençal vineyard for four months. We really jumped in at the deep end! Fortunately, it worked out perfectly and we returned the following year for a shorter period. That particular house-sit was found through the website Anglo-Info Riviera but these days, we belong to a couple of dedicated websites and receive alerts every day to advise us what’s come on the books. Sometimes people contact us directly and, at other times, we reply to a listing.
After over twenty house-sits, we know that the home and pet owners won’t really get anyone more reliable or kind to their animals than us, so we try not to take offence if we’re not chosen! The important thing is to apply promptly especially for beautiful houses and adorable-looking pets otherwise the home owners might get bored of looking by the time they reach your application. We have returned to several homes including a beautiful manoir in the Charente-Maritime with a gorgeous Belgian Shepherd, a contemporary house in Sicily and a wonderful hamlet of four houses in the Luberon along with four cats and, next time, a Jack Russell puppy!
Tell us about your best and worst experiences while house-sitting (without, of course, putting yourself on the line!).
That first house-sit on the vineyard is probably the best experience as we felt like we were really living in Provence. It was a slightly more formal arrangement, so we had a few tasks on our list such as gardening plus my husband did a few odd jobs. We even had to buy a replacement dishwasher as well as plants, dog food and take the dogs to the vet for their annual inoculations. That was an experience in itself and, with four dogs, in a 4×4, the only loaf we could buy was one that would fit in the glove compartment – they would have eaten it otherwise!
Fortunately, most of our experiences have been good ones but last year, we looked after a dog in Brittany who had obviously been photographed as a puppy and was fully grown by the time we looked after her and much bigger than we expected! Sadly, she hadn’t been trained very well so instead of taking her everywhere with us as we normally would, she had to stay in the garden and just have two or three walks a day plus playtime to wear her out.
My husband vets the home owners quite carefully as we feel it’s very important to get on well with them even though they won’t be in residence. Some owners are very friendly whilst others can’t wait to see the back of us when they get home and even like us to leave the day they return which goes against our caring philosophy as we feel as if we’re abandoning the animals to the potential risk of immediate non-return of their owners.
If you could take one book about France to a desert island, what would you choose?
This is the most difficult question! I enjoy reading fiction set in France and most of my reading has a French connection. I think it would be All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I have an interest in the Second World War so this story ticks a lot of boxes.
You’ve published two novels set in Provence: Thirty-five Minutes from St Tropez and Stolen Summer. What inspired you to write these books? Do you write when you’re in France?
I’d wanted to start writing for many years but work and life got in the way. I retired fully in 2007 and almost immediately headed off on that long house-sit on the vineyard. Whilst driving to a place called Collobrières, when we ended up driving along a dangerous hillside track, a spark of an idea formed in my mind and it became the focus of the first book. I am very bad at writing when I’m away but I did finish Thirty-five Minutes from St Tropez when I was house-sitting in the Charente-Maritime and Stolen Summer was input to Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing when I was looking after that naughty dog last year. I do make notes of things I see and sounds I hear when I’m in France. Some of those things have been adapted to appear in my stories.
What do you like best about France? And least?
I like the diversity of its landscapes and architecture. The differences are huge. I like the friendliness of the people and cannot understand why the French have a reputation for unfriendliness. I like small fixed price menus which sometime mean one might have to choose something a little different. I like least the dogs’ mess that still, unfortunately, litters many French streets. In some towns and cities, there are now cleaners dedicated to clearing this up using a special suction cart. I always feel very sorry for the operator of these contraptions.
You are clearly a confirmed Francophile. Would you ever consider moving to France?
We have considered it and probably should have been brave enough to move in 2004 when we last moved house but I had just lost my father and it didn’t cross my mind, despite the fact good friends were in the process of moving to the Pyrénées-Orientales. Also, where to go? House-sitting gives us lots of variety without the responsibility of a holiday home. Another reason is that my husband prefers Italy!
Jane Dunning was born in Guernsey (Channel Islands, UK) in the nineteen-fifties and moved to Bournemouth (on the south coast of England) with her family six months later. After school and secretarial college, her working career, predominantly in finance and latterly with Bournemouth University, spanned over thirty-five years. She has been married since 1974, lives in Poole, Dorset and enjoys travel, writing, walking and gardening. She has visited France every year since 1990 and has spent long periods in both France and Italy since retiring in 2007.
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