This week, I’m delighted to welcome in my series of interviews another Francophile, who has a long-standing attachment to France. Elizabeth Moore, who writes as EJ Bauer, turned the distressing experience of illness into an opportunity by travelling from her native Australia to explore France. I normally ask people to provide a few images to illustrate their answers. Elizabeth has done us proud with a fabulous selection of photos from her trips.
Life on La Lune: I understand you’ve always lived in Australia, but have had a lifelong love affair with France. How did your first visit come about and how often have you visited since then?
Elizabeth Moore: My first taste of France was courtesy of my wonderful 8th grade teacher. She had studied at the Sorbonne and was simply in love with everything French. She would buy us croissants and pastries for le Quatorze Juillet, unheard of treats in 1960s Australia, and her enthusiasm inspired me to decide to visit her adopted country someday. She also taught me the basics of the language, a subject I studied for 6 years.
Fast forward to a diagnosis of breast cancer nearly 10 years ago. There was the usual intensive treatment and in the months that followed, I decided to shake out my ‘someday’ wishes. Naturally Paris and by extension the rest of the country, was high on my list. A friend was travelling to France the following year and in a moment of sheer impulse, I agreed to join her. I returned last year to continue my own exploration of places that feel oddly familiar, even when I am seeing them for the first time.
You’ve written a memoir, ‘From Moulin Rouge to Gaudi’s City’, under the name EJ Bauer, about your first trip to France (and Spain). What was the highlight of that first trip?
Well, if I’m honest, just arriving in Paris with the delicious realisation that I was actually in France was a highlight but there are so many more – it would be impossible to choose just one. Let’s see. Monet’s Garden in early summer with baby ducks learning to swim in the famous water lily pond. Château Chenonceau spanning the River Cher with its beautiful gardens, the funereal bedroom of the grieving Louise de Lorraine and Catherine de’ Medici’s writing desk. Oh and the tiny village of Aigues-Vives in the Hérault department where we stayed for a week. Let’s not forget Spain – definitely Gaudi’s Barcelona.
At what point did you decide to write your memoir? How did you record your experiences while you were travelling?
I had always felt that one day I would write, but finding a genre I was comfortable with never seemed to suggest itself. Then I entered a travel stories competition about journeying (or not) on Le Petit Train Jaune. My entry won a monthly prize and I was encouraged to write further about my first trip to France. I have never kept a travel diary; I take copious pictures and find I can write directly from my images.
During your trip to France this summer you visited the WWI Northern Battlefields, where your great-uncle was killed. How much do you know about him and what did you feel when you stood in front of his grave?
I spent a lot of time researching Percy Davis’s history. He enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force in 1914, was sent to Gallipoli in 1915 and survived the war on the Western Front until the battle of Le Hamel on July 4th 1918. We toured several battle sites including Thiepval with its moving memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Pozières, the scene of some incredibly relentless and bloody fighting in 1916 and then the little village of Le Hamel.
It was such a beautiful, sunny day and each stop seemed so exquisitely peaceful. The memorial at Le Hamel was at the top of a hill surrounded by wheat fields. I found myself feeling a strange mixture of sadness and peace, reliving of the events of Percy’s last day through the eyes of our guide. We were able to see the small road he would have travelled on his way to the battlefield, as we drove on to Villers-Bretonneux where he was laid to rest. I’d seen pictures of his grave from other family members who’d visited but standing in front of his tombstone brought into sharp relief the dreadful waste of life in WWI. He was 25.
Another highlight of this summer’s trip was a week in a cookery school (lucky you: I’ve never done that. Some might say I should!). What kind of recipes did you cook? Did you have a favourite?
My brother and I enrolled in a cooking school at L’Age Baston, just outside La Rochefoucauld. The château dates from the 13th century and we cooked two meals each day during the week for 12 to 14 people. Some were staff, some were attending the week’s painting course and of course the rest were the 4 student chefs who learned a lot about French country cooking. We were able to visit the wonderful market in Piegut-Pluviers in the Dordogne department to buy seafood for our bouillabaisse. That involved the entire process from cleaning the fish to producing the most delicious soup with the classic rouille and of course the traditional fish stew. I had also asked about making basic pastry and we ended up creating an amazing croquembouche [choux pastry buns with caramel].
It was early June in the Charente and the weather was perfect. We dined outside for lunch and dinner and were treated to delicious rosé wines, a merlot-cabernet and a Touraine sauvignon. I loved the traditional meal style where cheeses are served before dessert; that’s simply unheard of in Australia. The other bonus was unlimited walnuts from the grove in the château grounds. We also took an afternoon off to visit a small artisanal distillery near Cognac. It was such an incredible week. I would return in a heartbeat.
Which are your favourite books about France?
What a wonderful question. My first and definitely my benchmark for memoirs is A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. My mother gave me this book not long after I was married and it cemented my determination to visit France.
Much later I discovered Marlena de Blasi’s Amandine which was set partly in a convent in Montpellier and that probably influenced my decision to visit the region. I write about my interesting week in this little corner of France in From Moulin Rouge to Gaudi’s City. Think driving on the other side of the road, a close call with a rather large bus and a little train that simply couldn’t.
I do have to include Le Silence de la Mer by Vercors. This was my text for senior French and I found it quite haunting and very moving. The book is set in WW2 France and the story is told mainly through the voice of an occupying German officer, billeted with an old man and his niece.
I can’t finish this list of books without mentioning the Fat Dogs and French Estates series by Beth Haslam. She follows the trials and tribulations of buying and resettling in France with two dogs and a rather grumpy husband. Rather than discourage me, her books have fostered another someday dream – to own a little part of France – just for me.
What do you like most about France? And least?
It’s so hard not to be clichéd when answering this question. I love everything French about France; all the beautiful buildings, the history, art, festivals, the feeling of community, the unbelievable variation in landscapes from north to south, the wines, the cuisine and the love of food, right down to its baguette carrying citizens. What has impressed me when I visit is the intense pride the French have in their country, their history, their language and their traditions. When you come from Australia where European civilisation dates just from 1788, this strikes such a rich, sometimes enviable note.
Something I don’t like about France? On my last visit, the rail strikes provided a challenge as I made my way from north to south and back to Paris again. It was a small, albeit inconvenient situation but with help from SNCF staff I was fine.
What travel tips would you offer someone who is visiting France for the first time?
Don’t be afraid to converse in French. In my experience this is appreciated even if it’s a very basic effort. Most often I found if I made an attempt at conversation, people were helpful and quite forgiving. Taking time to chat even in my fractured French proved invaluable. I learned so much and loved the serendipity of fleeting friendships.
Plan to see more than the standard tourist attractions. I really appreciated the time I spent in some of the small villages in the south-west. Even in Paris, exploring away from the well-trodden tourist tracks was so rewarding. You really never know what you might find and more often than not it will be amazing.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Elizabeth, and for sharing your wonderful experiences and your super photos. I have to look up some of those books you mention that I haven’t read yet.
Born in country Australia, in the 1950s, I definitely qualify as a Baby Boomer. Happily married with two children and five grandchildren, I began to travel with a purpose after a cancer diagnosis and treatment. All the places I’d promised myself I’d visit ‘someday’ suddenly became real destinations and I eventually began to write about them. From Moulin Rouge to Gaudi’s City is the first book in The Someday Travels series.
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