Hello readers, I’m Laurette Long, author of The French Summer Novels and I’m writing this sitting in a garden full of rosemary and lavender, admiring the sun slipping behind the hilltop village across the valley and waiting for the nightingale to tune up. Before it gets dark I might stroll down the field to pick a handful of figs–making sure to stamp loudly to warn any sleeping snakes. Where am I? Sometimes I have to pinch myself. They say Life’s a journey. How did that journey take me from a council house in west Yorkshire to a hamlet in south-west France?
I blame it on the parents. At the tender age of thirteen, I was pushed out of the nest one summer and sent to foreign climes. France. Mum and Dad, firm believers that travel broadens the mind, scraped up enough money to send me on a school exchange programme to a village near Amiens. I had mixed feelings. Terror was one. But the idea of going ‘abroad’ was also exciting. Foreign. Mysterious. Exotic. Some in our group had never been outside Yorkshire, apart from the odd day trip to Blackpool, which in spite of the Tower and the funny accent, could hardly be called foreign.
I don’t remember much about our arrival. We were all tired and fell straight asleep in our foreign beds with their mysterious sausage-shaped pillows. But the next morning stands out vividly. A tiled kitchen, with a large iron cooking range along one wall. An oilcloth-covered table in the middle, on which stood a dish of bright yellow butter and a pot of homemade apricot jam. Two long thin crusty objects, like baguettes but thinner, next to the jam, their mouth-watering smell filling the room. These were ‘ficelles’ (strings), and the shock to my taste buds as I bit into those marvels, slathered in butter and jam, melting and crunchy at the same time, made my penfriend Anne-Marie and her family burst out laughing.
The following morning was even more of a shock. Anne-Marie was instructed by Maman to take me to the bakers to buy more of those delicious ficelles. Great! But – wait a minute… I grabbed Anne-Marie as she headed for the door. Hadn’t she forgotten something? We were both still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns!! She gave what I later learnt (and quickly learnt to imitate, so sophisticated!) was called ‘a Gallic shrug’, and said ‘Et alors?’ So what? So what!! We were still in what Grandma called ‘our dizzy-bills’ (I think she picked up the term ‘dishabille’ in that 1940s shocker ‘Forever Amber’). But Anne-Marie was a feminist in bud. She’d already locked us into the bathroom so that we could compare bra-sizes in the mirror. Two white egg cups, two pink egg cups. Advantage, France. I meekly followed her into a hot, dusty and thankfully deserted village street. The boulangerie was halfway down, on the opposite side. As the door opened, I saw a queue of chattering ladies, also in their dizzy-bills, in their case elegant nighties and silky dressing gowns. Talk about ‘Forever Amber’! These birds of paradise immediately enveloped us in their perfumed embrace, kissing us passionately on both cheeks as though we’d miraculously escaped from the wilds of Borneo. No wonder my penfriend used to sign her letters ‘I kiss you a thousand times’.
I was speechless.
That first experience of a different life, a different culture, a different language, marked my imagination. I grew up, finished my studies, went to work in America, came back to the UK, and finally returned to live and work in France, the country that had taught me the meaning of ‘exotic’.
Those parents I blame continued to live in the small Yorkshire town where they had been born. My life was split between the heat and crickets of the Languedoc and the wild moors of childhood. My father died in his seventies; Mum carried on until her nineties. When it was time to begin the long, final goodbye to her, I took up my pen to escape, writing about some of the things that make life worth living – the love of families and friends, the beauty of the natural world around us, the power of art – transposed to a fictional world where there were plenty of sunsets, and where tears were forgotten in happy endings. Gradually a series began to take shape, contemporary romances following the adventures of a group of women from different backgrounds, with different lives and different passions, who all, at some point, fall under the spell of a country I’d fallen in love with aged 13.
On all those trips back and forth to the UK, watching Mum’s universe getting smaller and smaller, I had my wider universe with me. 800 books. All in one small handbag, thanks to the Kindle. I started to explore the opportunities Amazon offered to writers especially new ones, through its KDP programme. A new world began to open up: the world of digital technology. One momentous evening in March 2014, with a wave of the mouse and a muttered ‘Teleportate Yourself to Amazon!’, I pressed the launch button and ‘Biarritz Passion’ shot off into cyberspace.
‘Villa Julia’, the last book in the series, is the current work-in-progress. Like the first two, it’s set in French Basque country. Why not Occitania, where I’ve lived for so many years? France offers writers a dazzling variety of settings – Provence, the Riviera; that British favourite, the Dordogne–it’s like standing in front of a window full of different coloured ‘macarons’, wondering which one to choose. But I had spent many holidays with friends in a lesser-known region on the Atlantic coast, near Spain. Le pays basque. It struck me as the perfect ‘Romantic’ setting, where nature could become an integral part of the story, where the dramatic landscapes and changing weather wove themselves into the plot, even affecting the moods and actions of the characters. And what about the characters, the people who live there, the mysterious Basques themselves? No one knows where they came from. Their language is unlike any other. Their culture, games and festivals, their strangely moving songs, their history marked by violent struggles and the will to survive…
Exotic? You bet.
So when I sit in my little piece of Paradise in the Tarn, scribbling about another piece of paradise in the pays basque, I make sure to raise a glass to the memory of the two guilty parties who started it all off.
Santé, Mum and Dad!
Thanks for reading! I’m always delighted to chat with readers (about reading, writing, France and all sorts of random stuff):