What was your first French experience?
The ubiquitous French exchange when I was 14. I went first to my host’s home in Paris. She seemed quite mature (she was a year older than me, but then I was a year ahead in school). It was such an eye opener: one of the first things she asked me when we were alone was whether I was a virgin or not! I nearly choked – even though I’d had boyfriends and wasn’t at all shy, I was far from being fully sexually active. She boasted about her older boyfriends – one who worked days and one who worked nights – so she could rotate them. Looking back now maybe it was boasting but she did seem very confident in this area!
All the typical cultural differences came into play: eating salads (!); toilets in the field at the grandparents’ house in the country (yuk); buying Gauloises and smoking them openly on the Champs-Élysées (cool). When she came back to mine in the UK, she started going out with my best friend’s older brother and then openly asked about his sexual experiences, declaring that she didn’t want to be his ‘teacher’. I’ll never forget this first experience and it really opened my eyes to how culturally different we are.
Holidays near Saint-Affrique with girlfriends and our kids in tow during my late 20s also gave me a real appreciation of small village life and the freedom for the children.
What do you love about the French lifestyle?
Talking about food with producers in the markets. Always swapping recipes and tips. Seeing the produce change over the seasons. I’m lucky to live in a region that is quite ‘alternative’ so lots of organic artisanal breads – I can visit at least three or four different bread stalls at my local markets. I can even talk to my plumber about what he’s having for lunch and he’ll enthusiastically tell me about the mushrooms he found the day before and how he’s going to prepare them. I also like that people are much more at ease talking about politics and culture (in the general sense).
How often do you visit France?
I live here now, in the foothills of the Pyrenees between Carcassonne and Perpignan. As I work in tourism I know my area better than many locals and often people are surprised that an English woman can know most of the tiny villages perched up in the Pyrenees. I drive a coach for my tourists and the windier the road the happier I am! A lot of my American clients are very impressed by my driving skills but also have some quite macho attitudes to women driving big buses. And being English, I get all the jokes about making sure I’m on the right side of the road!
What are your favourite places to visit, local or beyond in France?
I’m very attached to my area, with its dramatic mix of castles perched on ridges, and even though I visit them a lot with clients, I’m always bowled over by them. Peyrepertuse Castle, with its view of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean sea, and the land covered with small parcels of vineyards, is especially spectacular.
Driving up in the high Minervois is also a truly magical experience. I feel very lucky to work with lots of wine growers and get to go all over the wine-producing areas in Languedoc. I never tire of visiting vineyards!
Are there any food and drink specialities you particularly enjoy?
As I’m in wine tourism, I’d have to say that the wines from Languedoc – which are really up and coming – are my favourite. Delicate whites can be found (if you know the right people!) as well as robust reds and outstanding rosés – I’m really spoilt for choice. A close second would have to be bread and goat’s cheese. I’d say that 80 per cent of the fresh food I buy comes from within a 25km radius. I love cooking so it adds to the pleasure (and the taste!).
Tell us about a secret, special place you love…
In the next village to us, two brothers opened up a small restaurant in the forest, called Poulet Bicyclette (chicken on a bicycle). You drive up a dirt track and are greeted by two gypsy caravans that serve as the kitchen – with a hand-built stone oven – where they cook the pizzas and meat dishes. Two ponds filled with koi carp, rushes and water lilies are surrounded by the dining area – you’d think you were in a Monet painting. I got married here and it’s a really magical place.
Since 2006, Alison has been operating her own transport and holiday business located in Cathar country between Carcassonne and Perpignan. For more information, visit www.vinetcompany.com
From France Today magazine