The West

Enjoying France like a local
Nellie Crawford enjoying France like a local

I'm up a ladder pulling dead leaves from a climbing rose. This particular climbing rose is clinging to the ancient wall of a medieval castle in France, and I'm speaking French (well, my version of it) with Nicole and Pierre, the owners.

Just a snapshot of my stay at Chateau de Balleure in Burgundy where I was soaking up French ambience, living a life about as authentically French as a tourist can get.

Chateau de Balleure, originally built in the 14th century, has been owned by the Balvay family since the Revolution. Pierre Balvay and his wife, Nicole, have made its restoration their life's work, incorporating comfortable guest accommodation within its austerely beautiful walls.

Set in that gorgeous region between the rivers Saone and Loire, with its renowned vineyards, its canals, trails and medieval towns, Balleure is also an ideal base for walking or cycling, two of my favourite pastimes after speaking bad French.

But the Balvays offer more than chateau accommodation and easy access to the delights of Burgundy. For those Francophiles who like to see life from the inside, they offer complete cultural immersion, or "a taste of the real France" as they put it. They accept only one guest or one family at a time for this type of holiday.

This northern spring, a taste of the real France meant embedding myself in chateau life for two weeks. Living with the marvellously unpretentious Balvays for a fortnight, I adjusted to the rhythm of their lives and their daily routines. I ate with them and enjoyed typical home-cooked Burgundian dishes and local wines. I met their neighbours, their friends and their friends' dogs.

In this close-knit little village I was made welcome in their friends' houses. A welcome that was extended to my non-French-speaking husband when he arrived for the last couple of days of my stay.

I heard their views on just about everything from politics to the weather, and got to know the little things foreigners do which annoy the hell out of them.

Dinner table etiquette was a favourite. "Don't put your elbows on the table," my mother used to say. With the French it's hands but in reverse. Hands should be on the dinner table at all times, not lurking suspiciously in your lap. Americans, they reassured me, were the worst offenders.

Other little snippets I picked up along the way, like not taking your mobile phone to dinner and waiting until your last guest arrives at your soiree before getting stuck into the drinks, are eminently sensible but don't necessarily translate into the Australian context. "But what if the last guest is late," was the plaintive cry back home in Fremantle.

I wasn't alone in receiving a little French know-how at Balleure.

Expats abound in all the best areas of France and Burgundy is no exception. Every Wednesday 20 or so non-French speakers from nearby villages, men and women, gather in the chateau's big elegant salon for "Ecole Nicole" (Nicole's school) to practise their French and to explore the mysteries of French life. Lively, hilarious and unruly, they seek useful information on how to deal with badgers or catch snails, or how to translate indispensable phrases such as: "I had to drown my sorrows in my beer . . ."

In her role as social organiser, Nicole arranges events that reflect her guests' idiosyncrasies; in my case it was my desire to meet other artists. Coincidentally, Pierre was an artist, too, and we commiserated over the difficulties of reproducing those ridiculous greens of the Burgundy countryside. I talked still-life (in English) with Tony, a local expat artist and actor.

The Balvays and I also spent an inspirational afternoon with well-known French sculptor Michele Radix and her family.

One of the best ways to cultivate your French and knowledge of what to do is to work and chat alongside a French person when they do their chores - the cooking, gardening or odd jobs. Which is how I found myself up the ladder tending the rose under Pierre's instructions.

A castle generates a million jobs and Aussies, it seems, roll up their sleeves with enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, the Balvays have quite a few Australian friends and an intimate knowledge of our continent, from Fitzroy to Fitzroy Crossing to Fremantle and just about every place in-between.

"We love Australians," they tell me. "We don't advertise much, we're difficult to find. Aussies who find us really want to come. They always fit in."

And apart from being under pressure not to ruin the reputation of my fellow citizens, fitting in to French life at Balleure couldn't have been easier - or more rewarding.

The West Australian

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