Interview: Harriet Welty Rochefort — almost 50 years in France
Welcome to the ‘MyFrenchLife™ Member Interview Series’ — interviews with savvy Francophiles from all around the world capturing their passion secrets and tips, all about their favourite places in France, from Paris to Provence.
- As you read these interviews you’ll become immersed in the individual member’s ‘French Life’.
- Learn why France is so special in their eyes & how they came to be so passionate about France.
- Discover so much more about France in the process and
- also, you’ll personally benefit from the tips & discoveries these savvy Francophile frequent travellers generously share.
Introducing Harriet Welty Rochefort
After meeting me and hearing my story, people generally ask two main questions:
- Firstly, how did a girl from Iowa end up living in France for almost fifty years?
- And secondly, which country do you like best: the United States or France?
“How did a girl from Iowa end up living in France for almost fifty years?”
The answer to the first question is easy: my step-grandmother, a role model for me, had lived in France and told me about it all the time.
I remember her bringing me a gift of an adorable little stuffed animal – a pink pig with red trousers – and telling me that a pig was a “cochon”.
I loved the word and thought it sounded so much better than “pig”! She also brought me, among other treasures, a book about a French family who lived in Brittany. There was an illustration of a typical Breton cupboard bed and the names of the children were, as I recall, Jean and Marie (although I am probably remembering that wrong – real Breton names would more likely be Yves and Gwenaëlle).
Be that as it may, I loved those names and I loved the idea of the magical land of Brittany in the far-off country of France. I vowed to go there. But I never could have imagined that one day I would indeed live there, and in a castle at that! I rarely talk about ‘our’ castle but I will for My French Life members because it is such an unusual facet of my French life.
Chateaux life—here’s the story…
About ten years ago my husband and I were looking for a second home in the west of France. We had lived in Nantes for three years and love the west with its towns on the sea, the seafood, the big skies with their particular shade of light blue.
One day on a real estate website I saw the picture of a castle we know because we had played golf on the adjacent golf course when we lived in Nantes. We couldn’t believe that there were apartments for sale in it.
Long story short: by the end of the Sixties its owner, the scion of an old family, had squandered his fortune and had to sell the castle which was then divided up into condos. (It is one of the few castles in France where this has been done).
We arranged to see the one-bedroom apartment which was on sale, drove there for a look, and fell in love at first sight.
We bought it on the spot and have never regretted our swift purchase for one minute. It is a magical getaway and very much our ‘true’ home with its beauty and its history and its quirks (because funny things happen when you own a condo in a castle).
But that’s another story!
As for the second question: “Which country do you like best ?”
Here is what I answer: Apples and oranges. I don’t compare.
When I am in France, I do not yearn to be in the States.
When I am in the States, I do not yearn to be in France.
I love the States because I grew up there and have deep roots, with three ancestors from the Netherlands whose ships landed on the shores of American before the Mayflower. My entire family, mother, father, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and great-grandparents are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Shenandoah, Iowa where I grew up.
I left the States permanently in 1971 and now only go there on visits. But I remain American through and through.
As for France, it was an affair of choice.
I chose to come here, to marry, to take French citizenship and add it to my American one, to spend my life here.
My roots are not here, but my heart is.
And practically speaking, when I return to the States, I find that it has changed so much since I was a young girl growing up in Iowa that I would have a hard time adapting.
My first visit to France
The first time I came to France was the summer between my junior and my senior year at the University of Michigan.
As my traveling companion and I boarded a Bateau Mouche, I really had the feeling I was stepping into an Impressionist painting. I loved everything about Paris on sight, from the grouchy concierge in our small hotel to the grey slate Paris rooftops we saw from the windows to the strong black coffee and the smell of croissants.
I returned to college, graduated, then bought a ticket to France – one way.
I didn’t come to find a husband although my French husband Philippe likes to say I did just to tease me. The fact is that I DID meet a handsome French man and I did marry him and I stayed and never returned to the States to live.
Philippe and I met at Le Select on the Boulevard Montparnasse. It is the café that was the gathering place of writers and artists from Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Kiki de Montparnasse (think Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris). Last year we returned to celebrate the anniversary of our meeting and we were happy to see that so little has changed from the courteous black and white-uniformed waiters to the excellent champagne.
What I love about France
I once asked a couple of businessmen sitting near me in a café what it was that they liked about Paris. One of them drew back, looked around him thoughtfully, and replied:
I couldn’t agree with him more. In my book, Joie de Vivre, Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French, I devote an entire chapter to what composes French style and élan and panache. In France, for example how you do things is as important as what you do.
A small example: I am putting potatoes on the table and my French husband whisks the plate back into the kitchen to add a dash of parsley. Those banal white potatoes suddenly became immeasurably more attractive.
Style, I think, would be THE thing that distinguishes the French from other nationalities.
Am I a different person when I’m there?
I am as American as apple pie. I have a friendly, open Midwesterner’s face which explains why out of 200 people on a French street, I am the one people immediately navigate to for directions.
I don’t think that I am different in terms of personality when in France but it is true that early on I learned to dress like a French woman and don’t feel that I am ‘dressed’ for the day unless I have on accessories – perfume, a scarf (LOVE scarves) and a special piece of jewelry.
Cooking like the French
After watching my French mother-in-law cook and serve meals, I now turn out five-course repasts as well. But before admiring me (or suspecting me of playing with the truth), you have to consider that there is such a wealth of good food in this country and so many places to buy wonderful pâtés or terrific light pastries that you can assemble a mix of what you have made yourself and what professionals have made.
In the U.S., for some people, a ‘store-bought’ dessert is almost an insult. In France, if it comes from a top patisserie, it is, on the contrary, a sign of honor to your guests.
From the local traiteur (caterer) to the king of traiteurs such as Le Nôtre, you can turn out a stunning meal in no time at all as long as you observe the basics
– don’t forget the bread,
– don’t forget to take the cheese out of the fridge at least a good hour before serving,
– set a pretty table that’ll showcase the special meal you have planned for your guests and
– don’t let them in the kitchen to help!
For more on all I have learned on things like this by living in France, read my first three books (see below).
And to finish this, just a little story…
Making the best of a bad thing—Paris in lockdown
During lockdown in March, my husband turned to me and said:
“The worse you feel, the better you should look and act”. I knew what he meant because he has often said this (it is so French!).
So he went out to find the best champagne and seafood and I set a pretty table and we both got dressed up as you will see in the pictures below. It was just the two of us, at home, but making that extra effort got our minds off the bad news of COVID and gave us one very special moment. On this occasion and many others, I can say “Vive la France!”
My favourite area in France—how to choose?
I have so many favorite places in France that it’s hard to pick out the one I love the most.
- I love Alsace with its brightly colored gingerbread houses and its succulent choucroute and Riesling wines;
- I love Brittany with its steep cliffs jutting out over an ocean with crashing waves and its crêpes and cider;
- I love the Touraine, the home of the castles of the kings and purest French in France.
- I never tire of visiting Normandy and the D-Day landing beaches and WW2 history museums as well as the well-kept and moving American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach.
- I love the little town of Bayeux and the famous Bayeux Tapestry;
- I love Provence and the arrière-pays of the Nice with the high and sparsely populated Mercantour mountains.
My mother-in-law grew up in the Périgord and it was there that the drama I write about in my latest novel, Final Transgression, took place. I have visited the region many times for research and benefitted from these trips to feast on Périgourdine specialties such as les truffes and foie gras.
I realize I would have to write another book to explain which regions I like the most and why – and that includes unknown or overlooked regions such as the Creuse or the Lorraine. Each French region has its own personality and offerings and as often as we can, we make trips to various parts of France.
One fairly recent memorable trip took us to Lille where we toured the city and admired the northern Flemish architecture and visited the Louvre Museum in Lens right next to Lille. I was expecting a sub-Louvre where the curators put the less important works and I was totally wrong.
It is a modern building with an impressive collection of masterpieces that alternate between Lens and the Louvre in Paris. There’s everything to love, including a wonderful restaurant on the grounds. It was scalding hot the day we visited the museum but we found a table in the shade where we gratefully drank cold white wine and treated ourselves to a lovely meal.
Perrone near the Somme battlefields
On our way back to Paris we stopped in the charming village of Perrone near the Somme battlefields to visit the Museum of the Great War inside the town’s medieval castle. I didn’t even know the town or the castle or the museum existed but of course my French husband did. He is a veritable encyclopedia (and a historian with a Ph. D from the Sorbonne) so when with him I am literally with a fountain of knowledge. Lucky me!
My Favorite places to eat
Ironically, France being a marvelous place to eat, I do not have a roster of restaurants for the good reason that my French mother-in-law was such a good cook. Why go to a restaurant when you are lucky enough to have a French mother-in-law and sister-in-law who routinely make all the French dishes we love – blanquette de veau, ratatouille, créme caramel (my mother-in-law’s crème caramel is even better than the one served at Christian Constant’s Les Cocottes in the 7th and it is good!).
But, of course, we do love French restaurants such as Les Cocottes, and Le Buisson Ardent in the 5th where the menu and hospitality are wonderful. Nearer us, in the 11th arrondissement is Chez Paul Bert (which we went to before it got discovered).
Dining in France—a top chef’s tip
A note on dining in France: A top chef I was interviewing one day for Joie de Vivre told me that the mark of a good meal is that the food is made from excellent products (you can’t make good food from substandard or even ‘just ok’ products) – and conviviality. Now that I think about it, all the memorable meals I have had in France, whether at home or in a restaurant, had both these essential ingredients.
My favorite walks
I often post texts and pictures of my walks in Paris on Facebook so feel free to friend me if you want to see where I go.
20th Arrondissement—discovering jewels
I live in the 20th arrondissement near the Père Lachaise cemetery. The neighborhood is a mixture of quiet and residential with secret passageways and little houses and a vibrant multi-ethnic population which brings a buzz and urban feel. Tourists and even Parisians generally do not know this area or come this way other than to see the famous Père Lachaise cemetery which is well worth the trip.
So when I post about the walks I take not only in my neighborhood but from it to, say, the Place de la Bastille or the Jardin des Plantes and talk about and show what I see on the way, my friends and followers are delighted to be on the trip with me. Some say “Can I come with you?” and I have to tell them “no” because the whole point of wandering is to be alone, to be on the lookout for what is unusual, to be serendipitous.
If you do come over this way, you will find some real jewels…
One is the Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne on the rue de Bagnolet. This 11th-century church was here when the arrondissement was comprised of fields (hence the name of some of the streets such as la rue de Prairies and the rue des Vignes). It is one of only two churches in Paris to have its own adjacent graveyard.
When you stroll through that tiny cemetery (where you will see the tombs of the sons of the writer and former Cultural Minister André Malraux, and that of Robert Brasillach, a right-wing intellectual and collaborator executed at the end of WW2) you truly feel you are in the country rather than the big city.
My best purchase ever
Definitely my Yves Saint Laurent silk scarf of many colors (vibrant reds and golds) that I fell upon in a vintage store in Le Marais. The scarf, which is so big it can be used as a shawl, literally ‘makes’ whatever outfit I am wearing. A real find! I would gladly give the name of the store but it has since closed. I guess I would just say that if you like vintage, there are plenty of vintage stores in Paris in which spend happy moments browsing.
My most memorable experiences
I have had many wonderful memorable experiences because unlike tourists or people with part-time homes in France, I live here all the time.
Although I have many American and English-speaking friends, the language I speak the most is French, my neighbors are French and the people I deal with on a daily basis are French so finding occasions to speak French at this point in my life are not a memorable experience (but they certainly were when I first arrived).
The memorable experiences I have had as an ‘insider’ are of a different nature. For example, one I remember well was the night that my husband’s company privatized the entire Pompidou Museum (Beaubourg) for a huge party and offered groups of two or three people a private tour of some of the works with one of the curators. What an extraordinary and privileged experience it was to be standing in front of a painting and having it explained to you by the curator in charge of that particular department. And the buffet… it was served by a world-class traiteur, where the various canapés and finger foods were extraordinary and the champagne flowed.
It was a very French experience in the way people dressed – the men in well-tailored suits, the women in their little black dresses (thank you, Coco Chanel) with one perfect jewel or one perfect scarf. And all that with the special sparkle the French emanate when they are enjoying themselves. I was happy to be a part of that.
Another memorable experience: the day that I took French nationality in 1996. To celebrate, Philippe invited me to dinner at the Pré Catalan in the Bois de Boulogne. The food and wine were of course sumptuous and that particular night it was snowing outside (snow is unusual in Paris) . As I looked out the windows of the exquisite Napoleon III pavillon and watched the flakes softly decorate the lawn, I knew I would never forget this very special moment.
I was now French!
A few tips to share…
I have said it and many others have as well: To enjoy your trip to France, don’t forget to speak the French you know even if it is minimum. A “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame” will change your life!
It is essential to preface a question on directions, or when you enter a shop, with this “Bonjour”. Why? The greeting acknowledges the presence of the person to whom you are speaking. If you do not bother to add a Bonjour before your question, it is tantamount (in the French person’s mind) to treating him or her as an object. Voilà!
Another tip I often share with student groups – if you want to soak up a culture, sit down in a café and watch the French. Stroll down streets and look at the architecture of the buildings. Gradually, through osmosis, French culture will start seeping in, even without a history book. France has a long and rich history and you will uncover layers of it as you move about.
I am a person who is easily bored but in 2021 I will have lived in France for 50 years and I can truthfully say that I have never suffered from ennui even though that is a wonderful French word.
And if you’d like to know more about Harriet
2. And I recommend you buy and read Harriet’s recently published novel ‘Final Transgression: One Woman’s Tragic Destiny in War-torn France’.
Read our review here
of Harriet Welty Rochefort’s
most recent book: ‘
3. Discover more from Harriet on her own site harrietweltyrochefort.com
Harriet Welty Rochefort—Favorite Restaurants:
1. Les Cocottes, 135 rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris
2. Le Buisson Ardent, 25 rue Jussieu, 75005 Paris
3. Le Paul Bert, rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris
4. Le Pré Catalan, Route de Suresnes, Bois de Boulogne
5. Le Select, 99 Boulevard de Montparnasse, 75006 Paris
Harriet Welty Rochefort—Favorite Places:
1. American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer
2. Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
3. Museum of the Great War, Place André Audinot, 80200 Peronne
4. Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne, 4 Saint-Blaise, 75020 Paris
5. Louvre museum in Lens
Thank you, Harriet, how fascinating to find out more about your French life. You are, an inspiration to many other members.
Can you relate to the life and experiences of Harriet Welty Rochefort? Do you have ‘French Dreams’ similar to what Harriet did so many years ago? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Read more interviews of inspiring Francophiles
1. Keith Van Sickle
2. Ray Johnstone
3. Henrie Richer
4. Janet Hulstrand
5. Virginia Jones
6. Gina Hunt
7. Jane S. Gabin
8. Susan Kiernan-Lewis
9. Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan
All images are copyright Harriet Welty Rochefort