From the moment Janet Hulstrand waltzed into Essoyes as a bright-eyed seasonal grape-picker, it was love at first sight. The rest, as they say, is history…
Why did you choose Essoyes?
Well, Essoyes chose me, in a way. I first went there to pick grapes in the vendange. I fell in love with the village, the people, that part of Champagne instantly; and was drawn back there again and again, as often as I could go, until finally my husband and I bought a home there.
What were you looking for when you bought the property?
We were looking for a home in a village that was large enough to provide all the necessary services and conveniences, because we wanted to be able to offer writing and art workshops, and we thought that would be best for our students. We needed a place that would allow us to have a studio space. We were also looking for a town that was small enough to be peaceful – and affordable!
What aspects of small-town life do you enjoy most?
I love the quiet and the predictable pace of life. I am a writer, and writers need a certain amount of solitude in order to do their work. But I also love being part of a community where every person counts. It’s inspiring to see what even small communities can do when they work together collectively. Essoyes has done amazing things for such a small town.
Any local produce you’ve taken a particular shine to?
Well, obviously, the local champagnes, which are wonderful! But there are also some great local cheeses made in Chaource, and also in Mussy-sur-Seine.
What about the local architecture and history?
Essoyes is best-known for having been the beloved summer home of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his family. Over the last few years the village, with help from the département, Government and private donors has lovingly – and very impressively – renovated the family home, which was being used until 2012 by a great-granddaughter of the painter and her family. It’s also interesting to know that the château in the middle of the village was built by Olympe Hériot, who made his fortune by founding one of the grand department stores in Paris in the late 19th century. Part of the château is now the elementary school. Quite a nice place to begin one’s education.
How did you find interacting with the locals?
We have felt very welcome in Essoyes. We do have friends from the area who were our first connection to the place years ago, and that probably helps. I think it also helps that we all speak French. Generally speaking, the French are quite private and somewhat reserved. It takes time to get to know them, and it’s important to learn the basic rules of etiquette; for example, never forgetting to say “Bonjour” before you leap into the business at hand. If you remember that you’re the foreigner, and this is their home, you will find the French to be as kind and considerate as people anywhere.
How was your French when you arrived?
I had a good academic basis from which to begin. But I couldn’t really function very well in a practical sense until I’d had a lot of practice, and made tons of mistakes. I think it’s important to get over the fear of making mistakes right from the start, because it’s inevitable. My husband knew virtually no French but he learned the language his way, which was purely through trial and error.
What has surprised you most about living in that part of France?
How little I miss the excitement of cities when I’m in Essoyes! I do love cities, especially New York and Paris. But every time I get to Essoyes I am very happy to just be there, and it’s hard to drag me away. In a little village it’s easier to do all those things you wish you could without so many distractions.
What is your favourite French phrase?
My absolutely favourite, simply for its poetic cadence, is: Attention à la marche en descendant du train – mind the step between the train and the platform.
Janet Hulstrand is the author of the Writing from the Heart, Reading from the Road blog. She offers writing workshops in Essoyes, Champagne.