Dublin native Caroline Rooney-Merle has made France her home over the last 20 years. It was a love affair with the country that began when she was still very young
“I remember the first French holiday that we had with my parents through Brittany Ferries. My mam bought me a French dictionary and I was so keen on the French language… I had a wicked accent! But I thought that French was so romantic and lovely. Later on, I did French and German in college and I really just loved the French more than anything else.”
Caroline father’s job afforded her regular opportunities to come to France. He worked for a company that was part of the Irish-based international DCC Group, which imported two different brands of Cognac. It was this connection that helped to land her a summer job in the town of Cognac with the brandy company Camus.
The powerful lure of France was such that Caroline moved over two weeks after completing her college course. She had not only fallen in love with France but with a Frenchman.
“The first thing that drew me here was the French language: it’s so gorgeous and I loved speaking French, I thought that everything French was chic and that French men were so romantic! That is a myth, I’d have to say… French men are just the same as any other men.”
Things didn’t work out quite as planned and Caroline and her first husband married and subsequently divorced.
“I spent quite a few years on my own,” she says, “bringing up my two eldest children. I worked as a tourist guide doing bilingual – or sometimes trilingual – tours with Hennessy, with Martell, with Rémy-Martin… I also worked for Courvoisier and Camus.This work was seasonal only, however, and it wasn’t until her Cognac contacts landed her a marketing/communications role in the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac – a state-sponsored association of French brandy producers) that her career began to take in a more permanent manner. Her knowledge of English and German meant that she was working on the front line with the international promotion of French brandy in Germany, Britain and the USA. She was also a point of contact for visiting foreign journalists who were coming to France to learn about the story of Cognac.
“It was a fabulous job… It was great fun altogether! I met so many different people, I visited all of the Cognac producers so I got to learn a lot about Cognac and to know a lot of people in the Cognac world.”
In the meantime, Caroline’s personal life had also been transformed. She had remarried and started another family. After about four years of working for the BNIC, however, she found that stretching her time between work and home had become a bit difficult, particularly after the arrival of twins. Her second husband Ludovic is a chef and the often erratic and inflexible hours that her job demanded made it impossible to manage both.“I took a year out and at the end of that, I decided to stay ‘out’ and work with Ludovic and that’s when we decided to open the little boutique hotel Le Ligaro in Jarnac.”
Jarnac is a very pleasant town on the banks of the Charente river that, like many settlements on this river, made its fortune from the brandy trade. The couple’s 3-star boutique hotel is the only one in the centre of town and the couple chose its name by amalgamating the first letters of their children (Liam, Gabrielle and Rosanna).
The hotel opened in 2012 – an addition to Ludovic’s successful restaurant Le Château. Caroline assumed the role of management and promotional activity for the hotel, as well as running a catering business that the couple also operate. Last year, they got the opportunity to appear on national television reality show “Bienvenue à l’hôtel” (Welcome to the Hotel) – where couples from different parts of France compete against one another and attribute scores on one another’s establishments in the pursuit of hotel and catering perfection.“I wasn’t keen on it at the beginning – I don’t like the reality television kind of thing. Ludovic said it would be good advertising for the restaurant and the hotel. It was fun, I’d have to say. It was beneficial to the business but not in the way that we expected it to be. When we thought about it, most of our clients are business clients and they’re not the kind of people that would be sitting down in front of the telly at home at 6pm. So it didn’t give us much feedback in that sense but what it did allow us to do was to meet other people in the hotel business, particularly those who won – Christine and Patrick in Nice. We became part of a group of independent hotels called ‘Authentic Hotels and Cruises‘, which has given us a bit of extra business.”
It’s a busy year with all three businesses running but it’s this time of year that everything slows down as most French citizens concentrate on organising their tax affairs and start to look ahead to the coming year.
“We close the restaurant for two weeks,” says Caroline, “but the hotel remains open.” This year, they’ll be taking a well-earned break in West Cork. Caroline’s husband Ludovic has already begun to fall in love with Ireland, having first visited her homeland a few years back.
“There are loads of little differences – little cultural differences. Even after more than 20 years of living over here, the differences are still there… I’d have to say that I don’t find it easy to make really good friends over here, even with the connections you make through schools.”For the moment at least, Caroline and Ludovic’s life remains in France, with their three children and Caroline’s two older children from her first marriage. There are benefits to living in France that Caroline does appreciate, particularly in the relative simplicity of life that stems, perhaps, from the same orderliness that inhibits the friendliness that comes so much easier in Ireland:
“Thinking of when I was bringing up my children here – the older two – I felt that it was a safer place than at home. I still think that it holds true for the twins and Liam as well. Life is a little bit more simplistic over here and I really like that. Sometimes when I compare the situation with people I know at home who have kids the same age, it’s very different. For birthday parties, for example; in Ireland, people are ordering in blow-up castles and clowns and there’s maybe a swimming-pool full of beer for the adults and there’s a whole load of sweets and entertainment… the whole thing must cost a bomb and the kids are on a sugar-high by the end of it. Over here, you have a birthday party and you might have four or five kids from school. They come over to your house, you bake a cake. There are no clowns, it’s all very simple and the kids enjoy it.“That’s what I like a lot about France: things are a little more simple. The example of the birthday party is a good one. When I go home, I also notice that a lot of kids are going around the big shopping centres at the weekend and there’s a lot of ‘buy me this’; they have a lot of the latest clothes, the latest toys. Over here, there’s less importance given to those things. Even the way children eat, I see a lot of people in Ireland making a separate meal for the kids and it’s obviously going to be chicken nuggets and chips or something else with chips, with soft drinks at the table. That’s absolutely not the way it is over here. The children learn from an early age – whether it’s at the crèche or at the canteen in school – to eat properly and to eat everything that adults are eating as well. It’s a much healthier way of eating. All the kids eat really well here.”
When it comes to taxation, Caroline says that although Ludovic is the head of the household in such matters, she does wonder at why companies are so heavily taxed in France and why employers have to pay such a large amount of tax for employing someone (approximately 46% PRSI equivalent compared to 12% in Ireland): “It seems to me that the harder you work and more people you employ, the more tax you pay.”
There is currently just one other employee in the hotel, who is shared with the restaurant. This staff member is supplemented by an apprentice during the season. Caroline says that they would love to employ more people but it’s simply too expensive to do so right now.
The high taxes do mean that life is a bit easier when you need to avail of the social services. A visit to the doctor, for example, might cost you a comparable €48 but it will be fully reimbursed afterwards.She talks too about the people that take the generous French welfare system for what it’s worth and who have no intention of working and contributing to the country. She’s not so sure that the system is as balanced as many make it out to be. There are, she says, many people who only need to work a couple of hours a month and live off the benefits thereafter. For them, it’s not really worth their while going into a full-time job and they know it.
Monday is their day off and then they tend to go out to a family-friendly Aire in the summer, where the children can play and they eat together. “There’s a nice plat du jour and then there’s a play area for the children as well and you can go kayaking or go on pedalo boats on the River Charente. We would often go there because you can sit and eat outdoors – a great advantage that my parents keep reminding me of. During the holidays in February, we tend to go to the Auvergne.” She admits to not being much of a skier but loves the ambiance and the food associated with a visit to the mountains of the Massif Central.
For someone who has lived and seen the best and the worst that French life can offer, what is the best and what is the worst aspect about life in France?
“The worst thing about France is the people: I must qualify that by saying that what I really miss is the friendliness and the openness of the Irish people that I don’t find over here.
“The best point of France would be their more simplistic lifestyle in relation to bringing up my children: the little local schools… the simple things in life, be it food-wise, education or the birthday parties.”