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Boeremeisie transplanted to the heart of France

Cape Argus, March 03, 2005 - Vivien Horler

Afrikaans author Marita van der Vyver , who now writes from the depths of the Provençal countryside in France, has been on holiday in her homeland and to promote her new book about Griet, called Travelling Light. Staff Writer Vivien Horler spoke to her about life in France, writing, and of course the new book

Marita van der Vyver turns up for the interview with five-year-old Mia in tow. "Sorry about this," she says with an apologetic smile. "My babysitter let me down."

We're having tea at the Nellie, all frightfully swish, but Mia is not particularly interested in sitting quietly and listening to the conversation.

After a fair bit of wriggling and whispering on Mia's part, Van der Vyver says exasperatedly: "Ag, Mia, jy't mos gesê jy gaan soet wees."

And Mia climbs on to her mother's lap, wraps her arms around her neck, and murmurs: "Je t'aime, Maman."

Van der Vyver may be an Afrikaans author, rooted deep in South African soil, but her daughter is a little French girl whose second language is Afrikaans, a personification, almost, of the fundamental shift in Van der Vyver's life since she settled in France.

The author of the wonderful Griet Skryf 'n Sprokie (translated into English as Entertaining Angels) has been on holiday here with Mia and her son Daniel, 13, leaving her husband Alain and his two sons at home in Provence.

She is also here to publicise her new book Travelling Light (first published in Afrikaans as Griet Kom Weer). In Travelling Light, Griet has met a gorgeous Italian puppeteer during a sabbatical in the United States, and now, back in South Africa, is trying to conduct a long-distance relationship via e-mails and the telephone.

Then Luca announces he's coming to South Africa for a two-month holiday, so he can get to know where she comes from.

Although Griet is delighted, the prospect is unnerving. She is plagued by doubts, not the least of which are to do with leaving her own daughter to go travelling with Luca, and introducing her new Italian lover to her mother and her clutch of opinionated sisters.

Luca, a widower, has a cool young daughter who is not overly impressed by Griet, but that's not the biggest problem. How do you compete with a dead wife? Griet wonders despairingly.

Van der Vyver writes convincingly about love, about doubt, about the bossy relationship between sisters, about the ambiguous feelings between mother and adult daughter, and the tenderness between mother and child.

She has the enviable ability to write of the gentle drama of everyday life, a story in which nothing particularly exciting happens, and that nevertheless keeps you glued until the last page.

Towards the end, Griet is faced with the enormous question of whether she should let Luca go home alone, or whether she should join him in Italy.

I won't tell you what she decides, but we know what Van der Vyver herself did: she took Daniel and went off to France to join Alain and his two sons. Mia is their child.

She went to France in the first place for the experience of living in a French village for a year. And while she was there she met this gorgeous, newly divorced Frenchman ...

At the end of the year she and Daniel came home, but the relationship with Alain continued long-distance. Eventually they decided they had to be together, and since he is a teacher who speaks little English, and she is a writer able to work virtually anywhere, it made sense that she should move.

She decided she would give herself five years, regardless of how the relationship went. Happily it went well, and Mia is now five. It's been good, but it's not always been easy.

"We've run into lots of cultural differences," she says. "For instance, one of my fondest childhood memories is of all of us snuggling up in my parents' bed on Sunday mornings.

"But Alain doesn't like that at all. French people are very private about their bedrooms, and he doesn't want the children swarming all over the bedroom." So what do they do about it? "We fight about it," she says cheerfully. It's also difficult living in another language. "I've a different personality in France - it was forced on me. I can't be witty in French, and so when we go to dinner parties I tend to sit quietly."

She has a love-hate relationship with the French. "They're very conceited - they don't give a damn what other people think of them."

She likes the anonymity of France, though. "I enjoy that. I nearly got mobbed in Aurora the other day!" She was visiting her father in the small hill town near Piketberg when she was recognised by people who had seen her guest appearance in the TV soapie Sewende Laan.

She has written about her experiences of settling into France in a new, mostly non-fiction book (so far published only in Afrikaans) called Die Hart van ons Huis - which, she giggles, had the working title 'n Boer in Provence.

"It's 90% non-fiction, but because I live in the village and my children go to school there, I created two generic characters of the sort found in every French village: a nosy older woman and a barfly - so that I could put in the bitchy bits."

France isn't as glamorous as many South Africans think, says Van der Vyver, but when it comes to crime it has liberated her physically and emotionally. "At one point we lost the front door key for five months.

"There are of course social problems there, but the gap between the rich and the poor there is not nearly as big as it is here."

In France she misses friends and family, and things that are unavailable there, like Marmite, jelly, and wholemeal rusks.

"There are wonderful patisseries where you can get pastries and croissants, but they're all so light. I wanted something solid, so I started baking my own beskuit - something I'd never do here."

After writing about Griet's journey in South Africa with Luca, she took her husband, his teenage sons, her own son and Mia on a journey through South Africa's drylands, ending up in Namibia.

"I wanted to show the boys wild open spaces. Travelling with kids who were then 17, two 11-year-olds and a three-year-old could have been a disaster, but it was wonderful. Now the boys know where I come from - as Europeans they didn't believe you could drive 200km and see absolutely nothing."

She is working on a new novel, "quite a serious one, it seems", about a South African couple in France on a sabbatical. Her next book out will be a collection of short stories published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans, stories she has written over the past eight years that all have travel as a theme.

Van der Vyver works as a freelance journalist from time to time, and finds it quite different from writing novels. "Fiction comes from the gut, while non-fiction comes from the head. I think it's to do with the language - my fiction is always written in Afrikaans, my mother tongue, my "moertaal".

"It's not something I can intellectualise about. A lot of fiction happens subconsciously. The story takes its own course, and when I'm writing the first draft I tend to go with the flow.

"After that comes the boring refining part, the rewriting, the commas and the synonyms.

"The most exciting part of a book is before I write one word on paper, when I'm thinking out the story. It's like a game, playing God, inventing these lives and giving people names and ages and a personal history - it's all in your head and everything is still possible, you don't know where it's going to take you."

As the story develops and the characters interact with each other, there is a closing of the possibilities and the excitement fades."

But there is still the moment when the completed books arrive.

"That's a very exciting moment, and I'm still not jaded about that."

Then come the reviews. Another advantage of living in France, she says, is that "you don't see all the awful reviews if you live somewhere else!"

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