Remember a few weeks ago I chatted about introducing you to some expats who have set up their own businesses here and have made France their home? Well today I am really excited to get this started and to introduce you to Leanne, who is Canadian. She has lived in France for many years with her French husband, Sylvain, and together they make artisanal soaps. These are soaps that are handmade with only pure natural ingredients, soaps that look so good and smell so divine one almost wants to eat them!
This entire interview is so enriching and filled with such good advice it will have you mentally packing your bags, if you don’t already live here!
We first met Leanne and Sylvain in 2008. We were sitting outside the local café enjoying a cup of coffee in the autumn sunshine; it was market day in the tiny picturesque town of Sauveterre de Bearn in the Pyrenees Atlantique. Leanne and Sylvain were selling their soaps at a small stand and they wandered across the road and sat at the table next to us. By chance, we were introduced. In some ways it seems like only yesterday.
Firstly, how did you meet Sylvain?
Far away from both of our home lands! On a Caribbean island where we were both living and working many years ago; we actually met on a boat (he was the Captain, of course).
Did you speak French at the time and did he speak English?
I studied French immersion in Canada from 12 to 15 years old but it was deeply buried in my subconscious. We “met” in English, which Sylvain speaks quite well and my full time French came when I moved here.
When did you come to live in France full time?
In 2000, so 16 years ago.
Had you visited France as a child and did you ever imagine whilst growing up you would end up living here?
The only other time I had been to France was on a school trip when I was 15 years old. Wow, did we get up to a lot of trouble on that trip! Strangely, I remembered only a few years ago that – after that trip – I had said (to myself) that one day I would live here.
How easy was it to adapt to life in France when you first arrived?
I was lucky enough to have ONE English-speaking friend, who was my savior. I realized much later how lucky I was to be surrounded mostly by people that did not speak English. We lived in a small flat in Bayonne and were friends with all the other residents. We had coffee chez Claude, aperitif chez Christophe & Antoinette etc… because of these people my very rusty French progressed quite quickly. I made the decision, upon arriving here full time, to speak only French with Sylvain. Best decision! It was tough for about 6 months, feeling like the girlfriend with not much personality sitting smiling in the corner 🙂
Even though you are married to a Frenchman, do you still consider yourself Canadian and a foreigner or do you consider yourself very much French?
I think and dream in French sometimes! I have wholeheartedly adopted the French way of life, but will always consider myself Canadian at heart. I feel lucky to be both.
Together you have built the most amazing eco house, can you tell me a little more about it, was this Sylvain’s idea?
9 years ago, after failing to find that perfect old stone house to renovate, we decided to build. Being from a “young country”, I didn’t see the charm in the usual new builds you see in France. After some research, I found the Straw Bale / Earth Plaster technique and we adopted that immediately, but at first for purely esthetic reasons. Thick rounded walls and a rustic look. The whole ECO thing swung into full gear quite naturally during the 18 month build and we ended up going quite far in that adventure (composting toilets and all!). We have solar panels for hot water that keep us going, without using the electric back-up, from May to October. The house is heated with only a central wood burning stove which makes it all very inexpensive to run.
Are you enjoying living in an eco house?
We love it! It is a very comfortable house for our family and business.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?
As mentioned the running costs are low due to the solar panels, insulation, wood stove and composting toilets. We spend less than 200€ per year to heat the house (150m2) and are usually too hot, and rarely too cold. The house breaths as well; we can cook fish in our open kitchen for example, without having an extractor fan. A small disadvantage is maybe that bugs like our house too! Though as we are in the countryside that may be the case for others as well. The house resists rain and humidity very well, though during an exceptionally severe storm bits of our earthen plaster have been known to end up on the ground. We are on top of a hill so we’re very exposed to the elements.
When did you first decide to make soap?
Very quickly after arriving in France 16 years ago. I started the company with an Irish friend named Edina and when we decided to go our separate ways professionally I carried on the business with Sylvain on board. I have always been a fan of artisanal soaps and was very disappointed with what I found here in France, especially with the reputation French soaps have worldwide. After a lot of research we found that very little soap was actually still made in France. The “savoir faire” had been almost completely lost. We were the only soap makers making Cold Processed soap in France at the time and are proud to have participated in bringing hand-made quality soap back to this country. There are now over 100 small Cold Process soap-makers alongside the very small handful of “savon de Marseilles” producers that still exist.
I know you have taught soap making in other countries, can you tell me a little more about this?
As well as our courses here in the Southwest and Paris, we usually offer one course per year in Belgium. Next spring we have one planned for Bruges. Further afield, we have taught our course in Switzerland and Canada. I also had the wonderful opportunity to participate alongside 7 other European soap makers in a project in Port Harcourt Nigeria. We taught 2500 people in 2 weeks under a tent in 40°C heat with 95% humidity ! A little bit hardcore but a great experience… There is much work to be done in Africa and Asia, where domestic soap making skills have been lost and people are using our (low quality) industrial products when they have everything they need to make their own amazing quality soap.
Setting up small businesses in France is notoriously difficult, have you found this to be the case, or has it been relatively straight forward?
Yes, it is complicated and I admit that without Sylvain it would have been much more complicated! He has a background in management and accounting, so that has been very handy indeed. As well as our main Soap Making Course that we have been teaching for eleven years, we now offer a business course for new soap makers wanting to set up a small Savonnerie.
What are your goals for the future?
We have written 2 books on the subject of soap making. Who knows if there may be another in our future, maybe on another subject ! We are very “live in the moment” people so my goals today are to maintain the level that our business is at and keep my family happy and healthy. I don’t need much more than that. Our economic model has always been based on reaching a comfortable level of revenue and work load and maintaining that. We are not looking for growth. Time is the most precious thing that our professional life has allowed us.
Were the children born in France, and if so, do you have any advice for mothers-to-be?
Both children where born here. My advice to mothers-to-be would be to stick to your guns about how you want your birth to take place. Hospital births here are quite medicalized (compared to Canada) and I didn’t feel like I had much say. Same with breast feeding. Look to other mothers for support. Visit hospitals and clinics as for my second, I stumbled upon an amazing public hospital that were very open and innovative.
What advice would you give anyone coming to live in France?
Learn to speak French! Be wary of immediately surrounding yourself with fellow expats (do that later). This happens so naturally but you really need to find your French friends first. Don’t be shy about speaking French, they love your accent no matter how many mistakes you make 😉 I also think we can really contribute to preserving French traditions before they fizzle away with world domination! Go to the market (not the supermarket), buy direct from producers and get to know them. Eat a proper meal at lunch and eat all meals sitting down with family or friends. Go to your local café on a regular basis, read the paper and drink a nice coffee. Slow down, remember why you came to live here… 🙂
Well what can I say, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. I have always found their passion for life so inspirational. If you would like to learn more about their amazing soaps or purchase them online you can visit Leanne and Sylvain’s website, Aroma Nature here. It is in both French and English.