By Dan Carlinsky, Special to Western News
Jan Chung was chatting about the 32 trips she’s taken to France and thinking ahead to No. 33.
“OK, it’s an obsession. But it’s a happy obsession.”
Today, Chung has turned that obsession into one of the world’s most popular travel blogs making the Western alumna a go-to authority for both seasoned and first-time travelers to France. It is a standing she owes – at least a bit – to an internal wanderlust and a 1960s British rom-com.
Like her Toronto schoolmates, Chung started learning French at a young age; she found she had a facility for the language. Then – still very young – she saw Two for the Road, a 1967 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as an English couple on a voyage through southern France. She fell in love with the country from afar.
“You never know what early experiences may shape your life. I started to look at travel brochures and dream about touring the French countryside.”
Through high school, she studied French. The summer before her first year at Western, she traveled with her parents and a sister to France for the first time, visiting Paris and Provence. There, the dream became a reality and she was on her way to being hooked.
“A few days after I got back to Toronto, I moved to London to start university. The impact of that trip was on my mind. I talked a lot about France to my roommate and to other students. I was taken with the hill towns of Provence – the slower pace, the beauty. Even today, I go back to a village like Gordes and just sit and stare. It’s so beautiful.”
The slower pace. The beauty. And don’t forget the wine.
“We stayed not far from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so that was the local wine, and we drank it like water because it was so cheap then. It’s still my favourite.”
At Western, though, Chung, BA’81, temporarily put aside the land and the language – she majored in Political Science, finishing her degree in three years. After graduation, she went to work in advertising and promotion. But after several years working for multinational companies, she wanted out.
“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I knew I wanted to help people. That’s so much more satisfying than pitching spaghetti sauce.”
She earned an education degree and launched a second career as a teacher and guidance counselor, eventually handling every level from kindergarten to Grade 8. After several years, she was teaching math and counseling and loving it.
“There were days, I had to stop myself from saying out loud, ‘I love my job so much you don’t have to pay me.’”
Then one day Chung received a phone call offering her a vice principal position. She fell for it. The move into administration, she recalled with candor, was a huge mistake. “I succumbed to flattery. It was all about ego, and more money. I never anticipated the unbelievable stress the job would bring, constantly having to fight the school board bureaucracy.”
During school breaks and summers, as an escape from job pressures, she traveled to such places as Scotland, Greece and, repeatedly, France. After years of watching that old movie about travel in France – Two for the Road “over and over and over – I have the DVD” – she began to make its setting her life’s focus. She found herself truly stuck on the country, visiting at least two or three times a year.
Early in 2013, she took time off from her principal’s job in Toronto to care for her terminally ill mother. After her mother died, Chung retired at age 54 and promptly booked a long visit to France. She began writing a blog, France Travel Tips, a collection of weekly posts for first-time and repeat visitors mixed with informal reports of her own experiences in the country. Her short bio on the site’s home page begins:
“I’m Jan and I can’t stop going to France!”
To Chung, making frequent trips to the country she loves and writing the blog became a way she could continue to help people, but with no bureaucrats to answer to.
“After you’ve read Frommer and Lonely Planet, you need to go a little deeper. That’s what my blog is for.”
The basics are all there: Say “Bonjour” as soon as you enter a shop. Go to the Louvre at night, when the crowds are slightly smaller. To save money, forget hotels and rent a cottage or apartment.
But she gives a lot more.
The best travel memories, in Chung’s view, are never buildings or scenic views or souvenirs, they’re experiences. And that’s what she enjoys writing about.
If she goes on a language immersion week, takes a cooking class or joins a bike tour, she tells all about it.
Same when she goes running (another happy obsession). A favorite experience she deemed blogworthy was the Marathon du Médoc, a run through the vineyards of Bordeaux that attracts up to 10,000 contenders who dress in Halloween-style costume and are served foie gras, fresh oysters and local cheeses as a pick-me-up and cups of wine at the water stations every couple of kilometers along the route. The strictly for-fun free-for-all is billed as “the longest marathon in the world.”
It’s the kind of experience Chung wants all her readers to have.
Sour notes can rate a blog mention as well. A few years ago, touring in a rental car, she was given a speeding ticket. She came home to Toronto and wrote up the story with a warning for those who might drive in France with a heavy foot: “In the old days, driving in Europe was a free for all. The limit was 130 km/hr in France and everyone went over it. Not anymore. There is photo radar everywhere.”
France Travel Tips is often cited by other bloggers and has earned Chung a ranking on several lists of best blogs for Francophiles. For those who want to match their own travel plans to her trips, she’s created a map of locations she’s written about.
This year, Chung plans an extended stay in France from May into July, with an itinerary that has her hopping around several regions and ending in Paris in time to celebrate her birthday, which just happens to fall on July 14, Bastille Day. Parisians celebrate their national holiday with a parade on the Champs-Élysées. Chung figures that’s a fine way to mark a birthday too, so she’ll find a good spot to watch the spectacle.
Then, no doubt, she’ll go home and start planning visit No. 34.
“There’s so much to see in France. I can’t see it all. I try to follow the advice I give to others: to sometimes slow down and just enjoy where you are, and tell yourself you don’t have to see everything on your list right now. Because you’re going to go back.”