Thank You European Union

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It is Day Two of our new life in France, two days after the British people voted to dump the European Union.

A lot of us didn’t see it coming. Ironically, the first I heard of a referendum for Britain to leave the EU was on a plane from London to Canada back in 2012 just after purchasing our house in southwest France. Given the impulsiveness of our move to France, the referendum threat was just one of many anxiety triggers (like income flow, tax treaties, health care, French visas and the paperwork involved in my husband obtaining his British passport which was our ticket to living in Europe) and so I only remember a fleeting moment of panic and then disbelief – surely Britain would not be so stupid – before filing it under possible but highly unlikely in my worry box.

This morning, still a little bleary-eyed after the impromptu wake held by our expat friends here in our small village in the southwest of France Friday night, I’m forced to acknowledge that in fact the British have indeed done something incredibly stupid.

After 48 hours of incredulity and teeth gnashing about what happened and about what will happen next, I am enjoying a calm morning.

No one is up yet. I am in my office –- my kitchen — with the door open onto our courtyard where I can hear doves cooing.

I am characteristically calm in a big crisis; I spend all my anxious energy on the smaller ones. Until the day before yesterday the crisis de jour was my bungled French tax return and the unpleasant discovery that I am being double-taxed on dividend income thanks to something called French social taxes which fall outside the Canada-France tax treaty (although I would love to have lots of time and resources to fight that issue). I am often a basket case for a few days when the stock market crashes…last time 7 months ago with the plunge in oil prices. This is not because I am incredibly wealthy but because my pension income is directly affected by the stock market and I withdraw a salary which statistically puts me in the poverty income bracket in Canada.

But when the big stuff hits – my first husband dying – and after that being laid off my job — I summon some kind of survival instinct that puts me into Zen mode.

This morning that is serving me well as I think about what might happen. We may be forced to move back to Canada where we may find it difficult to afford a house. However, I don’t have big demands when it comes to housing. I never really have. Vancouver is out of the question of course, but a small house on Vancouver Island that has not been updated in a small town might work for us. If not we move to the other side of Canada, perhaps New Brunswick, where winter keeps the prices down, or Quebec where prices never recovered to what they are in the rest of Canada thanks to separation fears and close calls on sovereignty referendums.

If this happens I would be sad of course. I love our life here and I love our rustic 800 year old house. I love my cat and so I think I would take her with us although I worry about how horrible that trip might be for her (she can barely tolerate the car ride to the vet 20 kms away).

But part of the Zen is realizing how our gamble, that moment of impulsivity, paid off. Of course if I’d stayed in Vancouver I would be better off financially (although only by cashing out of that extension of the Chinese stock market called Vancouver real estate).

So the payoff here has been something other than financial. It has been three years of discovery where I’ve learned that what I value above anything material is experience. I always suspected that wealth and status didn’t mean much to me but it was harder to tell when I was working in Vancouver where the culture was much more concerned with those values.

Three years in rural France have taught me that I appreciate people with values more similar to my own. I’ve appreciated the people who have taken a similar gamble to live a simpler life in a beautiful place. I appreciate the people I’ve met who gave up pursuing money to pursue their own artistic interests. And although I can’t say that this is true of all the expats (there are some who have just created a smaller version of a British suburb and spend their time gossiping about who is sleeping with whom and all the other tattle that keeps lazy silly brains amused) it is true of most of them.

I know now that no matter where I end up that I enjoy a profound appreciation of beauty in nature and that I will always be inspired no matter where I am.

So as we wait for the fallout – how will the EU deal with British expats abroad and how will Britain deal with the 3 million expats in Britain – I will make the most of the wildflowers here, the medieval timber framed houses, the roses growing up ancient stone walls and the poppies in the wheat fields.

In my moment of calm, I vow to appreciate how truly wealthy I have been here in this beautiful part of the world. This posts gallery is a celebration of our most recent ‘field trips,’ the excursions we do in our hood and extended hood on a regular basis.


Oh Sweet Seville

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I’m so glad the campground was too far out of town.

We were a bit stressed upon our arrival in Seville as we had no plan or address – just an idea that a campground might work. We quickly realized the only campground was way too far out of town and then without a map or GPS or an address we spent a good hour driving around feeling lost. We rescued our sanity by driving out to the burbs to find a McDonalds (free wifi) so we could then find a hotel. After booking for two nights and then spending our first night we quickly realized we were falling in love with Seville and managed to get an apartment through the hotel (managed by the same people and across the street) for a fraction more than the hotel room.

For a city of 750,000, Seville manages to feel like it is much bigger yet it is not intimidating.

We’ve visited the big major sites now and managed to stay up late enough to eat with the Spanish population (8:30 being the very earliest first sitting) and we were astounded by the number of people out and about. Makes Vancouver look like a retirement community…nice to get a big smoke where there’s some smoke :-0

The Seville Cathedral is gigantic and filled with so much art it is mind numbing trying to absorb it. It is also hard not to feel some guilt (having roots that go back to the Caucasian invasion of North America) at the ostentatious display of wealth given it was all ill-gotten but the result is stunning.

Without a degree in art history (or history for that matter) my strategy for big art galleries or collections is to stumble around and then stop and pay attention when something nudges me emotionally. I do research after on the bits that grab me. Both the cathedral and the art gallery here were overwhelming but after my visits I was inspired to try and do a little drawing and that means its hit a chord.

The streets of Seville are a delight, full of independent stores, tapas bars and bakeries and apartment buildings with traditional Spanish architecture.

And that was just the first two days…

We’ll be back…

It’s Official — It’s a Road Trip

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And we’re off in our yellow Kangoo. How do I know it’s a road trip? We have changed itinerary every day since we left — some of it our doing, some it out of our hands.

But we both like the spontaneity of packing our house (tent) along with us and going with our own flow, sometimes camping, sometimes staying in a hotel, stopping whenever we feel like it.

We spent our first night on the road in Moissac, a town we’ve both been to, so this time we skipped the cloisters for which it is famous. We enjoyed an evening in a two star hotel, the Hotel Luxembourg, and appreciated the hospitality and value of independent enterprise. We paid 100 euros (140 Canadian) for a three course dinner (for two people), a half litre of red wine, our room and breakfast. The dinner, traditional southwest, was done well — bavette de bouef and frites, cabecou (French chevre from this region) on toast on a salad of lettuce, tomatoes and almonds, and of course, cheese for me because I can’t resist even after living here for two years.

Lesson for travellers — Paris is lovely and you can’t come to France without a visit, but if you want to experience France inexpensively, get in a car and explore the southwest. We would barely get a meal in Vancouver for two for 100.00 including wine, let alone breakfast and a room.

We spent Friday night in Foix, at the base of the Pyrenees. This town is remarkable for its medieval chateau, really a fortress, that dominates the town from the peak of a limestone bluff. We made a note to head back one day to explore it (it is now a museum). As we made our plans for an early start (ok 10 am — this is early for us) we were in bed at 9:30 and unaware of the carnage happening in Paris. We learned the next morning, in the bar where we had breakfast, trying to understand the French text running on a television that had the sound turned off but the news running.

We were somber as we packed the car and headed for Andorra, the city which is an independent country separating France from Spain in this section of the mountains. It was not long before we saw signs that said bouchon 10 km frontiere ouvert. I was relieved that the border was open but could not remember what bouchon meant…once we were stuck in the border line up for four hours I remembered. Plug. Yes, a traffic plug and I remembered seeing it on the traffic displays on the rocade (ring road) around Bordeaux.

We were relieved to get through the border — the French police just waved us on without looking at our passports — and we spent the day in a silent movie, watching the ski resorts turn into dry rocky mountains as we arrived in Spain, painfully aware that all is not well in the world.

Spain is a lot bigger than we thought…it took us three days to reach the coast of the Mediterranean. We made more notes of towns to get back to and enjoyed the scenery. Miles of rioja vines and then hundreds of miles of olive trees. We also enjoyed the number of family run businesses including a hotel we stayed at in Requena (45 euros/ 63 Canadian dollars for a very clean large room with traditional Spanish furniture and a bath tub).

The Sierra Nevada mountains are beautiful. The coast though is more developed than we’d anticipated. We have found a nice campground on the outskirts of Almunecar. With daytime temperatures reaching 25 we are cycling in our shorts and night time around 10, running an electric heater in our tent before we go to sleep (with duvets and sleeping bags). We are used to camping and so very comfortable.

We visited Almunecar yesterday. We rode our bikes to get there, and then appreciated the beach and the old part of town. However, we are not sure we want to come back for the month of January as we originally planned, mostly because of the amount of development. I think for people wanting beach and sun and an escape from winter it is brilliant. But we are not really interested in the beach and like the charm of our little French villages. So, we are thinking of changing itinerary in a big way and instead of heading to Morocco in the Kangoo now, we’ll explore Spain by car on this trip and then fly to Morocco in January for a few weeks.

Although Ian is not worried about this, I am a little wary about driving into Morocco with French plates given France has just declared war on ISIS. Unfortunately, this will be interpreted as war on Muslims by many people, just as ISIS hopes it will as their goal is to cause war. Given the situation, I am not sure about lonely roads in Morocco.

So, there it is. Heading off in all directions…

The Paris of our Dreams

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Long before I’d been to Paris for the first time someone gave me a postcard of an old man sitting with his dog at his feet at a table outside a Paris café. It looked like late afternoon and he was sitting in an overcoat smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of red wine. In my early twenties I saw myself in that old man and carried the postcard around for years, my first dream of Paris.

Soon after I studied philosophy at university and struggled to read Being and Nothingness (I did not succeed) but found a feminist hero in Simone de Beauvoir right at the time that I learned that I did not need to be defined by the narrow confines of the Catholic faith and parochial suburban world view I grew up with. I read the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and then really began to dream of Paris. On my first trip there a decade later, I made a pilgrimage to the Left Bank, imagining the salon at Gertrude Stein — a common fantasy as it turns out. Woody Allen absolutely nailed it in Midnight in Paris.

I was in Paris this past week for the third time and despite a head cold was as in love with the city as I’ve ever been. We were there to apply for our Indian visas but had an entire day to meander and we luxuriated in our new proximity (6 hour drive) and, as a result, the ability to enjoy a very spontaneous itinerary.

We chose the 10th arrondissement for our home base as this is where the agency that grants India visas is situated. Ian found an apartment for a very reasonable 62 euros a night (plus 50 euro cleaning charge) and we braved the cold weather and walked everywhere. Although there are a fair number of hotels in the area, it had a very non-touristy feel – I think staying in an apartment contributed to our sense of being Parisian for a day.

We strolled to the St. Quentin Market and admired the iron infrastructure. We watched Christmas trees being delivered to corner garden stores all over Paris. We admired every awning covered café and the ironwork and statuary on the apartment buildings as we left the 10th arrondissement and headed into the Marais District. Walking south towards the Seine, we looked in all the shop windows, hundreds of them, independently owned and full of amazing stuff – fur coats, designer dresses, designer houseware …

We spent a couple of hours at the History of Paris Museum. The building the museum is housed in is historic (like so many buildings in Paris) in its own right – The exhibits were divided into periods and I was able to indulge in a number of imaginings of lives lived. There were busts of Voltaire and Rousseau in a room full of period furniture. There was a small exhibit on Marcel Proust which included the bed he had when he wrote In search of Lost time – in fact, he wrote most of it from his bed in the early 1900s. There were also paintings that covered every period in the history of Paris.

We found a creperie near the museum and after lunch we wandered into the church of St Paul and St Louis and finally down to the Seine where we took in all the old familiar views: Notre Dame, the Institut de France, the Eiffel Tower (always in the distance), the Hotel de Ville, and finally the Louvre.

The fascination with the Louvre this time was the building(s) itself and the area around it rather than a museum visit (next trip). Since discovering the name of the French ancestor (Honore Martel) who came to New France and started a French Canadian line, I have been trying to imagine his life. I know that he lived around the Louvre and so did his future wife who married him in New France. Although he is nine generations back and there are probably a million or more people who have the same great (to the ninth) grandfather (and that is not an exaggeration – if every generation had ten kids it works out to more than a million), there is something thrilling about that connection. And so I worked out which buildings existed when he lived around there and read up on the history of Paris in the early 1600s and then marveled as I strolled through the neighborhood – my ancestor saw this same building. In fact he may have seen it being built.

Before heading back home to the 10th arrondissement we each had a small beer in the Café de Palais Royale and I thought about my old man sitting with his dog and his glass of wine. I still feel a connection to that old man and as we figure out where our future lies (here in France or in Canada or both), I am imagining that future life. And hey, if the Canadian government’s punitive tax scheme for non-residents eventually makes me broke before I’m dead (the hit on investment income was probably originally designed for people who truly were wealthy and had pensions and savings or like a certain finance minister, shipping companies registered in the Barbados), I may just take up smoking again to cut off that last unaffordable decade – getting to live here just might be worth it :-0

Vernissages and Visitors

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I’m in the habit of making elaborate plans while cycling on long-distance bike trips. This is a mental trick to help me through difficult bits – the more tired I am, the more elaborate the plan, anything to keep my mind off of being tired or sore. If I am thinking about repainting furniture, I will come up with colour schemes and work out intricate patterns of paisley and leaves. Or, I’ll think about possible plots for novels, ideas for blog posts, or travel articles. Always underlying these plans is the idea that I will execute on at least some of them some day.

After months of cycling last year I expected that my months in France without work would have me realizing a lifetime’s worth of my fantasy projects. The reality is I have achieved none of them.

So, with some guilt, I have to ask myself, many months later, what on earth have I been doing with all that non-working time?

Aside from setting up the house here, I’ve had an amazing number of months meeting new friends and visiting with friends from Canada and the UK (seven great visits with out-of-town guests). I’ve also learned new bike routes, studied French once a week with a terrific teacher and practiced once a week at a conversation group. I’ve toured more towns within a 200 kilometre radius than is practical to list. I’ve perfected my cassoulet and pork in rose recipes and learned to cook magret of duck. I’ve played a little guitar, painted a little for the first time in my life and finally sent off a couple of queries to a couple of publications (pitches for article assignments). I’ve learned to Morris dance and helped teach local kids to folk dance. I’ve attended countless night markets and village fetes and watched the Tour de France locally. We’ve hosted and attended many parties, including a surprise party for Ian in celebration of his receiving his UK passport.

When I haven’t been avoiding my projects through touring and partying, I have been very involved with the local community on a bunch of their projects – a website for the folk association Ian and I belong to, and the creation of a catalog for an art exhibit of over 200 hand-made fans that celebrates the centenary of WW1.

After spending my entire life in two big cities (big by Canadian standards) I am adapting to village life. There is no doubt that our marina community was a stepping stone for getting us used to the daily contact we experience in a village but there are still big differences. I love the accessibility of art and music that comes from being out in the country – people entertain themselves here and latent talent has opportunities for expression entirely impossible in the big smoke where that territory is reserved for professionals and successful professionals at that. Ian has found a group to sing with and I am playing a little guitar with a friend now and enjoying singing with a couple of others.

I was inspired to try a little painting and managed to finally put some time aside to do so when my friend Veronica arrived from Canada. Veronica worked on a number of art projects while she was here including creating some wire sculptures and I worked with her to hold a ‘kitchen’ vernissage (art opening) for what we had been working on but mostly to celebrate the art of one of the kids who lives here, Elianor, a prodigious and precocious producer of drawings and collages. Our friend Linda helped us prepare for the vernissage that opened a photography exhibit Ian was part of and we met a number of other artists there and in turn have attended their exhibits.

I’ve had a chance to reflect on friendship as I’ve made new friends here and visited with friends who came to France to see us. We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of people here and this reminds me of life in the marina, where we formed a community within the city, helping each other out and visiting at least weekly and ultimately forming life-long friendships that weren’t based on keeping-up-with-the-jones type status seeking that can happen in the city.

Last but not least on the keeping me so busy I am not working on any of my own projects list, is the addition of Friday to our part-time household. She was about 7 or 8 weeks old and abandoned or lost on the rainy, cold night she was found after midnight outside the local bar. We could not say no to her and we were given many assurances that people would take us for her when we are not here – we see her as a community rescue cat. We have fallen in love with her despite her flea infestation (now finally solved we hope) and will find it hard to give her up. However, I believe we did indeed rescue her and as long as she gets as much loving from her winter family (and I am sure she will) we will say our sorry goodbyes but feel some comfort knowing she will be just as happy with someone else. She is a cat after all 😉 With any luck we get her back in the spring and the cycle begins again.

But I am a little anxious as the summer closes and I realize that we have a lot of jobs to do before we leave (put in pellet stove, sump pump, replace some roof tiles, go through new French visa process, meet with appropriate people for tax planning in the event of becoming a French resident in future years) not to mention, try and find some ways to make money remotely for future years.

And so not one page of a novel. Not one piece of painted furniture. Not one completed painting and far fewer blog posts than I normally write when I am travelling.

So kudos to John Lennon for getting it right – life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.

Guerres and Grèves

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It is summer time in France and we have been loading our four-person, deluxe tent, cushy air mattresses, cooler and bicycles into our second-hand Renault Kangoo and hitting the road.

After a year of traveling by bicycle and camping, car camping is a luxury and I have discovered that I prefer it to hotels most of the time (we stay in budget hotels only – I might feel differently if we were on the 250 euro a night chateau hotel circuit where the hotel rooms promise to be at least as big as our tent). France has terrific municipal campgrounds that let us set up our big tent close to the attractions we’ve come to see (close by bicycle). The tent lets us have a place to hang out when we are tired of touring – it has two rooms so that we can sleep in one and set camp chairs up in the other and it is tall enough for us to stand up in.

On our latest trip we drove north enroute to the U.K. for a wedding, stopping in Normandy for a few days on the way up and then Belgium for a few days on the way home.

Although we enjoyed the whole trip we felt a bit pushed for time as we underestimated how long we would be in the car (distances are short but roads are busy especially around big cities like London and Brussels). We also got off to a rough start, setting off a day late thanks to a strike (grèves, very common in France of course) that had us driving to Bordeaux and back (5 hours) to drop a friend off at the airport when the strike cancelled her train to Bordeaux.

We arrived at our first stop in Vivonne at 8 pm after many hours in the Kangoo and discovered the grocery stores had just closed (alas, also very common in France). However, we were so pleased with ourselves for sticking to our budget under the circumstances (there had been some talk of getting a hotel the first night on the road given we knew we would be arriving late because of the unplanned trip to Bordeaux) we climbed into our sleeping bags and contemplated a smoother second day. This peaceful moment was interrupted when we heard what sounded like a train heading for our tent. Apparently the strike that had delayed us was over (at least in this region) and the campground was 300 metres from a railway line.

We had better luck when we arrived in Bayeux the next afternoon, our base for visiting Normandy. The campground there was nowhere near a railway line and a convenient two kilometres from town. We discovered a bike route to the town center alongside a beautiful little canal and we had our cameras out well before reaching the very scenic Bayeux city center.

Bayeux is the first city to have been liberated during the D-Day invasion and is close to the D-Day beaches. After cycling into town we found a very friendly tourist office where Ian paid 3 euros for a set of local (Calvados) cycling routes. We were lucky to arrive on a market day and after buying cherries, cheese and bread we set off to see the D-Day beaches.

Having grown up in Canada post World War ll during the era of unjustifiable American wars, my partner often reacts to any glorification of soldiers and war, reminding anyone in earshot that glorification is the most basic level of war propaganda.

Our conversations were slightly different in Normandy though where the reality of the horror is accessible still, where the memorials are dedicated to peace and the point is to remember how terrible war is and to avoid it at all costs rather than to glorify it. In Canada, removed from the actual land where blood is shed we can become puerile in our sentiment, promoting pictures of soldiers coming home from war on facebook, fulfilling a thirty-second need for drama under the guise of giving thanks to our soldiers, far-removed from the actual tragedies of war.

On our way to the beaches, we cycled one lane farm roads bordered by wheat fields studded with poppies. Here and there we came across small farmhouses, isolated from neighbors, the scenery iconic of WW ll thanks to films and books. There was no traffic as we cycled and the peace and quiet gave me ample time to imagine how terrifying that invasion must have been, the quiet shattered by shelling.

Bayeux is also home of the famous Bayeux tapestry, a 230 foot long long embroidered cloth believed to have been created in 1070 that tells the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. After our visit to the beaches we cycled back to our campground for a nap and then into town to see the tapestry. The tapestry is well presented with an audio guide that explains each of the 50 tableaus and keeps everyone moving along at the same speed. The details embroidered into the tapestry are amazing and evidence not only of a significant bit of history but also of what people actually wore and what the boats were like and how soldiers fought on horseback.

We took the ferry from Dover to Calais, a crossing very similar to our old ferry route (the distance between Vancouver and Vancouver Island is almost the same) and about 60 dollars for us and the Kangoo. We had a lovely time at our friend’s wedding in a small town north of London and then booted it back to the coast, this time sailing from Dunkirk to get back to France. We drove a short distance to get into Belgium and on the spur of the moment decided to find a campground and visit Brussels (we had originally planned to head south and do some more camping in France).

The only campground we could find was out in a suburb, limiting our already limited time. After setting up camp the first night and getting dinner we had no time to get to the center of town. We were given instructions on how to get to the metro (a good 40 minute walk away) and spent the next day in the center of Brussels. Given our time limits, we just explored by walking, admiring the architecture in the great market (also called the grand place) with history going back to the 1100s and grand buildings erected in the 1600 to 1800s. Brussels is home to Nato and the European Union parliament and we amused ourselves at a café on the grand market, watching hordes of people walking by and trying to guess which ones were bureaucrats.

There is a warren of small streets surrounding the market and a number of blocks with row upon row of outdoor cafes selling waffles, Belgian fries and moules. The waffles, with strawberries and Belgian chocolate lived up to their reputation.

We are safely back home and back on a diet…

Life in Lauzun

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These last few months have been very busy for us as we continue to travel, tour and deal with the domestic practicalities stemming from owning a (new to us) house in France.

We’ve been through a honeymoon period that lasted a few months where we found ourselves falling in love with the house, the village, our neighbors, our new friends and the countryside day after day. That has finally morphed into a general contentedness where we have good days and bad as we might anywhere.

When we first arrived we spent many days driving around to do chores. We’d often take a new route home and discover a gem like a 12th century church in a cornfield, or the ruins of a chateau on top of a hill with commanding views over a beautiful valley. We discovered that the expat community here is very creative and we’ve listened to and participated in more live music, dance and art than we ever did in all the years we were in Vancouver. We found (and find) new bike routes frequently and have learned to love the agricultural setting where we notice weekly changes in the farm fields around us. We’ve been delighted with the rich history that is so accessible in well-preserved chateaus, churches and medieval villages in a two-hundred km swath around our village. We’ve had some amazing food and wine. We were thrilled to learn that there is a cinema 12 km away that plays decent English language movies once a week (we’ve seen Philomena, August in Osage County and Nebraska as of late).

There is some level of anxiety for me over finances (have I retired too young) and wading through the bureaucracy around being Canadian and living here part-time. Trying to find the information we need to determine if we will be here on a more full-time basis in the future can bring on actual headaches. However, we are learning that although there is a considerable tax hit for us if we decide to become full-time, there are considerable savings because of the cost of housing here. We continue to investigate the possibilities.

I have good days and bad days with the language. I am taking French lessons and although I am able to see improvement since we first arrived, there are days when I find learning a second language a frustratingly slow process. When forced, (i.e. the person I’m speaking with does not speak English) I manage to get what I need however fractured my French and with less and less inhibition. This is easing my day-to-day frustrations as I am easily able to cope with shopping and basic banking and appointments. On good days I am able to engage in small bits of conversation and I am certainly understanding a lot more than I did when I arrived, improvement I note every few weeks. However, I will be very glad when I am able to walk up to a stranger, and with confidence, engage in small talk. Not being able to makes me feel segregated from the French population here.

We both participated in the first Lauzun May day celebration (an Anlgo French fete) and this was a terrific experience for mixing with locals, expats, learning French and having a walloping good time with new friends. Ian played King George in the May Day mummers play and sang with North South Divide (the local acappela group he belongs to) and I morris danced. I also helped out with teaching the local kids to dance around a maypole – the kids are mostly French and any opportunity to integrate and to get a chance to practice by listening is a welcome one.

The differences in our day-to-day life bring equal amounts of joy and frustration. The cheese and wine counters at the Intermarche continue to make me happy and Ian is still in love with the boulangerie and their almond pastries and pain au raisin. And although I am careful what I buy at the farmers’ markets (some products are much more expensive than at the supermarket), I love the experience and we have cycled to the Thursday Eymet market a number of times now. (We usually make a point of visiting our local Saturday market, although much smaller, on a regular basis as well).

Not everyday is an embrace of vive la difference though…days like today, for example when I dreaded a trip to the pharmacy to buy drugs. I find it annoying that I cannot buy over-the-counter drugs in a supermarket here — at least in the small towns in France you must go to a pharmacy. I have a sore throat and the beginning of a cold and know what works for me at home and just go to Safeway and buy it. Today I went into the pharmacy and the only over-the-counter cold remedy not actually behind the counter was a day-time remedy and I wanted something for night-time. When I spoke with the pharmacist my French was unfortunately good enough to be quizzed on my symptoms and then she decided what I needed which was not exactly what I wanted (sore throat. yes. but no coughing or congestion. no. fever. a bit.) So I ended up with throat lozenges and something for fever when I really just wanted the whole meal cold deal despite the fact that I don’t have all the symptoms (yet). My French wasn’t good enough to explain that…and I’m not sure she would have given me what I wanted anyways as the pharmacists get involved in all your drug purchases…even the over-the-counter ones. And drugs are more expensive here – I’m sure because a pharmacist gets involved with the distribution.

We are still loving the rustic nature of the house from an aesthetic point of view – the old beams, the stone work and the high ceilings still give me joy. We’re learning to deal with the fact that it is often a bit cold and damp and that wee garden slugs like to come in through a crack in the stone wall and hide out in our relatively warm kitchen. We’re also learning to deal with the fact that no dryer means serious study of the hourly weather forecast to determine if we can get a load of wash done and dry before it rains again.

When all is said and done, I am grateful for the opportunity to live here for awhile. It has been more magical than not and the chance to build a new life at our age is rare and rewarding.

Beauty Trumps

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I’m sitting on the couch in our lounge in our 350 year old house wearing a sweater to keep me warm. There is an electric heater on but the price of electricity is so high here in rural France we are careful to only ever heat the room we happen to be in and rarely to the degree that we don’t need a sweater and socks. Despite our restraint, our bill in January was very expensive and we don’t have a dryer, a dishwasher or electric stove. Our neighbors beat the price by using wood stoves (called wood burners here) but given we don’t plan to be here in the winters (this year is an anomaly for immigration visa reasons) we don’t want to invest in one.

But the adjustment to more rustic conditions is not that bad for me as it turns out. Living on a boat in Vancouver off and on for so many years has prepared me well. I am used to quick showers (we have a very small water heater) and no baths. I am used to cooking on a somewhat primitive gas stove and here that means an oven that I can only light by lying on the floor to get at the oven pilot. I understand that if I turn on too many electrical appliances at once I will trip the circuit breaker. I expect roof leaks from time to time and we have been troubleshooting a solution to some flooding in our kitchen due to unusually heavy rain this winter

I think though that the most striking similarity to my boating lifestyle is the similarity between the marina community I got to know and love in Vancouver and the community of expats here. These expats are a hardy bunch, ready to take on renovations that make renovations at home look like high-school shop projects; whether its turning ancient stone barns with no roofs and trees growing in them into kitchens or taking on a 17th century, 18-bedroom chateau with a lake in the basement, these projects are mammoth. But it is their generosity that reminds us so much of the marina folks: neighbors pet sit at the drop of a hat, offer spare bedrooms, bring meals to sick friends, give rides, lend vehicles, give away furniture and dishes, lend tools and very often lend a hand. We have been overwhelmed by this generosity since our first night here in December when we were told to cancel our reservation at the local hotel and instead enjoyed a great dinner, great company and a warm bed the night before we took possession of our house. The same welcoming crowd made sure we had an invite for Christmas and New Years, looking after us in a manner you might expect from old and dear friends.

So, despite rustic living conditions, we love it here.

The other expected adjustment is financial. Our budget is limited to savings that must last a long time. We’ve managed to stick to a frugal spending schedule that allowed us to ship a very limited amount of stuff from Canada, buy a used car, and insurance for car and house, pay property tax (more expensive as vacation home owners), and purchase a bed, two couches, a wardrobe, two desks, kitchen chairs, four living room chairs, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner and a myriad of miscellaneous stuff like a coffeemaker, toaster and basic tools. I know of more than one bathroom reno in Vancouver that cost more than our entire move.

Thanks to Ikea, second-hand stores called brocantes and the generosity of neighbors we are well set up. A lot of the furnishings require work (paint, varnish, oiling, or veneer replacement) and we are missing some of our best linen (unbelievably but apparently now in the hands of a former tenant). I am confident though that our next home pictures will show some significant progress on the home décor front.

After a month here, I realized that there is little I miss about Vancouver. I miss some very good friends of course, life-long friends with whom I will always have a relationship both virtually and physically. But as I merge into a new more rural lifestyle both here and in Canada (as the plan is to live the other half of most years on the island when we aren’t travelling) I have been thinking a lot about what makes it all work for me.

I loved Vancouver but when I analyze it I realize what I loved most was the geography. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world because of its setting. When I left for good, contemplating life in small-town Vancouver Island, I’d already realized that it was the mountains, the forest and the ocean that I loved and so was able to contemplate the transition despite having spent my entire life in the city. Some time away had helped me to eventually see that I was putting in some gruelling hours in some gruelling environments as a consultant in order to afford my 50 square metre place. I also realized that the lack of a solid career and the relatively poor financial status of myself and my partner (it takes a lot of money to live in Vancouver) was sometimes putting us on the B-list socially as the cost of the Vancouver lifestyle sometimes encourages people to focus a lot of energy on career, status and money.

When we bought our house in France we thought hard about community as we were aware very early of the generosity here and I didn’t want that to influence our decision. I knew we wouldn’t be here fulltime and I know from experience that communities and friends can change.

So, I thought hard about what I loved most about it (there is a lot to love even if you don’t count the community) and like Vancouver it is the setting. The landscape of rolling hills changes fantastically with the seasons and plantings. The sky is dramatic, the weather rolling in from the Atlantic with nowhere to stop and so in winter it changes a few times a day creating startling storm light at times. Dot the landscape with chateaus and church steeples and it becomes extraordinary. A trip to the hardware store goes from banal chore to amazing when we take a detour through an unexplored village on the way home and we’re treated to storm light illuminating farmed fields and moments later intense blue sky providing the backdrop to an ancient church.

And of course there is the food (cheese! wine!) and the rich history and culture to explore.

If we’re lucky in life we get to discover what really turns us on. I am blessed to be able to get such pleasure from my physical surroundings and to have found another beautiful place in the world.