I was approaching seventy (gingerly, feet dragging, denying, denying) when I decided to move from California where I’d been living to a French village. Alone. I knew no one in France and barely spoke the language.
My decision caused a few raised eyebrows.
Won’t you be lonely? Homesick? Miss your family?
What if you get sick?
Really? You’ve thought this through?
No one came right out and said, “At your age?” but I suspect only politeness prevented it.
Still, I wasn’t deterred. My mother had died a few months earlier, shortly after we’d celebrated her 100th birthday. My adult children had their own lives. I’d been living apart from my third husband for several years and I wanted to do something a little different. Was I too old for adventure? I needed to find out.
Moving to France and taking a risk
Googling cheap rentals in France, I found a place that sounded perfect. A quirky but charming cottage located in a winemaking village in the southern Languedoc region. It had an original baker’s oven which, in the website picture, was glowing brightly. A second picture showed what looked like a narrow concrete ledge that I imagine transformed with green plants. Best of all it was affordable on little more than my social security income. A few calls back and forth with the owner and I agreed to a year’s lease.
I couldn’t wait. I could already see myself: no car, I would bicycle everywhere, buy my baguettes and fromage from quaint little markets. I’d get to know the villagers, spend convivial evenings drinking wine as we exchanged philosophical views. My French would be perfect, of course.
I didn’t quite know what I’d need to take for life in a foreign country, but I figured I’d pack light and buy what I needed once I arrived. I settled on three suitcases with clothes, a laptop, books, a few pictures of the kids, and the duvet cover my daughter gave me because her husband hated the bright orange color. I also packed When Things Fall Apart, by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron because I knew, despite my bravado, it was a possibility, and I always turn to her when they do.
Since I hadn’t decided what to do about my mum’s ashes, I brought those too, packed in a cardboard box and wrapped in a blue checked scarf. Finally, I convinced Joe, my estranged husband – we were still on friendly terms – that he needed a short vacation and brought him along too.
Bravado again, covering those moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. Joe would drive the rental car down from Paris and help me settle in.
Not quite the little French cottage that was expected…
“Well here you are,” Joe said as he pulled up to the curb. “Your new home.”
I felt my heartbeat a little harder, not in a good way. The cozy cottage I’d imagined was a tall stone house with closed wooden shutters sandwiched between more tall stone houses. Similar structures across the narrow street combined to effectively block out all but a narrow strip of sunlight.
As I knocked on the front door, I glanced up at the blue sky. It was like looking up from a very deep canyon.
It took a couple more knocks before Sally, the owner, came to the door. Pasty and a bit disheveled in mismatched cotton pyjamas, her hair spilling from a loose bun, she looked older than I’d imagined, maybe mid-sixties, and was clearly in pain. A few days earlier, she told us, she’d fallen and badly sprained her ankle, or maybe broken it she thought now. Anyway, it was difficult to stand for more than a few minutes and even harder to navigate the steep, narrow stairs that led down from her third-floor apartment.
“I wanted to get this ready before you got here,” she said, “But I haven’t been able to do much.”
We descended three steps into the living room.
“Quirky,” Joe pronounced.
Quirky didn’t begin to describe it.
Quirky, murky and definitely not cute
As I peered into the murky gloom, the only word that came to mind was escape. Dim as twilight until Sally flipped on a light, my new abode had uncarpeted concrete floors, a mix of flaking whitewashed and bedrock walls, and a curved, dome-shaped ceiling. The only source of outside light was a tiny window in the kitchen, another in the bedroom, and a frosted pane in the bathroom; all faced an already dark street.
Like hulking beasts, two enormous wooden dressers added to the cavelike feel. Plaster had fallen like snow across the wooden surfaces and over a turquoise Formica table with a broken leg propped on a jar. A faded striped couch almost obscured the large brick oven, its metal doors bolted shut.
“It doesn’t work,” Sally said.
Too disheartened to question her, I glanced over at the kitchen area and realized that the website picture of a concrete ledge that I’d imagined decorating with plants was an awkward shot of the kitchen floor. A shallow brown sink under the window, a tiny refrigerator, and an equally minuscule gas stove all but filled the narrow space.
“This isn’t Ikea,” she said, perhaps having read my expression. “It’s a place with history.”
I asked her about a microwave? There was none, no toaster either. Yes, there was a coffee pot. She pointed to a battered yellow plastic electric model. “You’ll have to run vinegar through it.” She lifted the lid. “There’s scale, the water’s hard here.”
I asked about a washing machine. She shook her head. A laundromat in the village?
“No, but you can catch a bus to the next village,” she said. “There’s a laundromat there.”
Then she hobbled back up the stairs.
Mod cons not available…
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I told Joe that night. “I can’t stay here.” We were seated at the Formica table drinking wine. I’d lit a candle and the glow gave the illusion of coziness, but I knew what lay outside the circle of light. “I can’t live without some sunlight, I can’t take a bus to the laundromat.”
“I don’t know what to say to you, Janny. I hate to say I told you so, but — “
“I know. I know.” I gulped down wine. “You were right, we should have checked it out, but we didn’t.”
“Maybe you can get someone to give you a ride. There’s bound to be other people — “
“I don’t want to find a ride to the laundromat, I don’t want to take a bus. I don’t even want to stay in this stupid place. Look at it! Plaster all over the floor, in my hair, how could she even rent it?”
“You talked to her on the phone, how come you didn’t ask?”
“Ask what? Does it look like a dungeon?” I heard my voice rising. “Is there somewhere to wash my clothes? A stream, maybe? I asked her all kinds of questions. How was I supposed to know it would look like this?”
He got up from the table, found the map and sheaf of papers he’d brought in from the car and sat down again. “If we’d come down here last week like I suggested, we’d have had time to look for something else, but you didn’t want to — “
“I know.” I clutched at my ears. “Please don’t keep saying that. I was tired. Exhausted. I just wanted to relax.”
“Well, I’ve got to figure out how to get back to Paris.” He’d had enough of a problem he couldn’t solve. An avoidable problem if I’d just listened to him. “It’s going to take at least four hours, that’s if I don’t get lost. My flight leaves at two, so that means — “
“Joey can we just talk about this?”
He looked up from the map. “I thought that’s what we were doing.”
“I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.”
He scribbled something on his sheet of notes, then returned to the map. “I can’t help you, Janny. I wish I could, I wish we had more time to look around but we left it till the last minute and — “
“You could just get another flight.”
He shook his head. “I’m already out more than a thousand dollars for this trip and I have a doctor’s appointment the day after I get back.”
Je ne regrette rien…
Unable to sit still, I got up from the table and started pacing. Pema Chodron writes about the feeling of groundlessness, of having the rug pulled out from under you. Your spouse asks for a divorce, for example, or a loved one dies unexpectedly. Everything you thought you knew, all the certainties about life suddenly shift. You’re in strange and unfamiliar territory with nothing solid underfoot. Joe would be gone and I’d be completely alone, stuck here in this dungeon with plaster falling on my head and no way to escape. I couldn’t even find it mildly amusing that plaster dust had partially covered When Things Fall Apart.
I went back to the table and sat down. Joe was still mapping his route.
“Joey.” I reached across the table for his hand. “I’m just throwing this out, ok? Just listen.” I took a breath. ” Could you see yourself living here? I mean not here in this place, but somewhere in France. We could — ”
He put his pen down and looked at me. “Janny, I’ll visit, you know I will, and if you need anything I’ll do whatever I can to help. But I don’t want to live in France. I could have told you this was a crazy idea, but . . .” He shrugged.
“You wanted an adventure.”
He was right. I did. And nine years later, I’m still living in France — a different and much more comfortable place in a different village. It was and continues to be, a fantastic adventure.
Like Edith Piaf, Je ne regrette rien. I regret nothing.
Janice Macdonald still lives in France where she writes at janicemacdonald.medium.com