I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again but I love the fellow francophiles I’ve come in contact with since starting Distant Francophile.
I adore the fact that they love France as much as I do, and I love the stories they share about ‘their’ France.
Although we’ve never met (but hope to one day), I feel like I really know Jan Leishman. Apart from sharing a love of France, we share many similar interests, including yoga and blogging.
And she and her husband have done something Scott and I dream of doing – they’ve bought a home in France.
Jan is a beautiful writer – make sure you explore her blog – Victoria To Var.
So I thought it was a spiffy idea to ask Jan to share something with the Distant Francophile community about how she found her little piece of France.
And I am so very glad I did – it is a gorgeous story.
Thank you so much for sharing your story Jan…
We have a home in France. It is a tiny maison de village in a small Provenҫal town whose chief industry is wine growing.
I sometimes have to pinch myself to realise this statement is true – even six years on. Yet I can close my eyes right now and ‘see’ the fountain at the bottom of our narrow street, then turn to the other end, dominated by the 12th century clock tower with its wrought iron canopy. And if I want, I can follow the stone steps that wind up through the medieval village to the château at the top of the rocky outcrop and gaze across the rooftops towards the shimmering blue Massif des Maures that form the southern boundary of the Argens valley.
So many of us dream of owning a place in France even though it is such a long way from Australia – surely a holiday home by the sea or in the bush within relatively easy reach is preferable, and more useful.
French is not our native language, and while Australia certainly has historic ties with France, particularly among early explorers such as Nicolas Baudin, and the thousands of young Australians who served – and died – in France during the world wars, they are not enough to account for the attraction.
I think it is much more visceral than that. Perhaps it began with Peter Mayle’s book ‘A Year in Provence’; perhaps it began even earlier last century with the influx of expatriates from America and Australia – the artists, writers, dancers, musicians – who established themselves in this fascinating and foreign country.
But for me, it is the sheer elegance of the French lifestyle – where they take time to enjoy the things that make life worthwhile – lingering over a coffee at a local café; where the whole town stops for a relaxed midday meal; where you can stroll through a city without having any particular destination – just for the sheer delight of savouring what you see.
You can spend an entire morning at a market – examining plump tomatoes, catching the scent of ripe peaches, selecting a delectable cheese from the fromager or exclaiming over a brightly patterned Provenҫal tablecloth.
Life is lived so much more intensely in France. And despite the fact that it is already changing, the frenetic ‘life on the run’ that often governs our days here, is so much less in evidence.
So we followed our hearts and bought a house – and for that, there is no explanation.
While our rational minds told us that this was not in our best financial interests; once we viewed our house-to-be, those concerns were silenced, and in a genuine spur-of-the-moment decision – made over a glass of pastis in the town square – we signed on.
I think France is both radically different, yet somehow familiar enough for Australians to feel a genuine link. I had studied French at school, falling in love with the language and memorising songs by Franҫoise Hardy. I am sure many young people in isolated rural towns grow up yearning for new experiences in the bigger, wider world. I was one of them, and learning French was the first exotic step in ‘breaking free’.
Of course there were other reasons that were particular to us. My belle-mère was French and my own family was inextricably linked to France through my father and uncle’s service in World War One.
Maybe the attraction was also stoked by having lived in England for more than a decade, with its proximity to France. And like my husband, I also missed Europe when we decided to eventually make our home in Australia.
We visited the small Provenҫal town of Les Arcs-sur-Argens in 2008, without any intention of buying a house. We chose the town simply because I had heard of it on a French language blog. The other thing that helped was its direct connection by rail to Paris and Nice. All we had to do was fly into Nice and take a train. No need to drive.
And then we fell in love with the town. ‘Our’ house was for sale just two doors up from where we were staying, so we knew the street and had already met some of the people in it. Our children were no longer living at home and for the first time, we realised that if not now – when? We looked back over the highlights of our lives so far and found they were populated with the times we took risks, travelled – together or alone, and lived ‘outside the box’. The daily grind of bill-paying and ‘being responsible’ didn’t even make a blip on the radar.
Since buying our house, we have become (for two or three months each year) part of the town’s community, and though it took several years of visiting – we have gradually become familiar faces known as ‘les Australiens’.
For me, there is nothing more heart-warming than arriving with our suitcases in tow and being greeted with kisses on both cheeks by our neighbours; having people further along the street wave to us and come and chat; hearing a ‘coucou’ from Sophie at the Café de la Tour and being welcomed back at the boulangerie, the boucherie, the petit supermarché on the corner and at the Maison de la Presse.
We are also familiar with the electrician, the plumber, the builder and the house painter! Nice guys – all with thick southern accents that makes it difficult for me to understand their instructions or to explain any problems. I am so lucky that my husband speaks French with a Provenҫal accent! And this is another part of owning a house – the various rates and taxes, setting up internet, services, phone connection, and of course, the bills for the above-mentioned workmen.
We rent our house when we are not there and it has been delightful to learn that our guests love the house and town and friendliness of the people they meet, as much as we do. We are lucky that Les Arcs is situated with easy access to mountains, beaches, major towns and delightful drives through vineyards or olive groves to exquisite villages in our region, known as La Dracenie.
I know that without the house anchoring us in Les Arcs, I would be free to travel more widely across France, stay in different places and enjoy a greater range of experiences, but I prefer the depth of experience I gain by putting down my tenuous roots in one spot. Each visit feels like coming home.
For me, owning a house in France helps me to become a little bit French. It has not only expanded my knowledge of the French language, but I have learnt so much more about the people themselves – their generosity; love of dining out and dancing to a manouche band in the town square on summer evenings; the seriousness of a pétanque match with the neighbouring village; their inclusiveness to les étrangers – as well as the region and its history. Truly the Midi is a place of troubadours and poets.
I enjoy the Provenҫal way of life, the slower pace, longer lunches and relaxed evenings. Living in Les Arcs is educating me about its industries, food, wines, writers, perfumes, artists and textiles. I love the way the town has focused on its medieval history – with its biennial medieval festival, rated as the best across the whole of Provence – and now yet another strand of my learning.
Owning a house in Provence has brought us six years of joy, and while it may have made our accountant fret, our intangible ‘earnings’ have been incalculable. We are both so glad we listened to our hearts.
Thanks again for guest posting on Distant Francophile Jan – I am so incredibly grateful.
Until next time – au revoir.
Photographs courtesy of Jan Leishman 2015.