Fines for leaving your house, for no good reason and without a permission slip, have risen. 135 euros for the first warning, then if you get caught again you’ll be asked for 1,500 euros. If you get caught 4 times in less than one month the fine goes up to a whopping 3,700 euros plus 6 month’s of jail time. I’m sure even the wealthiest among us would not want to risk jail at this time. I wonder if the cops get commissions for fining like they do with giving out parking tickets?
Watching the news, showing incredible scenes of a deserted Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the turquoise beaches sans sun woshippers, I had a thought: I wonder what the prostitutes are doing? Since there are no cars on the road I suppose they wouldn’t be working either. Would their wage losses be covered by the government too? Afterall, their profession is legal here (as long as they work for themselves (ie without a pimp) and declare their earnings).
My father called me from Japan this morning. He wanted to know how it’s going in France. We communicate in Japanese. “Looks like you guys are in a very bad position there” he says, not-surprisingly. “How do you get to work?”
“I work from home, Dad, don’t worry, we are fine, we are all at home, the kids are off school and we are keeping busy, how are you?”
“Well everyone is out shopping, it’s as normal, except Disneyland is closed!”
What a surprise.
“You know how we Japanese are: we wash our hands all the time and wear masks in normal times when sick and we don’t kiss each other, like the Italians do all the time. But they will cancel the Olympics, you’ll see. Is your village okay? Are there any cases there?”
“No, there are no Coronavirus cases in Cotignac but there are 3 cases in Brignoles at the moment, that’s about 20 kilometres away.”
“That’s far enough,” he says, reassured.
I’ve always been amazed by the Japanese’ superiority complex in spite of all the natural disasters they have suffered. The last big earthquake with massive Tsunami that killed over 10,000 people comes to mind. That was around this time of year, 9 years ago. They showed the world, even during those horrific times, that they could be stoic, free of emotion, and wait silently and patiently in queues at the supermarkets. I suppose this global catastrophe will be treated no differently. Will they show the rest of the world they are better at controlling the spread of diseases? Time will tell.
Anyway, back to France. Strict curfews have been set in place in the larger towns. From 10pm to 5am in Nice, 8pm to 5am in Bandol, but I haven’t seen anything announced for our village of Cotignac…yet. The last time they had curfews here must have been during the war. Maybe that is why so many village houses had tunnels that connected them in their basements? I can imagine the fear they felt as the Nazis were approaching and all the gossip that must have circulated about who supported The Resitance and who might have been less keen. The biggest human loss suffered in one day was the Bataille du Bessillon, on the mount Bessillon, about an hour’s walk from the centre of Cotignac, on the 27th of July 1944. The Germans massacred 18 brave fighters. They are paid hommage to, every Summer, by the village Council and locals here who wish never to forget.
It’s cold and overcast here today. It matches my melancholy mood. I think I overdid it on the treadmill yesterday because I felt nauseous afterwards and even skipped dinner and evening wine because of this. But they say it’s a good thing to fast every so often? I’ll take it easy today. Hope you are well, wherever you are 🙂
What day is it? Oh, who cares. I’ve had it. This morning I took my “lard-ass” down to the basement, damp cloth in hand, and started wiping down two-milimetres of dust off the old treadmill. I plugged it in – it worked! With my bluetooth speaker I started playing a high-energy playlist on Spotify that I put together some months ago. It’s called “Funky Friday Night” and it’s a great dance worthy mix of tunes. I was blasting the music so I’m sure my neighbours now hate me. Wake up everybody!! DJ Susana at your serrrrrrvice!!!!
I forgot how great it feels to sweat it out while singing out loud. I felt like Brigitte Jones at the end of the movie, like Carrie Bradshaw at a NY city nightclub, like the dancing queen in the Abba song. And that brought back memories of my party days in Hong Kong from 2000 to 2002. That was a crazy time in my life. Every young-ish person worked hard and played hard and I was no exception.
I lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building on Glenealy street just a few steps from bar-central Lan Kwai Fong. I used to take the subway to Causeway bay then after work take a taxi to my gym, work out, go home, grab some dinner, then every weekend head out to meet friends at the bars. After bar hopping, where we’d meet some expat strangers who seemed nice enough, we’d move on to clubs like Drop in Soho where they served the best watermelon Martinis and always played the best music; Jamiroquai was popular at the time. Or if we felt like braving the seedy after hours’ bars we’d go to Wanchai where drinks were cheaper but you had to brave the sticky smelly floors. On ladys’ night (during the week) we could even score free Long Island ice-teas at many bars there so it was always oodles of fun. But excess has its limits and for me it was coming down with acute tonsilitis and ending up in Central Hospital for a week on intravenous antibiotics. I always seem to learn lessons the hard way.
Which brings me to think how lucky I am to have these happy, studious, genuinely do-good young girls as my children. When I was their age I got into so much trouble. Everything that was “prohibited” I was attracted to like a magnet. I smoked clove cigarettes at the age of 15, I was drinking and dancing in clubs with a fake ID by the time I was 16, spending every last dime I made from babysitting. I can’t imagine my girls doing this. Maybe telling them about how dangerous my behaviour was back then has had a positive effect. I occasionally offer them a sip of my wine so they don’t think it’s something off-limits and therefore something to do on the caché. They can try anything, I just ask that they are open about it. My mother was the opposite. She told me I would have to wait until I was 21 (in California that is still the age limit for alcohol consumption) which obviously did not work.
Sixty minutes, 5.6 kilometres, 360 calories and 6,500 steps on my fitbit, yesss!! I am sports queen, fitness godess, the champion of quick-walking on the treadmill. I feel like I just climbed to the peak of a tall mountain, like I can now conquer the world! Astounding what a release of endorphins can do for the mind. I feel happy again, waaaheyy!
“Mom, what’s for luuuunch?” Ahh, shucks, my kids are whinging again. Back to the kitchen. And I just realised – it’s Sunday.
I chose not to look at my phone this morning. When I came downstairs to make my coffee I chose not to turn on the television, I don’t want to hear more bad news from around the world, I’ll catch up with it later. It’s another gorgeous sunny day but unlike previous days it’s not windy. The tall pine trees aren’t moving. And if you just looked into the distance it would seem like any other day. The birds are chirping and some frogs have begun croaking. Except they are in our swimming pool which has yet to be cleaned out for the season. It’s too early of course but the days are getting warmer. You could pretend that life was normal and everything was dandy.
But the stress is still there. It’s a constant undercurrent manifesting in aches here and there. Sometimes in the head, other times in the back or neck. When under stress it certainly helps to talk about it. But no one here wants to listen to me. My kids keep telling me, “Mom, you’re going on an on about the coronavirus, okay, we get it, it’s dangerous. Can you stop now?” People like my hubby deal with stress by going out and being physical. In his case it’s extreme; he spent 8 hours chopping and stacking wood yesterday and today he’s out using the chain saw and clearing the brush. I’m nothing like that. I put pen to paper…or rather fingers to keyboard.
While sipping my coffee and staring out at the view of tall pine trees so many memories came flooding back to me when I asked myself, how did we get here? My girls are now 12 and almost 16. I’ve been with my Frenchman who is originally from Normandy, for 17 years. We’ve lived in Cotignac for 10 and a half years. I’ve lived in France for more years than anywhere else now and I am now pretty sure I’ll spend the rest of my life here. But my first year was rough – I didn’t speak the language and lived pretty much alone. It was Winter of 2002. I arrived at Nice aeroport with all my luggage and two cats that I brought over from Hong Kong. My English husband at the time had purchased a vacation villa in Théoule sur Mer so I chose to live there after being laid off from a publishing job in Hong Kong – a direct result of the economic collapse due to the terrorist attack, the collapse of the Twin Towers, in the United States. It was a beautiful villa with a breathtaking view of the Cannes Bay but arriving on the Riviera in the dead of Winter was a bit of a damper. Needless to say my marriage to the Englishman did not last, but life in France became the new beginning.
I did not do well in French class at Berkeley high school. I loved my teacher though: Madame Claudine. She was a plump lady with thick round glasses and hefty laugh. She would brag about her Summer trips to Paris and would bring back these big colourful books full of photographs of stylish cafés that I remember flipping through. I used to fantasise about being there. My mother once met Mme Claudine during a teacher-parent session and told me that she said “Susana is not very good at French but she’s great on stage!” You see, I was much more interested in Drama class and theatre than any other subject.
But the practice of stage performance gave me the life skills I needed to survive; a good load of self esteem and presentation skills that would get me the jobs and the confidence needed to adapt to changes, whether they were environmental, cultural, or learning a new language – in this case all of the above, which came in very handy for starting a new life in France, on my own.
When I was young my mother used to call me into the living room whenever she saw something exciting on television. One funny memory comes flooding back to me the most. “Sooooozieeee! Look! It’s the Cannes film festival on TV, isn’t it WONDERFUL?” She pronounced the “s” in Cannes, like it was the plural version of can. But then I didnt know how it was pronounced before I used to visit the area. It’s pronounced “canne” with a soft “a” and a little emphasis on the “n”. I enrolled in three weeks of intense French lessons at the College Internationale de Cannes then forced myself to communicate in the language but taking the easy route of finding a French lover. Voila, works a charm!
Looking back it’s amazing to think I now call this place my home. I still pinch myself from time to time. I owe Mme Claudine a lot. If I could see her again I would thank her for all her positive energy and enthusiasm for France that influenced me so many years ago. I wonder what she might think of what became of me? Would she even remember me? But I will never know; she passed away from cancer just a few years after my time with her.
Every morning I wake up thinking maybe this is all one big nightmare and we are back to being normal again, but alas, no. I grab my phone from bed and check the news: NY Times, the BBC, CNN…they are all talking about the same C-word. Today France’s coronavirus death tally is at 372 and at almost 11,000 cases we are just under the USA (with 14,366). It’s not a bad dream and it has made us all change the way we behave every day as we can no longer do what we want.
In the words of one of my musical heros, David Bowie, “turn and face the strange ch-ch changes.” That song was ringing in my head when I went out for a walk this morning. Again, I filled out a clean new permission slip, dated and signed it. I took a bottle of water and my phone and off into the warm sunny outdoors I went, alone, because that is what is allowed for the time being. Before I left I heard the French government representative on BFM news that people need to stop wearing masks and leave that to the medical staff. That is the exact opposite of what Asia is doing. Whatever, okay, I’ll do as they say. But they also insisted no cycling, no going on long runs (more than 2 km away from your home), and no frequenting parks, beaches, or public gardens. I can understand why.
My walk was going into the village and back. It’s a circuit that crosses a couple of rivers, passes at least 3 waterfalls, goes up and down hills with sweeping views of the Provençal landscapes – tall cypress trees in the distance, olive groves and pine forests, vineyards… and at the moment the quince trees are blossoming! It’s idyllic, utopic, it’s just pure bliss to be living here at this time of year. But normally now the main road in the village called the Cours would be full of al fresco diners chatting away while enjoying lunch. Kids would be in school. The villagers I pass on my walk, whom I mostly know having lived here so long, would happily say “bonjour!” and kiss me on both cheeks. But not today. An elderly lady I know, who is a local, gave me an awkward hello and made a huge bend to avoid passing me too closely. Ah, yes, right, the ONE METRE rule, I thought. But she was walking with her husband and one is supposed to walk alone (this rule does not make any sense to me but nevermind). I kept walking. The river water was crystal clear. The waterfalls were heavy and pretty. And even the crows in the sky seemed to be sticking to the ONE METRE rule.
As I was walking back up the rue d’Ecole I saw a couple of state police (gendarmes) in their patrol car parked at the entrance of the road that leads to the Medievel forts. Oh good, I thought, I can finally show them how well prepared I am with my perfectly filled out permission slip! But they didn’t stop me. They didn’t even say hello. I smiled at them. Nothing. Again, I felt so cheated!! I also felt like telling them off because they were sitting too close together, bad gendarmes, bad! One of them should be sitting in the back…or something! They are going to get each other contaminated, grr!!!
While walking I wondered: when was the last time I had to go through a big change in life? When was your last time? For me it must have been when we moved from the village house into this house with a big garden. But wait, let’s go back to more dramatic changes, like that time when I was living in Berkeley in the late 80s and I “survived” the Loma Prieta earthquake; the Bay Bridge collapsed making us get on a ferry to get over to San Francisco. My boyfriend at the time lived there and I would go and see him on the weekends. It was so pretty to do this at night because the lights of the tall skyscrapers would glisten and sparkle – it was magical! But as soon as the bridge was fixed (a month later) it was back to business as usual and people quickly adapted back to their old habits of driving. Then there was the Oakland firestorm of 1991 that burned down 3,000 houses, many of them owned by my friends and/or university professors. That felt like a big change with so much loss that people around me seemed to be experiencing. People had to adjust to the sorrow. Or how about that time the Northridge earthquake woke me up out of bed in Los Angeles in 1994 and I remember crying because I knew it instantly killed or injured thousands of people. “That was nothing,” I can hear my Japanese grandparents saying. When they were young the Kanto (Tokyo) earthquake of 1923 caused so many fires over 100,000 people died including many of their own relatives. My grandfather had to jump into the Sumida river to keep from getting burned. “You are so lucky,” they used to say. “You don’t have memories of wars.” They must have suffered so much. But if the Japanese could survive and overcome all those earthquakes and two atomic bombs then I’m sure we can get over this virus. Trouble is, it’s all over the world and not just one place. It will probably tank the entire global economy and make many more people poor or poorer. But with all our cultural differences we all share the same traits of being human and therefore of being adaptable. How will we adapt to this, I wonder, if it doesn’t go away anytime soon?
Where the Asians seem better at listening to their governments when asked to change their behaviour, in the West we seem less than keen. Asians do as they are told, generally speaking. Just look at the Chinese and the Japanese. The Koreans had it hard with this virus but they have clamped down hard with all their testing and it’s working. Here in Europe we are one big mess perhaps due to our unwillingness to do as we are told by the authorities. “Stay home!” they ordered, but then we saw all those people on the beach in Nice, having picnics and enjoying the sun like, comme d’habitude, tra la la. Westerners do not like being told what to do. But heck, if it’s going to save many lives I’ll do everything they tell me to do! I’ll bring out the Asian in me!
In the meantime my kids are continuing with their studies on-line, hubby has been productive in the garden and with the wood cutting, and there is more to clean and cook at home but that doesn’t bother me much. It’s the price I pay for spending SOOOO much more time together with them and that is priceless, I remind myself. Over and over.
Reporting from Cotignac, France, on day 4, this is Susana Iwase clocking out. Okay, now, is it rosé-o-clock yet?
So I braved going to the supermarket today. With government site-down-loaded-permission slip dated and signed and in hand, I got into my car and drove over to my favourite supermarket in Regusse, 20 minutes away. But I felt cheated because I wasn’t stopped by any policeman. I didn’t even cross any!
I drove past some cyclists and thought about how wonderful it must be for them, all this beautiful weather and hardly any traffic! I saw a couple walking their dog but I almost felt like telling them they were walking too close together, jeez – what is wrong with me?
Nothing looks different here of course. The sun is still shining, it is very warm today (17 degrees C) and the radio station I listen to in the car, France Blue Provence, was talking about the closures of national parks here. The representative from the Calanques Marseilles (a beautiful narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone and dolomite with turquoise waters of the Mediterranean) was saying he was sad that the park had to close to tourists but was excited about the fact that without them, the park will “rejuvenate” thanks to being left alone for a while. This has been the case for the canals of Venice for example. I’m sure all the other rivers here (although I always thought they were pretty darn clean) will also profit from dramatically lowered frequenting. So, there’s another example of a silverlining to the lockdown.
I parked my car and got out. After carefully rubbing an antiseptic wipe on the handle of the cart, I took out my clean handkerchief so I can use it to open fridge doors in the market. I noticed a sign at the entrance, “only 50 customers at a time” but there was no one there to control this. I walked in but was reassured to see few people shopping, even though the parking lot looked full. I scanned the aisles but felt myself strangely attracted to the rosé display. Gosh, so many pretty prink bottles screaming for me to take them. I have lots of wine in my cave at home but this was a good time and excuse to try some more local rosés. I stuck to a price range between 6 and 8 euros per bottle, which these days is on the low side. I remember just a few years back when these bottles cost 4 to 6 euros but the world demand for rosé dramatically rose in the last couple of years shooting the prices way up. I wondered though, if the economy takes a nose dive (and this looks like the case) rosé prices will do so too. Another silver lining for rosé consumers? Well, as long as there is excess of course. But I shouldn’t be thinking like that since my hubby is in the rosé business (lol!). Times are a bit uncertain to say the least! But everyone is in the same boat. Except supermarkets, pharmacies, and internet shopping sites. This is their gold rush.
After selecting a few bottles of rosé based on their colours (I’m big on a pale pink sort rather than golden salmon and to be honest Mirabeau’s Classic is my absolute favourite) I mosied down over to the organic food aisle. Then I had this epiphany: why am I worried about pesticides? I’m using wipes to keep myself from getting a killer virus! Organic food suddenly took a back seat to the more pressing worry of a world-wide plague and so I selected a package of non-organic smoked salmon, so much cheaper. Then I noticed the fresh tuna on the fish stand. It was nice and rosy red. I thought about how I used to think there was too much mercury in fish. Fuck it – life’s too short!! I asked the lady for a couple of pieces but she was quick to snap at me for getting my handkerchief too close to the fish. I assured her my handkerchief was not touching any fish but she was having none of it. She was not in a good mood. I don’t blame her. The fish was expensive, 24 euros per kilo. Should I be spending so much money? Then I remembered my Japanese father once saying to me when I was young, how in business, you should save up your money when things are going well. But when things start to look bad, that’s when you can start spending again. Works every time, he assured me. So okay, it’s time to heed my father’s advice…for once.
Many shoppers were wearing masks. I have a bunch of masks in my car. I was smart, I had ordered them on line back in January when I saw that the virus was spreading in Asia. I haven’t felt the need to wear one here yet. The French news channels keep saying only wear one if you are sick. But if you are sick, why would you be out at the supermarket? Shouldn’t you ask someone else to do your shopping? I found myself moving past the shoppers quickly, keeping at least a 2 metre distance from each person. But why was I holding my breath when I moved past them? How silly of me…must be some weird instinctive human thing to do when feeling threatened? The pay counter was next to the toilet paper aisle. I grabbed a pack. I’m running low at home, I swear!! And okay, next time I’m out I’ll wear a mask.
I feel for the supermarket clerks who have to serve so many people all day. I feel for the policemen, the medical staff, the emergency workers, everyone who doesn’t have the “luxury” of staying at home and must continue working during this terrible time. Then again, at least they are getting paid. These knots in my stomach and this constant worrying have much less to do with the possibility of contracting COVID-19 and much more to do with not knowing what is going to happen in the future, our jobs, tourism for the region, oh gawwwd. Nevermind, rosé and smoked salmon will keep me happy – for now.
So it’s the second day since the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has ordered everyone to stay at home. Except if you need to go to work and cannot work from home, except if you are taking kids to a care centre because you need to work, except if you need to take your dog on a walk or need to exercise…huh? All shops that are not selling “necessary products” like food or tabacco or newspapers are now shut. Wait…tabacco? Nevermind, I can get wine at the supermarkets and I guess that is just as bad so, voila, thank God I am stuck in France not…somewhere else. This almost makes me want to take up smoking again.
Look, I shouldn’t complain. We have amazing weather here at the moment in the South of France, the sun is shining, it’s no longer cold outside, the cobalt-blue skies are therapeutic and there is lots to do around the house. My kids are doing their school work on their computers upstairs (online classrooms) and hubby is out chopping wood as a form of exercise because he doesnt need to go to his office and can work from home. We have a garden so I can walk around it to get my daily steps onto my fitbit. I have stocked the freezers and the kitchen cupboards full of food for the next week at least even though it meant waiting in line for half an hour after scrambling through half-empty food shelves at the supermarket on Monday.
It’s my younger kid’s birthday today. She turned 12. She was disappointed not to be able to celebrate with her friends. I had promised that we would go bowling and eat Asian buffet at a restaurant in Saint Maximin-la-Sainte Baume but of course that is not possible. We are not allowed outside our property unless you carry a special permission slip downloadable from the government site, dated and signed. You need this even if you are going out to take a walk, and if you go out you need to go alone, not with anyone else. If you get stopped by a policeman in your car or on foot and you do not have one of these slips then you are fined on the spot anywhere from 38 to 135 euros. Yesterday there were policemen everywhere in our village of Cotignac, said my hubby, and lots of people were stopped.
So, okay, this is odd but I know we will get through it. After all I have a basement full of wine and some champagne in the fridge, some Netflix movies and series I have not yet watched, and lots of time to spend with family, something I always complained about not having enough of before! Just this time, it doesnt feel like quality time; even with all the card games and Scrabble we play after dinner, all the cupcakes and cookies we can bake in the afternoons, I can’t help checking my phone for updates on the Coronavirus situation locally and around the world. I check it so much that I now have a back ache, on my left shoulderblade, and a stomach in knots from the stress and worry. Today’s France numbers from the worldometers info are: 7,730 cases, 175 deaths. Shit, that’s more than 1,000 cases since yesterday. So at this rate every day there will be more than that. When, I wonder, will we hit the peak contagion? No one knows here but if Italy has now reached it, that will be after hitting around 30K cases. I have to stop looking at these numbers.
It’s not like it’s a real war and we need to shelter ourselves from bombs. It’s not like we are being asked to go and fight as soldiers and carry weapons. It’s not like dealing with forest fires everwhere around us. And it’s not like we have no way of communicating with each other. Imagine if this were happening during a time when there were no phones, internet, electricity, safe drinking water… How lucky are we that we live in this day of high tech gadgets and social media? I don’t know…I miss the days of phones ringing in the house and my running to go and pick it up.
SFR, the French phone company has just sent a message saying they won’t cut anyone off if they miss a payment. Of course that doesnt mean much as their payments are direct debits from everyone’s bank accounts. I suppose what they are trying to say is that we will have access to the internet no matter what. Of course I live in an area of France that has not been connected by fibre optic cables so our internet speed is slow. Oh and our banks and insurance companies have sent out messages saying they will do everything they can to help in our current exceptional situation. How nice.
The messages of even cancellations keep coming in. Every event in the next couple of months here has been postponed or cancelled. I was meant to travel to Japan and Macau to see my parents with my kids in April and of course that was cancelled. How funny that I thought I would avoid the craziness of this virus by staying in Europe over going to Asia. My American mother is thankful to be in Macau where they have had a total of 13 cases and almost all of them are now cured. My Japanese father believes the Tokyo Olympics will be cancelled but of course it’s in Prime Minister Abe’s political interest to continue saying they will be go on, for now. I guess at this rate the Cannes Film Festival will also be cancelled but they have not announced that yet.
I hope you are well, wherever you are. Thanks for reading. I’ll update this blog every couple of days as it helps my nerves. I also hope to inform you of the situation in France. Have a good week!
It’s the biggest worry around the world and of course even here in Provence life is having to halt, for the most part, as we all do our bit to help contain the dangerous virus that can no longer be ignored and must be fought, in the words of the French president Emmanuel Macron, like a “war.”
People are being told to stay at home and only go out if absolutely necessary for work and food shopping. Those who can work from home are not allowed to go to their offices. Restaurants, bars, and shops that have nothing to do with food have been ordered to shut. Pharmacies and supermarkets, gas stations and tabacs (where you can buy cigarettes) are open, as are places where you can buy magazines and newspapers.
Yesterday I went into a frozen foods shop (Picard) in Brignoles and saw that half their stock had disappeared and there was a very long queue waiting to pay. It took me 30 minutes to get out of their but I got out with enough food to last a week. I have also stocked up on much needed wine the week before and was thinking “thank God I live in France” where wine is affordable! I’m also thankful that I am a decent cook and that I can whip up international dishes to serve my family (I have two adolescent kids and a French hubby) like chicken stew, tagines, cous cous, sushi, Mexican chili, Thai fish cakes, Chinese dumplings etc. I love to cook and having lived around the world I always have a good choice of different spices and oils in my kitchen, cupboards full of seaweed and rice, a fridge full of miso and tofu, and freezer full of wild boar (from our last hunter’s gift) and baguettes – did you know bread freezes really well? It’s a great time to empty those cupboards!
Before all this drama with COVID-19, or rather, while it still seemed far away (when cases were being recorded in China), I wrote a piece about my last six years as Council member of Cotignac. http://provence-living.net/looking-back-at-my-term-as-councillor-for-cotignac/ I know it seems a bit out of place currently (with the more pressing reality of a killer virus going rampant) but I needed to put down, in writing, the important work I have been involved in, with and for the village. My duties have now come to an end (with the recent Municipal elections on the 15th of March 2020) as being a British citizen I was cruelly no longer allowed to vote or serve as a result of Brexit. But I will continue doing what I can to promote and help bring attention to everything our village has to offer, to tourists and residents alike. Here’s wishing all of you good health and bon continuation! One day this will all be behind us and we will see international travellers in and out of Provence once again. For now though, I can only take photos from around my house (please follow me on instagram under Provence Living, Susana Iwase) but will keep my followers updated on important information. You can also follow me on Facebook: Susana Iwase.
Brexit took place at the end of January 2020, and with it, amongst the loss of other rights, my right to officially continue serving the Cotignac mairie (town hall). Only European Union citizens have the right to vote in French Municipal elections and hence the right to serve. I was therefore prohibited from running again in the election that took place on the 15th of March. Cotignac has effectively lost a native English speaker to represent and communicate with the foreign public but there is now a Dutch lady (artist) who will be responsible for that in the next term. I am not the only British national to serve on a French council; there are over 130 of us in France who have been directly affected by the cruel measures of Brexit, the exit of Britain from the European Union. It’s a big loss for the commune, I believe, with effects not immediately felt but will become more obvious with time.
I was elected in 2014 on Mayor Veran’s ticket and for the last six years my Councillor position has required me to volunteer my time to be the liaison between foreign nationals here as well as the person who took commands 24/7 from the mayor for any messages needed to communicate to the public via facebook and the official town hall website. I also had to attend monthly meetings, weekend ceremonies several times a year, more than half the associations’ events and take most of the high-pixel photographs necessary to create the annual town hall bulletin (a 58 page glossy magazine called L’Echo du Rocher). At council meetings we would vote on anything that would cost the commune money. Anything from road works to carreer advancement training for the staff, donations to other towns in their emergencies, to deciding how much in grants we would afford local associations was voted on. We would also often meet ahead of the official sessions (open to the public) to make sure we agreed with the mayor. Cotignac is a very active village throughout the year with its over 35 associations organising all sorts of events from film festivals, concerts, art exhibitions, wine festivals, sports events, and much more. It was a job that came with ups and downs, sometimes extremely rewarding but often frustrating and not without obstacles. But of course I aquired priceless knowledge and information, made many connections, and felt grateful for the opportunity to be amongst the leaders of this beautiful Provençal village that I have called my home for over 10 years.
You can’t please everyone – that was a motto that came into my thoughts more often than not. But boy did I try at first. There was only so much money to be able to spend on the various improvements needed in a village every year and when one part was given attention there was always another problem placed on the non-priority list and with it came criticism from those who felt neglected.
The PLU (zoning laws) were updated in 2017 and many areas of the village were flipped over from being constructible to non-constructible. Anyone who had qualms about this had about a year to speak up and if needed, fight to keep their land constructible (and therefore sellable at a much higher price). The people who missed this chance were understandably upset when they found out what had happened to their land. But zoning laws need to stay in place for 10 years before being updated and adjusted again. There can be modifications made but only in exceptional circumstances with lots of bureaucracy involved. There is a labourious effort in the process of creating new zoning regulations. For example, department and national requirements based on environmental protection as well as town/village development needs taken into consideration as well as public input. So the study process was tiresome and involved specialists to come and give public presentations over a period of a year and a half. For months, maps were posted all over the town hall entry area to show the various proposed changes and any resident or property owner could come and express any concerns or bring up any questions they had. Nevertheless the end product did not come without a little controvercy and protest.
As small a village as Cotignac is with its 2,300 resident population, 65 per cent of whom are over 60 years old and therefore mostly retired, the active population looks more like 700. Most of the residents still vote though and show up to do so every couple of years when there is a local, state, or European election. No shows are low and therefore you can say most people here are politically aware. So whenever there is a controversial subject being discussed at the town hall, people listen, participate at the public meetings and express dissapproval and/or concerns openly. Those sentiments sometimes transpired into anger. I once had a woman (who lost her constructible land due to the PLU changes) slap my arm away when I went to stay hello to her. She obviously transferred her anger personally onto me and I was shocked. Overtly racist comments were also made towards me by people that felt threatened, I suppose, by “foreigners taking over.” While helping at the voting booth one elderly man came up to me and said “it’s amazing that someone like you is sitting on our council.” When I gave a puzzled look he went further by saying “I didn’t mean that in a good way.” But this didn’t thwart my efforts at wanting to do my best, I moved on and swept negative vibes to the side, after all, I’m not the type to whinge and whine. Having been born in post-war Japan to a green-eyed, ash blonde American mother in the late 1960s, I knew a thing or two about racism. And I must admit that discriminatory sentiments did not suprise me as after all, Marine Le Pen (the racist, far-right, anti-immigrant former presidential candidate) is relatively popular here.
Being officially elected meant serving the people and so I went about trying to get to know many of the merchants in the village; some who had been here generations and others that had just arrived to start a new life selling this or that. Before 2014 I had worked for four years volunteering for the Parents’ Committee, raising money for the school children (for various activities outside of Cotignac) and in so doing already had the opportunity of relating to various business owners and local parents. So I had an advantage. What I learned from the merchants though, was that whatever the town hall did or was supposed to do for them, it was never enough. Whether it was to help establish terrace-use rights, eliminate market day obstacles that hindered easier access to their shops, calm neighbour business conflicts, establishing parking rights, needing more light, cleaning up the dog poo on the streets, needing to shut before midnight because of noise that bothered the residents living above them, there was always something that they felt the town hall could do more to help their businesses. And when I noticed that whenever one business was given aid, there was always another that complained as a result. No one was ever happy all of the time. This problem of cooperating with businesses and meeting their demands is probably the most challenging for any town council.
New ideas, however great they may have been, were always pushed to the side because the list of proposals, that were initially used by a team to win the election, needed priority. I shared my idea, for example, to rid the Place Neuve (also known as Place Joseph Sigaud) of cars and restore it back to how it originally was when first built, a boulodrome (Petanques court), not unlike the gorgeous Place des lices in St Tropez. It could be a place for children to play too, and be decorated with an old band stand (classic gazebo) in the middle, or a fountain. The mayor told me at the time that it would never be considered for this term, that any big idea needed to be saved for the next term. The term in progress was meant to stick to the initial proposals laid out for the public so that they could have clear goals for the village, to vote for. In otherwords, the team with the more attractive proposals would be the winner. Having said that I have noticed that the French generally do not like change and therefore tend to vote for the leading personality (in this case our social and amicable mayor) no matter what, as long as they have felt content in the past. Any opposing candidate would symbolise change and therefore did not appeal particularly to the comfortable elderly and retired community.
Some prosposals came to fruition during the term but not all. The primary school was merged with the kindergarden and given a massive overhaul and renovation complete with new cantine and a more spacious parking area behind it, a brand new medical centre attached to the new pharmacy was built, the grainage (entertainment building) was given a renovation and new elevator, the 12th century Chapelle St Martin’s exterior walls and roof were finally secured and fixed up, the sports stadium was given artificial grass and a new club house, the tennis courts were given a makeover, and the mayor’s 30 year wish, of finally getting a roundabout built (in order to slow down traffic) in front of the wine cooperative, came true. The Circle des Arts, a beautiful hall behind the main church, was also restored, and arrangements were made to help bring the privately funded Centre d’Art La Falaise to public attention.
During the term a generous private donor purchased, then began the monumental process to revive and restore the Hostellerie Lou Calen, a famous landmark that once hosted the adored French singer Joe Dassin’s wedding. It had been in abandoned ruins for the previous 15 years and it was now going to be fully restored. It was as if Cotignac had won the lottery! But no matter how great these projects are for a village, they couldn’t even start without the town hall’s approval of course. And sometimes, even with pre-approval, some details can be contested by residents concerned with optical changes in landscape or their views being modified. So the project of Lou Calen experienced some hiccups and learned nothing is straight forward in rural France no matter how great the benefits may be to the community. Parts of the retreat are scheduled to open later in the spring of 2020. When it fully opens next year this establishment will no doubt bring the most attention, particularly international, to the village of Cotignac, as a luxury destination for well travelled clientelle looking for the authentic Provençale village experience (be it art classes, cooking courses, outdoor sports or other) without the trappings of Michelin stars or other commercial hotel chain standards that place limits on potential. The location promises to provide expert service and top quality accommodation for its guests. Two restaurants – a terrace brasserie and wine bar, and another rustic farm-to-table style dining establishment, are planned. And my hope is that they will also provide a level of excellence that the other local restaurants can be inpired by and work up to. I can even see Cotignac one day becoming the gastronomic capital of the Var, and why not? We certainly have the picturesque setting for it.
The cherry that topped the sundae for me was Cotignac’s nomination in the popular television show, “Le Village Préferé des Français” for 2019, presented by celebrity Stephane Bern. Out of the 13 villages nominated in all of France, our village came in at number six and with it, a lot of media and tourist attention. It was this moment that made me feel that all my hard work, since 2012 and the beginning of Provence Living, in trying to get Cotignac more visibility, finally came to fruition. Our village was finally getting the attention it deserved and I felt rewarded.
Building permits saw a big rise during the term due to demand and anyone can see that there is a lot more development that has been going on in the village and particularly just outside the village on the East and South sides where parcels of land have turned constructible.
Where there was no time to complete all the proposals set back in 2014, the team up for reelection, led by Mayor Véran in 2020 will be sure to place them on their new list of “promise to dos”. The construction of a mediatech (multi-media library) that was planned for this term for example, did not occur. But the old kindergarden (that was going to be transformed into the medial library) was instead put to good use as an extra space for school childrens’ extra-curricular activities during the 18-month construction at the primary school.
The new Medical Centre building was a great success in attracting new and much needed medical personel to Cotignac. While the village will have lost three of its previously resident generalist doctors by late this year (due to retirement), it would gain two more in the next two years, in addition to physical therapists, a dentist, and even a new veterinarian clinic (that moved over from Carces) to boot. Whilst France is experiencing a general shortage crisis in doctors and elderly care personel, here in Cotignac we don’t feel these services lacking at all. And for this, we are very lucky.
The next municipal term will see the construction of a new gendarmerie (state police department) which will merge the Carces and Barjols’ state police personnel and equipment, amongst other projects. Thanks to our mayor’s many connections and vision (he has been mayor for almost 30 years), it was possible to convince state officials and local jurisdictions that merging, and therefore saving money, was a good idea. With this new facility, gendarme families with young children will help fill the extra spaces available in the main school as we do have a problem attracting young families due to the above average cost of accommodation. I expect there will be improvements in parking facilities also, to cope with the rising number of Summer tourists that descend each year on us like a swarm of insects. The 900-year-old chapel will likely be given further attention and the interior should be restored to show off the magnificent original frescos discovered during the term. I hope to see some restoration around the two Medieval forts too, with possible public access to admire the view from higher up.
In all good faith I believe things are looking up for Cotignac and its active resident population as well as its retirees for the next municipal term. It’s a shame I could not be allowed to continue but I am proud of my accomplishments: I laid down the communications foundation for the village in the name of a more efficient and better functioning website, an attractive and informative facebook page, and colourful, easy to read annual magazines between 2014 and 2019 and thousands of good high-pixel photographs. I have left knowing it will be easier for the person(s) who take over my duties. I will forever be grateful for the experience to serve my community and to those who have supported and encouraged me throughout the years. It was a true honour to have worn the badge of Councillor in the village of Cotignac.
My current sentiment is honestly more bitter towards British politicians that have led the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the biggest mistake the country has ever made in my opinion. But I love France and I love Cotignac and so I will apply for French nationality (wish me luck, only 30 per cent of applicants get it!) and will carry on as I still have a lot to do this lifetime. And of course there’s much more Provence Living to share so stay tuned and thank you, too, for the support.
This year’s Christmas market in Cotignac was a total success in part thanks to the magnificent weather, the blue skies and a warm sun made dining al fresco a real treat! There were many stands with original goods in the form of locally made food products, toys, clothing, gift items, etc. I bought an entire loaf (10 euros) of home made “pain d’épices” from the Fire Brigade stand (Pompiers) because when I tried it I was really impressed by how full of spices and moist it was. Turned out to be made by one of the firemen’s wives.
I took my family out to lunch at the Café du Cours (their last day open this year). I had a plate of sautéed salmon with ratatouille and rice, it was perfect. We ran into some friends too and ended up having an enjoyable, spontaneously marvelous time, finishing off the afternoon at Mirabeau’s boutique at the bottom of the Cours. Have you tried their new baby, the beautiful Mirabeau Gin, yet? It’s amazing!
At the market there was a marching brass band that played dixie tunes and at 4pm a concert at the church. At 6pm the dark sky lit up with fireworks – c’etait magique!
We felt really lucky this year as last year’s Christmas market was a wash out due to bad weather. I even managed to get myself in a photo with Father Christmas this time, on a sleigh led by reindeer no less!
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and happy holidays 2019. See you in 2020 🙂
Le Chaudon Medieval Bastidon Tower is a truly authentic Provencal house. Newly renovated to high standard, this two-bedroom (sleeps up to four persons) property is located in an idyllic Provençal setting, surrounded by olive groves and vines and just 2km from the centre of Cotignac. There is five acres of space that includes terraces, a BBQ area, swimming pool (from May to October), fish pond and children’s play area.
The bastidon is a building of character with a rounded turret over three floors. The accommodation is laid out over two floors. The ground floor offers an ample open-plan living area and a fully-equipped state-of-the-art kitchen with induction hob, fan oven and full-size fridge/freezer. The living room has satellite TV with English channels, a sound system and a wood burning fire. On this floor there is also a toilet and under-the-stairs storage.
The two bedrooms are located on the first floor and are equipped with ceiling fans. The bedrooms share a full “Jack-and-Jill” bathroom, equipped with a washer and a dryer. The lower floor is the owners’ wine-making cellar, which can be viewed. The outdoor space offers a private terrace with table, chairs and parasol. There is also a playground for children with a swing set, a playhouse and a large sandpit. The owners live on the property but have their separate house. They look after the olive grove and the vines making olive oil and red wine. They are English-speaking but they also speak French, German and Spanish. They are welcoming and ready to share their knowledge of the area. The property is currently available for long-term rental until 15 May 2020 and then for holiday lets during the Summer. PRICE: 1,100 euros per month plus bills (electricity and water), Internet and TV included. July and August rates for 2020 are 170 euros per night for a minimum of seven nights or 4,000 euros for the month. September 2020 can be let out at 130 euros per night or 3,400 euros for the entire month. From October 2020 the price is lowered to 1,100 euros per month plus bills. Internet use and cable TV is included in the rental price. For more photos and reservations go to: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/36592743?adults=4&source_impression_id=p3_1572701513_9%2FOK36FEa6MQHZMt
Or contact the owners directly at email@example.com
AVAILABLE FOR HOLIDAY RENTAL, 3 nights’ minimum stay.
Updated available dates: September 1st, 2020, onwards! If interested in a long term rental, the minimum number of month’s rent is 3 months at a discounted rate. The house is available for long term let up to 9 months. Holiday rental rates include electricity, water, internet, and gas/oil. Long term lets will charge utilities separately, according to use, on a monthly basis. For long term rental a security deposit will be required, followed by first month’s rent to book, payable by bank transfer.
Please email Susana at firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm availability and best price. Or call me on my mobile: +33 (0) 624 23 26 55. Or if you prefer, you can go to the Airbnb listing (a little more expensive as it will require service fees): https://www.airbnb.fr/rooms/3771828
The house is fully furnished and located in the heart of the gorgeous village of Cotignac, close to all shops, cafés, bars and restaurants now open. At least two disposable surgical protective masks will be provided upon arrival for all guests.
Details of accommodation:
The village house, suitable for one, two couples or a four to five-member- family is just steps away from the centre of the village, but in a quiet neighbourhood (near the outdoor Théâtre du Rocher and the Place de la Mairie), has a new kitchen fully equipped with dining area on the ground floor, a master bedroom (one King size bed) with ensuite shower and toilet as well as a TV on the first floor, an additional bedroom (with 2 single beds that can be used separately or together to make one super king size) with separate bathroom on the second floor, and a large living room (convertible 4-poster futon bed) with bar and kitchenette on the top floor with 3 velux windows for lots of light as well as a TV and DVD player. A mezzanine is just above this floor where there is an additional single sized bed suitable for an older child or adult guest. In total, the house has 124 square metres of living space. Parking can usually be found about 30 metres away, but anyone can perch in front of the house to load/unload. Further parking is located about 150 metres down the road behind the newly restored primary school.
NB: interior furnishings may change slightly without notice, Maximum capacity 5 adults or 5 adults and one child
Have you ever needed to take the bus to or from the aeroport to our village of Cotignac? You are not alone. Although time consuming and not always reliable, there are ways of getting to and from the aeroports (Nice and Marseille) by way of public bus via Brignoles, the bus depot in the main square across from the Post office. Brignoles is our nearest “big town”. From Cotignac you can catch the bus at the new stop that is now across from the Pharmacy and in front of Coti Brico on the D13. You’ll need to get off and transfer to another bus in Brignoles which will take you to the aeroports. To Nice they are more direct but to Marseille they go through Aix-en-Provence so they take more time. Bus schedules change frequently so if you understand French it’s always a good idea to confirm either by phone (08 09 400 415) or on the website info-ler.fr for the Brignoles-Nice-Marseilles lines run by ZOU! or for the Cotignac – Brignoles line contact the tourist office in Cotignac ( 04 94 04 61 87 ). If you simply wish to know the bus schedule between Cotignac and Nice aeroport (via Brignoles), read on.
From Cotignac buses to Brignoles run daily EXCEPT on Sundays. Departure times: 6am, 8:15am, and 1:40pm. The bus arrives in Brignoles at 6:50am, 9:10am, and 2:30pm. Please note that the earliest morning buses on weekdays from Cotignac are quite full with school kids.
From Brignoles to Nice aeroport buses depart at 10:05am, 12:20pm, 2:30pm and 6:45pm. Arriving in Nice at 11:35am, 2:30am, 4:45pm and 8:35pm.
From Nice aeroport to Brignoles bueses depart from Terminal 1 at 8am, 12:15pm, and 5:45pm. Arriving in Brignoles at 9:55am, 2:30pm, and 7:30pm.
From Brignoles to Cotignac buses depart Brignoles at 8:30am, 12pm, 5:10pm and 7:10pm. Arriving in Cotignac at 9:05am, 12:55pm, 5:50pm and 7:55pm.
But if you are able to hire a car from the aeroport I do recommend doing this as it gives you a lot more freedom to get around to places without hassle, albeit hitting your wallet on the deeper side. On the otherhand if you prefer not to drive yourself, there are also taxis and private shuttle services. 1) Moov83 www.moov83.com
And should you ever be stuck somewhere you can always write to Susana here on Provence Living (by email email@example.com) and we will do our best to find a solution for you, even last minute 🙂
This is by far the best news ever for us here in Cotignac. The village was nominated (one of 14) then voted number six in the competition “Le Village Préféré des Français 2019”, presented by the celebrity Stéphane Bern on the 26th June. Congratulations Cotignac! You can watch a replay of the programme (in French) here.
The chefs at Salerne’s Food ‘Amour decided to pack up and move to Entrecasteaux in order to delight diners in a pretty, airy, easy to park wedding venue-restaurant and I think they did the right thing. The food is just as good, if not better, and certainly made it easy for me to take photos as the lighting was fantastic even in January.
In addition to the popular “parcours de santé” (which starts in the village and goes up past the Medieval forts, to the chapelle St Martin, and back through to the village via the Derroc and Trompines waterfall) there is a way to walk up to the Notre Dame de Graces (sanctuary frequented by over 100,000 Catholics per year!) without having to come back the same way. You can walk past the oratory on your left, the abandoned old house on your right, keep going about a kilometre then make a right into a small rocky path (so you should have some good walking shoes on) that will take you down into the Derroc neighbourhood of Cotignac. From there you’ll see the big waterfall on your left, cross the food bridge over the river that leads into the Cassole, then back into the village via the cemetery and notary offices. January and up to the month of May really is the best time for some nice walks around here in Cotignac. Enjoy the fresh air!
If you have never seen a quince before, you’ll be charmed by it’s pear-like appearance and delighted by the variety of cuisine it can be used in. From tarts to tortes and candy to jelly, this multi-purpose fruit goes a long way here in Provence. It’s Cotignac’s pride and joy and every year the village traditionally celebrates its heritage and harvest in October. This year the festival will took place on the 21st of October and if you missed it, do come back for it next year.
The Cotignac resident music producer Mr Ossy Hoppe generously puts on these super-energised, dance-worthy shows with the showcase band “Five and the Red One” each Summer. This weekend marks their 10th year of putting on these concerts so it’s a big deal!! Opening the starring band is Johnny Gallagher, a singer-guitarist that’ll simply wow you.
The event attracts over 500 people from all over and many visitors came to Cotignac just to see the show. A BIG thank you to Mr Ossy Hoppe who donates his profits from the concert to Cotignac’s local associations and is a very valuable appreciated philanthropist here. He’s also known in the music world as a producer of popular music (rock) and we are very lucky to have his know-how and expertise in our little village, jewel of the Var.
The concert is scheduled for Saturday, the 28th July from 6pm when you can buy German sausages in curry sauce with fries on the Cours Gambetta, just near Mirabeau Wine. You’ll also have a chance to win a signed guitar by the rock bands Toto and Deap Purple (who wouldn’t want that??) by purchasing raffle tickets. But the real action starts from around 8:30pm and goes ’til midnight.
Tip: if you want to find a good parking place nearby, come early.
It’s the now famous and very popular Rosé Festival here in Cotignac and if you are a fan of rosé (um, who isn’t?) then it’s one party you do not want to miss. This year the fun takes place on the 18th of July, a Wednesday evening (to get over mid-week) and the “high” will take you straight to your weekend because you’ll have had a fabulous time and may even be a bit fatigued, lol. Mirabeau (mirabeauwine.com) hosts this event in collaboration with local producers who all bring out their top wines that make everyone seem to ooh and aah and dance the night away to DJ Nick Boot’s catchy tunes from the 80s all the way up to more recent funk and pop.
Last year’s fête saw Cotignac in grand party mode for a full seven hours. We loved all the pink-clad men and women, the groovy tunes and finger foods like burgers, crêpes, Italian sandwiches, and many other yummy stands. For three euros anyone could buy a glass with their choice of rosé wine (and get to take their souvenir glass home). Two euros topped the glass up. The ambiance and the decoration, the great wine and music combined really got everyone in such a good mood it was a joy to be part of, even though yours truly here worked her butt off.
La vie en rosé is alive and well in Cotignac! Photos here from 2017 to entice you all to join us on the 18th July this year 2018.
What could be more fun than visiting your local open-air market for fresh regional organic vegetables and fruits, dried sausages, nougat, a roasted chicken with potatoes to take home for an easy lunch, some pretty clothing or sandals, local truffles or tapenades, and the list goes on! Continue reading Markets in and around Cotignac→
We’ve all heard about the joys, the wonders, and the benefits of living in the countryside and particularly in the South of France: the clean air, the abundant warm and sunny days, the cheap delicious wine, the long lunches surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, the fresh local produce and open air markets, the list goes on and on. But if you are looking into living here long term you’ll probably want to know about the down sides too, and better yet, how to avoid them (if possible). My observations and list of negative aspects to living here certainly do not compare to the much longer list of positives and the blessed aspects and are of course relative because they are my personal views based on my own experience of living in this region (PACA) for the last 15 years as an “etrangere.” It should also be noted too that my views stem from being of several nationalities and cultures (American, Japanese, and British)as well as from my age: I am currently 49 years old and live with my French husband and our children who are 9 and 13 years old.
No.1 Lack of jobs. The biggest downside to living in rural Southern France is the lack of jobs available. And the unemployment rates here are very high. In the PACA region the average is currently around 12 to 14 per cent. In Cotignac the rate is as high as 16 per cent according to JDN’s Emploi et chômage
So if you think you’ll find a job easily here, think again. Unless you are willing to commute long distances and drive over 3 hours every day (to larger cities like Marseille, Toulon, or Nice) you may well find yourself jobless or taking on remenial jobs in the service industry (restaurants and cleaning for example). If you have a teaching qualification English is always popular but public school posts are extremely difficult to come by and private lessons are not so popular for many here who do not make much more than the SMIC (minimum wage) of just over 1,000 euros per month. You would be in luck, however, if your full time job requires that you simply have an internet connection. However this too can cause some problems if you are dependent on high speed connection as most rural villages here are not equipped yet. The current president Macron has pledged to make all of France connected to high speed by the year 2022. On the otherhand if you like the idea of running a holiday villas rental service/agency, there is always room for that. But it’s no easy business to be in. More on that later in another article.
No. 2 Nothing ever gets done on time. Building work, paper work, dealing with businesses, etc, can test your patience here in the South of France. If you come from the big cities of the West like I did, you’ll find this one especially mind boggling and very frustrating. Getting an immediate response is so rare when it does happen it will make your entire year and you’ll be giddy with happiness. No joke: plumbers, electricians, builders, bankers, painters, etc, seem to have little competition here and often appear aloof and authoritative when you meet them. The French culture has been shaped also by Socialism and we need to remember that the business relations culture also reflects the political ideals. The notion of “customer is king” simply does not exist here. So if you find a good worker, you’ll want to not only keep their contact details to yourself but will find yourself “kissing the ground they walk on” and doing just about anything to keep them reponsive to your calls. It will be you that ends up meeting them at their convenience and not yours. You’ll need to adjust your schedules to fit them in when they say they’ll come ’round.
No. 3 The Small village gossip syndrome. Rural French villages are often small. Cotignac’s current population is 2, 336. Over 60 per cent of the population is above retirement age (65 plus). The active population is around 730. So we’re a small active community. Which means everyone knows everyone’s business, generally speaking. Unless you are anti-social, you will be seen and noticed which means people will talk about you. If someone got married, had a baby, had an accident, gotten divorced, or – and here’s the worst – caused a scandal involving breakups of families, you’ll hear about it. If you caused the scandal, you’ll be shamed. So if you’re addicted to drama, it’s best to stay in a large city where anonymity may save some face. In the small villages (and this is probably true anywhere in the world) life can feel a little suffocating when someone asks you about your friends’ recent car accident or someone else’s husband running off with the babysitter or why you think so-and-so jumped off a bridge. And that is if the stories are even true. Sometimes rumours spread that destroy reputations and cause people to move to another village or as far as another country. Of course this happens everywhere but in a village where you hear about it so often it feels like it’s constant. So a good rule of thumb to follow is that if you don’t want people to know about something just don’t talk about it – to anyone.
No. 4 You need a car. If you’re like me and need to feed a family you’ll need to stock up on groceries which means driving to the supermarkets. The closest to Cotignac is the SPAR on the route de Brignoles. But that is still 4 kilometres away from the village centre. There is a small convenience store on the Cours but you don’t want to carry heavy bags back up a hill every other day (although there is a delivery service if you call ahead). So a minimum-weekly-visit to the larger supermarkets (like E.Leclerc, Intermaché, Hyper U or Casino) needs driving to. The largest shopping mall is in Brignoles (20 kms) and for a big selection or department store you’ll need to go as far as Toulon La Valette (63 kms). Public transportation to these places are poorly scheduled and slow. If you like your life to be surrounded by conveniences and you do not like to drive, a rural village in Southern France is not the place for you. On the other hand the internet is a great place to shop and just about anyone can receive just about anything by post these days. And this has been a god-send to me!
No. 5 Winters are cold. Now, if you come from places like Canada, Scandinavia, or anywhere north of France you’ll laugh at this but it’s not so much the temperatures here that get cold (Cotignac can get as low as minus 8 degrees) but the majority of houses that are ill equipped to keep you warm enough in them. Many houses are not sufficiently insulated and often electric heaters do not provide enough relief or consume so much that electric bills become no longer affordable. Oil is another popular method of radiator heating but unless the house is new or has been properly restored and updated to modern standards (most old village houses are over 300 years old) it can also be cost prohibitive. Newer houses could be equipped with heat pumps (minimum 15K euros) or with considerable investment geothermal energy can be tapped but this is reserved for those with very big budgets. Many people use wood burning stoves here which can heat small spaces well but needs constant attention (and clean up once a day). You’ll also need to order your wood which gets delivered but then dumped in a big mountain in front of your doorstep and if that’s blocking traffic in anyway you’ll have to very quickly stack it in a safe dry place so let’s hope you have the stamina and energy! Heating is needed from around the end of October to end of April and maybe longer if your house is not South-facing.
No. 6 Most shops are closed Mondays, Wednesday afternoons and Sundays. They are also more often closed for lunch between 12 and 3 or even 4pm during their open days. Sometimes it seems nothing is open on Mondays; not banks, not restaurants, not even hairdressers. And that’s just routine around here. The only really safe days to go shopping in the village are Tuesdays (it’s also our market day) and Thursdays. It’s worse in the Winter time and some shops and restaurants close their doors for the entire season.
No. 7 Locals are hard to get to know. I found that it took me about an average of 18 months before I finally got invited over to dinner at my first local friend’s house. Rural French people just take a long time to get to know. They are very discrete and not trusting at first but with perseverance and grit, you’ll be accepted into their hearts. Once they let you in, they tend to be very loyal and warm and will be there to help when you need them the most. And that is something worth its weight in gold and something you cannot live without here in the countryside. If you get invited over to a local French couples’ or family meal, don’t forget to bring them a nice bottle of wine (make it one of quality, nothing cheap) and expect to spend a good 4 hours chatting while dining slowly. Invitation meals are never rushed.
No. 8 Participate in associations. Local associations provide entertainment throughout the year for any village in France but they are also an important source of information and social gatherings for networking. It’s through an association that you’ll meet people on the local council, the mayor, and the various individuals that make the village work all year ’round. Cotignac has a larger than average number of associations that keep locals and tourists busy all year by organising events such as concerts, theatre productions, festivals (the Quince festival in October for example), Christmas markets, feasts, parties, balls, artist expositions, museums, cinema, music lessons, sports activities and popular events like the annual Trail Race in June. Participating in an association is easy. Just contact the president of the association of your choice and let them know you wish to participate. There is a list of associations for Cotignac here. You will be invited to their next meeting and participate in the organisation of their next event. And you’ll make lots of new friends in the process. The downside of this though is that you really do need to commit your time and energy and participate with the association for the entire year at the least. You’ll be frowned upon if you give up mid-way. And remember you’ll be talked about so you need to stay on your best behaviour!
Having said all that, I still love it here and would not dream of living anywhere else.
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