We all have a good idea about the expected benefits of living in this Mediterranean region: the clean air, water, the relaxing slow paced life with good wine and olive oil, the fantastic weather (so much sunshine!), and the outdoor markets full of organically grown produce…the list is long. And it really is that wonderful but I’ve noticed in the 15 years that I have lived here that there are some unexpected benefits too, that make it even more wonderful. Mind you, there are downsides also but that’s another topic (see my article about the downsides of living in rural France).
When I arrived in France it was cold and wet and in the month of February 2002. I was living in a coastal village called Théoule sur Mer and on a hill that was North East facing. It was very cold and damp so I was dissappointed by the lack of sushine that first month. I actually thought, what have I done?
Spring came around soon enough and there were flowers everywhere. Birds were chirping louder and the days were getting longer. Warm breezes would fill the days and very soon there were lots of boats on the water and children on the beaches. The sunshine came down and seemed to stay on my terrace and I enjoyed dining outside. Then there was summer and the crowds came with the heavy traffic and the restaurants were all full and bustling. It was hot, but not too hot as the air is always dry here. Then by September it would start to feel cool, the leaves changed colour, the shade became more pronounced and the crowds faded to allow the locals to breathe again. The seasons were clear with definition and made for interesting changes on landscapes. With each season there was obvious change and even some charm that I never expected like the foods that went with them. What we see as stereotypical images of life on the Mediterranean are more like sleaveless dresses, outdoor meals, chilled rosé parties and long walks barefoot on the beach. There is little of that during the other seasons. The off season is where you can start to mingle and get to know the locals without the distraction of so many international tourists.
The busy country life
I met my darling French husband, we had two children, then moved to the Var, to the small village of Cotignac, where I expected total boredom and lack of social events but it was beautiful and so much cheaper than living on the Cote d’Azur and with little children it seemed safer. We moved in the month of November. It was cold and soon became colder. It snowed that Winter. But with my kids in the local kindergarden I was able to meet other parents and soon social activities seemed to be popping up everwhere. I volunteered to help out with the Parents’ Committee and by doing so created another source of social stimulation that soon became so busy I wondered if I was spending enough time with my own children! My children were thriving; they made friends easily, and soon our house seemed to be full of other children and parents that were also from different countries and cultures and I realised I was part of a diverse clan of expats and interesting locals who appreciated us. The locals did take a lot longer to get to know; about a year and a half before we were first invited over for a meal. But that didnt stop me from being determined to fit in, to be accepted into village life and to improve my French. It was much easier learning French in a rural village than on the coast where there were simply too many people and it felt much less intimate.
The fact that we lived just outside the village in the first year made me want to spend more time in the village when we were there. I organised coffee mornings, evening drinks, meals, walks, anything to spend more time in the centre. But I hated having to drive so much and soon decided it would be better to move into the centre from where, it took, literally steps down to the local bakery for fresh bread and the kids could walk to school! My children could walk safely by themselves to the local schools, what an unexpected and wonderful benefit!
Detachment from material things
It wasn’t until I took trips back to Asia to see my parents that I realised I really was living “out in the country boon-docks” by comparison. We had none of the super conveniences of large cities like in Hong Kong or Tokyo where everything and anything one would want to buy is within walking distance or accessible by public transportation. In populated cities, temptations to buy are everywhere – a new bag, a new smartphone cover, kitchen gadgets, treats for the kids. You feel like you need vitamins or eyedrops to combat the pollution in the air, or something else to ward off bacteria and viruses. I was buying wipes tissues by the packages in case there was no toilet paper in the public toilets. I needed suits, new blazers, new stockings… In rural France one needs none of these things. I soon found myself more relaxed and less stressed in life. My heart rate dropped, my blood pressure dropped, and the desire to buy and consume so much started to ween. My addiction to disposable plastic take-away coffee containers and straws, the need to wear uncomfortable clothing to work, to wear restraining heals to accompany my business outfits, designer bags to carry everything needed for the day; handkerchiefs, mirror, and just in case toiletries, lipstick, workout outfits – all those “needs” disappeared while living here. I was addicted to the fast life, like so many other young people, and all that went with it: bars, restaurants, taxis, subways, monthly haircuts, manicures, diets, even high-tech gyms. Somehow all the vitamins, the working out at luxury gyms, drinking heaps of Evian, and getting regular facials were my coping mechanisms and “healthy choices” to combat the effects of polluted air, traffic, all the noise from all those people rushing around on their “treadmills of life” trying to get ahead, make more money, buy more stuff… This may sound to you like “duh, of course” but when you actually experience the detachment from the material wants so often confused with needs, it’s enlightening and life-changing.
Improved cooking skills
The lack of money made here (there are very few high paying jobs) does have its upsides because one finds creative ways to make up for being able to go out to restaurants often. I found myself needing to cook all the time. And I got better and better at it. The locals give you recipes too, like how to make fantastic mayonnaise (à la Provençale) from scratch (egg yolks, olive oil, garlic, lemon, salt and pepper), become really good at flipping perfect crêpes (there is skill involved in this!), and learn about fine wines and how to avoid the not-so-great ones. And all the cooking becomes effortless after a while because you do it like you’d brush your teeth everyday. And the better you are, the more you feel appreciated when you have company for dinner/lunch parties. And those events become important here in rural France. The French love long lunches in the sun. They love long dinner indoors with a fire too. But the best wines are also consumed during these occasions. By making local friends who have been here for generations, you’ll be treated to learn how to cook up the best ratatouille, deep fried courgettes, anchoïade, daubes (stews), pistou (soupe with basil), pot-au-feu, fig sauce for grilled duck, apple tartes, chocolate mousse, and oh, so much more… and you won’t find these recipes on the internet because they are guarded secrets!
Christmas with family, new year’s with friends
Before moving to France I didnt know that traditionally Christmas is spent more often with immediate family members and New Year’s was spent with friends. What’s great about this is that one doesnt feel the pressure to have to go out and buy Christmas gifts for every friend without forgetting a few and feeling embarrassed. And there’s always a new year’s eve party somewhere to attend where friends will be and a bottle of champagne accompanied by a salad or dessert usually suffices as an offer. Thanksgiving is not celebrated here, making huge family get-togethers in cold November unnecessary. Extended family dos are more often conducted in the warmer months so everyone can enjoy the outdoors and entertaining can be kept simple.
Seasonal food really is the best
The locals know what’s in season and they make the most out of it. In the Spring you’ll see locals make their strawberry tarts and asparagus wrapped in bacon, garlicky tomato quiches, apricot and fig pies in the Summer, and jams in the early Fall. Truffle season starts in November and mushroom hunting also goes on in the colder months so meat dishes will often be accompanied by Chantrelles, Girolles, Cèpes. And if you’re lucky your talented local hunter will share the secrets of how to distinguish the poisonous ones from the edible, but mostly where to find them. Wild boar is hunted throughout the non-touristy seasons and should you ever be presented with a leg or other part of the beast you should consider yourself very lucky and accepted into their family of friends. I have learned to love the taste of Daube du Sanglier and know that it’s best to eat them since 1) it’s organic meat and 2) there are too many of them and they cause car accidents so it’s best to kill them humanely.
Longevity by eating everything in moderation
We read a lot about the dangers of sugar, alcohol, animal fats, etc, but I see all of those foods regularly consumed here. And the locals are living well into their late 80s and even 90s. They have been eating these “poisons” all their lives and seem relatively healthy. I enjoyed reading the book about the wonders of eating everything “In Defence of Food” by Michael Pollan. It’s right-on and reminds me of the dining culture here. Our local resident and famous artist Armand Avril is 92 this year and I still see him running around and enjoying a drink at the local bars. I wouldnt mind being like that. Everything should be consumed in moderation, of course, but if I can still walk around and enjoy a glass of rosé on the Cours in Cotignac in my late 80s, I’d be very happy.
The mind boggling joy of gastronomic restaurants
A good restaurant is one thing, a gastronomic experience at a Michelin starred restaurant is a completely different ball game altogether. I didnt know much about gastronomy before arriving in France. There is merit and glory to winning a Michelin macaron but to taste the food at these French restaurants is worth every centime because unlike dining out at a local brasserie, these restaurants offer “culinary voyages” that enlighten all our senses: Sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation). There is a good collection of gastronomic restaurants in Var. Here is a list: Abeille de la Celle, Hostellerie Bérard, Faventia, Les Gorges de Pennafort, Le Relais des Moines, Le Jardin de Benjamin (at Chateau de Berne), Le Castellaras, Le Belrose, Bruno (specialising in truffle cuisine in Lorgues), L’Olivier, La Voile, La Palmeraie, Les Chênes Verts, Le Mas du Langoustier and La Rastègue. These are the “crème de la crème” of restaurants that should not be compared with the rustic village joints that serve home style cooking. Gastronomic chefs spend many years training at top schools, a lot of time spent cooking and preparing the delectable several-course-meals you consume at these places and hence the high price tag. But they are a big deal and are totally worth it. Furthermore the abundant availability of fresh produce in our region puts the gastronomic restaurants in a class all their own.
There will be a part II to this blog. Stay tuned! -Susana