Published: Globe and Mail
January 14, 2020
Our decision to move to France from Canada was an easy one. The food, the culture and even the politics were a better fit for the life that we wanted to live. Along with our cat, Beatrice, we arrived in Bordeaux in mid-October and settled into a nice cottage in the Dordogne, a rural department in southwestern France.
For the first two weeks, we marvelled at the green rolling countryside around us, at the friendly people, and at the array of delicious meats and vegetables that we found at the weekly farmers’ markets and even in large supermarkets. We knew immediately that France was our heaven, but we also knew that the Dordogne was not where we wanted to live, work and build a life.
In the months before our move, we had identified the places that we thought would make a good home, but searching online and actually visiting them are two very different things, so we loaded up our new car and set out on a road trip that would take us more than 3,000 kilometres over two weeks.
Our starting point was Normandy, beginning in the Perche region. Perche is close to both Paris and London, and is imbued with the kind of energy and drive that we we’re used to. We are in France to launch a new music festival, not to retire, so that energy is appealing. Like the Dordogne, Normandy is remarkably beautiful, and has no shortage of the lovely old stone farmhouses that we felt were destined to be our dream home. The area has always been a favourite for British expats, but has also been popular with Parisiens trying to escape crowded city life since COVID began. That proximity is one of the big attractions to living in Normandy. Paris is only a 90-minute trip on the trains. London is further, but whether taking the train, or taking our car via the Channel Tunnel, it’s still an easy weekend trip for a show or to see friends.
We spent a week as guests at La Bellême Bleue Maison d’Hôtes, a restored 17th-century residence, then left to travel east and south to Burgundy. An otherwise dull day on the expensive French tollways was redeemed by a trip to the legendary Chartres cathedral. I expected this would just be a tourist stop, but in many ways it changed how I saw our future lives.
The beauty and majesty of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres are well known, but what affected me most was the age of the building. Canada is a country little more than 150 years old. When I was a schoolchild, our history barely extended past Confederation in 1867.
This cathedral, on the other hand, has been standing for more than a thousand years. I looked up at walls that are 900 years old; at the Sancta Camisia, the tunic said to have been worn by Mary at the birth of Jesus; and at marble sculptures that had been damaged by mobs 200 years ago during the French Revolution.
At Chartres, I was looking at history in ways that had simply never been possible at home, and was beginning to see how this long embrace of the historical past influences everything about France.
After a day and night in Burgundy and Chablis, we made our way down to Provence. We were saddened to see that the fabled southern paradise where my wife Susan spent much of her young adulthood has been overrun with tourists, motorhomes and advertising. We spent a day retracing Susan’s path through hilltop towns like Gordes, finally ending at the fabled ochre mining town of Roussillon.
The surrounding red cliffs are breathtaking, but we chose to turn uphill and follow the winding streets to the very top of the town and L’Église Saint Michel De Roussillon.
It was becoming obvious that in moving to France, my goal was not just to make a living, but to explore the ways that I could build a true legacy.
We spent the evening wandering the winding narrow streets of old Montpellier. Surrounded by crowds of partying students (a quarter of Montpellier’s 277,000 population), I was struck by the feeling that these ancient, cobbled avenues were as alive and vibrant as at any time in the last thousand years. I suddenly understood that ancient and historic don’t need to be dull or quiet.
The next morning, baguettes and charcuterie in hand, we set out on the last leg of our voyage, to the heart of the Occitanie, and the place where we’ll make our new home. The hilltop village of Lauzerte also dates back to the medieval, and like much of France preserves the architecture and heritage of that era while accommodating delivery vans and the new fibre-optic internet that runs to the ancient homes.
As much as we love our modern conveniences – I can’t imagine travelling the winding roads in France without GPS – we’re equally in love with the sense of permanence, and the understanding that you can preserve that history while still living in the current age. As we begin the process of choosing and purchasing our new home in France, we’re consciously seeking that balance.