Blissful summer evenings on the terrace. Leisurely candlelit dinners, lulled by the chirping of the cigales. Lazy lunches under the shade of the mulberry tree. This is the kind of lifestyle we associate with living in Provence. It’s undeniably pleasant and enjoyable for a month or two in the summer, but if you live in Provence all year round the lack of variety and stimulation starts to wear thin after a while.
The summers might be magical, but the winters are long and harsh and when the last of the summer visitors return home, the activities aimed at tourists shut up shop and you are likely to find that the highlight of your month is the tremendously exciting chestnut festival in a neighbouring village or a Sunday morning game of boules with a bunch of elderly gents in the town square. Your wife, meanwhile sits huddled miserably over a chocolat chaud in the nearest bar, (the atmosphere of which is stuffy and rendolent of goat), reading a thin version of The Sunday Times, surrounded by elderly paysans who don’t speak a word of English.
The Provençal people are warm and generous to a fault, but we come from completely different backgrounds and cultures. We have little in common, and the language barrier means that even with the best of intentions, we are unable to forge more than the most tentative of friendships. Once the novelty has worn off and the summer is over, many of us year-round Provence residents feel lonely and isolated. If we are lucky, we find other English-speaking expats in the area with whom to socialise. Or we install English satellite TV. Which, when you think about it, really defeats the object of living in a foreign country.
My wife and I went the whole hog when we moved into a house perched at 800 metres altitude on the top of a small mountain in the heart of the Luberon National Park. For three years, I grew vegetables, savoured wine and truffles, visited the markets and admired the views. My wife kept chickens and made coulis de tomates and blackcurrant jam.
We became friendly with our neighbours and sampled their home-made (and very smelly) goat cheese and spent evenings in their gîte. We visited the perched villages, tasted the honey from the local bees, saw a wild boar on our land.
But, after three years we finally found the courage to admit that, beautiful scenery or not, we were bored rigid. There has to be a limit to how many times a person can get excited about going to the local market or eating in the local restaurants. When you’ve seen one Provençal market or perched village, you’ve seen them all.
There was nothing for our children to do. The nearest town with more than one street of shops was Avignon, an hour and a half’s drive away. There were no cinemas, youth clubs or sports centres. Most of the young French people in the area had moved away, lured by the bright lights of Marseilles.
Our kids were lonely. We were fed up. We decided to call it a day and sold the house. We still enjoy visiting in the summer, but living in Provence all year round?
Frankly, I think it’s overrated.
Article from "Reader's Viewpoint" of The Riviera Reporter Var Supplement, issue February/March 2007.