When Lisa Pepin first met her husband Johann in Madison, Wisconsin at a mutual friend’s party she describes it as a coup de foudre. He was working on a Master’s degree and she was working at an ad agency. Three weeks after meeting, Johann had to return to France so a “Greek Travel Fund” that Lisa had been contributing to became a “Frequent France Flyer Fund” as a long distance relationship was born.
Both eventually moved to Chicago where he worked in finance and she worked for a PR agency. They married in 2002 and a year later they moved back to France so that Johann, who had been raised by his grandparents, could help his grandfather with the upkeep of the family’s 11-hectare farm – Les Pastras (www.lespastras.com)– near Aix-en-Provence.
When they first moved in, the house and the property were in a mess. The family caretaker had retired and Johann’s grandfather was in his eighties. Gossip in the village, which included bets at the local bar, was that Lisa would last three months before packing it in for Chicago.
With the expertise of a childhood friend of Johann’s, they discovered that truffles could be found on the property. This led to truffle cultivation as well as harvesting wild olive trees to be transplanted on their farm and cleaning up the existing vineyard. Ten years on, their work is far from finished, meaning that almost every weekend is spent out in the fields. The combination of day jobs, taking care of the farm on the weekends, and running seasonal truffle hunting tours in English (which includes lunch: a burger stuffed with foie gras, bacon and truffles, then topped with more truffles, served with a side of truffle fries, and all the regional wine you care to drink), keeps this thirty-something couple busy.
Johann’s grandfather, now 90, rolls up his sleeves alongside Lisa and Johann working on the land. He was a WWII veteran and part of the French Resistance. Together they produce organic olive oil and truffle oil (it takes 30 grams of truffles to make one litre of truffle oil), which they can ship to the US (and elsewhere). Fifty percent of every bottle of olive oil sold goes to OneFamily, an orphanage in Haiti that Lisa and Johann have a personal connection to.
Despite the hard work, the charm of living in the south of France has not worn off. “I thought that one day I’d open the shutters and feel very blasé about the magnificent view of rolling hills, grape vines and olive trees. That day hasn’t come yet,” says Lisa.
Before moving to France, Lisa’s knowledge of the country was limited. Her knowledge of the area had come from Peter Mayle, M.F.K. Fisher and Marcel Pagnol. She doubted that the Provence that existed in those novels was the authentic. “The smell of wild thyme while walking in the woods, the singular beauty of the light hitting the plane trees along the Cours Mirabeau in Aix, the simple pleasure of a really pungent chèvre and a glass of pale rosé ... It’s all still here, just as described.”
But not every day is filled with long walks in the country and the smell of thyme. The reality of living in France comes with many frustrations at the way the French go about being French. For Lisa and Johann, this is best exemplified when dealing with French contractors.
“Our builder never found the time to finish the work he started, though he did manage to find the time to take our check to the bank. I’d estimate that a full six months of the ten years I’ve been here has been spent waiting in vain for people who promised to turn up to do some sort of work. I’d love to tell you that I’m used to it by now, but the truth is that it’s just as frustrating as ever.”
Lisa says that the Anglo-American Group of Provence (www.aagp-provence.com) offers many activities to help integrate such as hiking trips, a book and gourmet club and several other options while sharing the company of other English speakers.
She wishes, though, her language skills were stronger. “I feel that my French should really be much better than it is after ten years here, but I think it just may be good enough to pass the test for French citizenship, for which I plan to apply this year.”
A far cry away from what the town gossips predicted a decade ago.
Lisa and Johann Pepin - Les Pastras
- PJ Heslin