Living (out of boxes) in the Languedoc 

I have been quiet these last few months as life has been a roller coaster.

I have just returned from a family funeral in the UK. My cousin died, suddenly, 3 weeks ago leaving behind 4 young children. Once again, the plague of grief has descended on the family, wrapping itself around like a mycelium. On the surface, a brief and beautiful farewell; underneath, the tragedy of the loss of a dad, a son, a brother, and a friend means lives will change forever. The loss of Nicholas makes the 4th youngest son in my mum’s family to have died. Mum says, “My father always said there was a Banshee following the family”. No-one has yet seen a strange woman by the side of the road, combing her long hair, but it is a pretty weird coincidence.

This was my first trip back to England in 12 months. It was 14 months since I’d seen mum and 18 months since I’d seen my sister. Despite the tragic circumstances, I really felt the need for family connection. The weather was glorious and Chester looked beautiful. Covid life in France is still pretty strict. The Passe Sanitaire was introduced in August and mask-wearing is mandatory once again, including in schools from age 6. In contrast, England seems to have completely abandoned masks. The train from Manchester airport to Chester involved the guard announcing, “we advise all passengers staying on beyond Chester that masks are mandatory in Wales. Failure to comply will result in a fine”. I burst out laughing. The passengers sat next to me were obviously used to it and just shrugged. Nobody put a mask on at Chester.

Other interesting observations were not saying ‘bonjour’ a billion times a day to people in the street. Even the teenagers say ‘bonjour’ on their way to collège. By saying ‘bonjour’ you are acknowledging a stranger as an equal, a person deserving of respect.  The English ‘silent shuffle past’ or even the crossing of the road to completely avoid contact made me feel so awkward.

‘Trout pouts’…they were everywhere in Chester. Young girls that glow like orange clones with lips like fish was quite a thing to behold. And jobs! They were advertised everywhere – shop windows, radio stations, over the tannoys in shops. I’ve always fancied a job in TKMaxx and nearly applied!

Moving house is apparently in the top 10 of the most stressful things to deal with in life and we have moved 3 times in the last 3 months. June was the end of our long-term gite rental. In May we started packing. It’s impossible to get a long-term rental to include the summer months as landlords can charge peak rates in July and August. With everything packed, we stored the majority of it in a mate’s wine cellar, then me and the children got the train to the alps to stay in a converted garage. Matt drove with a car load of musical gear and of course the budgie, Joey.

The children spent 2 months in the mountains, exploring woods, finding snakes, paddling in icey streams, picking wild blueberries, spotting marmots, playing football and riding horses bareback. This last activity was kept from us for a while. We later discovered that Douglas had been thrown off one of the horses but felt he didn’t need to tell us as it didn’t hurt very much! During this time we also took a trip to Cremona, Italy (the city of violin makers) and Venice. Streets, restaurants, museums, hotels had only a scattering of local visitors. Tourism was still on hold and it was blissful. In August we drove to Switzerland. Matt and ZRI were performing at the Alpentöne Festival in Altdorf. It was ZRI’s first time performing together in 18 months. The Swiss audience loved them. A 10 minute standing ovation was followed by radio and TV coverage.

On the 18th of August, the government in China decided that all online teaching was now banned in an attempt to encourage families to have more children. As a result, I lost my job (again). Previously, Chinese families have said they can’t afford to have more children because the state education system is so bad they need to pay for extra tuition outside of school. By banning access to any online teaching, the government believe that this will remove the tiger parents, dissolve competition and therefore solve the problem. 

This coincided with news from friends at home announcing that my pre-Covid job was being advertised again. In May last year, my contract as Theatre Manager for one of the most prestigious independent schools in the world – Rugby School – was ended due to Covid-19. Despite the school’s huge assets (they own half of Bloomsbury, London, don’t you know?) they dismissed non-teaching staff members pretty swiftly when Covid struck. The reason given to me (via Microsoft Teams) was because I was “no longer able to bring in any money”. Until my employment, the theatre remained the privilege of the fee paying (£37,000-a-year) students. I spent 15 months programming, marketing, building bridges with the community of Rugby, even personally commissioning a Christmas show where 70% of the audience (local primary school children) were given the chance to see professional theatre, for the first time, ever. However, these activities were quickly dismissed by governors as non-essential. And so, the only professional theatre in Rugby, was once again, returned into the hands of ‘the few’.  Following the appointment of the new ‘me’ this summer, I was then contacted to see if I could give them access to the social media platforms I’d set up, “as it would be such a shame to have done all that work for nothing”.  

27th August – we loaded the car, deep-cleaned the Alpine garage and headed back down south to move into another long-term let, this time in Roujan. This place is double the size, has a pool, vines and a ping-pong table. It is also a village with a secondary school. After 2 days staying with a friend we began the unpacking. We got our 3 car loads of ’stuff’ from the wine cellar and began the job of creating (yet another) 10 month home for the family. We are 3 weeks in and many of the boxes have remained stacked and are now hidden away. My theory is, If we’ve lived for 2 months without it, it can stay where it is!

On 2nd September the children started back at school. The boys have gone into CE1. Douglas was told off for whistling and tapping rhythmically with his pens in the first week…great start!  Roisin has started secondary school and it is really tough both academically and socially. Loads of new children from neighbouring villages, all trying to establish new friendships. This would be hard at the best of times. Add to the mix a different language, social distancing and mask wearing and Roisin’s self-possession seems all the more impressive. At the same time, activities have started back. The boys do football training twice a week, then have matches on Saturdays. The quality of the training means the boys have become passionate players. They are now insisting that they absolutely must have their French nationality so they can play for Paris Saint-Germain when they grow up. Roisin has started dancing twice a week and having successfully auditioned for the Montpellier Opera Junior Programme, she rehearses every Saturday from 9-1pm. Most school holidays will now be spent at Montpellier Opera house rehearsing and performing for the main stage productions – Tosca and The Fairy Queen are in the calendar. And we’re off to see Rigoletto next week followed by Cendrillon in December. Rehearsals are with the opera’s choir master and stage director. For this world-class, life changing opportunity, we are paying the meagre sum of 325 euros a year.  However, waking up at 7am, 6 times a week as well as activities and school ending at 5pm, means we are all shattered. 

Meanwhile, in the UK our tenants have now requested the use of our whole garage as a deal-breaker for staying on. The cheapest quote to keep stuff in storage is £240 a month. We’re in an impossible situation that leaves us no option other than flying over to sell the garage contents. So, another house move is on the cards this October half term. The thoughts of flying home with 3 children to clear out and sell items from our garage in a few days keeps me awake at night. 

When the night demons come in, I wonder if the easiest thing to do is pack it all in and go home. Although home is no longer the place that our bank owns. We’ve had 2 homes since then and have made so many fantastic connections that moving back now would be harder than staying.

Then in the daytime I remember the things that we love here. Autumn has arrived. The days are warm but not unbearable and the evenings are clear and mild. It’s harvest time and we joined in with the grape-picking this year. It’s back-breaking and humbling work. Life here is lived through the seasons. As new crops are harvested, different fruits and vegetables appear in the markets. Our daily supper currently includes Padron peppers fried in olive oil until blistered and served with a sprinkling of salt. This Russian roulette side dish provides endless hilarity for the onlooker. Trips to empty beaches in September when the tourists have gone home are magical. The trees in our garden are smothered with camouflaged green fruit. In November it’ll be daily freshly squeezed orange juice and homemade marmalade as Christmas presents. 

So, for now, I need to dig deep, remain grateful, keep positive and get through the next month before being able to relax into another year in the south of France….and then we’ll move… for the 5th time!

5 thoughts on “Living (out of boxes) in the Languedoc 

  1. Wow. Impressive and heart wrenching all at once. Sending all our love to Team Sharp from your Team Lyon fans.

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  2. Dear Fiona, as an author of many books I normally never write to someone saying: “You should write a book!”, because this normally means I will be asked to read texts, to make connections with publishers etc. All things I do not have time for since I’m no Agent and no editor.
    But … Please, Fiona, do consider writing a book! We all loved Peter Mayle so much. He inspired many of us to live in France, he also took some of our illusions and gave us insight in the “real” french way of live. And we still loved him. And we still loved France!
    A lot of German, American or English expats living in France tried to step into the shoes of Peter Mayle. Up to now – in my humble opionion – nobody was good enough. But your writing is one of a kind! It makes me smile, it makes me sad, it makes me longing and at the same time stills my longing.
    So, dear Fiona, please think very hard about writing a book about your life in France, your daily experiences and so on. It would make so many people happy, including me!!!
    All best, Petra

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