AWAY FROM THE CROWDS
Life in France has turned out to be very different from how she thought it might be, but for mum-of-five Gillian Harvey, living in the rural heartland of Limousin has a lot going for it
Columnist Gillian Harvey explains why life in a rural part of France has a lot going for it
In our area of France, February can be an interesting month. With the weather veering wildly from chilly to baking within the course of a few days, it’s hard to know what to pack when going for a day out; and despite the fact we leave the house laden with coats, spare T-shirts, scarves and hats, you can guarantee we’ll forget something.
Still, we’ve learned since moving here in 2009 to adapt to the situation we’re presented with, in more than one way. Seven years ago, if you’d asked me what my vie en France would be like, I’d have described browsing authentic markets with a basket over my arm, digging over my vegetable-rich allotment – complete with polytunnel – and conversing fluently with my French neighbours over apéritifs.
In reality, we’re more likely to be filling our trolley at the local supermarket, sighing over the few measly tomatoes we’ve managed to cultivate after forgetting to water and weed (the polytunnel was crushed during the first snow of 2010), and stumbling through French conversation in a haze of semi-comprehension and eager ‘ ouis’.
After initial eagerness, I’ve hit a bit of a plateau, language-wise. And while I can get by in most situations, when conversation veers off-piste, it can be brain-achingly difficult to stay on track.
Other realities of life in France have required adaptation too. The low population in my area can mean rather than heaving with life, villages, parks and even the beach can seem rather barren. At this time of year, the local lake at Vassivière also gets drained, with the water used to cool distant nuclear power plants or to generate hydroelectricity.
But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. And, as my mum always used to advise me in the endless summer holidays of my youth, I have learned to “make my own fun”. Winters are filled with long lunches in friends’ homes; away from constant stimuli, I’ve found more interesting ways to spend my time, and on wet weekends we’ve learned to kit ourselves up and get outside anyway.
The children, too, have developed a resourcefulness that they might not have had if we lived elsewhere. Unleashed into a wide-open space, they run, explore, find interesting rocks and sticks or invent imaginative games.
And in these moments, the fact that we’re guaranteed to have parks and lakesides almost to ourselves can add to the adventure. With all my children under eight, they need close supervision when let loose on the sandy, dried-out bed of a half-drained lake. But if no one is there to pose a threat or block my view, I can let my children have a freedom they’d not have access to elsewhere and watch their colourful coats from a lazy distance.
When we decided to visit the lake with some friends this weekend, the kids raced off to paddle in distant pools, played tug of war with ancient rope and discovered treasures in small pine cones, water-worn pieces of driftwood and the sparkling surface of faux-jewelled rocks (several of which I found the next day under my daughter’s pillow). It was wonderful to watch them running in the fresh air, paddling in their wellies (or, lesspleasingly, in the case of Joe, four, sloshing along in his trainers as if it was the most natural thing in the world).
Because, once again, despite the brain-busting, headache-causing pain of perfecting my conjugation, or the fact that I often forget the market is in town, let alone stroll down with a basket, I remember to say to myself: This. This is why I’m here.