An extract from Gayle Smith Padgett’s book Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie.
Chapter three – Shackin’ Up
Aix-en-Provence — Fall 2010
Live in sin with La Belle France—that was our plan. But to set it in motion, we had to make a case to France that we were worthy. And that meant heading for the French consulate in Los Angeles, because California was our official home of record. France doesn’t allow expats to request permission to reside long term while said expats are physically in France. You have to ask politely from your own native land. And that solicitation must be delivered in the form of a fat dossier, packed with convincing data that you aren’t just teasing, that your intentions are serious. Most importantly, it has to contain proof you have an abode to call home.
You’d think we would have figured out where in France we wanted to live during our two decades of ramblings, but we hadn’t. Now that our French dream was taking shape, we took a cold, hard look at the starting point. Would it be our go-to town of Saint-Rémy? We’d always thought Saint-Rémy would be the one, but were we riding high on emotion? Perhaps we needed to consider alternatives. Could it be picture-postcard pretty Obernai in Alsace, our favorite weekend escape while living in Heidelberg? We’d found a wonderful chambre d’hôte just a five-minute walk through vineyards to centre ville and often spent weekends there. In summer, we’d bicycle through the vineyards connecting the impossibly charming villages that make up the Alsatian Route des Vins. One of my favorite routes was the ride from Dambach-la-Ville to Ribeauvillé. Just outside of the fairy-tale half-timbered town—especially ravishing when crimson and coral geraniums gushed from every window box—is the renowned, historic Beauvillé factory, which produces incredible tablecloths and tea towels in magnificent colors and patterns. Ralph knew my attraction to the fabrics approximated obsession but took solace in the knowledge that my acquisitions would be held in check by the size of my bicycle basket.
And then there was beautiful Beaune, in Burgundy. Like the Alsace, Burgundy’s bike routes through the vineyards were tremendous, even if they didn’t include a textiles factory along the way. The scenery rivaled Alsace’s vineyards, and during the vendange, the region would burst with energy. We once witnessed the end of the grape harvest in Volnay, where twenty-year-old grape pickers dressed in togas with grapevine wreaths on their heads took their party to the rues, sharing their luscious product with whomever passed by.
Before we left Europe as newbie retirees, we thought it prudent to give objectivity a nod and spend a week in both Obernai and Beaune en route to Provence. The fall of 2010, both villes forgot to put out their welcome weather mats. The chill factor and high gray-day count helped us come to a decision. As much as we’d enjoyed both towns over the years, for year-round living, there was no contest with France’s sunny southern region. Onward we drove south.
Timing was not on our side, however, even in Saint-Rémy. When we arrived, not only was the sun in hiding, but the fierce mistral was howling like a terrible two-year-old having a major meltdown. Standing upright wasn’t even possible. Most plans for outdoor activities like walking, birding, biking, and apartment-hunting were scuttled. We huddled inside. When we did venture out, we discovered that our favorite bistro had changed hands and my most coveted home décor boutique was shuttered for renovation. Even the remarkable weekly market failed me. Only a few brave marketers had set up shop. Reality had intervened in our sparkling fantasyland. We recognized that perhaps Saint-Rémy wasn’t the place for real-life retirement for us. Downhearted, we returned to California without a French address.
It wasn’t long before a renewed, now-or-never mind-set blossomed. We had fantasized for a long time about living in France, and we knew that if we didn’t embark on the adventure then, there was a real possibility it would never happen. Countless hours were filled with devising a plan to realize our dream, but we still didn’t know where it would happen. Then, one morning, I awoke with an epiphany.
“Honey, how about Aix?”
“Aix-en-Provence?” Ralph said.
“Yes, Aix. Think about it. We had a super visit there several years ago.”
“Oh, yeah—remember those terrific sandwiches from the pizza truck just off the Cours Mirabeau?”
“You bet I do—man, they were dee-licious!” I said. My thoughts drifted back to those grilled eggplant-zucchini-red-pepper focaccias. They were so packed with chèvre that when I took a bite, the melted goat cheese had oozed out and dribbled down my arm. Luscious bits of heaven they were. From our bench on the Cours Mirabeau, we had gazed down the main drag of Aix-en-Provence (pronounced X-on-provonce) through the green tunnel of plane trees to the magnificent Rotonde fountain. Water shooting out from graceful swans and dolphins formed perfect, gentle arches. Glistening spray as fine as silvery fairy dust cooled the grateful bystanders. A soft, jazzy melody wafted out of the renowned Deux Garçons restaurant, once frequented by Cezanne, Zola, and Picasso. The historic brasserie was crowded with a mix of chic Parisian-type patrons, serious business folks, and fresh-faced university students. The energy put a spring in our step. What a dreamy corner of Provence Aix was.
“It’s maybe bigger than what I’d prefer, but it’s walkable,” Ralph noted.
“And it’s not all hustle-bustle … it has its quiet, quaint corners,” I added.
“And it’s only thirty minutes to the sea, which is really good. There should be some good birding there. Yeah, it really does work. I think we should do it.”
My “aha” moment set the wheels in motion to take another crack at launching the quest for our French retirement nest. The trip to Marseille was challenge-free and unbelievably, so was finding a furnished apartment in Aix. We discovered the “by-owner” ad on the tourist office website, which meant no realtor’s fee. That was a relief, because typically the fee equates to a month’s rent. It was only the second apartment we visited, and though a compact 67 square meters (just 720 square feet) and decorated with the owner’s personal mementos, we didn’t quibble. It had all the basics, including a bathtub, washing machine, and easy parking. There was no doubt it was the one. We knew it the moment we walked into the living room and saw the captivating view directly over the elegant city, the focal point being the imposing Cathédrale de Saint Sauveur. And the owner was lovely. When the slight woman with long brown hair and angelic eyes opened the door and smiled warmly, I felt an instant connection, as if we were soul mates meeting up after an extended separation. But it was even more than that. It was as if with one gentle glance this stranger absorbed all my anxieties about moving to a foreign city where we knew not a soul. Discovering Nathalie and her apartment with the belle vue fell squarely in the meant-to-be category. Our sad breakup with Saint-Rémy was behind us. We were now looking forward to a new relationship—with Aix.
Back in California, armed with our rental agreement, we got busy compiling our dossier for the French consulate in Los Angeles. That included documents confirming sufficient income, health insurance, and proof that our photos weren’t stapled to the local post office bulletin board. Our appointment at the consulate was at 10:00 a.m. We left the house at 6:00 a.m., allowing four hours for a two-and-a-half-hour trip. The freeway was bumper to bumper, and we were going nowhere fast. We were nervous wrecks. If it hadn’t been for the high-occupancy vehicle lane, we never would have made it. As it turned out, we had some time to spare. Once in the consulate waiting room, we passed the time waiting to be called to the counter by rechecking our dossiers for the umpteenth time. Ralph gasped.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I said.
“I don’t believe this. My photos are missing.” His face was ashen.
“Oh my God! Now what?” I said in a hushed voice, trying not to attract attention.
We recalled we’d seen a big all-service pharmacy just down the block. If he ran fast, there might be just enough time to get another set of passport photos made and make it back for the appointment—just. If he didn’t make it, we’d have to book another appointment, probably weeks away, and make another grueling trip to LA. And the French official reviewing our packet would probably give us a demerit or two for failure to organize ourselves. If we couldn’t manage to put a complete dossier together, how on earth would we manage living in a foreign country whose language we had barely begun to grasp? As Ralph rose to put his coat on, he handed his folder to me. I opened it, flipped through the pages, then stuck my hand deep into the folder’s pocket. And pulled out the packet of photos. Apparently, it had slipped out from the paper clip at the top of the page and slid down.
“Sweetie, look!” I held up the photos.
“Whew—what a relief!” Ralph murmured, letting out a big breath.
Just as our pulses were returning to normal, the official called us up to the glass-enclosed counter. We slid the dossier through an opening, and the no-nonsense French woman checked it for the appropriate components. “C’est bon,” she said, and plopped it on a stack of similar-looking dossiers. “You will receive notice shortly.”
Hoping for a more defined timeframe, I ventured, “Quand, exactement?”
“Shortly,” she repeated in a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you tone.
Accepting that no more information would be forthcoming and realizing our cue to exit had been given, we responded with our much-practiced phrase, “Merci beaucoup, bonne journée, et au revoir.”
France held its cards close. There was no news for several weeks. Then a pair of special delivery packets arrived. They contained our temporary visas. We were good to go. Next stop, La Belle France.
Establish a French base camp.
From there, you can launch a quest
for your long-term nest.
You can buy Gayle’s book from Amazon, or Lebookshop in Montpellier is stocking it. Watch this space about how to win a signed copy of the book. Gayle’s website is www.gaylesmithpadgett.com.