My wife and I have been living in rural France for a few months now and things have finally settled down a bit. Most of the major details have been dealt with, and the list of things to do has been reduced to the mildly stressful, rather than feeling insurmountable. We have a car, the insurance is in place, the ‘French Card’ is in hand, the house rented, and the boxes unpacked. We know how to find the things that we need, and a bit of a routine is in place; not too much, but enough to make us feel comfortable.
It is the house that most amazes me. We somehow managed to find, and rent, an incredible old farm house in the village of Thoiry. It was actually a stable back when it was built; converted into a house, as far as we can tell, back in the 1950s. Our home is part of a larger farm complex that includes the original house, where our landlady lives, and a gigantic old wine storage barn. It all forms a sort of compound with a central courtyard flanked by a series of walled gardens and backed by acres of vineyard and pasture.
We park our car under a section of the barn, likely the old hay loft, just in front of an ancient derelict wine press that I have spent a considerable amount of time just sitting and staring at recently. It is easily ten feet across with two foot high wooden slats set on top of a massive stone base and banded with old rusted iron. The stone is etched with a shallow gutter that leads to a carved spout that has probably filled thousands of barrels of wine. The press itself is a massive device of stone and iron, set on a gigantic screw. Sitting in the corner of the barn is an eighteen foot long pole that fits into a hole on the top of the screw, sticking out horizontally beyond the edge of the press.
Back when the farm was young a horse would have been tethered to the pole and used to turn the screw to actuate the press, but nearby can be seen the rusting remains of a more modern system of cobwebbed gears and frayed cables that must have brought about the early retirement of the horse to either the pasture, the glue factory, or the dinner table. The entire press has probably sat disused for forty years, and sits as a reminder or a different time and way of farming; one where people did for themselves what is now subcontracted to the handful of wineries that dot the small villages on the Swiss side of the border.
From both the kitchen and bedroom windows we have a view of the vineyard; a few acres that produces three or four different varieties of grapes. One of the aforementioned wineries in Switzerland buys the crop each year, sending out a crew of weathered old French men and women to pick the grapes by hand each fall. Behind the vineyard is a large pasture full of cows that are brought in from the communal grazing land in the mountain valleys of the Jura in the early fall, where they stay until being moved back each spring. I have grown to love the constant, faint ringing of cow bells that floats through our windows each day. In the distance, far behind the pastures, the massive stone face of the Saleve stands between us and a view of Switzerland beyond.
Glass doors, with their large wooden storm shutters, open from our living room to the garden area behind the house and the farm orchard beyond. There are half a dozen apple and plum trees spread out across the orchard, as well as a quarter acre garden tended by our wizened landlady whose family has owned the farm since it was built. It is a large space, surrounded by eight or nine foot stone walls, with a gate that opens to the church grounds to the west. The walls are lined with a mix of herbs and rose bushes and the entire yard fills with the mix of their heavy scents on warm summer days. Our personal garden area, just over a quarter acre itself, is dominated by a large mulberry tree in the center. The back edge is lined with lavender and raspberry bushes.
The house itself is large, perhaps too large for us, but it is incredible to be able to live there. When we first came to the Geneva area, searching for a place to live before the final move, we quickly realized that we simply could not afford to live in Geneva proper. We did what many of the people working at CERN and the UN do, searching through the surrounding towns on the French side. What we found were mostly tiny, overpriced apartments and we were becoming resigned to the idea that we would likely have to live in one of the apartment blocks that dominate cities like St. Genis and Gex.
My wife came across an ad for an apartment online and, in our desperation, we decided to take a look even though the pictures made the place look as bad as everything else we were seeing. Pulling into the courtyard of what turned out to be our farmhouse, we hadn’t even gotten out of the car before we decided that we simply had to live there, no matter what.
With its gigantic, cavernous kitchen, large arched windows and heavy wooden storm shutters, worn stone entryways to each room, and idyllic surroundings, it was like someone had made real our most absurd visions of what it would be like to live in a small agrarian French village. Sure, it’s a drafty stone building that never seems warm enough in the winter, but I literally cannot imagine a more perfect home for our time in France.
As I mentioned, we live in Thoiry. It is a town of a few thousand people, with a small downtown and a handful of shops. We have a grocer, two bakeries, a butcher, and a café within a few minutes walk of our house. On the far edge of the town, maybe two kilometers out, there is a large grocery store called Migros. Think of it was a Super Target with more character, higher quality food, and a surly staff. There’s also a Leroy Merlin (the Home Depot of France) next to the Migros, so we have nearly everything we could want within a long walk or short drive of our house.
The village is adorable. The man who runs the grocery enjoys, good naturedly, making fun of the hard vowels of my Midwestern American accent. My favorite of the two bakeries makes the best bread and pastries that I have ever eaten in my life. The café appears to be open whenever the owner feels like it, and that usually includes a few hours each morning and a few more in the very late afternoon or evening. Every Sunday the main street of the village is taken over by a surprisingly large farmers market where we manage to buy about eighty percent of our food for the week. Outside of the second bakery is a small playground and I often sit out front in the late morning, enjoying the burnt French coffee and watching the children run and play.
A few steps outside of town in any direction and you are surrounded by farms. The land is mostly pasture; covered in cows, horses, and the occasional sheep. They also grow a lot of sunflowers in this part of the world and in the late summer our region is transformed into a sea of almost preternaturally brilliant yellow. It is the kind of sight that almost forces you to pull over on the side of the road and just soak in the ridiculous beauty. It is difficult not to take pictures of the endless rolling hills covered in a blanket of sunflowers, and I have hundreds of nearly identical photos to prove it.
My life is…breathtaking, at the moment. Everyday is something new in a place quite different from where I am used to living, and I hope this feeling lasts a long time. Sure, it has its frustrating moments, but even those are incredible if I just stop and think about them for a few moments. For example, there is nothing quite like being on the receiving end of someone who, upon realizing that you do not understand the French that is oozing from their mouth, decides that speaking three times as loud and half as fast, while repeating the same sentences over and over, will probably do the trick. That happens to me almost every day. I try to revel in the absurdity of the moment, and to stay aware that I am the interloper, and it is my job to make the effort to bridge that gap. At the same time, it fills me with sympathy for every recent immigrant that I have met in the US, doing their best to get by in their new, foreign world.
I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything in the world, and I am doing my best to make the most of where I am. Every fumbled attempt to speak French, every isolating moment surrounded by people who I cannot understand and who cannot understand me, every frustrating encounter with the peculiar French bureaucracy, and every awkward misstep simply adds to the incredible experience of living in this strange place.
I have a long way to go before this is home, but it feels more like it every day.