Ever gone on holiday and fantasised about living there? When Caroline Corcoran came back from a trip to Provence, she rented out her flat in central London, packed her Marmite and embraced the adventure
If I’d been in London, my solution to being stranded in a storm would have been to call an Uber. But with taxis in rural Provence about as alien a concept as that of a one-course lunch, my boyfriend Simon and I found ourselves being driven home through the apocalyptic rain by the girl who had just served us Nutella crêpes.
We’d moved from central London a week earlier, squashed into a van on a freezing March morning, a hot water bottle in my lap where a cold glass of rosé would be just 12 hours later. It was the conclusion of years of ‘Could we? Should we?’ conversations we had every time we returned from stays at my parents’ French holiday home. After Simon started doing his IT job from home – where I already worked as a freelance writer – we hunched over our laptops in our flat for a month until it dawned: this was the best opportunity we would ever get. We might never get this lucky again, so why were we nibbling toast on the sofa when we could be eating figs on the terrace?
One casual rental agreement with friends, a Royal Mail post redirection and a ‘Brit kit’ of PG Tips and Marmite later, and that’s exactly what we did. The plan: to stay for six months and work remotely, then re-evaluate. For now, though, we were about to live our slightly shorter version of A Year In Provence.
As we were fortunate enough to be moving from my parents’ London flat into their French holiday house, the admin side of our move was far easier than most people’s emigration experiences, but much of moving to the idyllic town of St-Rémy- de-Provence was alien. I had never lived abroad and we’d both been Londoners for around 12 years. We were used to sipping Negronis in pop-ups, after-work sushi dates and falling asleep to the hum of the 73 bus. A rural village famed for its olive oil and glass-blowing was a totally new experience. Although we’d been taking night classes to boost our GCSE French, we knew we would struggle to keep up with anything beyond a boulangerie order. And while I wasn’t worried about us spending so much time together, I felt anxious about how life would be without all my usual fixtures: breakfast meetings, burgers with friends, weekly matches with my netball team.
At first, we were hindered; constantly forgetting that the French love a long mid-afternoon break, leaving us regularly without food for dinner (we were far too used to being able to get everything the second we wanted it from an Islington supermarket). Language was another frustration. We tried so hard, but progress never felt fast enough. I’d be fine asking someone a question, then stand around like an idiot when conversations took off. I was also horrified to bring an unplucked chicken home from the butcher – a result of not knowing how to say, “Can you make it look like one from Tesco, please?”
Gradually, though, we built a life: yoga twice a week, French lessons with an ex-school teacher who taught us conjugation in her living room, the odd meal with some expat neighbours. But mostly, we were free to be spontaneous. Although I missed my friends, I realised living without the relentlessness of London life made my head clearer and each breath deeper.
I still had to work, but knowing the Provence sunshine was out there to be enjoyed helped me to focus, instead of plugging away for 12 hours a day. Despite the very generous rental waiver from my parents [a typical two-bedroom house in the village would cost around £600 per month to rent], Simon and I did lose a bit of money from working less, but we wanted to enjoy the experience. It helped that I spent so much less than I did in London: I bought fewer clothes and daily expenses like Pret lunches. Money took a back seat and I felt inspired to finish the book I’d been working on for years. Typing on the terrace until midnight, my bare feet coated in mosquito spray, felt much more pleasurable than working late in my stuffy London flat.
Though the locals often switched to English when I was speaking French, they were very friendly and I loved seeing teenagers play boules with the old guys in the town square. I met loads of new people through my yoga teacher, Sabrina, and loved having a wider demographic of friends – people of all ages, who did all kinds of jobs. It made a refreshing change to being around people in London who were just like me. Although sometimes, cultural differences were hard to ignore; a French World Cup match in a local bar was put on mute so everyone could hear the jazz playing in the square, which made us laugh. Imagining the outcry if someone muted an England game for a saxophone in a London beer garden!
Eating out was wonderfully simplified. When we tried the only restaurant in the vicinity that served Vietnamese instead of the usual fare (rare steak and bouillabaisse), I thought the hit of spice would leave me craving the Korean, Mexican and Japanese medleys standard in an average London week. But, no longer immersed in a competitive foodie culture, my stripped-back options felt calming. I ordered the same aperitif, a Kir, every time I went out. Lunch was simple, with Provençal goat’s cheese, bread and olives from the market. Delicious local strawberries and asparagus made us salivate over pared-back meals. We burnt it all off by being accidentally active, cycling to the shops and swapping Friends repeats for evening walks.
When I needed a hit of my old life, technology made it easy to dip in. I downloaded magazines to my iPad, read British news online and laughed over in-jokes with friends on FaceTime. Asos delivered to our postbox, I changed my phone contract to make free European calls and luckily, we had a strong Wi-Fi connection.
Je ne regrette rien
But in other ways, I felt a long way from home. It took two weeks to realise I had forgotten my foundation because I wore so little make-up. I was more attentive to the here and now, wandering around the market practising my French or picking thyme for a beef bourguignon we would patiently cook for eight hours. Whether it was the quiet or the slower pace of life – I once saw a group of policemen sit down for a three-course meal on their lunch break – I lost myself in activities such as pruning the lavender without the phone-checking tick that would normally creep up on me, whatever I was doing, in the UK. Being in France achieved what days with a mindfulness book could not.
If it sounds idyllic, in many ways it was. Being around lush greenery and people eating fresh prawns on sunny pavements makes you happy by osmosis. Though I still had work deadlines and got stressed, it did feel like an extended holiday. When you give your brain cues like wearing a bikini, it makes you more relaxed, even when you’re working. But wherever you are, when you’re sad, you’re sad. I took an important phone call at a vineyard with dire reception and at that moment, all the muscat grapes in the world didn’t look as good as a reliable landline in a city centre flat.
I missed my sister, who was pregnant, and frantically mapped out the fastest routes that would get me back to the UK in time for my niece’s birth. And when I realised I had upset someone on Twitter with an article I’d written, I felt as sick as I would have in London, even though I had just got back from doing sun salutations in a meadow.
In the end, six months was our lot. As we cooked bad French bacon (you can’t have everything) outside on the barbecue one morning, Simon took a call about a new job that was too good to turn down. A few weeks later we moved back into our flat and picked up where we had left off. But our perspective had changed. It was hard for the London frenzy not to feel bizarre (I also came off Facebook for good) and 12 months on, we’ve just packed up again and bought a new home in the Cheshire countryside. Ultimately, living in France full-time is the end goal – when we can make it work and assuming Brexit’s implications still allow us in time. With our first child due any day, we dream of bringing him up to be a bilingual brie expert, as in love with our favourite little French village as we are.
Mostly, our time in Provence took my ‘London or bust’ blinkers off. I met bloggers who settled in the French countryside and became experts in the area, had coffee with a smart American woman who’s started a successful business, and did yoga with a publisher who commutes to London once a week. All of it made me realise there are so many ways to live anywhere you want, and with enough determination they’re doable. Especially if you know about the secret crêperie taxi.
Photography: Getty Images