The Lives of Others

Most of the new people I have met over the past two months are not living in their home countries. Either they are travellers or expats. As a traveller who has often imagined, at least, having a place in the south of France, for example, I found myself quite interested in finding out more about people who have chosen to relocate to a different culture, or who are inveterate travellers.


on the front terrace

My hosts on the canal du midi were an older couple (she is 77, he is 70). They met in later life. He’d never been married; she’d already been married twice and had three children. She had a colourful and challenging life, which included growing up largely in Australia, leaving school at age 14, returning to Glasgow on her own to attend drama school, working as an actress and single parenting. I learned all this in the car as she drove me from the train station to the house. She was talkative, someone seemingly accustomed to having an audience. She’d changed her name twice: the first time to a stage name, the second time to a name bestowed upon her in India by her yoga master. She wore “young “clothes, burned incense, and loved her garden. She and her current husband also play in a jazz quartet – she sings. They have us a half-a-quartet mini-performance. Interesting. He is a retired professor of geo-physics, quite no-nonsense and still very involved in research (anti-fraking).

They bought the massive house in which they live about 14 years ago – and I suspect are beginning to wonder how long they can manage it. While we were there volunteering, he had a very badly smashed toe and was unable to drive or walk much. She was not a very confident or eager driver, but fortunately had just been given back permission to drive after having a brain operation early in the new year. She experienced some dizzy spells while we were there – and I think both of them, while happy to have volunteers doing heavy work for them, found the experience rather exhausting – all the interactions etc. I know I would have. Her children are all in Scotland, and she said if anything happened to her husband, she would go back.

They have quite a community of friends – many Scottish expats, all living the life in big old French houses. The last night that we were there, they hosted a dinner in our honour and invited an American and a Canadian couple. The Americans were…very American and wealthy (he was a Trump supporter – having been forewarned , no one mentioned politics throughout the evening). They had purchased an actual chateau in Ventenac and were in the process of massive renovations with plans to offer deluxe accommodations.

The Canadian couple were fantastic – he is a retired Canadian lawyer/ambassador, Francophone (actually born in Belgium). She is originally from Finland and speaks multiple languages. He is her second ambassador husband, so I guess it’s been sort of a career for her. They bought a house in a nearby village several years ago. Both have children still in Canada. They were super lively and I connected with them closely over books – they read a lot, we found we had many favourite books/authors in common. We’ve exchanged suggestions via email and I think she is coming to Stratford in the fall with her daughter, so I hope to see her there

There was also a tenant living on the second floor of the maison, paying rent to my hosts, a German woman in her late forties (I’m guessing). A big boisterous gal who’d left Germany now that her children were grown and come to the south of France as a sort of new beginning – to work as a host/receptionist at a chateau in a neighbouring town. She hung out with us when she could and was very high-spirited and entertaining. She’d only been there a couple of months but had just purchased a small house in a medieval stone village, for 35,000€. Unbelievable! Yes, she said she’d have to put some money in – maybe another 30,000€ – but still! I began to dream again.

Although really I found I did not envy any of them their lives. Clearly almost all had plenty of money and the south of France is lovely – but expat communities are a bit like islands. If you’re lucky, you get along with the handful of people you meet. But the pool is small. And everything is challenging because of language and bureaucratic differences, not to mention the rural setting…and if you’re from the UK like my hosts – with Brexit looming – or are not getting any younger, who knows what further complications may be in store?

My fellow volunteers were an entirely different story. Both Quebecois, in their early twenties, they were on a major adventure. Upon graduating from university a couple of years ago they’d gone on a 4-month backpacking trip to Europe and Asia, then returned to Montreal, taken quite good jobs, worked for a year and decided they hated their jobs. So they quit, packed up and headed off for 15 months of travel and volunteer work – in France, Italy, Sicily and then Asia again. They had little money, lots of energy and curiosity – and spent a huge amount of their time planning the next step, trying to work out the cheapest way to travel and stay. I totally admired their spirit, enjoyed their lively company, and learned about things like BlaBla Cars from them (long-distance ride-sharing). But again, I would not want to live that close to the line or wander for such a long time.

Of course travelling at length or living in a foreign country would no doubt be more appealing with a partner (and I seem to have carelessly lost mine) … but even so, I think at this stage of life I would not want to undertake such a dramatic relocation or prolonged period of travel. Fascinating to see how people manage their lives though – and to get a better sense, at least, of what I do NOT want to do with what remains of mine.

As in Spain, I felt lucky to get to know such a disparate group of people and gain insight into their very different lives. And now, really, I am ready to go home.

But first, a week in Scotland. I fly tomorrow.