The year 2011 was a big one for my family. My mother died, quickly and without warning, while my husband was in the hospital down the road for treatment of an infection related to chemotherapy for his second cancer in two years. My youngest son, Ben, and his partner, Sage, had put their lives on hold and moved down from Portland to help through Frank’s treatment. In September, my oldest son, Josh, married Abbie in Montana, where we all traveled to celebrate them. My 89-year-old dad broke his hip the morning after we arrived, spending the wedding weekend in the hospital after a quick hip replacement surgery. And, I started a blog for Charcutepalooza.
The concept of Charcutepalooza was that each month we would cure a different meat from the book Charcuterie by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman. For 12 months we manipulated meat, fish and poultry, photographed it and wrote about it. And, happily, ate it: duck prosciutto, bacon, corned beef brisket and tongue, hot dogs and sausages, smoked salmon, pataos and meat pies, and, my grand finale, a beautiful cassoulet, complete with confit duck, saucisson de Toulouse, and Tarbes beans, inspired by a recipe from Kate Hill, who happened to be the grand prize, of sorts, for the competition – the first place prize was a trip to cook with Kate in her home in Gascony.
While I didn’t win Charcutepalooza, it provided me with a great distraction during a challenging year. Each month, I would produce the assigned cured product and then some or all the family would gather for the meal. Depending on the month, I often had a different family member in the kitchen to help me out – Ben stuffing sausages; middle son, Zach, and his girls, Morgan and Lexi, forming bagels to go with my lox; Josh picking the meat off of pigs feet for Pied de Cochon to start the cassoulet meal. It also provided my introduction to Kate Hill and her area of Southwestern France.
Fast forward two years: Frank died in early 2012, and I had moved to a condo in the same community we had lived in, close to kids and grandkids. I was selling real estate, as I had before he died, and was escaping to France twice a year to explore and regenerate. On one trip, I met an American woman who worked in a wine store in Paris, and longingly told her how much I would like to live in France. Her reply was “Well, you can make it happen” and then went on to tell me all the things she was doing to make it possible to be there, in Paris – working in the wine store, writing books on hiking trails in France, etc… This was how she made it happen.
After one of these trips, I remember arriving back home thinking “so, this is what life is, now.” Work like crazy to meet a high overhead, an occasional trip to enjoy the pleasures of France, time with my busy family every once in a while. Hmmmm.
After Charcutepalooza, I followed Kate’s adventures on Facebook, and, when, in 2013, she announced that she would be doing a culinary road trip to the Pays Basque, I quickly made plans for a trip that could coincide with Kate’s tour. From the beginning, I planned this trip unlike any of the others, before. I flew into CDG, rented a (manual transmission) car, and drove – first night in Sancerre, second night in Limoges, third and forth night at a B & B operated by the daughter of a friend of Frank’s. Then, on to Toulouse to meet Kate and 6 other vagabonds for our Basque road trip.
The trip was fabulous – beautiful terrain, great food, a varied and interesting collection of people, a couple of lifelong friends made in the process. Kate’s road trips are meant to feel like she is sharing a place she knows and loves with her good friends, and I quickly found that Kate would be a good friend of mine. Through a last minute change in my plans, we ended up with an extra night in the charming seaside town of St-Jean-de-Luz, one of the first French towns you hit as you come north from Spain. Over sangria at a café in the center of town, and then as we dug into an enormous plateau of shellfish at a local restaurant, we celebrated my birthday, shared life stories, talked business and started building our friendship.
A few years later, as I planned a trip to France and Italy, I invited myself to stay at Camont, Kate’s home in the Lot et Garonne, for the last week of my trip. A few weeks before I left California, a friend sent me an article about 10 places in the world you could retire and live on Social Security benefits. I finished the article and immediately started googling:”cost of living France”, ‘cost of living Lot et Garonne”, “how to get a residency visa France” , and so on, and so on. Days later, I conferred with a couple of trusted friends, thinking they would tell me I was crazy. But, they didn’t. When I asked why they weren’t providing the expected voices of reason, one said “Because, if you do it, we can do it!’ And, so, when I called Kate to finalise my arrival plans, I told her “I’m moving to France!”. When she asked where, I said “Nérac!”. Even though I had never actually been there. (I think back on this and wonder what Kate must have thought- today, Kate is a dear, best friend and part of my French family. Back then, we barely knew each other. Who is this crazy woman moving into my space, she though, I’m sure!).
On March 15th, after 5 months of couch surfing, mostly on Zach and Jenn’s sofa, getting in some good quality time with the grandgirls, I left Los Angeles with two large suitcases filled with some clothes, pillows, duvet, and some kitchen utensils. I had vacuum packed the bedding, so I got lots in the suitcases, but my bags were overweight when I checked in at Air France. Luckily, my sister was with me and she took a few things home with her for retrieval on my next trip.
I arrived in Bordeaux from Italy and drove in the direction of Camont but went right past it, following the signs to Nérac. I figured I had best see this place I had decided to move to before much more time passed. I came into town and parked in the lot adjacent to the Espace d’Albret, the cultural centre that sits on the edge of the Baïse, the river that runs through town. I walked up steps, crossed the new bridge, circled through the town center, down a narrow street and then crossed the old bridge. A foot path along the river took me back to my car, and, by the time I got to it, I was certain that this was a fine place to settle for a year – or longer.
My week at Camont was full of long lunches and quiet evenings. Kate had a butchery group that week, so they were in the teaching kitchen or at the Chapolard farm during the day, and the lunch breaks were leisurely and satisfying. On Sunday morning, we made a trip to the indoor market in Agen and, after making our food purchases, stopped into Geueuleton, a local wine bar, where Kate declared that we needed a bit of breakfast wine. I now knew this would be a perfect life.
During that week, Kate’s sister Stephanie, my birthday sister, toured me around the area while the butchers were butchering. We walked a vide-grenier (essentially a large garage sale, it literally means “cleaning out the closet”), visited Franny Golden at her Lilliputian house in the village of Francescas (“Oh” the tiny woman with more decades than even me said “you should rent my house. I’ve been wanting to go to Mongolia.”), we had café & croissants at the bakery in the square in Nérac, and we saw the house that I would ultimately make my home – Chez Moe. Directly up a hill from that parking lot I parked in on my first visit was an overstuffed 3 story, 3 bedroom house that Kate’s students sometimes rented. So full of furniture from the previous owner, and Irish woman/chef/former horse jockey, and now also burdened with unwanted furniture from the current owner, it was difficult for me to see the possibilities. But, after worrying about arriving in this foreign land with no place to live, a few months later I arranged a one-year lease on the property.
I returned to California and gradually, over the course of the next month, making plans to make the move. I had not told my family about my plans before the trip, but did break the news over the week after returning. I told them it was for one year, to see how I liked it. One of my boys took that as truth, but the other two had a pretty good idea that I wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon, as did my sister and, I think, my niece-who-is-like-a-daughter.
I continued to do business without telling my clients or my office about my plans, and those 6 months were my best in 10 years in real estate. Once I did tell my office of my plans to move to France, I had to repeatedly correct my manager when he kept saying I was moving to Paris. This is not Paris!
My target date was February 15th, but that moved out to March 15th to accommodate some business that needed to be wrapped up before I left. I gave notice on my lease, had a garage sale and sold most of my furniture to a client who was conveniently going through a divorce and needed to furnish her new home. Some large, favourite pieces of furniture, dishes and books (mostly cookbooks) went to family members or into storage. When I sold my trash can at the garage sale, my son, Zach (the one who believed I would be back in a year) said “Aren’t you going to want that when you come back next year?”. I had no answer for him.
I arrived here to March’s grey skies and rain, before the cloza (canola) fields bloomed and brightened the countryside. I settled into the the house by cleaning closets and cupboards, getting rid of furniture and buying some new pieces. Kate was traveling, so the only person I knew here was Stephanie, plus two friends, Hank and Cindy, who lived about an hour and half north, near the town of Duras. Those three were my only lunch guests that month, but I continued to visit the Wednesday and Saturday markets, cooking for myself every day. It never occurred to me that this could be a very lonely year. I was challenged every day, learning to live in France. Even getting a shopping cart at the supermarket was a learning lesson – you had to insert a euro coin to release a shopping cart, just like getting a cart at the airport.
In May, new neighbours arrived from Canada – Taffy and Bill, who I had met briefly at Kate’s the previous September. I had ‘friended” Bill on Facebook the year before, knew he was a kindred spirt, and I was looking forward to getting to know them better. Little did I know – little did they know! We slowly built a friendship that became family, as a few have since I have been here. Through that year and into the next, we gradually added to our circle – the Australians with a house around the corner from Bill and Taf, the Scots who had built an artist’s retreat from a big, beautiful old house in town, the Brit’s down the river who visited a couple of times a year. Wonderful, interesting, creative, bright and warm – these people have all enriched my life in such a beautiful way.
When I first decided to come to France someone I knew said “Oh, I could never leave my kids and grandkids!”. I remember that comment often, especially when I’m missing my family, and I feel more certain each time that this was the right direction for me. I was there for my grandchildren when they were small, spending lots of good time with them. Now, as they are approaching their own adulthood, I think this is a better example of how to live a life than if I had stayed in California, driving carpool and waiting for them to call. Instead, I am continuing to explore new places, meeting fascinating people and, without the intense pressures of my previous life, enjoying every single day.
Maurine & Kate Hill
Bill & Taffy