Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Retirement Blast? Or Just A Routine (Holi)day?

Practically every day, or so it seems, we are all challenged to keep up with job and home responsibilities, house and car repairs, electronic breakdowns, consumer challenges, financial distress, and family mischief.

I guess you're probably thinking that, just because Pope and I are retired and traveling in France, we are exempt from such day-to-day responsibilities? Relaxed and happy, all smiles as we roam the continent? I wish I could glow with enthusiasm and swear to you: "We are having a blast!" In fact, the grass is green but has plenty of brown spots.
Pope keeps reminding me that we are not "on vacation." This is "our life," and it gets complicated.

Every day I am challenged with researching transportation and places to stay, struggling with maps and travel guides, stumbling over language, second-guessing the weather, failing to figure out the complexities of France's opening and closing times, yearning to wash clothes, and wondering where on earth we can find all that fine French food we had heard so much about. Some days, there are a few hours left over for sightseeing. I haven't found time for exercising and, as you can see, rarely get around to blogging.
I bet you are protesting: "But you are in France! And you are not getting up early and commuting to work!" Well, I can't deny those. But I can assure you that traveling in France is not the sweet-smelling bed of lavendar that one dreams about. In fact, some days it's almost as hard as living on the boat!

Take today, for example. Yesterday we moved from a stuffy studio in the city (which Pope called our "cave") to a larger gite (self-catering apartment) in an old stone house. We are just outside of the tiny hamlet of St Nathalene in the Dordogne River area of France. Our section of the building is the old bakehouse, nicely renovated and minus its oven, but with thick stone walls that retain the chill, necessitating a sweater all day and down comforter at night, even on sunny days in late spring.
I thought the gite was going to be just outside the city of Sarlat-la-Caneda, where we stayed last week. Instead, it's way out in the country. Yes, the birds sing and wildflowers are blooming. However, it's a good thing we got sightseeing and castles out of our system last week, because now we are a long drive from anywhere, with only morning larks and flies on the patio, and only trees and green hills as far as we can see.
It looks enticing, no? But where are the croissants and fine French food? St Nathalene is too small to provide even our daily bread. In fact, we are miles of narrow, winding roads away from the nearest bakery, shop, market, or restaurant. And even if we survive near-collisions with French drivers who speed around the bends in the middle of the road, we are unlikely to find any place open. Last Sunday, when we were staying in the city, we almost starved trying to locate a restaurant that wasn't locked and shuttered. And last night, our first night in the country, we drove 30 minutes to the nearest "town" of Salignac, anticipating creamy sauces and a tasty Bordeaux--only to find the one or two commercial establishments closed up tight, without a soul in sight, well before 8 pm.

You could die from loneliness in this country--if you didn't starve first!

So early this morning we dragged ourselves out from under our cozy comforter, bleary-eyed from lack of food and sleep, because the pantry was empty and the refrigerator bare. We needed to return to the city of Sarlat-la-Caneda for the weekly market. We are reduced to cooking at home! Well, at least our kitchen is attractive.
After 45 minutes of dodging drivers and edges of cliffs, Pope dropped me off in the middle of the crowded and congested city and left to find parking, after agreeing on a meeting spot.

I waited for him a while, then gave up and forced my way through the enormous crowds blocking my path (school was out for a holiday, and half of the families in France descended on the Dordogne valley) to gather necessities: potatoes and eggplant and strawberries. Returned to the meeting place, waited another hour. No Pope. No cell phone. No way to find out if he was searching for me in the market or detained by the gendarmerie for running over a Frenchman with the rental car, struggling with language and lack of documentation, which was all in my backpack. Anxiety crept up my spine and edged me toward the brink of hysteria.

After another half hour, success! A familiar face in the crowd. Just in the nick of time before I collapsed in tears at the tourist information desk, begging for help in finding a missing person. He had been unable to find me among the crowds of holiday-makers.

By mid-afternoon, having survived the roads, the crowds, and three attempts to use a credit card to gas up the car--on the fourth attempt we gave up and paid cash--we limped home for a simple and barely sufficient lunch on our patio of bread, cheese, and olives.
Too worn out to visit a chateau or even explore the neighborhood, we drifted into restless afternoon slumber in our sleeping loft, way up at the top of a steep and narrow stone stairway, under the eaves--and then awakening too late for any meaningful sightseeing.
A typical day of missed opportunities! We had to make do with a lovely but lonely walk around the fields, dodging dogs and tractors, consoling ourselves with collecting a few wildflowers for our table.
Then the real trouble started. For days I had struggled with great difficulty to send photos to friends, blog, and Facebook. By evening, as I sat down to research AirBnB's in Paris for next month, the ugly truth set in: the iPhone was dead, or at least severely messed up. Only one month into our three-month journey! No emails, no camera, no Facebook??!! I had managed pretty well without phone service, but without internet, how will I get directions, book trains, make hotel reservations? No Apple store for hundreds of kilometers, and even if we found one it would probably be closed. Especially during the month of May, with four national holidays.

In dread of the sure-to-be chaos of planning for the next two months, I curled up in a fetal position in a corner of the sofa, shutting out faith and hope. In a valiant effort to console me, Pope patted my hand and trotted off to the kitchen to prepare a panful of tasty vegetables for roasting. And then he tried valiantly, and vainly, for an hour to light the strange and stubborn gas oven.
By 9 pm, with our satisfaction with "our life" in France rapidly deteriorating, we heaved a heavy sigh, gave up, and prepared a cold salad, reminiscing fondly on our simple life back home. Our clothes dryer. Our community garden. Our friends. Hopping onto Metro to get across town. Spaghetti dinners at our dining room table, and a 7-11 nearby if we run out of milk.
And that was before it started raining. We never got to use the nice patio again. We never got to go kayaking--one of our purposes in coming to Dordogne.
Dear friends, don't bother with envy or yearning. Sip your coffee, say good morning to colleagues, take a walk at lunch. Count your blessings when the bus comes on time or an old friend stops by. Whip out your cell phone to send a text and check the weather, and spare a moment of sympathy for your friends all alone out in the middle of nowheresville, France, struggling to get through the day, buy bread, and find a decent place to sleep!


  1. Such a well-woven tale of life in the French boonies! And nice that you had time to pull it all together! What pulled you there? What do the peasants do with no Carrefour to forage through? Cheese, olives, bread? A veritable feast. You can always pull up stakes and go to Nice!

    1. Oh by the way, we ARE headed for the Cote d'Azur, in two weeks.

  2. Beats me; after 8 pm we don't see a soul. Are they cooking at home? Hibernating in their basement? Going to bed at dusk? Who knows? No problem, we are headed for Paris and lively nightlife. Enough countryside.