Back when I was working I used to wonder about my retirement, those sunny uplands awaiting me after the hard graft of the working years, always assuming my health would still be sound, god willing. Probably helping out in school (once a teacher and all that) going in as a helping granny (not that I was one) rather than a mum; visiting the theatre; joining the national trust; travelling to London for the art galleries that I loved so much (and still do) and getting around to writing that novel we are all meant have inside us.
but we moved to France.
This had been the plan for several years but I suppose a part of me didn’t believe it would actually happen. And when cancer struck ‘i’m only the driver’ I really thought it wouldn’t. In fact, the future vanished and a black hole loomed where our shared dreams should have been. Mercifully, speedy action by the consultant meant he was spared, albiet with only one kidney remaining.
and we moved to France.
For a while my new life was taken up with the learning curve that emigration to a country where you struggle to understand and be understood is much steeper that you imagined it would be. Gradually life calmed down, especially after the seemingly interminable restoration work on our retirement home finally finished and we moved out of our tiny holiday house. By now we had three cats, a circle of multilingual friends and several dinner table anecdotes on creating a new life in a foreign land.
As for my intended activities a few obstacles needed to be overcome.
In order to help out in school it gradually became clear that things in France are very different. No offering my services and having my hand snatched off by a grateful staff. There were issues surrounding insurance, I discovered. In fact, insurance looms large in several extra curricular activities. Before starting any kind of sport activity you need a medical certificate from your doctor confirming you are fit enough to undertake said activity. For the ‘primaire’ school this proved insurmountable without my taking a ‘formation’ to gain a qualification. Not happening! Unbelievably, I managed a short trip away as a helper with my friend’s class of infants despite not being allowed into their classroom on a regular basis. Go figure. Several years later I discovered a homework club where I was welcomed with open arms as a native English speaker. This is with secondary level youngsters. We all agreed that my language skills are not a good enough model for helping primaire children. The ‘college’ kids enjoy pretending not to understand and correcting my grammar.
Visiting the theatre is stymied by those poor language skills. This is a shame as we have a vibrant theatre in a nearby town working out of a sympathetically converted suitcase factory. They hold a music festival each summer which is more accessible for obvious reasons. However, for several years, our own village hosted a story telling festival, something embedded in french culture. I resolutely attended every spring and slowly began to understand more and more. Storytellers use a steady delivery and there is only one voice on which to concentrate that makes it easier. A quickly delivered punchline often had me cursing my incomprehension or appealing to a friend for a translation although the moment was lost.
I’ve not discovered an equivalent of the national trust in France. In fact, one of the odd things we discovered was that our retired status doesn’t afford us any discounts at ticket offices of any attractions we visit. That ‘liberte, fraternite, egalite’ constitution? The only place we have paid less was at an art gallery in Toulouse in the early days where we had to show our passports to prove our ages. I’m not sure which thing pleased me the most, the discount or being thought younger?
Which brings me to the art galleries. Paris is a six hour drive away and we haven’t visited it as much as we could have done despite its having several fabulous ‘musees’. But we have exercised our mutual love of photography and grabbed the opportunity to visit photo galleries and exhibitions when we travel, often the first thing I google. Recently we have discovered a tiny gallery an hour away dedicated to one of our favourite photographers.
We have been known to drive down to beyond Carcassonne, about three hours away, to visit another favourite venue. Living in la France profonde doesn’t necessarily mean we are in a cultural wilderness. There are always exhibitions advertised in the local paper. Some of these might be arranged by a local painting group and be somewhat erratic regarding talent but there are often happy surprises, several of which are hanging on our walls. But it is photos that are the biggest attraction for us both and recently we have had some real treats.
Last month we went to the tiny gallery, la gare Robert Doisneau, to look at black and white photos by two African photographers, Fatoumata Diabete and Malick Sidibe. These were black and white street photographs apparently posed in a pop up pavement studio while others made use of strongly patterned background or clothes to make dramatic images.
Afterwards, we had lunch at a rather idiosyncratic auberge that scatters fruit across its salads. On the way back we stopped at Souillac where an abandoned church makes a beautiful exhibition space, the Salle Saint Martin and about which I had read in our local paper.
The current exhibition is inspired by Nancy Cunard, a 20s socialite, who, we discovered, was a champion of African artists and writers and had once lived in the Lot, our department. Reading the brochure I realised the photos we had just seen were all part of the same celebration and that there were some paintings in another gallery over on the causse the other side of Rocamadour.
So another outing was organised. We drove out to Rocamadour and beyond, through the glorious autumn landscape. There is a particular tree that flares orange and looks magnificent against the limestone of the wild and rugged causse.
I had found a restaurant in Cales,the same commune as the gallery. As the exhibition wouldn’t open until 2pm we had time to enjoy what turned out to be a sumptuous and fairly expensive lunch. The bistrot menu I was expecting is a summer season only offering. Tant pis, we treated ourselves to two fabulous courses each.
We had passed the gallery entrance on the way so easily found it again. The house and attached gallery lay at the end of a long and bumpy track with stunning views. A dog barked and a woman came out with the keys and opened up for us.
The artworks were colourful and naive and there were not many of them. Our eyes were caught by a few photos on the wall and these turned out to have been taken by our hostess. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ perked up straight away, paintings not being his thing, and while I chatted to our lady he leafed through her photo books on a side table. Of course, we bought one, moody black and white prints of scenes from the causse around us. So, replete with a good lunch and a chance meeting, we drove home very satisfied even if a little lighter of pocket!
On Guy Fawkes day we had another foray but closer to home. In St Cere, a local town, the one with the theatre, there is an association called le lieu commun. They are an eclectic group of artists, crafts people, musicians and interested locals who promote and/or agitate about issues close to their collective hearts. A subset regularly chooses three or films each month that are felt to be deserving of promotion by being shown at our nearest cinema. Sometimes they put on exhibitions in St Cere and this week it was a photographic one. More importantly, it was of China, a country we had visited in 2007 and the reason this blog came into being.
I was a little sceptical as I had made the mistake of attending a talk and slide show by one of the members on the theme of local birds many years before. It was poorly attended and the slides were blurry. I had to impatiently sit it out as my departure would have been too obvious as we were so few!
This time was very different. The photographs of Tibetan festivals were colourful and beautifully presented. The photographer was present and very eager to explain her experiences plus she had had several leaflets printed to give some historical background. We were fully absorbed by it all and I felt sad that it wasn’t better attended especially as it is school holidays. Just the sort of thing I would have encouraged my former pupils to visit.
Afterwards we had an excellent lunch in a local restaurant that was full of families with children. An abiding feature of French culture.
And so retirement is busy, just not with the things I had anticipated. Certainly not the rock class that I have attended since almost the beginning and only stopped due to the dreaded doom virus. My last jive dancing had been as a teenager. ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ is notorious for having two left feet and never dancing. And that novel? Well, I took a writing course the second year we were here and was fascinated by my fellow students. I quickly realised who were the talented ones and I wasn’t amongst them. But, as I noted earlier, within a couple of years along came the growth of social media and with it the ubiquitous blog. So here I am writing the words without having to convince a publisher but not being paid for them…swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts! 😊
It is interesting what we can find locally. Maidstone always seems a cultural desert but I have joined an Art Society that was founded in 1922 so will be celebrating their centenary next year. Plus the museum has regular exhibitions, or I have found The Beaney in Canterbury which is right up my street. I assumed I would be retired two years ago but in the words of John Lennon “life is what happens while your busy making other plans”.
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You are obviously having a busy time. It’s true that you can find many cultural events and venues not too far away if you look. I have found that they are sometimes well-kept secrets, usually discovering them after the exhibition or concert has happened! I am not a townee at all, but I do sometimes miss the London galleries, like you. We have been to Paris only four times in 24 years! Lamentable! And we rarely go to Toulouse, which is only 1.5 hours away. Everyday life sometimes takes over.
It’s also true that volunteering in schools is not easy in France. Instead, I volunteered for a couple of years in our local library, which was good fun and good for my French.
Keep enjoying your retirement.
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