Lucie Loves... Travel & Lifestyle// What is it like to live in France? A little update on our move from London to Mazamet and things I learnt the hard way
It's been three months since we packed up our London lives, popped stuff into storage, waved goodbye to family and friends, and headed over to Southern France to embark on a new adventure.
I've just returned to the UK and I'm spending a few days with family up north, trying to get back to normality... whatever that means?!
If you follow me on Instagram, by now, you'll be familiar with the pretty pastel-hued French buildings I took pictures of when I went out exploring in Mazamet. I ended up using the Boulangerie (bakery) as my "half-way point" on runs to get my daily fix of the deliciously more-ish fancy French bread. *cue the American woman on the Nike running app*
So, the question that everyone seems to ask us, and one that we've asked ourselves many times too is... Of all of the parts of France that you could choose to visit, why did you choose Mazamet? I must confess... We didn't really choose Mazamet... it kind of chose us. it was cheap to get to (flights from London Stansted to Toulouse are around £30-each way - if not cheaper!) and the opportunity to rent some cheap accommodation fitted in with the timings of my planned escape.
The house we were staying in was built around 1910 and in the process of being lovingly restored back to it's former glory. Picture peeling vintage wallpaper, exposed floorboards, pretty tiles, painted plaster, soaring ceilings, squeaky bed frames and wooden shutters... you get the idea! Very bohemian. The perfect escape from our London lives! We had so much room to roam free.
But who would chose to spend the remainder of the winter months holed up in an old crémerie, consuming their weight in French bread, cheese and local wine... with only your significant other for company? When put like that... it sounds rather blissful. But when you drill down further, you soon realise that you're both going to experience a multitude of thoughts, feelings and realisations as you embark on this journey together...
What I wanted to get out of this trip:
- Time away from the hustle and bustle and expense of London
- Space to spend a couple of months writing my book
- To (maybe) learn a bit of French
- To experience living in a different country
- To look after my body, mind & soul – good food, sleep (lots of it) and regular exercise
- To spend quality time and enjoy a whole new experience with my significant other – the first time we'd actually ever lived together
And how much of that did I actually achieve?
Well... I'm starting to realise that I might be a bit *too* much of an optimist at times. I've still not grasped the whole "if you have no expectations, you're less likely to be disappointed" thing. I guess I'm naive like that. I wanted to have my cake and eat it.
The writing bit...
What I didn't realise was... coming to France and trying to juggle my old London freelance life, consultancy and blogging commitments whilst over in Mazamet... wasn't going to be particularly conducive with regards to getting any actual writing done for my book. Oops!
I've got a "work in progress" doc with around 100,000 words dumped in it... and then a master doc with around 42,000 a little more refined words down. I've found it particularly difficult at times to write. It's been a far more emotional experience than I'd expected it to be. Like ripping a plaster off old wounds and all that...
FREELANCING ABROAD // Working remotely...
Before I came to Mazamet, I'd spent the last few months setting up a new blog content system on Trello, dishing out blog opportunities to the rest of the Lucie Loves team, to keep everything ticking over in my absence. If you haven't met the rest of the team yet, take a look here. The overlap with this trip meant that – as a one-woman band – I had to pick up the remainder of these tasks whilst in France. Oh well! Such is life!
I'm proud of the fact that we were able to do two paid commissions whilst being in Mazamet – one with Sennheiser and one with Jose Cuervo. All thanks to the help of creative pals Kyle and Sarah-Lou. This was an unexpected achievement.
But I realised that, if I was to get any writing done, I needed to scale back my blogging for the time being... I'd keep my Instagram updated as much as possible, but allow myself a break from posting to my feed, as and when necessary. Pssst! Stories are where all the real action's at nowadays anyway!
FRENCH LIFE // Our daily routine...
We settled quickly into our new surroundings. Daily routines of sorts were soon established. We'd sleep in late, have fresh fruit with yoghurt and Special K for breakie with a drizzle of honey and a cup of coffee. Then we'd go about doing our own thing. He would listen to podcasts, read the news, listen to the cricket or sports radio, do his workouts, and have plentiful naps.
The days are much more relaxed in comparison to London, they are slower, quieter and allow more time to think. Maybe too much time to think, but much more time to cook from scratch.
I'd scour through blog emails and admin, write a few posts, go for a run, do a kettlebell workout, or practice Yoga. I spent the first month or so collating all of the notes for my book that I'd made over the last 2-years, and then the rest of the time dipping in and out of them, trying to make sense of it.
We'd eat lunch together and carry on the afternoon in a repeat of the mornings rituals, deciding later that evening whose turn it was to cook dinner, and then binge watch TV shows and films on Netflix, BBC iPlayer and any other channel that we could get hold of online.
FITNESS // How do you keep fit?
We knew that it was important for us to use this break as an opportunity to up our fitness game. We shopped online and bought an 8kg, 12kg and a 20kg kettlebell, a DOMYOS suspension strap (TRX) and an exercise mat for training outside on the terrace. I tend to use the HASfit Kettlebell workouts on YouTube (they now also have an app), but I did find these other two great Kettlebell Butt Workouts, also on YouTube. I then discovered Yoga with Adriene on YouTube, which has a free 30 Day Yoga Challenge. I've really enjoyed adding 20 minutes of Yoga to my morning each day.
I also did a few of HIIT-style Abs blaster sessions, comprising of crunches on the TRX, Russian Twists with the Kettlebell, Planks, Leg raises and throw downs (they are KILLER!), and side bends. You can use a Tabata-style timer (there's loads on the app store) to do an intense burst of exercise for 30-40 seconds per exercise, 4-5 exercises in total, for 5 rounds.
FOOD // What are you eating?
We both laughed at the fact that neither of us have done a "big shop" in the last few years. I don't know whether this is a London thing, or just a "I'm single and I can't be bothered to cook for one person" thing... but the fact is, I was so used to not being around in the evening, that it wouldn't make sense for me to fill the fridge up with fresh food.
Whilst being in Mazamet, we would do one big shop a week – usually on a Tuesday afternoon at a local supermarket called Leaderprice. We're generally quite good and try to eat healthily – it's easy when you've got time to plan, prep and cook right? There's also a Carrefour Express, which is a bit pricier, and Lidl, an ALDI, and a large hypermarket about a 40 minute walk away (but no one wants to do a big food shop and walk home like something out of World's Strongest Man, with a weeks worth of food dangling from either arm for a considerable distance. Nope!) You need a car.
Our weekly shop costs around 100-130 Euros (it's usually the higher amount if there's booze thrown into the basket - a crate of beer and some wine). But generally, apart from the daily bread runs (a flute costs around 1,20 euro), this covers all that we need when cooking from scratch.
WINE // Oh the wine!
There are some excellent red wines available in this region, mainly because Mazamet is blessed to be located so close to Bordeaux. You'll notice that the supermarkets in France stock a vast amount of wines – mainly French, but some German. We haven't seen much in the way of Italian, Argentinian or Spanish wine varieties.
A decent bottle of red wine over in Mazamet costs around 5 euros. We've been buying ones for around the 5-6 euro mark and have enjoyed some really delicious ones. Our friend, Morsli, also introduced us to Bourgueil wine which hails from the Loire Valley and surrounding area. The bottle he brought us costs around 7-8 euros and was exceptionally good. If we're cooking with red or white wine, we tend to buy a bottle for around 1.50 - 2 euros.
MEALS // Things we cooked in France...
- Beef Bourguinon
- Spanish eggs
- Spanish Stew
- Vegetable soups
- Chicken and mushroom risotto
- Spaghetti Bolognese
- Chilli con carne
- American Pancakes
- Eggs Benedict
- Devilled eggs
- Sweet potato croquettes with chorizo and Emmental
- Chicken in white wine sauce with dauphinoise potatoes
- Joint of beef with red wine jus
- Chicken kievs
- Shortcrust pastry parcels loaded with cheese and roasted red peppers and chorizo
- Caramelised onion tart
- Chocolate brownies
- Banana bread
- Protein flapjacks
- Chicken fajita wraps with homemade salsa and guacamole + nachos
- Oven-cooked chorizo in honey and red wine
- Thai green chicken curry with homemade chappattis
ECO-FRIENDLY LIVING // Being kind(er) to the environment
We've been making a conscious effort to reduce our consumption of plastic too. Whenever we go to the supermarket, we take our own re-usable bags and rucksacks to bring the shopping home in.
We recycle all of the glass, cardboard and plastic that we can at the recycling bank around the corner too. There isn't a weekly wheelie bin collection in Mazamet – like there is in the UK. Instead, you take your rubbish to the nearest communal bins, where you can recycle glass, paper, plastic and general waste.
Another thing we've been trying to do is to not use as much clingfilm. Instead, we reuse old Carte Dor ice-cream tubs for leftover food and pop them in the fridge instead.
In hindsight, we really should've sorted the car situation out at the beginning of the trip. But we didn't, which meant that we were pretty much stuck in Mazamet. Which, out of season, despite being a pretty old town with an illustrious industrial heritage (it was very well-known worldwide for it's production of wool and leather), is a bit of a ghost town.
There's a couple of cafe bars, a couple of restaurants, a handful of bakeries, a cheese shop, a grocery store, a butchers, some pretty florists, a chocolate shop, an interiors shop, a pizzeria, a cinema that we haven't visited, (as the films are likely to be in French and sadly we didn't learn any extra French) a couple of expensive clothing and lingerie stores, a handful of opticians and a vast array of insurance brokers.
The shops are closed on a Monday (as they are across the rest of France) and they also enjoy 2_ hour lunch breaks – so don't expect to nip into the shops between 12 and 2/3pm – or you'll be greeted with a sign saying 'Ferme' - CLOSED!
The weekly market on a Tuesday and a Saturday and the current highlights of life in sleepy Mazamet. The local town of Castres is around a 4 euro train journey away, and Toulouse is an hour or so on the train. There is a bus service too, but I'm not sure how regular it is off season...
After an unforgettable car hire experience (which I will blog about soon...) we took a fantastic trip to the Domaine de Verchant 5-star hotel, spent an afternoon wandering around the medieval lanes of Montpellier and enjoyed a spontaneous night and some of the best seafood we've ever eaten – in the seaside town of Sète.
If you're British and looking for other useful info about life in France, a friend of mine recommended a website called Anglo Info. Definitely worth a look, if you're serious about making a new life for yourself in France.
MAZAMET WEATHER & GETTING OUTSIDE // Local walks...
The weather in Mazamet is extremely varied, due to its location in the Montagne Noir valley. In just one week you can have snow, sleet, rain and/or blazing sunshine. As the weeks rolled on, and April arrived, we got temperatures in the late teens – meaning: I could nip to the shop without a coat or hat on...
When we first got to Mazamet on 20 January it was around the 6 degrees mark, with some evenings dipping below freezing – thank goodness we had central heating! On sunny days, there's a lovely walk you can do up to a medieval village called Hautpoul. There's even a Portuguese Taverna at the top, but it's only open from May onwards... :-( There's a great list of other Mazamet walks available here.
The lake is about a 6-7Km walk away from Mazamet centre, where we were, and we never got around to visiting.... But I did go on a great walk to a neighbouring village to visit a Vide Grenier - basically a flea market-cum-carboot sale in a sports hall. I picked up some gorgeous French vintage vases for under 25 Euros!
Take a look here for a list of upcoming Vide Greniers in France, and find your nearest one.
DOMESTIC BLISS // What I wish I'd known about moving to France...
It soon became apparent that living in such close confines, with only each other as company, was going to be far more testing than we could ever have imagined. Looking back now, if I'd come here alone, I would probably have got more writing done and we may not have caused a small earthquake in the bedrock of our relationship. But, you can't live life looking backwards, as the old saying goes... you're not going that way!
However, I guess one of the positive things was that, in just three months, we learnt more about one another than most couples do in a lifetime! I quickly re-realised (is this even a word?) the importance of not merging every aspect of your life with someone else's. When in a relationship with someone you love, not having friends around that you can confide in, laugh and unwind with, is bloody tough. This is one of the parts of this trip that I've found most difficult – the one that I've pined for most.
Time apart and having some sort of independence – in any relationship, is crucial!
In the absence of having friends around to talk to, I've been immersing myself in so many School of Life videos and TED Talks about Love and Relationships. Will we come out stronger because of this experience? Or have we worn each other down to the point where we've got nothing left to give? I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine. FYI. The School of Life have got an event coming up called 'How to make love last' on the 18th May 2018. It's definitely worth a look, if you're going through a love rut...
To summarise, France, will forever stay in my memory as a bitter-sweet experience. I'm glad I did it, but I don't know if I'd recommend upping sticks and moving your life to a different country with your other half, if you can't (and don't make a conscious effort) to speak the language. It can be extremely isolating and intense. I missed my friends more than I could have ever imagined.
That's not to say that the local people we met in Mazamet weren't lovely and welcoming too – I just wish I spoke enough French to hold a proper conversation! I had messages on Instagram from some very friendly Mazametains too – thank you, if that was you! :-) One of the highlights of the trip was when we threw a dinner party from some Mazamet friends. A lovely British woman called Jo and her mum, Sue, and their friend Morsli. It was a thank you for the delicious food they cooked for us a couple of weeks before. We rustled some homemade tomato bruschetta and some caramelised onion and goat cheese ones too, and a chicken and mushroom risotto with seared asparagus for dinner. Sue made the most delicious Pavlova we'd ever tasted! The secret? Lemon curd in the cream! Oh! My! Days!
I tell you what I will miss (now that I'm back in the UK...) walking to buy fresh bread every morning and hollering "Bonjour" to the locals. It's so pleasant! Maybe I'll just make a habit of saying hello to more folks over here to try and add a little bit more French-ness to my days.
So what next?
Now that I'm back in the UK, it's time to pick up work again – for me, my social media consultancy and blogging work, and for him, his Civil Engineering. A new chapter awaits!
What about the book?
Writing this book, and knowing that that was the *main* purpose of the trip, was tough at times. I seriously underestimated how much pressure I'd put on myself – mentally and emotionally. How hard can it be to write about a past love that broke your heart, in the presence of a new love? Quite...
Let's just say... Imagine sticking a finger in a wound, repeatedly. That's kind of how it's felt when trying to draw from personal experiences and going over old ground – ground that you'd rather screw your eyes tightly shut at and run over. I would find myself transported back to autumn 2015, shying away from re-living difficult memories, unable to steer myself up and over them. But I know that in order to be as honest with myself (as honest I hope this book will come across to anyone who reads it) that feeling those things – however much they hurt – had to be explored. It's all part of the healing process.
I *think* I've got most of my ducks in a row now – content-wise. I need to get the first two or three chapters finished ASAP, find an agent and then start approaching some publishers... any tips would be hugely appreciated! Here's hoping that 2018 is the year I put a lid on it and get this thing published!
Photography © Lucie Kerley