After a long winter and an unsettling (for lack of a better word) claustrophobic spring spent in Montreal pacing around our downtown apartment, Jeremy and I decided to go back to France for the summer. Not only for the sake of our mental sanity, but also for a much needed change of scenery.
He wanted to see his family, and we both badly needed to trade our downtown concrete views for a dose of space and nature. Like everyone else on the planet, we were affected by the 2020 pandemic in ways we could not have imagined a few months earlier. I was lucky enough to still be able to work remote, and for once, I didn’t have to be physically present for the usual in-person meetings, presentations or pleasantries.
Pilots, on the other hand, did not fare so well. Whereas other industries could adjust to the new normal through Zoom, Skype and other technical wonders, airline employees simply can’t work if there are no planes or passengers to move from point A to B.
And so, rather than continuing to stare at the walls of our apartment for the summer, we decided to look for the silver lining in the situation: we had a pilot out of work, and no clue as to when he would be re-employed. Buuuut…. on the flip side of this shitty coin, we now had the gift of time. And an extended family who lives surrounded by nature in the South of France. So.
Without knowing when we would come back, we packed our bags, and got two one-way tickets to France. I threw my Awol France-inspired tote bag into my suitcase, because I thought it would be fun to bring her back to the place she was conceived 😉
QUARANTINE IN PARADISE
Travelling from Canada to Europe in June was (for lack of a better word), surreal and bizarre. I won’t talk about the legalities, masks, temperature checks or logistics, but I WILL say that the cleanliness and safety screenings were oddly reassuring. I also won’t mention how utterly strange it was to not hug or double kiss the extended family once we arrived, or for that matter, to be isolated in a completely separate area from the main household, but I will say if felt good to take off our masks, and know that we arrived safely, and about to enter 14 days of quarantine in paradise.
We had full access to what is probably the most beautiful pool in the south of France, which Jeremy’s parents left to our full disposal, because to the French from the south, 26 degrees is not quite summer yet. Pinch me.
No, we’re not rich. Not even close. But if you’re wondering how in the actual f%ck we got to live it up for a summer, there’s a simple answer. We lucked out.
Jeremy’s parents live on an 800+ year old moulin (water mill), that they spent the last 20 years renovating to perfection. They have a vegetable garden, ducks, chickens and trees full of fruit, not to mention the most breathtaking views of a mountain that turned out to be more therapeutic than a lifetime with Freud. They were kind enough to lend us their poolhouse, and so we were all set. We spent two weeks eating vegetables and fruits from the garden, reading, and watching the sky, all the while being surveilled from a distance by the cute moulin animals wondering who the odd Canadians living in their “cold” pool were.
It goes without saying that our second confinement on the moulin was much more pleasant than the first one in the city.
OFF TO THE MOUNTAINS: A NEW WAY TO TRAVEL
Once our 14 day quarantine came to an end, we needed to move. We usually like to get our fix of new cities and towns when we visit Europe, but Covid changed our usual travel habits. Instead of relying on planes or trains, we packed up a camping car and headed towards the mountains.
We figured that the French-Pyrennees were as good as it gets for a healthy dose of fresh air, hiking and a break from the news.
Little towns were just beginning to slowly open up to (mostly local) tourism, and it felt like we were all opening our eyes, slowly, after a long winter nap. Being someone who is usually drawn to urban-city centres, I was surprised and comforted by nourishing mountain breezes, hiking in silence, and being surrounded by green grass, blue skies, and cute cows. For the first time in a decade, I turned off all digital devices, and moved through a dream-like, slow living (and a slow-driving) camping car rhythm for the next few weeks. Nothing to do and nowhere to be, except exactly where we were.
In the Pyrennees, as compared to the French Alps, you can still find small towns, remote mountain roads, and a feeling of going back to a more traditional way of life. We were able to park the camping car by rivers and remote valleys, and wake up in secluded places far removed from rest-stops, campgrounds and parking lots.
There are so many hiking trails and options for any duration and level of difficulty. Without meaning to, we ended up on some seriously butt-busting ones – they were long, steep, and mean, but the views at the top were worth the pain, sweat and blisters. And our bodies rewarded us with a little more muscle-definition, and by burning off the many, many cheese, bread and pastries consumed along the way 😉
TO THE BEACH (ST TROPEZ & COLIOURE)
Somewhere between the mountains, wild cows and the beginning of July, our camping car went on strike and decided it was done with driving up any type of inclined roads. But since we had no specific itinerary, plans, or return dates, we simply traded her in for a car, and continued our road trip to France’s southern coastlines along the Mediterranean seaside.
By July, tourism was picking up and adapting to the new reality with masks, distance and hand sanitizer, while people started enjoying the little things we always took for granted: beaches, terasses and much needed 3D human contact.
While the amount of tourists was nowhere close to what it usually is on the French Riviera at this time, people were out and about, and enjoying life – most of them respectful of others, at least from what we saw. There were exceptions, of course, but I’d much rather focus instead on these magnificent views.
I mean, when else can you actually see the sand on the Côte d’Azur? #silverlinings
RIVERS & CANYONS
Eventually we went back to our home-base in the Cevennes, where we reconnected with many, many members of Jeremy’s extended family and friends he had not seen for a long time. His sister and her room-mate came to the South from Paris for a few weeks, since they too needed nature-therapy and home cooking away from the big city.
We went exploring the magnificent hidden gems of The Cevennes: crystal clear rivers, canyons and natural parks, where you can canoe, stand-up paddle or float staring at the sky, for hours on end.
The water in these canyons is so clear and vibrant, it’s easy to forget you are on a river, and not a Corsican-like beach surrounded by mountains. And just when you think it can’t get anymore incredible, you look up and see castles, towns and fortresses with waterfalls built into the cliffs, as you attempt to pick your jaw up off your paddleboard.
CASTLES IN THE SKY
Here’s what I love the most about the South of France (other than the food, wine and just about everything else): anywhere you go, and I mean anywhere, you’re almost guaranteed to stumble upon little towns off the tourist trail, overflowing with castles, fortresses and chateaux. In any given 15-45 minute driving radius, you find hidden gems that take your breath away and leave you saying something like « punaise, c’est trop beau ». Am I dreaming? Or have I over-indulged in too much delicious wine? Again?
Because more often than not, vineyards (and wine-tasting) are never far away, either 😉
As a summer of slow-living comes to an end, i’m overflowing with gratitude, appreciation and awe. Not to mention cheese. Under normal life circumstances, we would have never had (or taken) the time to take the time. To this extent.
Despite everything, this pandemic has reminded me of the joy that lies in the simple things, that too often we let pass us by un-noticed, because we’re just so damn busy: the beauty of nature, spending time with loved ones, eating simple food, and appreciating the people and beauty surrounding us at every moment. Disconnecting in order to re-connect.