Presenting: Dan and Judith Talk About Their Fabulous Two-Year House-Swapping Experience

Through a friend of mine I met Dan and Judith, a professional couple in their 50s who spent two fabulous years in Provence, having traded their lovely Toronto home against a country house in the south of France. Here is the story of the two most exciting years of their lives, how they prepared for this experience, where they lived, how they integrated with the locals and the expatriate community. This adventurous couple also started a special project: documenting their local French town and its history, eventually turning it into a book. Dan and Judith also talk about what it felt like coming home after these 2 years, their recent trip back to Provence, and what foreign ventures may lie ahead for their retirement.

Dan and Judith in front of their beloved village

1. Please tell us a bit about yourselves, your interests, your personal and professional backgrounds.

Dan: I was born and raised in India. My family is Anglo-Indian (of mixed European and Indian descent), and culturally more British than Indian. In 1960, my family moved to England. I studied at the London College of Graphic Arts.

In 1967, I moved to Canada with my first wife. I worked in graphic arts in advertising for the next twenty-some years, in a variety of positions. By the mid-1980s I was Director of Client Services for a design studio. In 1992 I left to go out on my own as a graphic arts design consultant.

I have a daughter and step-daughter from my first marriage. Judith and I met in 1974 and married in 1981.

My interests are music (listening to and playing jazz, blues, and old-time rock ‘n’ roll), travel, photography, and golf.

Judith: I was born in Toronto and grew up in Peterborough, Ontario. I studied English at Queen’s University, was a high school teacher for three years and then became a computer programmer.

For the next seventeen years, I held a variety of IT positions. By the mid-eighties, I was Director of Corporate Systems at a large insurance company.

In 1987 I quit my job, wrote a romance novel (never published) and then became a free-lance corporate trainer, writer, and instructional designer/developer. My company, The Idea Interpreter®, makes complex business ideas – concepts, processes, systems, and methodologies – easy to understand, learn and use.

I love reading, logic puzzles, watching competitive figure skating, walking, golfing (badly) and travelling.

2. From 1993 to 1995 you had an opportunity to spend two years in France. Please tell us about the unique circumstances about how that came about.

Judith: I was teaching a three-day course. At lunch on the second day, one of the participants happened to mention that she’d just moved to Toronto from Washington D.C, but had lived in France for many years.

“Wow! France! My husband and I dream of living there!” I told her.

“I need a house here for a year or so, and I have a house in France,” she said. “Why don’t we swap?”

Dan: When Judith came home and told me what Roxanne had said, I was both excited and doubtful. How could we take a year or more off? Could we afford it? But we both loved the idea, and wanted to explore it further. We set a date with Roxanne to come to dinner, see our house, and talk about the swap.

By the night of the dinner, we had pretty much made up our minds. When Roxanne walked in the door and said, “I could live here,” we knew we were on our way, even though we had no idea what her house was like or what part of France it was in. Exactly three months after that night, we arrived in France. We thought we’d be there for a year; we ended up staying for almost two.

3. Moving to another country for a substantial time away from home involves numerous preparations, practical, financial, emotional and otherwise. How did you prepare yourselves to get ready for your extended stay in France?

Judith: It was a hectic three months. Even before meeting with Roxanne, we’d consulted our financial advisor who encouraged us to go for it. Next, we had to apply to France for long-stay visas. To get them, the RCMP [Canada’s federal police force] had to investigate us and confirm that we’d never been in prison or in trouble with the law. We had to supply proof that we had enough money to support ourselves, get a signed certificate from Roxanne that we had a place to live while in France, and all kinds of other stuff. Then we discovered that, as a British citizen, Dan didn’t need a visa, just his British passport. So he got his passport and – after several visits to the French consulate – I got my visa. Our two cats had to get their shots, certificates of health and new travel cages. We talked to OHIP [Ontario’s provincial public health insurance authority] and got a one-time exemption from the 6-month out-of-country rule, and we took out additional health insurance.

Meanwhile, we packed all our personal things. We shipped a few things to France – our golf clubs, Dan’s bass, winter clothes, some favourite books and CDs – and put the rest in our basement. We had the house cleaned and painted. We arranged to do our banking by phone and fax. (In 1993, we hadn’t even heard of e-mail, there was no such thing as a web browser, debit cards weren’t available in Canada and bank machines didn’t always work internationally.)

We told our clients we were leaving and wound up our current projects. We had a busy social whirl, seeing friends and family to say our farewells. We were very excited about this adventure, reading everything we could about France, and planning what we’d do with this unexpected, but very welcome, self-granted sabbatical.

4. Please tell us a bit about the area and the little town in the south of France that you moved to. Please describe the house that you moved into.

Dan: Roxanne’s house is located just outside the perched village of Le Bar-sur-Loup, in the back country of the Côte d’Azur, about 10 minutes north-east of Grasse, the perfume capital of France, 30 minutes due north of Cannes, and about 45 minutes north-west of Nice. It is about an hour to Monaco and just a little further to the Italian border. This area, the French Riviera, has the most temperate climate in France, and is one of the world’s glamour destinations. And we were going to live there!

The house is named Mas Ste. Anne. It is a 250 year-old mas, or French farmhouse, with a modern wing that Roxanne and her first husband added when they bought it in the mid-’70’s. On the ground floor is a big entrance hall, a powder room, a kitchen, and a large living / dining room with lovely old furniture and a baby grand piano. Upstairs, there are three big bedrooms, a small single bedroom we used for storage, and two full bathrooms. Off the landing, half-way up, is a storage and laundry room. There is a balcony off the master bedroom and a covered patio just outside the front door.

The grounds consist of nearly an acre of terraced hillside just outside and above the village, on the side of the mountain on which Le Bar is perched. There were thirteen olive trees, a laurel (bay leaf) tree, and many fruit trees that provided us with lemons, oranges, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, crab-apples, and – courtesy of the overhanging branches from a neighbour’s tree – even figs. Rosemary hedges lined the driveway and the steps below the house; over the walkway and steps was an arbour of grapevines. We had flowers all year round — mimosas, magnolias, bougainvillea, wisteria, roses, oleanders, daffodils, violets, iris, and many more we didn’t recognize. We even had a few date palms, yucca trees and a small stand of bamboo.

5. What were your impressions and feelings when you first arrived? How did you spend your first few weeks?

Judith: We arrived in France in early August, exhausted from all the months of preparation and the last-minute flurry of leave-taking. It was very hot. For the first few weeks, we cleaned the house from top to bottom, something it really needed. We spent hours every day outside, wearing as few clothes as possible, doing nothing: sipping chilled rosé and pastis on the patio, enjoying the view, sleeping in the garden swing. We walked down to the village and did our grocery shopping, then puffed our way back up the hill (a 25% grade) to the house. We spent hours finding the French words for things we needed to buy (litter boxes for the cats, printer cables for the computer), looking for the right stores in Grasse and Nice, and explaining what we needed in our very rusty French. It sounds mundane, but we found it very exciting.

Dan: First impressions and feelings were basically pure sensory overload: the spectacular setting of the village 380 metres (1,200 feet) above sea level; the view looking north up the Gorge du Loup, with Gourdon – the next village, 15 minutes by car – perched on top of a mountain 760 metres (2,500 feet) above sea level; the “chirping” of the cicadas that began around 9 each morning, building as the heat increased through the afternoon, subsiding around 6 as it got cooler; the ubiquitous smells of Provence – rosemary, thyme, bougainvillea, jasmine; the intense taste sensations of local produce, cheeses, and wines. And on top of all of that, there was an air of unreality about it all. It was hard to realize that this wasn’t just a short vacation; that we were actually going to live here.

6. Once you settled in, did you have a certain routine for spending your days? What types of activities did you pursue?

Dan: Yes, we did develop certain routines. At first, though, they didn’t fit with the customs of life in France. Time and again, after breakfast on the patio, we’d get ourselves together to go shopping – and find ourselves arriving at the stores just as they were closing for a two to three-hour lunch. We did eventually learn to adjust to the French routine. Shortly afterward, the larger grocery stores began to stay open all day. It was convenient, but not nearly as quaint – and we missed the excuse to go for lunch and a half-bottle of wine while we waited for the stores to open!

In the evening, after dinner, we’d make a point of watching the eight o’clock news on TV. At first we didn’t understand anything at all; it was just a wave of unfamiliar sound. Gradually, we began to distinguish words and phrases, even if we didn’t know what they meant, and eventually we understood most of what was said.

Judith: The days, though, were quite varied. I don’t recall much of a daily routine. I’m an early riser, and I liked to sit out on the patio in the mornings. Dan would join me there when he got up. Some days we spent at home. I would write and clean the house; Dan would cook and do laundry, play the piano (he taught himself to play while we were there), and take photographs. We’d let the cats in to use their litter box and let them out again. We both read a lot. And, especially in the spring and fall, we mowed the terraces.

Other days we’d go out shopping or exploring. We did pretty much everything together: We ate out a lot – you could call wining and dining our major hobby! We golfed occasionally. We went to every event in our village. Later, when we had more social life, we went visiting and to parties. Once a month, we went to a club where Dan played in a jam session that lasted till 3 or 4 a.m.

Dan: Our routines were interrupted when family and friends came to visit. The first spring we were there, we had guests almost every week from the beginning of March until well into June! We loved every minute of it, showing them all the places and things that we had been discovering and learning to appreciate ourselves.

Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions(http://www.travelandtransitions.com). Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the transitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.

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The interview with photos is published at Travel and Transitions – Interviews