The final countdown... France here I come

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. Tour de France Vaison
click on this thumbnail to see full-size photoDecember 18th - airport demonstrations, civil strife in Thailand, Air China willing - my flight will be landing in Marseille, France. It's a long story, but in a nutshell my time is divided between two continents and two countries, where together I've spent more than a couple of decades as an expat.

It's an unusual arrangement even for a chronic expat - a few months in one country, the remainder across the world in another continent, year on year. I've had some practice now, but each time it's a culture shock, especially arriving back in Europe. Perhaps I've just got too used to the lovely Thai people, their ready smiles, their philosophy of living day click on this thumbnail to see full-size phototo day. Back in Europe - after seven months of immersion in a corner of South-East Asia that feels laid-back even in the midst of social and political unrest - that Western feeling of constant stress, the 'look after number one' attitude, is something you can sense almost as soon as you step off the plane.

What's in store for readers of the blog? Well, not so much in the way of updates from Thailand, of course. The emphasis will switch to a mix of news, views and photos from the French Hexagon, with flashbacks to life in Chiang Mai now and again. Plus some click on this thumbnail to see full-size photoinevitable political commentary on matters Thai. A few scathing articles comparing the allegedly 'superior' Western lifestyle to the Thai version, no doubt, (but I'll get over it after a few weeks ;-)

So bear with me - as blogs go, it'll be different. Most of my time will be spent in the Provencal hinterland, at the foot of the Mont Ventoux, close to a small village not far from the Roman town of Vaison la Romaine, and half an hour's drive from Avignon. Occasional weekends in the snow of the Alps. There will be lots of photos as usual. Then back to Chiang Mai in June.

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photoSo where exactly is Malaucene? - a remote part of southern France, in the north of the Vaucluse department (see Google map, end of blog entry). In the mid to late 1900s one of the poorer rural regions; mostly peasant smallholdings of a few acres, with a dribble of tourists passing through (too far away from the Mediterranean coast to be really popular). Things suddenly changed with rocketing property prices in the mid to late 90s and early years of the new millennium, on the back of what we now know to be the false optimism of an unsustainable property boom and supposedly never-ending economic growth. The purchasing power of Brits was a major contributory factor. Fellow Brits were taking out second mortgages on the strength of small terraced houses in unfashionable parts of London that suddenly were worth several hundred thousand pounds, and buying up their get-away-from-it-all, dream homes over the other side of the Channel. Some were selling up lock, stock, and garden shed to make the move abroad for good.

At the Wednesday market in Malaucene - two passing tourists need to manoeuvre those stomachs carefully around the breakablesThe Malaucene market; a potter from nearby Beaumont du Ventoux making music. Those tourists are going to have to watch where they put their stomachs...

Peter Mayle was a recently discovered British author at the time. The bestseller 'A Year in Provence' and multiple sequels were eagerly devoured. In 1993 it spawned a highly popular TV mini-series starring John Thaw, which helped to accelerate the phenomenon. Mayle's gentle cynicism was glossed over - paradise was waiting, that's all people wanted to hear. Escaping the rat race was as simple as selling the house, doing a crash Berlitz course in French, buying up a mini chateau somewhere for the sort of money that would barely pay for a lock-up garage in Brixton, bundling reluctant kids into the car, and away without so much as a backwards glance. Jobs? Do up a ruin, rent out rooms, worry about that later. Mixing with the locals? No problem - five hours with Berlitz and they would be able to hold their own in a discussion about anything from politics to Zidane, they were sure of it. Teacher and the blurb on the CD had told them so.

just olives... the Tuesday market, Vaison la RomaineAt the Tuesday morning market in Vaison la Romaine... nothing but olives.

But that wasn't how I ended up in France... I'd had a mini love affair with the country since the late 70s. Lived there as a student teacher for a while, then later working as a 'chasseur' (no not a hunter - it's a hotel term, involving everything from carrying luggage to cleaning the toilets, repairing plumbing, serving behind the bar)... a general dogsbody working twelve hours a day for a pittance, in other words. But who cares - the late 70s and early 80s were a great time to be in France. I loved it - the food, the people, the lifestyle. 'Promoted' to hotel reception and junior management, I lasted another year, and then met my first wife. Time to get a proper job, we thought. I was a professional translator with post-grad qualifications, so what did I do? Went back to London and got a job in shipping of course!

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photoNot another house in sight...

But tragedy struck. Just before our first wedding anniversary my wife set off to prepare for a family Christmas in France, and was involved in a big pile-up on a foggy motorway, suffering horrific brain injuries. Those of you who have firsthand experience of looking after people recovering from severe brain trauma will know what this is like - it's impossible to describe adequately. Recovery is often very limited - damaged or destroyed brain cells do not replace themselves. Injuries of this kind can severely affect mental abilities, completely transform personalities, inhibit motor reflexes, balance, affect speech, concentration, writing... in my wife's case, eventually emerging from several months of coma, she suffered from a combination of all of these. I looked after her to the best of my ability for another seven years - a period of my life that went by in a kind of gloomy, distressed blur - but in the end it was not to be.

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. Lavander, MalauceneBy the house in Malaucene, fields of lavander, a common crop in the Vaucluse and southern Drome departments...

Later after the classic, ill-advised bounce through a short-lived relationship that produced a wonderful daughter, I picked up a few pieces and decided to get my act together. Set up in business from scratch - sat on the floor of a rented office with a phone in the early days. I got lucky. Transport to France was my thing, and it was a good time for small entrepreneurs. By the late 80s I had a lovely new French partner, two more great kids born in the 90s, and we'd moved to France.

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. Sunflowers, Malaucene, FranceAn equally common summer sight, sunflowers in the Malaucene Ouveze valley...

So, hardly the wide-eyed innocents looking for the French version of Utopia, in our case. An Anglo-French family, living in a beautiful part of the south of France, having managed to buy before the property boom really got up steam. Spending time between the south and a place in the Savoie Alps, where daughter number two was at a ski racing sports academy. Perfect. What more could we want?

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. Carefree days, the elephant playhouse, l'Eau Salee, MalauceneWithout a care in the world...

But life is rarely perfect. There's no law that says tragedy cannot strike twice, and while I was in Thailand looking to set up a new shipping interest, my partner died suddenly and unexpectedly at just 45 from a brain hemorrhage, to be found by my two young teenage children the following morning.

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. The dog's seen it all before. Tuesday market, VaisonThe dog has seen it all before...

So here I am today, life split between two continents. Kids boarding while I am in Thailand, then five months back in France. A new Thai friend and - always a glutton for punishment - a new baby. The original plan being to get a visa for her to stay with me in France for a big part of the year. But tell that to the French government! Immigration regulations are being severely tightened in Europe. As a Brit and a European Union citizen, I have the same rights as a French person to live in France. But to bring my Thai partner over to France with me? "Non, Monsieur, ce n'est pas possible". But I have property in France, two French children at school in France, who have lost their mum and have no other family?! "Sorry Monsieur, only French citizens may apply to bring their Thai partners to stay in France. You can take her to live in the UK". But I live in France, my children are in France! "Not our problem, Monsieur". The French variety of bureaucrat... there's nothing worse. You can guess the tone of the remainder of the conversation...

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. The famous Cavaillon melon - Tuesday market, VaisonThe famous 'melon de Cavaillon'

The Thais have the philosophy that one should live each moment as it comes. Not spend our time fretting about what may or may not be, not despair over opportunities that have slipped through our fingers. Sleepless nights worrying how to solve problems are alien to Thais. We often find the Thai people hard to understand, their actions and words 'irrational' by Western standards. But to the Thai, the Western mind is equally unfathomable. During a Thai massage recently a masseuse commented "Look tired today". Thinking of the rapidly approaching return date to France, I replied to the effect that I had a lot to worry about. After a five minute pause, out of the blue she offered up: "If pick up pan too hot, put down. Not hold long time burn hand. Pick up later when not hot"...

A lesson many of us in the West could do with remembering at times...

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. boulangerie stall, Tuesday market VaisonSomething I am looking forward to... some real French bread.

Anyway, you get the drift. For the foreseeable future at least, it's back and forth between France and Thailand. Hardly ideal, but as the Thais would say... no choice? Then why worry!

click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo
click on this thumbnail to see full-size photo. A rare winter scene at 330 metres, in the south of France
Winter scenes Malaucene Mont Ventoux
Anyway, please excuse the inevitable wind-down in blogging frequency as the 18th approaches. Will be back in full flow before Christmas...


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8 comments:

JJ said...

Wow, you've had your fair share of tough times.

I look forward to the Frog bit ...

Camille Lemmens said...

Good luck in France!

Hoo Don said...

Your blog may have one hand on the Mailot Jaune but don't go wearing it to the airport, think of the old people. France won't be that bad, the months will soon pass and you're not exactly going off to throw stones at a modern army, you will return. Sure you'll miss the wife and baby but you can phone or web cam most days.
You can see your two lovely kids, enjoy some fine wine and watch a bit of decent live football. May will soon come round, now stick that bottom lip back in, say "mai bpen rai" and start packing the suitcase.

Hoo Don said...

Totally forget so I've had to pop back. I looked on the internet at the average pocket money per month for French kids. Luckily for you according to a Daily Telegraph poll French parents are the meanest in Europe at 17.7 euros per month. I have based my formula on - amount of children x months missing x 17.7 - it totals 247.8 euros. Thought I would save you time and as a favour work it out for you.

Mike said...

I had wondered how you had come to live in the two countries. Thanks for sharing what is clearly a tragic tale at times.

Hope the "holiday" in France is good I am sure your daughters are looking forward to it.

I look forward to some slightly different posts (geographically)-I actually enjoy your political stuff as it offers some insight for me here.

Ben Shingleton (Thai Pirate) said...

Good luck Pete, looking forward to the blog francais. You had me thinking about the vast differences between the Thais and French bureaucracy, quite overwhelming!

Frances said...

Just incredibly touched by your post and just amazed at how much tragedy you have faced and overcome.

You'll be glad to hear that it has warmed up a little bit here over the last few days and we've actually had a bit of blue sky - don't get too hopeful though! :)

The FrogBlogger said...

Thanks everyone, more frogblogging than thaidings from now on. My maillots jaunes and rouges are either being left in storage or posted back to France Martyn, I'm taking no risks going through customs on the way out, you never know who you might upset... Mike I'll try to think up simething slightly different as I shiver over my keyboard... Ben - as you scoff your Xmas pudding, I'll be tucking into foie gras, but I would rather be eating cow pat moo, Frances, the last I heard it was snowing in Avignon of all places, so I'm not counting my poules :-)