Skip to main content
CultureFirst person

The simple life: When lockdown forces a commitment to a slower pace

By September 5, 2020No Comments

Pre-Covid, Julia Molony had spent the last few years living between London and the South of France. Lockdown forced her to commit to one way of life. Here, she writes about the reality of slow living in a bucolic idyll…

I wasn’t prepared for August in the south of France. I had a childishly rose-tinted expectation of it, based mostly on pleasurable mental images snatched from summer holidays past; ice cool drinks and filtered golden sunlight, wild water running over suntanned toes.

The reality came as quite a shock. When you have two small children and the house you are living in doesn’t have air-conditioning, it turns out that much of summer’s hottest month must be spent indoors in the dark. The shutters, and even the windows, stay firmly closed throughout the day as a last-ditch defence against heat so ferocious it feels like a siege.

Bad-tempered, cabin-fevered, and slicked in sweat, we coped with August by piling into the shower every hour or two, drenching ourselves in cold water. Then we’d emerge, the kids as wriggly and slippery as otters to sit in the gloom directly in front of the fan to cool down. It has been a summer very far from La Vie En Rose. And in my heat-stunned, homeostatically disorientated state I have found myself muttering regularly, to no-one in particular, ‘I am not adapted to this climate’.

It feels like there is a lot I haven’t quite adapted to here yet. I have spent time in France on and off since my son, now 4, was born. His father is French and based in a gloriously beautiful, wine-producing region in the South West. It’s dotted with white-stone hilltop villages, perched over fields of sunflowers; the sort of place where tourists wander around the outdoor markets, dreaming of chucking in the rat race for a simpler life amongst the vineyards, just like Meg Ryan in French Kiss.

When I had my daughter, 10 months ago, my plan was to continue with the channel-hopping routine I’d established with her brother. Thanks to low-cost air travel, we could benefit from all the good stuff about French rural life; space, good weather, home-grown apricot jam, the wild figs that spill onto the cobblestones on the walk home from school…  as well as the edge and energy of big city life; the faced-paced chat and jostling crowds and boundary-pushing cultural programs. Without which, I felt sure, I would no longer know how to define myself.

There was no need yet, I told myself breezily, to make anything so restrictive as a commitment or a choice. I’d be town mouse AND country mouse. After all, losing access to either one of these lifestyles seemed too much to bear. I loved, no needed the stimulation of a capital city, the great clamour of identities, ideas, creativity, and inspiration. And yet, with a child in tow and precious little extended family around in the capital, city life would rapidly wear me down. After just a few weeks I’d feel ratty and rattled, under-supported and overstretched.

In France, life was quiet and sensual, infused with colour and abundant with nature, but I was often lonely. It didn’t take me too long to get to grips with the language well enough to go about daily life reasonably smoothly, to make simple small talk,  but it soon became clear that the subtleties and nuances of subtext and humour that are the building blocks of true, meaningful friendship, the kind of meeting-of-the-mind, til-death-do-us-part friendship that is more precious to me than I can measure, were beyond my conversational skills.

At baby groups, I skulked about on the fringes of all discussion, often retreating into mute embarrassment when talk veered into topics I couldn’t keep up with. Before long I simply stopped going. On social occasions I felt muzzled, and unable to properly connect. I couldn’t do banter, or a get embroiled in a good debate. I was ashamed of my garbled syntax and clumsy sentence construction. Though most locals I met were patient, and gave me the benefit of the doubt, I became used to being treated with casual condescension by some. Smarting after encounters with bureaucrats and officials, I’d walk home rehearsing how to say “Just because I’m foreign doesn’t mean I’m stupid,” in French.

France went into lockdown on March 14th. As a result of Covid, I’ve now been grounded here for the longest stretch of my life. Cut off, like everyone else, from friends and family and city breaks and easy travel. I thought that being exempt from having to choose between two lives was a privilege that allowed me the best of both worlds. As it turns out, it’s being forced to make a commitment that has set me free. I realised that I’ve lived the last four years in limbo, never really properly investing in building a satisfying life in either place.

In the unbroken months my suitcases have stayed in the attic gathering dust, I have, almost without noticing the effort, reached a whole new level of fluency and confidence in French. Last week, the day of my son’s first day at school, there was a picnic for parents and pupils. We sat on the grass chatting while the kids splashed in a nearby stream and I felt, if not completely at ease, then near enough. I’ve realised that I may never achieve total mastery of the language or become perfectly adapted to the climate. But that doesn’t mean I can’t thrive here.

It’s September now. The early autumn sun is more forgiving, and the figs are ripening. I miss my friends madly of course, but so do most people at the moment. I still feel isolated and alienated from time to time. But there’s lots to love about being here. And I don’t have much hope of improving on those things I don’t love so much, if I keep running away from them.