At the moment we do not have a car and so we are having to make our way around on foot and by bus. This feels exhausting in the heat of August, especially carrying 4 litres of milk daily uphill from our nearest Intermarché supermarket (a chore we usually reserve for early evening when the sun is just starting to go down a little).
However, when on the bus you do see more of the countryside than in a car and you can get to meet people this way. I have a favourite bus driver, a lady with fair hair and huge sunglasses who is extremely chatty. When she is driving I make a point of sitting in the front seat, and so far we have discussed the weather (always sunny), electricity bills (she only had her heating on for 3 weeks last winter), house renting, cars, washing machines, furniture, neighbours (her’s) and so on. She drives the same route every day – between Vidauban, where we live, and Le Muy, where our bank is, a distance of about 12 kilometres. As I usually make the trip about once a week, we have got to know each other quite well and she sends a cheery wave when driving past if I am on foot.
Another plus of not having a car is not being caught up in traffic jams! Vidauban itself is a quiet little town, but the A9 motorway stretching from the Italian to the Spanish border is just a few kilometres away. In August it can often reach a standstill (although not as often as a few years ago now that France has prohibited the driving of lorries on motorways at the weekends during the summer holidays). Anyway, the other evening we were making our way back from Intermarché as usual, laden with carrier bags, and were surprised to see our route through the pink and cream housing estates, with colourful gardens of purple and red bougainvillaea ,clogged up with cars crawling along at a snail’s pace. We found ourselves constantly being beckoned over by the anxious occupants, asking where they were and “how long did the queue stretch for” (which was right through the town). It transpired that there had been either a fire or a major accident on the motorway – accounts varied. But the funniest question, asked by a middle aged French lady on holiday, which had us laughing all the way home thereby considerably the lightening the load of the shopping bags, was “Have we arrived at Nice now?”… Nice only being the 5th largest city in France and some 100 kilometres distant!
There was a forest fire here yesterday – right behind our apartment. The hillside with path leading up to the chapel is covered in old olive trees, scented pines, and scrub, and there are lovely views looking down onto farms and vineyards below. However, with little rain and scorching sunshine for months now, the vegetation is tinder dry and late afternoon yesterday the hillside was enveloped in billowing clouds of smoke. We were first alerted to it by a neighbour knocking on our door and telling us to pack all our papers, in case we had to evacuate. This was followed seconds later by a deafening roar of helicopters and aircrafts zooming by overhead and causing the windows to shake. I sent my two sons out to reconnoitre while I panicked as to what to do. We have no furniture yet, just plastic garden chairs rescued from the roadside, my concern was the paintings I had set out to dry all around walls of the room. After hurriedly packing them into some large boxes and reassuring our puzzled, but thankfully not frightened, cat I went out to see what was happening for myself. Small crowds of people were gathered watching, wondering what to do, as the aircraft sprayed what appeared to be red dust (in fact a mixture of fire retardant chemicals) on the blaze.
Amazingly, it only took minutes – well, about ten – for the rescue services to get the situation under control. But then, forest fires unfortunately are a regular occurrence in the Var in summer, and the fire services here are on constant alert and well rehearsed as to what action to take. A striking contrast after moving over from Cornwall, England where in recent summers flood damage has been a major problem!
In the evening I climbed up through the terraces of olive trees to the chapel on top, and saw the full extent of the fire damage. It was sad to see the trees and shrubs blackened and the ground covered in ash – probably caused by a cigarette butt.
From the age of 15 I dreamed of living in France even though I had never been there, inspired perhaps by pictures of a storybook countryside full of chateaux and markets and by my father’s enthusiasm of the kindness of the French people he had met when in hospital in Amiens during the First World War. Years later, married and with children my family and I would go over to France on holiday every Summer, always to campsites, and during the rest of the year I would produce paintings as often as time allowed based on holiday snapshots and sketches. I guess through painting I was reliving the magic of the holidays, the bright sunlight and the vivid colours that I missed so much back in rainy England.
And now that I have retired I have at long last managed to make the move, and in spite of existing on a shoestring and difficulties in getting established, living in France is every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped for. To begin with we were staying in a holiday cottage in the Vaucluse, in an area known as the Luberon. The cottage was surrounded by fields of lavender, vineyards and orchards, and from the garden the view was of the hilltop villages of Bonnieux and Lacoste, which face one another on opposite slopes of the Luberon mountain range. However, the cottage was rented out over the summer months and so we needed to find a more permanent home.
This proved to be very difficult. The South, or ‘Midi’ as it is called, is very expensive and very sought after, making it difficult for someone in a slightly unusual situation and with limited funds. However, we eventually found a very understanding landlord with a lovely apartment and a wonderful view overlooking the small Var town of Vidauban. The Var is relatively undeveloped and unspoilt, and encompasses a long sandy coastline on the Mediterranean which is backed by the thickly wooded mountain range of the Maures, as well as rivers and gorges inland and a wealth of ancient villages. Vidauban itself is in the heart of a wine growing region and is surrounded by hills of either oak or scented pine. Our appartment, which overlooks the town, is built on the lower slopes of a rocky spur, the cone of an ancient volcano, at the top of which is the Chapel of Sainte Brigitte. We moved in during July to what feels like an artist’s dream!