After Lynne Garell's husband died of cancer, she told friends she was moving to France for a year. She needed a new adventure, she told them.
She arrived in south-central France on a 12-month visa, renting a two-bedroom apartment for €800 a month in a village of 1,200 without knowing anyone.
Four years later she is still there and has decided to build an eco-friendly house.
"I love it here," the 63-year-old said of an area she calls "the garden of France." Taking French classes twice a week to improve her already good language skills, she was jokingly nicknamed "Madame le Fromage" by a local policewoman who was curious as to why an American had settled there (she joked that she loves cheese) and is planning to apply for a 10-year visa in 2022. She blogs about her life in the Minervois region.
Garell's connection to France goes back a long way. At 22, fresh out of college, she traveled around Europe including France, got engaged to her husband while the two were on a DIY bike tour of the Dordogne region (during the cheese class, she says!) and made several other trips with them her husband from their home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, even after his cancer diagnosis.
As she pondered where to live in France, she knew she wanted to head south towards the sun and be somewhere where she could trek over the hills. She didn't want to live in a city or in Provence that she described as "a bit like Disneyland".
"I told everyone it would be a year. It gave me a way out when I was unhappy," she recalled. "The other thing is that it was a challenge for my friends, but a bite that they could understand."
But before she could get a visa for this year, she needed an apartment. She searched online and finally found a one-year lease that she liked. It was in Bize-Minervois, a village of 1,200 people – that's less than a tenth the size of Steamboat Springs.
The area, which attracts British, Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Australian expats, lies south of a 1,000-square-mile regional natural park, about 45 minutes east of Carcassonne and about 25 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. An airport less than an hour away offers cheap Ryanair flights to London.
Winter highs average in the 50's and summer highs tend to be in the mid 80's.
“You could easily live on $2,500 to $3,000 a month here” — much, much less than in Provence or Paris, she says. "It absolutely costs me a lot less to live here than in Steamboat."
Meet the locals
Through a series of happy connections that began with a French friend living in Nice, she met a woman in Bize who has become her closest friend in the city.
Newcomers can also join a club to make French friends. In Bize-Minervois, the town's social club organizes walks, the village choir, computer courses, art groups and other activities, builds a float for the annual carnival parade and even raises money for local businesses badly damaged by flooding.
During the regular walk on Tuesday afternoons with around 20 to 30 people, she is usually the only English speaker, she says.
"My closest French friends introduced me to the club," she said. “And through them I met a lot of other local people. I feel really lucky to have met these friends because they took me under their wing in a big way. We go for a walk together. We explore other cities. I have traveled with them a few times. We share meals together. … It was a great blessing that changed my experience here a lot.”
Garell and a friend after attending the village carnival parade.
Courtesy of Lynne Garell
Another way to meet people is to join the Comité des Fêtes, which organizes local festivals. In Bize-Minervois, these include an olive oil festival and the sardinade, where people enjoy sardines and wine. Or find a group trying to preserve French heritage or patrimoine. It can spend its time clearing overgrowth or rebuilding a 300-year-old stone wall.
"If people really want to immerse themselves and connect with local people, it's important to meet them on their territory and do things that they love to do," Garell noted.
And of course that doesn't rule out the search for an English-speaking club; She is a member of a regional organization that offers language classes, a wine tasting group, cooking classes and more.
To research clubs in a smaller town, Garell recommends starting with the mayor's office. She had never been involved with a mayor's office in the US, but discovered how helpful it could be in Bize after an English friend suggested she go there to do some photocopies and send faxes. (Which the municipal office was willing to provide free of charge.)
Obtaining permission to live in France
Americans can spend up to 90 days out of 180 in France and the rest of the European Union and Schengen area on just a tourist visa, which is stamped in their passport upon arrival. Those who stay longer must apply for a visa before entering the country. Among the many documents France requires is a French address, as well as proof of health insurance and enough money to live on. But it's not uncommon to say something's missing and come back.
When Garell took her documents to the French consulate in Los Angeles, one thing quickly became clear to her: None of the other applicants greeted the interviewer with a cheerful bonjour, as is customary in France.
She did it — an icebreaker — and conducted most of the conversation in French.
Then there was another lucky break.
"Bize-Minervois?" She remembered the official question. “I used to vacation there every year as a kid; my grandparents were there. You will love it."
She left with her visa.
When she arrived in France, there was more to do, including a tuberculosis test and a check on her language skills to see if she needed free French lessons. (She took a two-week intensive French course in France before deciding to move.)
Garell wanted to choose a hilly French location for hiking.
Courtesy of Lynne Garell
health insurance and driver's license
Garell arrived with travel insurance that offered limited coverage (although it included repatriation in the event of death) and cost $2,000 a year. After paying French taxes for the first time, she had normal taxpayer-funded French health insurance and the accompanying carte vitale. She has supplemented it with a private policy that costs around 800 euros a year.
When she broke her toe in autumn 2021, it only cost her 5 euros for an X-ray and 12 euros for a pair of hiking boots.
Getting a driver's license was easy for Garell. Colorado is one of 13 states in the US that have entered into agreements with France to accept each other's license. Otherwise, it's expensive and challenging: you have to go to driving school and then pass a written exam in French.
Perhaps one of the most difficult rules to understand is the "priorité à droite" or when to turn right. Those on the right take precedence – unless one of several signs indicates otherwise.
She's considering taking driving lessons, just to get the point across.
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