Human Parts
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Human Parts

THIS IS US

Why We Joined the Migration From the City

How the pandemic helped us leave Paris and move to a small town in the South of France

New place like home. Photo by Geraldine Dormoy.

It was the storks that made up my mind. I’m not sure what the others — my wife and son — were thinking at that moment, but after I’d watched the storks fly over, I knew we had to move down here.

A year later, we owned a house on the fringes of Provence, France.

Although my friends back in London might have predicted that I’d live in Paris one day, there was no chance that they — or I — could have foreseen a move to Montélimar, a town of around 41,000 souls on the way to Avignon. I doubt I’d have even visited the place if my French sister-in-law hadn’t moved here with her husband. More recently, my parents-in-law followed suit.

So what’s the attraction? Smack on the Nationale 7 (the former “Road to the Sun,” the French equivalent of Route 66), Montélimar was once a rich little town famous for making and selling nougat, which holidaymakers snapped up in their scores on their way down south. Then the autoroute bypassed the town and today it’s a somewhat less wealthy backwater — although it retains its nougat associations.

The result is a sun-baked, slightly crumbling town with pastel-colored buildings in various states of repair and disrepair, narrow shaded streets, a park with an old-fashioned carousel, and a delightful café-lined boulevard called Les Allées Provençales, where I enjoy sipping rosé under the plane trees. From many vantage points you can see the distant jagged frieze of the Ardèche mountains.

As visitors, we often stayed at the Hotel du Parc, whose tiny but charming garden was the perfect setting for breakfast. One morning in late August, during a lull in the first year of the pandemic, the patch of sky above it was suddenly filled with the broad-winged, lute-necked silhouettes of storks. Three or four quickly became a dozen. A mustering, I later learned. They climbed and circled, yet at the same time moved onwards, like a benign whirlwind. They beat their vast wings languidly, rising in a spiral on the warm updrafts. After a few long moments they were gone.

A bit of research on the local newspaper’s website revealed that the storks came from Eastern Europe, and passed by Montélimar on their annual migration to North Africa. I felt privileged to have seen them.

Perhaps it was time for us, too, to migrate.

Our apartment in Paris — or rather, a Parisian suburb called Clichy — was comfortable but small. We moved in just before our little boy was born and lived there happily for 10 years.

Like many people, we discovered its limitations during lockdown. No garden, of course, and a balcony the size of a doormat: I felt nervous stepping onto it. In any case, the view was of a 1970s apartment block and the local tax office.

Our son was part of the equation. He’d always been ambiguous about urban living. After visiting his cousins in Montélimar and playing in their expansive garden, he often wept with frustration on the train home. “But why can’t we live there? It’s quiet. It’s green.”

When the pandemic eased off for a spell in summer 2020, we visited Montélimar again. “You know,” I said to my wife, as we walked the sunlit streets, “we could do this. With remote working, we could live here. We’d have the whole of Provence to explore at weekends.”

We talked about it some more. Too early, we decided. Maybe when we retire.

Winter came around and France went back into lockdown. Restaurants and bars closed. The streets turned dark and silent. Trapped within our four walls, we shuffled our furniture around and gave the apartment a fresh lick of paint. Then we decided to get it valued — just to see. The estate agent (or realtor, if you prefer) wore a mask, but as she looked around I saw the glint of enthusiasm in her eyes.

She gave us a figure. It was staggering, ridiculous — almost twice as much as we’d paid for the place a decade earlier. We could afford to pay off our mortgage and buy a house in Montélimar. A sizable house, with a garden. We hesitated for a while, but not for long. A week before Christmas, we decided: We’d sell the apartment and move south.

First, we had to find a house, which involved several train trips and a lot of disappointment. Finally, last April, we saw her: a cream-colored two-story villa with white shutters. Vine leaves meandered up the facade; purple wisteria blazed around the front door and pink oleander in the garden. The lady who owned the place had kept it in sparkling condition. But she was alone now, and it was too much for her to manage. We felt as though she’d given us a gift.

The house is a soothing presence, but I often feel adrift — uprooted from an urban existence that has spanned 30 years, in London and Paris. I can no longer hop on the métro to see the latest art exhibition or movie. (Talking of movies, most of the English-language films shown in cinemas here are dubbed, instead of subtitled as they are in Paris.) We bought a car, because you can’t get around here without one, and after years of relying on public transport I’m still nervous about driving it. Fashionable clothing boutiques are few and far between, perhaps because there’s no pressure to dress up.

But. The air is cleaner. The skies are bigger. In 15 minutes you’re in the countryside. Thanks to my wife’s family, we’re now part of a little tribe. Six adults, four kids. I relish our long dinners, the kids playing together, the conversation.

We’re settling in to our future. Staying home more. Traveling locally. Buying less. A simpler, slower existence.

I know we’re part of a trend — the great exodus from cities. The migration of the office workers. Unchained from our desks, a great flock of us caught the breeze and soared into the air. Flapping towards freedom.

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Mark Tungate

Mark Tungate

British writer happily stranded in France. Author of seven books about advertising, branding and creativity.

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