I told friends I was moving to France for a year. It’s now 4 years later, and I’m building a house in this village of 1,200 people.
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 with a 12-month visa, a lease for an 800-euro-a month two-bedroom apartment in a village of 1,200 people, knowing no one.
Four years later, she’s still there and has decided to build an eco-friendly house.
“I love it here,” the 63-year-old said of an area she describes as the “garden of France.” She’s taking French classes twice a week to improve her already-good language skills, has been jokingly dubbed “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 plans 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 course, she says!) and made several more trips with her husband from their home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., even after his cancer diagnosis.
As she thought about where to live in France, she knew she wanted to head south for the sun and be in a place where she could walk the hills. She wanted to live neither in a city nor in Provence, which she described as “a little bit like Disneyland.”
“I told everyone it would be a year. It gave me an out if I was miserable,” she recalled. “The other thing is it was a stretch for my friends, but a bite they could understand.”
But before she could get a visa for that year, she needed a place to live. Looking online, she finally found a one-year rental that appealed. It was in Bize-Minervois, a village of 1,200 people — that’s less than one-tenth the size of Steamboat Springs.
The area, which attracts British, Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Australian expats, is just south of a 1,000-square-mile regional nature park, about 45 minutes east of Carcassonne and about 25 miles from the Mediterranean. An airport less than an hour away features cheap Ryanair flights to London.
Winter highs average in the 50s, and summer highs tend to be in the mid-80s.
“You could easily live here on $2,500 to $3,000 a month” — much, much less than in Provence or Paris, she says. “It is absolutely costing me a lot less to live here than in Steamboat.”
Meeting the locals
Through a series of fortunate connections that began with a French friend who lives in Nice, she met a woman in Bize who has become her closest friend in town.
Newcomers also can join a club to make French friends. In Bize-Minervois, the town’s social club organizes walks, the village choir, computer classes, arts groups and other activities, makes a float for the annual Carnival parade, and even raised money for local businesses badly hurt by flooding.
On the regular Tuesday afternoon walk with about 20 to 30 people, she’s usually the only English speaker, she says.
“My closest French friends introduced me to the club,” she said. “And through them I have met many other locals. I feel really lucky to have met these friends, because they’ve taken me under their wing in a big way. We go out on walks together. We explore other towns. I’ve traveled with them a few times. We share meals together. … It’s been a terrific blessing that has made a huge difference to my experience here.”
Another way to meet people, she said, is to join the comité des fêtes, which organizes local festivals. In Bize-Minervois, that include an olive-oil festival and the Sardinade, where people feast on sardines and wine. Or find a group that seeks to preserve French heritage, or patrimoine. It may spend its time clearing overgrowth or rebuilding a 300-year-old stone wall.
“If people really want to immerse and have a relationship with the locals, it’s important to meet them on their turf and do things they like to do,” Garell observed.
And of course that doesn’t exclude looking for an English-speaking club; she’s a member of a regional one that has language classes, a wine-tasting group, cooking classes and more.
To find out about clubs in a smaller town, Garell recommends starting with the mayor’s office. She never dealt with a mayor’s office in the U.S. but discovered how helpful the one in Bize could be after an English friend suggested she go there to get some photocopies made and faxes sent. (Which the municipal office was willing to do for free.)
Getting permission to live in France
Americans can spend up to 90 out of 180 days in France and the rest of the European Union and Schengen area with just a tourist visa stamped into their passport upon arrival. Anyone staying longer needs to apply for a visa before arriving. Among the many documents required by France are a French address as well as proof of health insurance and enough money to live on. But it’s not unheard of to be told something is missing and to come back again.
When Garell went to the French consulate in Los Angeles with her documents, she quickly realized one thing: that none of the other applicants was greeting the interviewer with a cheery bonjour, standard practice in France.
She did — an icebreaker — and conducted most of the conversation in French.
Then there was another stroke of luck.
“Bize-Minervois?” she recalled the official asking. “I vacationed there every year as a kid; my grandparents were there. You’re going to love it.”
She left with her visa.
There was more to do once she arrived in France, including a tuberculosis test and a vetting of her language skills to see whether she needed free French classes. (She took a two-week intensive French class in France before deciding to move.)
Health insurance and a driver’s license
Garell arrived with travel insurance that offered limited coverage (though it did include repatriation in case of death) and cost $2,000 a year. Once she paid French taxes for the first time, she had standard, taxpayer-funded French health insurance and the accompanying carte vitale. She has supplemented it with a private policy that costs about 800 euros, or just over $900, a year.
When she broke her toe in the fall of 2021, her only costs were 5 euros for an X-ray and 12 euros for a walking boot.
The driver’s license was an easy one for Garell. Colorado is one of 13 states in the U.S. that have agreements with France to accept the other’s license. Otherwise, it’s expensive and challenging: You need to go to driving school and then pass a written test in French.
One of the hardest rules to grasp may be “priorité à droite,” or when to yield to cars on the right. Those on the right have priority — unless one of a range of signs is present indicating otherwise.
She’s thinking about taking some driving lessons just to get that down pat.
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