An American Dream

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Far down the garden in the potager, I stopped digging and listened carefully. It was early evening. The first small insects of the season were swirling like dust motes in the dying sunlight under the blossoming horse-chestnut, back up towards the house. The noise came again, and I recognised the faint sound of jazz as it floated down across the lawn in the gentle breeze. Intrigued, I wandered back up toward the house with a clutch of eggs from the hens and realised that our guest in the gîte was making good use of the new bluetooth-speaker.

Spotting movement through the window of the little kitchen I knocked on the door with the offer of an egg or two, and found Hetty and Gigi hard at work on the old marble counter. They were carefully folding a large dollop of puff pastry into shape under the watchful eye of Jeff, our trans-continental guest who’d arrived a few days previously to realise his dream of moving to France. Our new American friend had prepared his version of entente cordiale and we were about to be guests for dinner in our own gîte for the first time, a prospect that intrigued me immensely.

There is something quite surreal about being invited to dinner in one’s own home, even if it is just the guest-house. I know every inch of that little cottage as I planned its renovation and decoration with Roddy. I have spent hours just sitting inside sensing what it would be like to stay there, but until last week I had never actually sat and eaten a meal at the dining table!

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I doubt the little kitchen has ever seen so much activity. Jeff had been hard at work all day and I had scarcely seen the girls; they were totally engrossed in learning some new skills from our resident for the week.

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But first, let me first tell you a little bit about Jeff himself, because this is the crux of this story. Over the week I spent much time chatting with him as we drove around country lanes, looked at some houses together and discussed others he’d found listed on the internet or had seen in some local agents’ windows.

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It’s not often you have a person who’s keen to relocate from one continent to another as a guest. As this is something I suspect many of you have dreamed of doing I thought I’d ask him a few questions which might explain why someone would move thousands of miles (on their own except for a cat) to start a completely new life.

Jeff, can you tell us a little about yourself? “I’m from Seattle, and I’m 58 years old. I’ve worked for the same company for 20 years and currently live in the steamy environs of Memphis, Tennessee. I’m a pretty careful planner and have managed to get to a stage in my life where I can afford to retire early. I have always loved France and plan to move here permanently with my cat, Bunter, sometime in the next 18 months or so.”

How many times have you been to France? “Oh, that’s a hard one to be exact. I guess it must be at least 8 or 10 times over recent years, although I’ve been coming here since the early 80’s when I learnt to cook in Paris during another part of my life.”

Where did your interest in food come from which led to you training at which school in Paris? “I guess I was a typical American cook really, until I went to Paris. I’d always loved food and its preparation.  When I thought I had made the right career choice Paris seemed the logical place for a good education and so I enrolled at the La Varenne cooking school. My ex-wife who was half French was the translator! In the end I never became a professional chef but I always retained my love of the kitchen and what it can produce and I do some serious entertaining with my friends back home.”

Why France? “I think it has to be the way of life that seems to be the constant thread of French culture. I have always found folk here to be terribly tolerant, polite, and willing to let you do what you want without being too interfering. I think many people make a snap-decision of French character based on a few turns around the Champs-Élysées during rush hour, and that may be a good reflection of Paris in general in some ways as life there can be quite frenetic at times. But outside of Paris I think things are very different. For me there are few places that have the mix of way of life with things that are important like climate, good food, good wine etc etc. France has had a turbulent history and I think over the years this has made the French a much more tolerant nation than people believe.”

Why the Charente Maritime in particular? “I’ll confess that this area was never at the top of my list when I started planning. I’d always hankered after the Dordogne, or the Loire perhaps, but after many visits and hundreds of hours of driving, I’ve found myself gravitating towards the west and the smell of the sea. I guess it’s because I’m a Seattle man, where the west coast of America is in close proximity. I find the climate here in the Charente Maritime milder in all seasons, and so close to the coast  I think it’s pretty much perfect. When I started reading your blog I thought it encapsulated pretty much everything I wanted to have, so that’s the prime reason I’m here in your guesthouse! Apart from cooking my biggest passion is gardening and having a long growing season is a major prerequisite for me.”

When are you going to come? “I’m hoping to be here by the end of the year, though it may take another 12 months if I find something to buy that is currently over the budget. You know how these things work!”

What are you looking to buy? “I’m hoping to find what I guess would be everyone’s typical dream property; old, lots of charm, some really nice traditional features, a good-sized garden (preferably with some stone walls, please) and most likely in a village. Initially I thought I’d want to be in the country, but staying here has opened my eyes a little to the fact that you ARE in the country, even if you have neighbours! To be brutally frank, I would have bought your house!”

What are you looking forward to doing in your house? “Not a lot to be honest. I hope there’s nothing to do though to be fair I know that I’ll rearrange the kitchen to suit me. I’d just like to unpack, puts some plates on the shelf and then hit the garden and start planting. That’d be heaven. However, if I find the perfect ruin, then we’ll start at the base end and I’ll rent while we do things. I think there might be some advantage to doing it that way and I’ll be able to design the perfect kitchen – which I love doing.”

Will you have a dog too and chickens? “I might possibly have a dog and I’d have to say absolutely ‘yes’ to chickens. I have always loved dogs and used to show old English Sheepdogs in a previous life. I just haven’t had time for them in recent years as I travel so much, but it could well be a good time to rekindle my love for them.”

Do you speak French? “I speak enough to get by, especially if there are traditional culinary terms involved, but I am willing to learn the hard way. It’ll be impossible to do anything unless I do!”

What are you looking forward to doing in the Charente Maritime?
“Gardening is going to be top of the list, and then seeing things I plant come through to maturity. Though to be honest, after driving here for a few days I can see there is a lot here I want to visit and look at much more closely. Rochefort seems a really interesting town and having learnt of its unique past I can understand why. I mean, France is pretty fascinating everywhere when you look at it, but there just seems to be so much history here tucked under the surface. “

Over the week, I think I got a fairly good idea of what it was Jeff was looking for. Most of all he wanted a house with character and also enough land where he could realise his dream of retiring to France and gardening. Some of the houses we passed together might have been just the right place with some subtle alterations, alas many weren’t for sale at all!

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It was interesting to see that by the end of the week Jeff had become not at all averse to the idea of buying a total ruin, so long as it had four walls of good old stone and a roof.

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That old stone! It had to be a feature and ideally the garden really did need an old stone wall too

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and some well established trees; you have probably gathered by now that the garden really is of prime importance

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and preferably there should be a local bar in the village, within walking distance (or at the very least cycling distance) to a beer at the end of a long day toiling on the land.

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But let’s go back to the beginning of this post and Jeff’s love of food. We naturally took him to our local market where we introduced him to the fishmonger, then the cheeseman, and after that our fruit and vegetable lady; he bought from all three, and came home with some superbly fresh produce that we were to enjoy the next day for dinner. I admit that by the time he and Roddy had finished with the cheeseman some considerable complexity had gone into the following evening’s cheeseboard. The menu, a thoroughly French meal, was influenced by three countries; eaten in France in a house owned by English and cooked by an American.

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68 thoughts on “An American Dream

  • You had me at the blooming horse chestnut tree. One of my most favorite trees. Memphis to a lovely town in France, priceless.

    • I love chestnuts too. We have the most beautiful horse chestnut in our garden, amazing pink flowers are covering it from head to toe and the petals blow off onto the lawn all around, at the moment it looks as if the entire area has been sprinkled with confetti. Susan x

  • Lucky man! To have you to help him look for a new home. Exactly what you need in an unfamiliar area. And brave too, to start again on the other side of the world. We took a leap to move to a cottage in a country village at the age of 60. Only 1 hour away from our former home! It is not easy to begin again, but if you are friendly, open and make the effort to gradually become involved, people realise you are serious about staying and that you love their village/country as much as they do. I would say it is best to go softly softly rather than barging in, so that people can get to know you over time. But with his love of food and cooking, I can see Jeff will fit in perfectly! Good luck for a successful move. And a lovely post Susan.

    • Hi Marian, you are so right, quietly does it. That’s our motto too, just let everyone accept us and don’t be pushy and gradually without even realising it we have become a part of the community. I hope you are loving life in your cottage and finally this gorgeous spring weather which I know you too are getting. It’s wonderful! Susan X

  • Although I won’t be moving to France (can’t leave my children and grandchildren), I am grateful that you bring France to us. The history, scenery, old houses and wonderful romantic ambiance are what dreams are made of. Thank you for wonderful blog.

    • Hi Sandy, thank you so much. I totally agree with you the lifestyle here are what dreams are made of, but it can also be difficult for a foreigner to become a part of the life, but I have a feeling Jeff will fit in just fine. He is passionate about so many things the French love! Susan x

  • Wonderful post! Please do another post on when he finds the perfect house and stone walls for his garden. I want to move in with him and work on it until I’m bone tired!

    • Hi Alice, now that is something I hadn’t thought of, thank you. When he finds the perfect house, his will for sure be a renovation or garden renovation that I will write about, of course so long as he allows me to! I am sure he will read this and know of your offer to move in with him!!! Have a great end to the week, Susan x

  • What a charming story! As a long time Seattle resident, I was interested in the comparison between the two areas. They sound quite different except for climate and gardening. We’ve been having very atypical warm weather here and plants are exploding out of the ground. I hope he finds his dream home and lets you blog a little more about what happens next…

    • Hi Patricia, I have never been to Seattle, although Jeff was telling us all about it and how lovely it is. We’ve had the strangest weather here, mild winter, cold April and now very hot, our plants are really quite confused! I too hope he finds a fantastic home and that he allows me to write about the next chapter in his life, I have a feeling it will make a very good story! Susan x

  • Just want to echo the comments of others–loved this post and look forward to Jeff allowing you to continue to share the details of his house search and ultimately his garden and kitchen transformation. Please. xo

    • Hi Anne, thank you so much. It was such an absolute pleasure having Jeff stay with us, we immensely enjoyed his company and also being able to show him around. There is little I love more than driving around looking at old houses! I too hope we will be able to feature Jeff and his property in the future. Susan x

  • What a great story. My husband and I also would love to live in France when we retire. Really, who wouldn’t? We might have to come stay at your gite and check out your part of France next. (Checking dates).

    • Hi Corinne, welcome to the blog and great to have you following along. By all means come and look at the Charente Maritime, it is such a beautiful area. Where had you been thinking of? Thank you for taking the time to comment it is always so much appreciated. Susan x

  • Such a delightful post! It encompasses all I adore about France, charm, food, fellowship and beauty. As a French antique dealer, Jeff {and you} are living my dream! I too am extremely excited for Jeff and when he finds his dream home, would love a post showing what he bought. Good luck, Jeff, may all your French dreams come true!

    • Hi, thank you so much and you are working with something I absolutely love, French antiques! I would love to write part two of Jeff’s story when he arrives and after he has bought his house; the garden or the house renovation would be fantastic, I just have to hope he will let me! Have a lovely end to the week, Susan x

  • Just started reading your blog and love it so much. Have never been to France but my dream some day. So I’m getting a lot of good information here. Thanks for posting

    • Hi Lorraine, I am so glad you are enjoying the blog and thank you so much for taking the time to comment, I love chatting with all of you. Keep dreaming and hopefully one day your dream will come true. I always think it is good to have dreams, we might never achieve them but it’s fun to have them! Susan x

  • Oh Susan…. My fantasy. You really have gives all of us readers the most wonderful gift….your part of France. So looking forward to seeing it.

    Ali xx

    • Hi Ali, thank you so much. Can’t wait for you to experience a totally new area, I wonder what you will think, it is quite different to Provence in some ways and in others quite similar. Our beaches are totally different because we don’t have the cliffs. Hope you are enjoying some warm fine gardening weather, it is quite gorgeous here at the moment, Susan x

  • What an amazing experience and memory for your family! I may already be overseas, but I hope to retire like Jeff will, too! You just can’t live the same way in America, and it’s such a shame. Love the handwritten menu and a guest who became a part of the family!

    • Hi Christy, indeed a guest who became a part of the family, totally true. I am very much looking forward to him buying in the area. I wonder where will you choose to retire, although it is a long way off, but you have travelled a lot? Have a great end to the week, Susan x

  • I felt as if I was standing in the gite, joined in the preparation, cooking, and eating of the meal!! Loved meeting the locals. Fabulous idea Jeff to settle in a village with a pub!! After a hard days gardening…..delightful idea!
    Loved joining in on Jeff’s ponderings and wanderings in preparation to move.
    Absolutely stunning share! Loved my “stay”!!! Thank you !!!

    • Hi, thank you so much. I totally agree a village with a pub is a must after a hard day’s work! The boulangerie is also a must too! It becomes so easy to just wander down for a baguette or a croissant. Hopefully Jeff will find somewhere suitable on his next visit. Susan x

  • Speaking of the menu, would you please translate for those of us who don’t speak French? I know most of it, but not all… Thank you!

    • Hi Julie, of course, I should have thought of that. We started with Tzatziki topped with a roasted red pepper on grilled French bread and also am onion Tart. This was followed by Clams cooked with wine and herbs. Followed by chicken cooked with tarragon and lemon and potatoes roasted with saucisson and asparagus. Then a salad of rocket and beetroot with pecans and blue cheese. This was all topped off with a natural apple tart, natural because it was just puff pastry, and apples and no sugar or anything else, it was the most divine tart I have ever eaten! The secret he told me was he used several different types of apples to bring out all the flavours. It really was a wonderful meal enjoyed by the entire family. Susan x

    • Hi Penny, Of course I don’t know the procedures for Italy, but I know Jeff has spent a great deal of time working out all of the details for living in France,as it is a part of Europe I would imagine Italy would be somewhat similar, lots and lots of paperwork! It’s good to have things to dream about I think, what would life be without dreams? Have a lovely end to the week, Susan x

  • I hope he finds a place to settle somewhere near you! It sounds like he would make a fabulous neighbor and friend.

    Nancy

    • Hi Nancy, so true in every way, another person for you to meet when you come over and compare cooking notes! With the left over puff pastry the girls made Palmiers and twisted cheese straws, oh my gosh they were so delicious! So much for you to discover here! Have a lovely upcoming weekend, Susan x

  • I can only imagine how strange it must have been to sit down in your own home! Beautiful photos as always Susan.

    • Hi Helen, thank you so much and oh you are so right! But it was also terribly interesting, I thought to myself, “I would be very happy to stay here!” Of course it helped that the food was like eating in a Michelin stared restaurant! Susan x

  • What a wonderful post and picture series. Thank you.
    I quite sympathize with Jeff wanting a better climate, and oh that menu!!

    • Hi Emm, thank you so much. I can totally understand Jeff’s desire for a really good climate for gardening, we are very lucky here, we can grow many semi tropical plants, citrus etc and yet it never gets too hot, nor too cold due to our proximity to the coast. The food was utterly delicious, better than a five star restaurant and great company! Susan x

    • Hi Mary, thank you so much. I really do hope Jeff does find a home somewhere near to us, it was such a pleasure getting to know him a little over the course of the week. Have a lovely end to the week, Susan x

  • Fascinating post, Susan. I envy Jeff his forthcoming adventure. Best of luck to him, and I echo everyone else’s thoughts – please get him to post up what he finds, and whereabouts he ends up ?

    • Hi Simon, It will be quite an adventure that’s for sure! I will certainly ask if I can follow up on his move once he finds somewhere to buy and settles here, it will be fascinating. Susan x

  • What a delightful post about your visitor staying in your holiday cottage. What a charming man to have cooked such a wonderful meal for you and your family. I can see lots more posts coming, based around Jeff & his dream, which I hope comes true for him. It always amazes me that our everyday lives living here in France is what so many dream of.

    • Hi Barbara, I am sure Jeff will feature again, hopefully with a wonderful garden and charming house and fingers crossed some more of his delicious food! Hope you are enjoying this wonderful weather, today was fantastic here, the children were all swimming for the first time this year. Susan X

  • De nouveau un bon sujet de discussion à vous créditer Susan !Je constate grâce à votre blog et à vos followers, que de nombreuses personnes ( du Royaume-Uni, du Canada ou des USA ) rêvent de vivre en France et certains envisagent de s’ y installer ! Sans parler de ceux qui ont déjà franchi le Rubicon comme votre famille Susan ! Je suis vraiment étonné par ce French dream car la France et les français ont une réputation désastreuse comme je le lis souvent dans les forums du Guardian ou du New York Times dans leurs sites Web. Donc un pays à fuir a priori…Mais en lisant ce merveilleux blog je constate le contraire ! Alors je me, je vous demande d’ où vous vient l’ amour de ce pays au point de quitter son pays natal ? Je suis épaté, voire ému , en pensant aux sacrifices à faire pour changer de maison, de pays, de langue et, surtout, pour quitter ses proches ! Un changement de vie qui impressionne… Je salue donc le courage et la volonté de votre invité, Jeff , en lui souhaitant bienvenue en France et bonne chance dans sa quête du sweet home. Pour finir ( et me faire pardonner d’ avoir été si long ) je proposerais à l’ office de tourisme de la Charente-Maritime d’ embaucher Susan tant elle parle si joliment et si amoureusement de SON département !/Again a good topic to be credited to you Susan! I see, with your bog and your followers , that a lot of people ( from UK, Canada or USA ) dream of living in France and some are planning to move here! Not to say for those that crossed the Rubicon like your family Susan! I’ m really surprised because France and frenchpeople have an appalling reputation as i read it often in chat rooms from Guardian’s or New York Times’ s website. Thus , a priori, a country to escape… But! .;; when i read this marvelous blog, I see the opposite! So I ask me, I ask you where did you get the love of this country until leaving your native country? I am amazed , even touched, thinking of sacrifices to be made to change house, country, language and, above all , to leave family and friends! An impressive change of live…So I salute the courage and the will of your guest, Jeff, I’ m wishing him a very welcome in France and good luck in his sweet home-hunting.To finish ( and apologize being so long ) I would like to suggest at the tourist office of Charente-Maritime to hire Susan as she talks so beautifully and so lovingly about HER county!

      • Isn’t it incredible Catherine, this feeling for France gets under our skin, it’s difficult to explain but there is just something about the life here that is hard to shake, you of all people know this! Susan x

    • Hi Philippe, I have been coming to France since I was a child and have always loved it. I grew up on a farm in the UK, a very carefree lifestyle, riding ponies and just loving life and being outside. France reminds me of England when I was a child and here we are able to offer our children a similar sort of childhood. We also love that people still take the time to eat family meals together and enjoy that slightly slower way of life. My husband also grew up spending a lot of time in France as did his Mother, and so between us we have a deep love of your country! I have found that if I make an effort 95% of the French people I meet are charming and lovely, but I do have to be brave and make the first move! the other 5% are probably to be found all over the world and I don’t take it personally!!! I hope one day you will travel west and come to the Charente Maritime so we can invite you to dinner, I have a feeling we would have some very good long in depth conversations! A bientôt. Susan X

  • We once had an old Italian man come and stay with us and the food he cooked for us in our own home was beyond incredible. I am so glad you have had such lovely guests!

    • Hi Lily, now that would be an absolute dream, an Italian cooking for me, I am already conjuring up all the meals I would love in my mind! We have truly had the most wonderful guests, it has been so much fun! Susan x

  • Hi Susan, good morning from Sunny London where everything is blooming.
    I love your blog about Jeff and his taste of moving to France, I don’t blame him. I could feel how excited he is about moving to France. I am in the same shoes as him, and am flying out on or around 21st May. I will be hunting a house too. Will pass by to say hello. Bisous to all in Poitou Charentes!

    • Hi Juli, so so happy for you that London has sunshine and I hear it’s going to be really warm too! So glad you are coming out at the end of the month, everywhere is looking fantastic at the moment! Thoroughly looking forward to meeting you and sharing a glass of wine. Susan x

  • Oh Susan I loved this post!
    I take my hat off to Jeff for following his dream – I love the French way of life too!
    As you say, the slower pace, preparing simple food and taking time to enjoy and appreciate it!
    My daughter has lived in France almost 17 years.
    When she turned 21 we gave her a 14 day student Busabout trip of Europe. On the last day in Paris she met her future husband and as they say the rest is history!
    She now thinks in French and amuses me when she can’t think of the English word or phrase!
    We now have 3 gorgeous French granddaughters and visit every year from New Zealand to see them!

    The French will adore Jeff with his love of good food and all his Joie de Vivre!
    Looking forward to your next instalment!
    Sorry to be so long winded – I was caught up in the moment!
    Your life sounds amazing and I agree Charente Maritime have a great advocate in you!

    Great photos
    Shane

    • Hi Shane, thank you so much. I just love your daughter’s story, where is she in France? As you may know our youngest daughter was born in NZ, we were in the Bay of Islands. Beautiful country and wonderful people. Now she too thinks in French! I hope very much to follow up with Jeff when he buys a property, it’s such a popular story. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, enjoy your weekend, Susan x

      • Catherine, I have to reply to this too because I think exactly the same, our children have travelled the world and I wonder where they will choose to go as adults. Our eldest will I am sure stay in Europe because she is quite adamant that she doesn’t want to travel, but who knows! As Shane tells in her story, so much depends on where they meet their future partners.

  • What a great post. I hope Jeff finds the perfect house with a place to garden. I would sure love to just visit one day….But living there I know is really a dream. I probably will never visit but sure love reading your blog and seeing the pictures.

    • Hi Nancy, thank you so much, I really hope Jeff finds somewhere fabulous too, I am quite sure he will and I will follow his story further. Even if it is just a dream for you to live here, dream away, what is a life without dreams! Have a lovely weekend, Susan x

  • I hope you will stay in touch with Jeff and keep us informed of his progress. It sounds to me like he is a perfect candidate for a B and B.

    • Hi Bobbie, I very much hope so too, I would love to write about the house he buys, his garden and how he settles in. If he had a B&B the guests woul literally dine like kings! Enjoy the rest of your weekend, Susan x

  • American Dream, so beautifully depicted in your great blog…… Thank you once again. What an adventure! Keep us posted on which home he chooses. M

    • Hi Lisa, indeed, a fabulous guest to have staying, we dined like kings and what’s more the girls learnt so much and had so much fun. I am sure I will feature Jeff again once he finds his new home and everyone can see how the move went. Have a lovely week, Susan x

  • What a wonderful experience to be treated to a feast by a chef in your own gite. (Why wasn’t I aware that you had a gite? How did that slip by me?) The French Dream is an amazing thing. I never had it, just ended up here as one of life’s twists and turns…never planned on marrying a Frenchie; doesn’t mean to say I don’t love it here of course but I just never had “the dream”. Lucky Jeff to have found you – though by all accounts its not a coincidence that he’s in your gite, rather he follows your blog which is a lovely testament to the power of blogging and yours in particular. Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance, this really is *all about France*!

    • Hi Phoebe, sometimes just going with the flow and ending up wherever life takes us is the best way, there are no great expectations and therefore no great let downs. I never planned on living abroad, so it just goes to show, we never know where we’ll end up!!! Susan x

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