Have you ever woken up an realised you are living in the wrong place, town, city, county or even country? Well I haven’t but do do love to spend time elsewhere and get away. Some of us never move far from where we were born whereas others have a wanderlust that takes them far and wide. Janice Macdonald grew up on England’s south coast, fascinated by the foreign country just a few dozen miles away. Even when she made a life for herself in the US, it continued to cast its spell… France was calling!
Here is another in the ‘A new start after 60’ Guardian Series, this time written by Emine Saner.
As a child, growing up on the Kent coast, Janice Macdonald had a fascination with France that seemed “almost mystical”, she says, with a laugh. She had never been there, but it loomed large in her imagination. Supposedly, you could see Calais from Ramsgate on a clear day, but she never did. “It was right across the English Channel; I was always aware of France.” It took decades to achieve her dream of living there, but she finally did it at the age of 68.
Macdonald had been living in the US since she was 17, having emigrated with her mother. She spent most of her life in California, where she raised two children (she is soon to be a great-grandmother). She lived in Washington state in her early 60s, then went back to California for a couple of years to care for her mother. A few months after her 100th birthday, her mother died and “it seemed like now or never” to move to France.
Now 77, she had never given age much thought – even if some friends implied that she was too old to move to another continent. “Age wasn’t a problem,” she says. “For me, it was economics – being able to live in France with not much money. I discovered it’s probably easier and less expensive here than it would have been if I had stayed in the US. I’m fortunate to be fairly healthy and have a spirit of: ‘Yeah, I think I can do that.’ Sometimes, you just have to take the leap. You’ll always find reasons not to do things.”
She had taken risks before – at 50, she left her job as director of media relations for a large healthcare organisation and “ a lot of security and stability”, to become a freelance writer. She has since written several romantic novels. “If I had thought about it too long, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s the same thing with France, perhaps.”
She had only been to France on holiday a few times, didn’t speak French and her search for where to start her new life wasn’t tied to any region in particular. “My main concern was finding a place I could afford to rent,” she says. “It happened to be in the Languedoc [in southern France], which is where I’ve been ever since.”
Macdonald pictured herself in a village, taking long walks, buying fresh food at the market and drinking wine with new French friends. She had rented an apartment, unseen, online. When she arrived, “It was a bit of a shock.” She had leased the place for a year, but it was “sort of cave-like”. Dark, with concrete floors and bare, crumbling stone walls. “That was my first big obstacle – how am I going to manage to live here for a year? I learned that it’s a mistake to make assumptions about how it might be to live somewhere before you have even done it.” With no car, she felt trapped. At times she felt lonely, but online she found expat and writers’ groups, and kept in touch with her children and friends in the US on Skype.
Six months later, she returned to the US for a few months, half-expecting to feel glad to be “home” and that France had been nothing more than an adventure, but she was surprised to feel the opposite. France, instead, had begun to feel like where she belonged. “I never had any doubt that I wanted to come back,” she says. “I had compared myself to the tumbleweed in the California desert – it just rolls across the desert and doesn’t have deep roots. I feel rooted now in France.”
Still, changes had to be made. Macdonald found another apartment in a nearby village, got a car and gradually found it easier to meet people. She made friends with one woman while they were both looking at the village noticeboard. “She noticed my shoes and said: ‘Do you walk?’ We have walked together and it has been really useful because she has helped me with my French, and I have helped her with English. That’s been a great learning experience.”
Every day Macdonald writes, walks and sees friends. “I appreciate what feels like a less commercial sort of life, a simpler life, than you can find in the UK or US.” She lives in a winemaking village and, like many of the residents, has become involved in the process. She loves to wander through the vineyards, noticing seasonal changes. “I feel the connection to nature that I really haven’t enjoyed in the same way that I do now,” she says. “I’ve watched the vines drop their leaves, and grow shoots again in the spring.” And the feeling that there is always a fresh start, a new life.