What draws so many Americans, Canadians and Brits to live in France? For Karen Wheeler, she moved hoping that her heart would heal faster from a break up with her boyfriend. In Tout Sweet, Karen Wheeler makes a spontaneous decision to purchase a house in rural France after a short visit there. As she describes the renovations of her old house and as she introduces us to some colourful characters – some who are French, others who are expatriates, we inevitably become enchanted by rural living. Wheeler had been a fashion journalist in London and travelling in circles that were keenly aware of trends and style, and it is fascinating to observe how this chic woman soon adopts a dramatically different lifestyle as so many of her former priorities disappear. Eventually, she gives away much of her wardrobe that is no longer suitable for small town living.
As I read this book and her second memoir Toute Allure, I better understood that it is the lifestyle that all of these expatriates are seeking. Who wouldn’t enjoy walking down to the coffee shop every day and chat with friends before wandering down to the boulangerie for a baguette and to a patisserie for an eclair? And who wouldn’t mind being mocked not because you don’t exercise but because you do? Even in the urban city of Paris, there are not the same number of fitness gyms since French people don’t exercise like we do. Why then. don’t they have weight problems like North America does? Those answers will apparently come forth after I read Why French Women Don’t Get Fat. However, I suspect one of the main reasons is that they do so much walking.
Unlike the boring tedium of walking around the suburban block, Karen Wheeler puts on her running shoes and begins walking to the next village which is about a half mile away. I was ready to join her as she described “I walk downhill from Villiers towards the old village with its hotchpotch of old houses with mismatched terracotta-tiled roofs, the peeling paint of the blue-grey shutters visible in the spring sunshine and an explosion of orange-pink geraniums on doorsteps and windowsills.” Who wouldn’t want to walk in a charming area where there would be so many scents to smell and so much nature to observe and so many little villages to explore? No wonder Wheeler eventually walks about an hour a day enjoying the variety of her surroundings!
The lifestyle continues to change for this young, formerly trendy fashion writer, and even though she worries about any old friends discovering her new hobby, she loves going once a week to her line dancing class. Apparently, this is a common past time in the French villages. And what is even more charming are the community events she attends that are often cross-generational. She described one evening when “Lined up on the dance floor (were people) of all ages, from adorable infants and teenager to silver-hair septuagenarians. I think to myself how refreshing non-ageism the social life in rural France is”.
However, before I drool with too much sentiment, there are always challenges when people may start grating on each other’s nerves and friendships become strained, and Wheeler certainly describes those conflicts also. Another challenge whether I lived there full time or just pass through as a tourist is the amount of meat the French eat. The challenge could become seriously stressful if I was presented with Tete de Veau! Karen Wheeler was much braver than me since I would be in a corner retching when unexpectedly she was presented with this traditional dish. Wheeler ends up at a small village restaurant where each night the chef serves one main course. Unfortunately, that evening, the chef served “Tete de veau”. Her French friend apologized and even suggested she didn’t have to eat it: ” Me, I’ve eaten this all my life, so I’m quite used to it. But I understand if you don’t want to eat it.” Karen Wheeler bravely began to eat it even though what she had recently read on the internet was rather fresh on her mind: “You can, for example, mash the brains, toss in a few breadcrumbs, add salt and pepper et voila – you have a dish that is apparently delicious with a glass of port. Meanwhile, on another gastronomy website, I discovered that the traditional dish of tete de veau “includes the brain,tongue, cheeks and ears, cooked with onion, carrots, leeks and potatoes. . .. I discovered several ghoulish pieces of information, including the fact that boiling the head gives off a lot of scum and that you will need in the words of one cook, a HUGE pot … and I mean HUGE The other alternative is that you saw the head into quarters first.And finally, you must allow the head to cool properly, otherwise – oh my God – it might explode.” Obviously, I will be reading my menus very carefully so that I am not presented with such a meal!!
Memoirs like Karen Wheeler’s books need to be read even by people who aren’t considering traveling to or moving to France. Her story along with other people’s memoirs about their experiences in France are good reminders that a simpler, more relaxing lifestyle really exists. And even if we don’t move away, we need to develop strategies to help us adopt some of the rural French ways so that we are happier and less harried.