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Interview: Living in Provence with Emilie Johnson

by Couleur Nature

In September we’re launching our new series: Living in Provence with Emilie Johnson. Every month, Emilie will take us on a virtual voyage and give us a taste of authentic Provencal living.

As a preview of what is to come, today we’re kicking off with a Q&A with Emilie Johnson. So, read on to discover the best part of living in Provence and more.

Who is Emilie Johnson

My name is Emilie Johnson and I live with my family in a village near Aix-en-Provence, France. My husband is French and grew up near Paris. Our daughters are Colette (age 8), Romy (age 6) and Marguerite (age 14), who is my step-daughter and shares her time between Paris with her mom and the south of France with us.

Where were you living before moving to Provence?

Before moving to Provence four years ago, our family lived in New York City, where my husband and I both worked in finance. Our girls were born in New York and although we love the city and its dynamism, we found the urban space oppressive with little ones. We wanted them to be set free, to run in open spaces and smell fresh and wild things. We pondered moving to the suburbs outside of the city and even looked at houses. We felt lackluster about the idea. We liked the idea of going back to France. We had lived in Paris for three years when Marguerite was young and before we had our two younger girls and thought about returning.

What sparked the move?

I remember one arctic New York day in January five years ago when Xavier and I met for lunch on Park Avenue near our offices. Xavier asked if we took out a map of the world and could live anywhere, where would I point. The first place that came to mind for me was Aix-en-Provence. Sun, good food, nature. For me, those three things defined quality of life. I had spent time as a student in Aix-en-Provence and Xavier knew the region well; he has family living here. We thought about our girls and the kind of childhood we wanted them to have. We felt it was important to find a balance in their two cultures and nationalities. Our girls were just 4 and 2, but they were fully American at that point. Xavier consistently spoke French with them, but they would reply in English.

Deeper than that though was a desire to eject from the kind of life we had. I was exhausted; after work at night I would return to our house in Harlem, pause at the front door for a deep breath, bracing myself for the next shift - the more important one with my little girls. The days at the office felt long and the time in the evening felt rushed. I hoped for a better balance and for a reconnection to nature.

Had you visited Provence prior to the move?

When we lived in New York we would come to France every summer to see Xavier’s parents and family. We loved Provence, as Xavier’s sister had a family house near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. We liked to visit them there in the summers, the sun and the song of the cicadas powerful. We all felt a special pull to the region even on those summer visits. Xavier’s extended family also has a house along the Côte d’Azur, where he spent his childhood summers and we still visited regularly.

Best part of living in Provence?

The light. The access to it. We are outside all the time. We eat outside 7 months of the year or more. We bathe in the sunsets and breathe crystalline air. It informs all the other parts of living here.

The next best part is the house we found. We drew a circle around Aix-en-Provence and only visited properties that were at least 200 years old. Ours is 400. We walked onto the property and looked at each other and just knew. It is a bastide, which is a particular type of architecture in this region. The stone walls are a meter thick, the ceilings are vaulted, one of the staircases is stone and spiral, there are 18th century paintings over the doorways of the bedrooms, the floors are ‘tomettes’ - ancient terra cotta tiles. We got lucky as the house had been in the same family for centuries before the owners just prior to us took the trouble of putting in proper electrical work and plumbing.

How was the cultural adjustment to Provence?

This round of living in France came easy. I was ready for it. I had been with a Frenchman for over 10 years at that point. I had come to France as a student on a study-abroad, Xavier and I had lived in Paris, and my work in New York took me to France often, so the adjustment this time felt natural. (Living in Paris had felt more abrupt to me).

The French in the south are sun-washed and less defensive than in the capital. Their smiles aren’t so stingy, especially when a foreigner speaks their language and herself dons a big smile. We go to the market now and have made friends with most of the vendors. School drop-off is a social affair (our girls attend local French schools). A walk in the village requires many stops for “les bises” and a proper catch-up.

What advice would you give to yourself before moving to Provence, knowing what you know now?

Recalibrate your pace. A simple trip to get bread in the village can take 30 minutes, because interactions are personal and never just transactional. A market vendor will take his time chatting with each client, no mind for business or increased profits. Everything here is like that. Coming from NYC, I was geared at a faster velocity and felt impatient and irked by the lack of a sense of urgency. Provence will teach you that very little that really counts is immediate. All good things take time to ripen.

Coming from the city, I was also slightly hysterical the first time I saw a scorpion climbing up the girls’ bedroom wall. I was convinced there were infestations of them and feared that the clusters of hornets, wasps, ants and mayflies would spin out of control without intervention. Now, four years in, I realize the presence of various insects is just part of the course of the seasons. We have a killer bug collection.

Does it feel like home?

I joke that my French husband will very likely leave Provence before I do. I never want to live anywhere else, because I can’t imagine how people do…once they’ve lived here. So, yes, Provence is home now.

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