This is a story about my personal connection with the town of Vence, where I’ve lived for the past four years. It’s not a “guide” to Vence, nor an article about what to see and do in Vence. This is a long, in-depth article about how I came to live here (it was not by accident). Everyone says people only read short articles on the web. Maybe they’re wrong. You can read a shorter version on our about page.
Do you believe in “love at first sight?” It sounds pretty implausible doesn’t it? Downright illogical. Ridiculous even. As the saying goes, “How can you love me if you don’t know me?” And yet the romantics among us will tell you that not only does it exist but that it is, quite possibly, the purest kind of love there is. Movies, books, stories, legends, myths, songs; they are all filled with accounts of this unexplainable attraction that fills one person with a deep, intense, instant and lasting connection to another that defies all reason. The Greeks and Romans understood it. The Provençal poets of 11th and 12th century southern France believed that bright beams of light emanated from a woman’s eyes and that “true love” passed through this light into the heart of her future lover. Shakespeare famously wrote, “No sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved.”
Do you believe in “love at first sight?” I do. Why? Because I have been lucky enough to experience it, not just once, but twice in my lifetime. It’s not plausible. It’s not logical. It’s not credible. I can’t explain it. And yet, it’s true. The first time was when I met my wife, Carole. Walking into in a small music studio in Austin, Texas I turned around to see her sitting in a chair by the control board. And that was it. I’d never felt anything like it before. I was thirty-eight years old, so yeah, I had been in love before. Deeply in love. And this was no schoolboy crush either. This was different. Somehow I knew that this was the woman I was supposed to live my life with. And based on nothing but this preposterous, seemingly groundless “feeling,” over the course of only a few weeks I turned my entire life upside down just to be with her. We were married a year later and have now been together almost 30 years.
The second time I experienced “love at first sight” was on a sunny day in 2008 when I rode my bike from Nice to Vence. For several years I had been making an annual summer trip to France with cycling friends. We would usually stay a week in the Alpes, a week in Nice and maybe a week or so in Paris. I was alone on this particular day, waiting for one of my friends from Tennessee to arrive and I had set off to visit some small mountain villages a little northwest of Nice – Saint Jeannet, Gattières and Carros to be exact. The route took me through Cagnes-sur-Mer on the coast and then up through Vence. I rode into Vence, circled the old town and stopped at a small hotel to check things out. I had a feeling about this little town. Right away I knew it was special.
As I rode on to Saint Jeannet the road circled above the town and I stopped to look down on the houses, streets and buildings, so tightly and exquisitely clumped together on the small plateau. As absurd as it sounds now somehow I knew, somewhere inside, that this was where I wanted (even needed) to live. I had no idea at the time what would transpire over the following years but the seed was planted that very day.
OK, let’s back up a bit, there’s a lot more to this story and I want to start at the beginning. I’m very, very lucky to have found two things that I think many people never do: a true love and a true home. I hope you’ll stick with me long enough to maybe understand a little bit more about why I believe in “love at first sight.”
Europe in 1973
I turned 18 in 1973. I was in my second year of college at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles. I was deeply unhappy. I was searching for something (or somewhere, or someone) but I had no idea what it was. I was lost. I took some money that was supposed to be used to pay for my tuition and with almost no notice to anyone I knew I hopped on a plane to London, abandoning everything that I had previously worked so hard to achieve. To say my parents were disappointed would be a grand understatement. I’d always been an excellent student and my mother, especially, had high hopes for my “academic” future.
Somehow I thought that flying to Europe would solve all my problems. Once there I imagined everything would “come together” and I’d suddenly find happiness, contentment, serenity and a meaning to my life. Yeah, you could say I was a bit naive. I filled a backpack with some clothes and some books, bought a good pair of hiking boots and a good case for my guitar. I wanted to play guitar in those days. I had learned the very basics, but the truth is I just didn’t have any natural talent. I couldn’t seem to get past a certain point. I could strum some chords and I wrote some songs, but it was nothing that most people would want to listen to. I couldn’t sing to save my life. But it was important to me at the time and I practiced for hours each day. The thought of not taking my guitar with me to Europe never entered my mind.
I’ll never forget the shock of getting off the airplane in London on a cold, grey November morning, climbing down the long metal stairs, walking out onto the tarmac towards the terminal and suddenly thinking, “Wait, this isn’t any different than what I left behind in California.” I don’t know what I was expecting. I had literally planned nothing about this trip except that I was going to Europe and I had a Eurail Pass that was good for three months and what amounted to a tiny bit of money in my pocket. I thought I would find a home somewhere in Europe, a home that I was desperately searching for. I had no way of knowing at the time that I would, it just wouldn’t be for another 30 years.
I was born in London. My parents were both Americans. My father was in the U.S. Air Force and stationed on an airbase just outside London. For some reason, as a young child I liked this fact. It made me feel special somehow. Different, but in a good way. My mother would come to my elementary school classes and show slides of our time in England. It seemed so exotic and glamorous. It wasn’t until I was much, much older that I realized maybe this was part of why I never really felt at home anywhere in the U.S. I started this trip in London somehow hoping to connect with my birthplace.
My older sister’s best friend was married to a musician who happened to be recording an album at a famous recording studio called The Manor just north of Oxford. As the name implies the studio was located in a huge mansion. A few days after I landed in London I made my way up there and spent a week hanging out with them. But, I couldn’t stay indefinitely so soon I was off, hitchhiking around England and staying in various youth hostels. After another two weeks or so I crossed the channel, spent some time in Amsterdam and Brussels and then made my way down to Paris.
The Paris Youth Hostel
At this point I had almost no money left. I did have a return ticket back home to California, so there was a bit of security in knowing that. Still, I didn’t want to go home. At least not yet. Finding a place to stay in each new town I visited was always a priority. Hotels were out of the question. No money for that. Hostels were where I stayed. Someone in Amsterdam had suggested a youth hostel in Paris so when I arrived on the train I made my way from the station to this hostel, located in the 19th arrondissement in the northeast section of Paris near the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. I’m sure it had a name, but that has been lost to me in the fogs of distant time.
Luckily they had room for me that first night. The cost? 5 francs, about 1 dollar. I could handle that. At least for a little while. After stashing my things in the dorm room I was assigned, I made my way to the “common room” where the other people staying at the hostel were gathered, dinner time now having finished.
I sat in the common room, reading a book and thinking about what I was doing and where all this was leading. A young couple burst through the door laughing and talking. The man was carrying a guitar case with him. They sat down at the table next to me and started pulling lots of loose change out of their pockets, counting it on the table. I surmised pretty quickly that they had been “busking” in the metro, playing and singing for loose change that passersby would throw their way.
I thought to myself, “Could I do that?” Pourquoi pas ? Why not? I was very, very low on money and if I didn’t do something soon I would run out. So, the very next day I hauled my guitar down into the Paris metro, found a nice little spot in one of the stations, opened up my guitar case in front of me and began singing. Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Cat Stevens, Hank Williams. I’m sure I was quite terrible. But… people began dropping money in my case! Not a lot mind you, usually just 1 franc or less. Occasionally someone would give me a little more.
I think I made about 10 or 15 francs that first time, playing and singing for maybe 2 hours. It was enough. I only needed about 10 francs a day to survive. I had no expenses but for the nightly rent and what I ate. I bought rice and canned peas at the nearby grocery store for dinner almost every night (sometimes I had a big can of beef stew instead), cooking it up in the hostel kitchen. A chocolate bar and a coke every now and then was a luxury, but one I could sometimes afford. This became my daily routine. Head down into the metro for a couple of hours each day to make just enough money to last until the next day. Hand to mouth indeed.
I became much more familiar with the Paris metro than I did the city itself. I knew all the good stations where I could set up and play and there was enough traffic coming through to insure some money. Only once did I get thrown out by the metro police. In the evenings I would hang out at the hostel and I made some very good friends there. We played guitar, wrote songs and discussed life and philosophy. None of us had any real plans, we were just young people looking for our way in life.
I wanted to see more of France and I had a rail pass that was already paid for so travel by train was completely free for me. After about a week in Paris I decided to head south. I figured I should also see some of Spain so I hopped on a train for Barcelona. I hated it. I can’t tell you exactly why. I just did. Everything seemed difficult. I couldn’t find a youth hostel and had to spend money I didn’t have on a cheap hotel. I couldn’t figure out how the phones worked. I only lasted one day and then I was headed back to France. To this day I think that one unpleasant visit to Spain created a deep, long-lasting subconscious impression in me. “Don’t leave France.”
I stopped for a few days in Arles, mainly because of the Van Gogh connection. Van Gogh was my favorite artist at the time and I’d spent a day at the Museum Van Gogh in Amsterdam, so Arles was a natural for me. From there I went on to Marseilles and Nice. I enjoyed my time in Nice more than any other place besides Paris. Having grown up not far from the Pacific Ocean I’ve always had a real affinity for water. The Mediterranean Sea was beautiful, unlike any other “ocean” I’d seen before. The weather was wonderful, even in the dead of winter. I liked it there. But there was no metro in Nice and I needed more money so I headed back up to Paris.
I stayed in Paris another two months but in the end I was just a little too homesick for California. I was young and this was my first trip outside of the U.S. I didn’t even imagine that I could just stay in Paris (or elsewhere in France) forever. I hadn’t found the “magic” I was looking for, the solutions to my unhappiness, to my restlessness, to my discontent. It seemed to me then that the trip had been a failure. What I was looking for was not in Europe after all.
Looking back now I can see just how much that experience shaped my life in so many ways. I never really worried about money after that trip. Something inside of me just figured it would always work out. I might not be rich, but I’d always have enough to survive and get by. It taught me a lot about survival, taking care of myself and managing on my own. I’d always been a bit of a loner, I didn’t need a lot of people around me. I was used to doing things by myself and in fact, a lot of the time I preferred doing things by myself.
More than anything my trip to Europe gave me the confidence to live my life as I wanted, not how anyone else thought I should. Over the next two decades I continued to search for my own personal meaning. I moved around a lot. I lived in Key West FL, Syracuse NY, Austin TX, Eugene OR, Nashville TN and many other places. I worked a lot of different jobs. I was still looking for something and I wasn’t going to stop until I found it.
Twenty Years of Longing
So, I returned to the U.S. after three months but my love for France was permanently ingrained in my being. For years I longed to return. I would often dream at night about being back in France. It wasn’t until the early 90s that I found a chance to go back. I was working in the music business at the time, running my own small record label called Dejadisc from my home in San Marcos, Texas. I came to Europe for a conference in Berlin, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop in Paris. The memories of my visit 20 years ago came flooding back and I once again felt that pull that I just couldn’t shake.
When I met Carole (in 1994) I told her that someday I wanted to live in France. I don’t think she really took me very seriously at first. She was quick to let me know that she would never even consider moving that far away while her mother was still alive. Bernice, her mom, lived alone in Minneapolis where Carole had grown up. Carole’s dad had died years earlier and Carole and her mom were very close. On one of our first Christmases together Carole gave me a large coffee table style book called To Live In France. She wrote on the inside cover, “Here’s to your future!” So she did get it! (It was many years later that I began to realize and wonder about the significance of the “your.” Not “our” future, but “your” future. Was she not going to be a part of that future? Was she leaving herself an escape route?)
In 1995 Carole and I got married in Geneva. Of course, I wanted to get married in France. That was the original plan. I called the French embassy in Washington D.C. to see what we needed to do to arrange a wedding in France. They told me it was impossible unless you resided in the “commune” (county) where the wedding took place for at least 40 days before the ceremony. It was a very old law, dating back to medieval times when people were required to post their intentions to get married on a public board at the city hall for 40 days prior to their wedding day. It was designed to keep people from marrying someone in one village and then moving to another nearby village and marrying someone else. In an age of very slow mass communication this was the best method for keeping everyone in line.
It wasn’t feasible for us to spend that much time in France so I thought perhaps we could get married in England since I was born there. Another call to another embassy. Nope. Same law. 40 days of residency required before an official wedding could take place. My having been born there would have no effect on that. As I was about to hang up the phone the woman on the other end said something that literally changed my life.
“You were born in London?” she asked me. “Yes,” I replied. “Do you have a British passport?” she asked. “No,” I said, “I’m American.”
“Well,” she responded, “if you were born in London you are considered a British citizen. Would you like a British passport?”
Hell yes, I would like a British passport! My response to her was a little more toned down then that, but just as enthusiastic. My mom had always told me that I had to choose between being American or British, that I couldn’t be both. Turns out she was wrong. The woman at the embassy sent me the necessary paperwork and in a few weeks I had a British passport.
My dreams of moving to France took an important step forward. With a British passport I didn’t need any kind of visa. Great Britain was a part of the EU (European Union) and with British citizenship I could live and work anywhere in Europe quite easily. My mind raced with ideas and dreams, actual plans were beginning to form. Of course, a big monkey wrench would be thrown into those plans before I was able to actually move to France (can you say “BREXIT”), but more on that later.
Carole and I spent three weeks traveling around Europe before and after our wedding. London, Amsterdam, Paris, Nice, Geneva and lots of places in-between. While I enjoyed the places outside of France it became more and more apparent to me that France was where I felt most at home. I’d always been drawn to it in the past but this was probably the beginning of what Carole would call my “obsession” with the country. We drove from Paris to Nice to Geneva and back to Paris and I loved every minute. We were able to visit so many new places. I don’t know if there is such a thing as “past lives” but if there is it seems quite likely that maybe I lived in France before.
During the late 90s Carole and I made several trips to Cannes for a music conference called MIDEM. Held in late January and early February the conference provided the perfect opportunity to explore more of France. During the day I would attend the conference and a night we would explore Cannes and places close by which we could reach by car or train.
We would stay in the area after the conference to see even more of the Côte d’Azur and as much of southern France as possible. Eze, La Turbie, Monaco, Antibes, Saint-Raphaël, Mougins, Menton, Peillon, Sospel, Mont Blanc and Chamonix were just some of the places we visited.
A Cycling Trip to France
In 2003 I combined two of my biggest loves and I took my first cycling trip to France with my friends Les and Theresa. They wanted to spend a week in the Alpes and a week in Paris. I insisted we also spend a week in Nice and I had my first opportunity to cycle along the Côte d’Azur. We didn’t head up into the hills, instead concentrating on the villages and towns along the coast. Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Menton, Cannes, Antibes. It was fantastic, a real dream come true for me.
After that Les and I would come back almost every year and we started exploring the hinterland more on our bikes. Peillon and Peille, Sainte-Agnès, Gorbio and more. I was mesmerized with the area. I couldn’t get enough. I began to make my visits a little bit longer each time stretching the time away from Nashville (and Carole) as long as she would permit.
My First Visit to Vence
On one of these yearly visits, in 2008, I found myself alone in Nice for a few days, having arrived ahead of my other cycling friends. My friend LaRae (who I knew from the Harpeth Bike Club in Nashville) was going to join me in Nice for a week of adventures and then we would drive to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in the Alpes where we would be joined by Les and another friend, Connie. Carole was due to arrive a day or two later to join us.
I had bought a beautiful coffee table type book with aerial views of different villages in the Alpes-Maritimes department called Vu du Ciel: Villages – Des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var and had decided to start visiting these villages on my bike. I’ve written about these rides here on this site in two posts: 73 Villages by Bike and 88 More Villages by Bike. One day I decided to ride up to the village of Carros which is situated in the foothills of the Alpes just west of the Var River, about 40 kilometers from Nice.
The route to Carros took me through the town of Vence, of which I knew absolutely nothing. It was a sunny, warm, early summer day and the gentle climb up through Haut-de-Cagnes and past Saint-Paul de Vence was quite nice. Things became a bit steeper as I got close to Vence, but I enjoyed the ride quite a bit. Climbing up the main road into town, Avenue Emile Hugues, I took notice of the large post-war apartment buildings that lined both sides of the road.
I saw a sign which pointed to the “Cité Historique” (the old, medieval village) and followed the road down to what I now know is le Grand Jardin (the Big Garden). This large square sits at the heart of Vence, right next to the Old Town. A small circular road surrounded the oblong shaped stone Old Town and I cycled around it a few times admiring the magnificent ramparts of the old village. The various “portes,” or entrances into the old town looked like something right out of a storybook.
I took special note of a small hotel and even went inside to get more information and a card because it looked like a wonderful place to stay. I stopped at the large la Basse Fontaine (the Low Fountain) on one side of town to fill up my water bottles. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew right then, there was something very special about this town. I was hooked from the very first day.
To be honest I hadn’t even yet seen much of it yet, but I could tell Vence seemed to be the perfect size. Not too big, not too small. Lots of restaurants, bakeries, stores, etc. It seemed like everything you would need was right here in the town. As much as I thought I loved Nice and Paris, Vence seemed to offer something that appealed even more to me: an honest, uncomplicated, genuine French town without all the hustle and bustle of the big cities. It was relatively quiet (especially compared to Nice, Antibes or Cannes). It was very clean and well maintained. It was everything I was looking for in France. I didn’t even make it inside the Old Town (which would later become my very favorite part of Vence) on that first visit.
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Eventually I made my way over to Carros and then on my way back to Nice I stopped again in Vence to eat a pizza at la Régence, a well-known restaurant across from le Grand Jardin. As I sat on the outdoor patio eating my lunch watching the people walking by, I knew immediately that this was not a “tourist” town. Certainly there were some tourists, but not like what you find at so many of the popular towns where people are bussed up from the coast by the thousands (I’m looking at you Saint-Paul-de-Vence). Most of the people walking along the street, eating in the restaurants, shopping in the stores and sitting in the squares clearly lived here in Vence.
I cycled back down to Nice excited about my new discovery. A few days later when LaRae arrived we cycled up to Vence together and I showed her around the town.
The Die is Cast
In 2009 I planned another trip to France with Les and Connie. The plan was to spend one week in Nice, one week in the Alpes and one week in Paris. Unfortunately, the night before we were to leave Les had to cancel due to problems with his back. Undeterred, Connie and I went on without him. We spent the first week in Nice. By now I was totally committed to my “73 Village Challenge” and I mapped out a ride for us to do which would take us through some of the villages including Saint-Jeannet, Bézaudun-les-Alpes, Coursegoules, Gréolières, Cipières and Gourdon. Vence was along the route and once again we stopped to look around.
The road from Vence towards Saint-Jeannet circles up above the town and as you climb a bit into the hills there are some magnificent views of Vence down below. I’ll never forget riding along with Connie and stopping so she could take a photo. I looked down at Vence, spread out on the small plateau between the mountains and the sea and I said to myself, “I’m going to live there someday.” I made the decision then and there. I had no idea when or how, but I was going to live in Vence. It would be another ten years before that actually happened, but from that day forward I had a concrete goal to work towards.
A New “Home” on the Côte d’Azur
After the trip in 2009 with Connie I decided that Vence should be my new “home” on the Côte d’Azur (instead of Nice) when I was visiting and cycling. In 2010 I came to France by myself and booked a week at a small hotel in Vence, before heading up into the mountains and then to Paris. I had a wonderful time and vowed that this is where I would try to spend as much of my time in France as possible.
By this time I was now working full-time teaching web design at a small art college in Nashville, Watkins College of Art. In 2012 I took a group of college students on a ten day tour of France and then booked an entire month in Vence for myself at the end of the trip. Carole joined me for about 10 days and we spent a lot of our time driving through the mountains to the north exploring all the small villages in the region. After a month in Vence there was no turning back for me. I became more and more determined to spend as much time there as I could.
As a teacher I had almost three months off in the summer every year. I started coming back to Vence on a regular basis for anywhere from six to eight weeks (as long as Carole would let me get away with), usually in June and July. Carole would join me some years for a week or two, but working retail it was much harder for her to get time off.
I found a wonderful one-bedroom apartment that I absolutely adored in the heart of the Old Town to rent each year. Situated in Place du Peyra it was absolutely perfect. The small square was full of restaurants and shops and during the summer it was a busy hive of activity. From my first floor window (second floor by US standards) I had a perfect view of everything. One would think that the noise from all the people would be distracting but it never bothered me. I was in France after all.
Pretending to Live in France
One year my friends Elliott and Françoise said I could come to Paris and housesit their apartment for two weeks while they went to New York for Christmas. Well, I had four weeks off from Watkins in December so I asked Carole. She said it was OK even though it meant I would miss spending Christmas, her birthday (!) and New Years with her. Once that ice was broken there was no turning back and I started coming over to France for three or four weeks every December, always staying in Vence now.
It was a bit of a challenge but I managed to open up a French bank account. This made many things about staying in France easier. I had a French telephone number and email address. I set up an account for the motorways and received a small device to put in my rental cars which allowed me to zip through the toll booths without having to stop, with a bill being sent at the end of each month. (Almost all the “freeways” in France have tolls.) I used the address of the apartment I rented as my “French” address.
Carole would jokingly tell people that I was “pretending to live in France.” I guess I was. It took a little while for me to start making actual friends in Vence. I like to think I’m friendly but I’m not the most outgoing when it comes to starting new relationships. I tend to keep to myself and I’m very happy doing things alone. I started to get to know one of the employees at the Office de Tourisme, a woman named Pascale who was half American and spoke perfect English. I met a British couple, Barry and Sheila, who spent some time every year in Vence.
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Pascale told me about an organization called the AVF (Accueil des Villes Française), a kind of “welcome wagon” that helped people get situated in new towns and cities. They offered a lot of activities to help people make friends and get to know the community. Even though I didn’t live here they were kind enough to let me join (well, it took a little work). I joined a hiking group and began to go once or twice a week on amazing full-day hikes in the mountains or along the coast. Slowly but surely I began to meet some French people who lived in Vence and make friends.
My French was still very basic but being with French people helped me to improve. One of my new friends, Frédérique, spoke very good English and she would often give me French lessons as we hiked, drilling me on vocabulary, verbs and sentence structure. The AVF offered a weekly “French Conversation” group and though I really couldn’t carry on a real conversation yet I would often go just to listen and practice.
Another friend, Florence, invited Carole and I over to her house for drinks and snacks. I started to play pétanque (a very popular game in the south of France similar to bocce) with another AVF group. The leader of the group, Jean-Jacques, took me under his wing and taught me all about the game. He spoke excellent English and was a very big help. One year I went on a weeklong hiking trip in the high Alpes with the hiking group.
At this point it felt like I had a “second life.” I would spend most of my time in Nashville, but every minute I was there I was dreaming of being in France. When I was able to finally make it back I would sometimes just walk around saying to myself, “I’m here, I’m back,” basking in the sensations all around me. I would call Carole when I arrived and say, “I made it, I’m home.” Obsession is probably a bit too mild of a description for what I was going through. It was clear, at least to me, that something had to give at some point. This “double life” just wasn’t working.
Why France? Why Vence?
People ask me all the time, “What is it that you love about living in Vence, about living in France.” It’s not an easy question to answer. As I’ve said many times, I don’t live here by accident. I didn’t just “end up” in France or in Vence. There were years and years of dreaming, scheming, planning and preparing. I knew exactly what I wanted and I worked hard to make those dreams come true.
There are lots of tangible things I can point to. Is it the countryside, the landscapes, the towns, the villages, the coastlines, the monuments, the landmarks? Absolutely. I love beyond any reasonable amount of rationality the physical aspects of this country. Is it the heritage and history? Oh my, yes. I’m fascinated by the customs, traditions and heritage all around me. Is it the culture? Yes, that’s certainly a part of it. Is it the people? Yes, French people have been very welcoming to me over the years. Is it the food? Well, no, not really, I’m vegetarian and that can sometimes be a bit difficult here in France. Is it the wine? Nope, I don’t drink.
But more than these concrete, tangible aspects is something much deeper and profound. I feel at home here. France, and especially Vence, is the only place I’ve ever, in my entire life, felt truly at home. And, as I said earlier, I’ve lived in a lot of different places. I feel like I belong here. I feel like I am supposed to be here. I can’t explain why. I can’t “justify” my feelings. It’s like asking someone to explain why they love lemon pie. Who knows why, we just do. I’ve never felt anywhere near the way I feel about Vence (and France) for any other place on earth. This is home. End of story.
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I grew up in southern California just a bit north of Los Angeles. I spent several childhood years in Ohio as well. In my teens and twenties I traveled and moved quite a bit around the country. I often hitchhiked across the country staying in places for short periods of time before moving on. I kept thinking I’d find the perfect home. Maybe it was Boulder, Colorado? Maybe it was Eugene, Oregon? Maybe it was Key West, Florida? Maybe it was Austin, Texas. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
For most of my entire life I lived in the “suburbs.” If you wanted to do anything you needed to get in a car and drive somewhere. Want to go to a restaurant? Get in the car. Want to go to a movie? Get in the car. Want to go shopping? Get in the car. What I found that I loved so much about being in Vence, and “living” in the center of town was that I could do almost everything I wanted on foot. Grocery stores, movie theaters, pharmacies, restaurants, bakeries, banks, and more were all within a few minutes walk. I loved going out my front door and being able to get anywhere in town so quickly.
Which is not to say that I didn’t have a car when I came for my yearly visits. It was not just Vence that had gotten its hooks so deep into me, it was this entire region: the Côte d’Azur and the Alpes-Maritimes department. I spent a great deal of time in my rented cars exploring as much of the area as I could. Before each visit I would plan out almost every day, setting up a schedule of new places I wanted to visit and explore. I would put thousands and thousands of kilometers on my rental cars in just a few weeks.
I never did a lot of hiking in the U.S. I fell madly in love with hiking in France. I hiked with the AVF, usually in the mountains, but I also did a lot of hiking on my own. The Cap d’Antibes, the Chemin de Nietzsche to Eze, the Chemin du Paradis to Gourdon and many, many more. Now it’s one of my favorite things to do.
“To Live in France”
It took me almost 25 years but I finally convinced Carole to move with me to France. Carole’s mom, Bernice, who I adored and who was always very kind to me, passed away at the very end of 2017 at the age of 99. I waited a full year to even broach the subject of moving to France with Carole. I wanted to give her some time and space and show some respect.
In January of 2019 I asked her one day if we could talk about France. She seemed a little surprised. “What about it,” she said, a little defensively. “You mean moving there?” I said yes. She didn’t seem very happy about having this conversation but as we talked and discussed the idea she seemed to soften a bit. Now, don’t get me wrong. Carole likes France, she just doesn’t share the same passion for it that I do. We finally agreed that I could look into the idea, see exactly what was involved. I took that as an “OK, we can move to France.”
As Carole likes to tell everyone, I had a realtor at the house the next day to see about selling our home of 18 years in Nashville. I move fast and I was taking no chances that she would change her mind.
Within two weeks we had purchased one-way airline tickets from Nashville to Nice for May 29th. We put our home on the market. There was a lot of drama with regards to the sale, but we eventually ended up closing the day after we left for France.
As I mentioned earlier, for years I had been hoping to move to France as a British national and since Britain was a part of the EU it would be super easy. However, Brexit threw a big wrench into that plan. The Brexit vote had come in June 2016 and almost three full years later all the details had still not been worked out. No one knew for sure what was going to happen to British nationals currently living in France.
Because everything was so up in the air Carole and I decided to apply for French visas as Americans. These “long-term” resident visas are good for a year and then they must be renewed each and every year after. I think once you hit the five year mark they may give you a longer visa. We applied online and then traveled down to Atlanta with all the documents that were required for an in-person meeting. We received our visas in the mail about ten days later. It was really rather easy and straightforward, it just required a lot of paperwork.
We packed up sixteen large boxes of clothes, household items and other personal belongings and shipped those over a few days before we left. We sold both our cars. We had a huge moving sale and gave away everything that didn’t sell. We got a small storage unit and put a few things we needed to keep but didn’t need with us in France in there. We signed up for a virtual US address and Google Voice US telephone numbers. I sold my giant record collection. In retrospect, even I will admit that four months was not enough time to do all of this. But, somehow we managed.
We arrived in Vence on Wednesday, May 30, 2019. They say the first year is the most difficult and I’m sure that’s true. It certainly was for Carole. Not so much for me. I was just so happy to finally be living in France that nothing bothered me very much.
Carole often tells people, “It’s not always easy living someone else’s dream.” She likes France, but she also liked her/our life in Nashville. She misses the large yard we had there (about an acre) and the various gardens she had on our property. We bought an apartment here with a nice little terrace so she uses that space to grow lots of plants and flowers, but it’s not really the same. She misses being able to drive. Our state of Tennessee does not have a reciprocal driver’s license agreement with France (only 18 do). So after the first year of living in France you must apply for a French driver’s license and take both a written and a practical test. I did this in the summer of 2020 and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Carole’s French is very limited so there’s no way she could pass the tests.
It was a lot of work. We were not able to move into our new apartment until August 9th, so we spent a little over two months in Airbnbs. Even after moving into our apartment things were tough for a couple of months. Getting anything done in August in France is a challenge as almost the entire country goes on vacation.
We had to visit the OFII office to have medical tests and get our visas officially accepted. We had to purchase all new furniture and appliances. We had a very difficult time finding, buying and getting furniture delivered. We slept on air mattresses for about six weeks. Carole reached her breaking point one day and spent several nights in a nearby hotel.
We bought a new car. (I should mention that the way Carole remembers the license plate number, which is FF 724 BS, is noting that it stands for “fucking French bullshit.”) We had to get insurance for our apartment and our car. We applied to be part of the French health care system which was a lot of work, but in the end we received our Carte Vitales and then purchased supplementary policies known as “mutuelles.”
A Home in Vence
I try to make the most of every day here in Vence. I try not to take anything for granted. I dreamed about living here for so long and now that I finally do I’m determined to make every minute count. I love to explore the town and even after having lived here for four years I’m still learning new things about its history and heritage and discovering new things to do and see.
I travel a lot throughout our region, visiting small villages and cycling through the mountains. I jokingly tell people I’ve made a vow to never leave France. (Maybe it’s not a joke!) There’s so much to still see and explore here in France that I feel no need to go anywhere else. My current “big project” is visiting each of the 164 official “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” I’m over halfway there.
I started collecting old books, brochures, pamphlets, fliers, etc. about Vence. Well, and also Provence, the Côte d’Azur and the Alpes-Maritimes. Then I started collecting vintage postcards about Vence. I have over 650 now.
I take a lot of photos of Vence and everywhere else I visit. The folks at the Office de Tourisme asked if they could use some of my photos in various publications. I said sure. They’ve used a variety of them now in a lot of different places: online, in an app, large outdoor signage, brochures, etc. A professional photographer would want to get paid, but I don’t care. I’m happy to contribute to the town of Vence and thrilled to see my photos promoting it.
I love to give visitors a walking tour of old town. Friends, friends of friends, new acquaintances, anyone I happen to meet who wants to learn more about Vence. Once a week I volunteer as a greeter at the Vence Cathedral. It’s the smallest cathedral in France. I’m not religious but I love the history and heritage of this church and it’s a real joy to welcome people into it.
I try to attend every historical and cultural event in town. I take photographs and write about them for this website. The Liberation of Vence, the Easter celebrations, the Christmas celebrations, the Procession of Saint Véran and Saint Lambert, the Victory Day remembrances, the various parades and other celebrations. There’s so much history and heritage here and I want to share it with everyone who might be interested.
When our first one-year American visas were about to expire I spoke with an immigration lawyer in Paris about the situation for Brits. The details of Brexit had finally been hammered out and the fate of Brits living in France had been decided. She advised me that we would be a lot better off letting our American visas expire and applying for what was known as the WARP (Withdrawal Agreement Residence Permit) as a British citizen currently living in France. The cards would be good for five years and we would have more rights and benefits than Americans with long-term visas. So, we did that, it went very smoothly and now we’re set until 2026. (Carole was able to obtain the same card because she’s married to me.)
As a foreigner living in France I am able to apply for French citizenship after I’ve been here for five years, which I plan to do. There’s a lot of paperwork involved and I will have to take a French language test and a French history/culture test. I’m very much looking forward to the day when I will be an official French citizen! (Carole will not be applying.)
Carole and I have more friends here than we ever had anywhere we lived in the U.S. French friends, German friends, English friends, Canadian friends, Swedish friends and more. We don’t do much entertaining but every year we host an “American Thanksgiving.” Last year we had to do it twice because there were so many people we wanted to include. This year we will probably do it three times.
I think back often to that day I stood next to my bike on the road leading out of Vence and said, “I’m going to live there someday.” Words are powerful, especially when you say them out loud. There have, of course, been obstacles for us, some stress here and there (more for Carole than for me to be honest) and things have not always gone super smooth. Still, this is what I set out to do ten years earlier. It took awhile, but, in the end I live here now. In Vence. The only real “home” I’ve ever known.
If anything I’ve said intrigues you about Vence, come and visit us here! Vence is a perfect place to stay for a night, a weekend, a week, a month, whatever. It’s close to the Nice airport, close to all the glittering excitement of the Côte d’Azur and close to the mountains and forests of the Alpes-Maritimes department. There’s so much to do in and around here you’ll never be bored for even a second. The weather is great all year round. And if you do come be sure to drop us a line. We’d love to meet you and say hi. If you ask nicely I might even give you my “tour” of old town.
Vence can easily be reached from just about anywhere in France by taking the A8 until you get to Cagnes-sur-Mer. If you are coming from the east get off on Exit 48 and if you are coming from the west you’ll want Exit 47. Take the M336, then the M36 and finally the M236 north into Vence. The most accessible parking is in the Parking du Grand Jardin, right next to the old town. Parking Toreille and Marie Antoinette Parking are both close by as well. The Vence Office de Tourisme is just across the street from the Grand Jardin.