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Taking Root in Provence

WHY AIX-EN-PROVENCE *

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The world is a big place, but when you are looking to settle down somewhere --- and this time without work-related constraints --- you tend to quickly eliminate certain countries because they are too remote or too cold or too unstable or too foreign from your own culture, and pretty soon you realize that the world is not so big after all.

Early retirement allowed us to anticipate another 25 to 30 years of life, so why not look for a pleasant place to make the best of what was left? Our natural inclination directed us toward Southern Europe (France, Italy, Spain) and a point-by-point comparison led to France. Not so much because we were sure that this was the best of all possible worlds but because we felt it was worth a try. If it turned out to be disappointing we could always make another choice.

Culture, pleasant climate, natural beauty and easy access to international travel were all "conditions" in our search, but above all we looked for quality of life -- seemingly simple, yet so hard to find, especially in the richer countries where money buys a certain level of comfort that might be confused with quality of life but often fails to provide that most important ingredient of all: freedom of worry.

We found it in Provence where all our conditions were met, and then some. Passing up the pleasures and burdens of the countryside, we looked for a city and chose Aix-en-Provence. This small city is more sophisticated than we expected, more international in scope, and rich in culture -- the world-class Opera Festival alone worth the price of admission. Being half an hour away from the Mediterranean is an added benefit, as is the relaxed pace of the place. This is the slow lane, all the better to enjoy the beauty and pleasures that surround you, such as the daily markets where Oscar does his hunting and gathering every morning, or the mills where we buy our olive oil and the chateaux where we buy our wine.

One unexpected gift was the discovery of the French national health system, which some people have called a model to the world. Health care is considered a right, not a privilege, and should be accessible and affordable to all. The French SÚcuritÚ Sociale makes sure that it is. As foreign residents in this country with American health insurance, we have both had the "pleasure" to compare the two systems in minor and major ways, and have nothing but praise for what we found: excellent care at a fraction of the cost we used to pay, and doctors who still make house calls! Prescription drugs are often so inexpensive that we do not bother to send in our bills for partial reimbursement. This, too, is quality of life. One day we had a car accident here when a distracted driver ran into us. He immediately admitted it was his fault, but in a reflexive gesture I flagged down a passing gendarme expecting him to write an accident report for our insurance. "Is anybody hurt?" he asked, and when I answered "No" he said "Alors?..." and got back on his motorcycle. In a collision such as ours (more than a simple fender bender, two doors to be replaced), the two drivers concerned simply complete an insurance form (to be carried in every car), agree on the facts and sign. The insurance companies do the rest. Our car got repaired and I never saw a bill. No need for lawyers.

My French friends react with surprise when I marvel at all of this. "C'est normal," they say, and of course it is. It's just one more of those things (like affordable education and health care) that enhance the quality of life in these parts and that are totally taken for granted.

Sometimes the French don't seem to know how good they have it, but -- keep it under your hat -- we do. More than ten years after settling here, fluent in the ways of the locals and a French driver's license in our wallet, we can confidently say that our choice of Aix-en-Provence was the right one. We are definitely chez nous.

* from Taking Root in Provence

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