“I would like to see people more aware of where their food comes from. I would like to see small farmers empowered.” Anthony Bourdain
I drove along the winding dirt road outside our village. The busy street disappeared behind me, and I was completely surrounded by vineyards, a cow pasture, and an orchard. I looked around and realized that not five minutes from my perfect little township, was another kind of paradise, a little slice of heaven all its own.
Here the billowing clouds hang overhead, and the green pastel colours look brushed onto the side of the mountain. I felt a soft breeze on my cheek as a flock of birds screeched as they flew by. A Monet painting has come to life around me and this petite farm was smack in the middle of the idyllic scene.
Meet Patricia and Gregg, a vibrant young couple that I had the pleasure to meet here in Capestang. With their two little girls, and a set of grandparents; they are fresh arrivals to the nearby hamlet called Le Viala. Keen to make a fresh start, they have innovative ideas to expand on in their bright future.
This multi generational family farm tends 120+ organic olive trees, a handful of shy sheep, two amusing goats donated by a neighbour, a rescue dog and a pair of overweight potbelly pigs that act more like pets than livestock.
A good start for their new farm life!
Their land spans around their handsome barn conversion; the modern sleek lines and open concept interior is set in the middle of rural France. It has a self-contained apartment for the grandparents and a communal kitchen/eating area. A large terrace has floor to ceiling windows with gorgeous views of the surrounding rolling hills. Doors open to the hidden courtyard in the back, with tables and chairs, pool and BBQ areas with views that continue to lap over the landscape in every direction.
We sat down under a massive mulberry tree in the central garden for our interview…
Who are you?
Gregg Meesters, and I live here with my partner Patricia and our two daughters Margaux and Emma. We are originally from Belgium.
What did you do back home?
In Belgium, I worked in the shipping department of a big chemical company, and Patricia was an account manager for one of Belgium’s biggest media groups.
Why did you move to France?
We’ve always said we would move to France if ever we got the chance.
When I first met Patricia after a week she said, sorry I have to help my mother with her B&B in France, see you in six weeks. Completely taken by this dynamic woman who at the time was still in university, I had two weeks holidays during that time, and decided to show up and see what this B&B business was all about.
I wasn’t there for more than an hour when I was handed a kitchen towel and asked to start with washing the dishes. Together we ran the daily activities of the gite.
We had to get up early to serve breakfast in the morning, so I would drive to get the fresh bread from the baker. We would set the tables for the guests on the beautiful patio and made sure everyone’s needs were met. Coffee, tea, toast and jam, boiled eggs, fresh hams; whatever they wanted.
Right after they ate, we cleared the tables and would go straight into cooking the afternoon meal. Then again it was lunch, serving and cleaning, and then we started cooking again for the evening meal. It was hard work but honest and very rewarding.
I loved the idea of being able to raise kids and work from home in this type of environment. I was instantly hooked on the idea of running a gîte in my own future. Before my two weeks were up, Patricia and I decided if ever we get the chance to do this in our life together, we would move to France and do exactly this.
13 years and two children later; we have finally arrived at our dream.
Did you experience culture shock?
Yes! Which came as a surprise… Not so much where everyday life is concerned but more the huge difference in the ‘digital life’.
We are so used to having superfast Internet connections and corresponding through e-mail instantaneously, that moving to the country was quite a different experience. Instead of downloading forms off the Internet to fill in, we had to go to the Mairie and fill out heaps of forms with pen and paper. Instead of ordering concert tickets online, we had to go to the tourist office. And with questions for the big companies (gas, electricity, water etc.…), we had pick up the phone and call them, because sending an e-mail, you would never know when you might expect an answer!
Did you do anything since moving to France that you never would have expected?
Every day! We’ve transformed from city slickers to a farming family. We learn and do new things every day. Things we had never imagined ourselves doing, such as clipping sheep toenails, building a pig pen, and maintaining an olive orchard…
Having no experience whatsoever in farming it can be quite scary. The first time you start pruning your fruit trees you’re constantly wondering, “Am I doing this right?” By now we are harvesting our first fruit and the olives are starting to grow so apparently the answer is yes!
Also moving in with my in-laws was something I’d never imagined. They divide their time between living in Belgium and coming over to help maintain the property. Luckily we all get along just fine and if ever you need some peace and quiet, you find yourself an olive tree and install yourself under it with a book or magazine.
What possesses a modern family to pack up and run a farm in southern France?Is it a desire to grow your own healthy food, to eventually get off the grid and be self reliant or is to show the children the importance of being self-sufficient?
It is a combination of all of these reasons. It starts with a desire to eat healthier, but it is also about getting back to the basics.
We wanted fresh air for the girls, and open spaces for them to run free; and a family-run farmstead was the change we were looking for.
Although labour intensive, we like the idea of living off the land, somewhat like our ancestors may have done.
What do you do for a living?
Patricia is a stay-at-home mom for the time being, while I look after the gîte and work in a local restaurant.
We also own a rental on our property, Le Petit Viala. It sleeps six with a private courtyard and has a luxury heated inground pool.
Patricia’s parents help tend to the organic olive trees, hand picking the snails off them. We only use natural products to repel the insects, insuring the best product we can produce.
We all tend to the gardens and the animals together.
What did you do to integrate with your community?
First: Drink a daily cup of coffee at the local bar. You won’t necessarily make friends there but at least the people will recognize you when walking down the street.
Second: Have kids… Since we live a fair way out of the community, it would be easy to just be on our own without mingling, but because we have kids who need to go to school, we’ve gotten to know other parents and so we naturally glide in to the community without forcing anything.
Tell me something special about the Languedoc that most people don’t know?
Most people think there are only fun things to do in summer, however life doesn’t come to a halt here as it does in some other regions during wintertime. If you love being outdoors, this definitely is the region to be. Cycling, walking, wine, dining… there is something to do for all.
What is the worst thing about being an expat?
The language barrier! Our French is good enough for everyday conversations but when it comes to specific terms (legal, technical, medical) we’ve noticed we don’t speak as fluent French as we thought. Luckily we both love languages so we adapt pretty easily.
What is your favourite thing about being an expat?
The big rush of meeting new people, discovering new things and places and discovering new things about yourself… Basically throwing our life around.
What do you miss the most about your home country?
The obligatory answer for us Belgians would be beer and frites! But we can find the most common Belgian beers here and the French do know how to serve good frites (if you know where to go).
The thing we miss the most is meeting up with friends and family on a weekly base, however, thanks to social media, What’s App and Skype, we get to see and hear each other regularly.
What is a myth about your adopted country?
The French chauvinism. Of course it exists, just not more or less than in any other country in the world I guess. I find most French people very open and welcoming and always ready to lend a hand.
What advice would you give other expats?
Get yourself well informed, don’t try to fight the current. Go with the flow and practice your handwriting, because there’s a whole lot off forms to be filled…
What are you currently working on?
The main goal is to get occupancy in the gîte the whole year round. We try to achieve this by organizing theme holidays in the Spring and Fall seasons.
The weather here is superb for walking, hiking and cycling holidays. I have seen walking groups that continue through the winter season. The sun always seems to be shining, which brings birdwatchers, and photographers too.
For people who really love French cuisine, the seasons in southern France bring different flavours; the slow roasted wild boar stews and foie gras, the fall harvest vegetables creamed into soups and the late ripening fruits with their super sweet juices. Outside the summer season brings berries, truffles, and mushrooms. Coming in the summer is lovely for fresh seafood, and light salads yet the best oysters are actually in the winter months when the waters cool down. Because the Languedoc has the mountains within reach, and the Mediterranean on the other side, we are lucky to get the best of both worlds when it comes to food.
One themed vacation we offer our guests is a painting holiday offered in October, organized with artist Nicola Blakemore from Painting Holidays France. She guides her students through the process of painting a picture from beginning to end. She helps people find their inner creativity, something that often the light in these parts seem to help with.
Another package is the mountain bike vacation, which would give us an opportunity to share the miles of surrounding countryside with bike enthusiasts. There are some pretty easy routes to cycle along like the Canal du Midi the UNESCO heritage site and Voie Verte the easy paths throughout the region, but there are also more difficult paths for the advanced cyclist which brings you close to the sea towards Narbonne.
We are also planning on organizing specialized wine tours paired with gourmet lunches, historical visits to near-by sites as well as tastings. With my experience and love of fine food and wines, I believe that this will be among the most popular. I have two years towards a Sommelier ticket in Belgium, plus host experience in restaurants, and I would share my accumulated knowledge and passion for wine with our guests.
For now, Patricia is a stay-at-home mother for our two girls, but once they are both settled in school she is also planning a few projects, mostly work-from-home stuff to be near the children during their developmental years.
Also, we plan to expand on the animals that will be quite an experience for us and the children especially when the piglets and lambs arrive.
There is something so primal about planting seeds and watching them grow that gives people such satisfaction and sustenance.
No surprise there’s a movement of young families hopping off the 9:00-5:00 treadmill, escaping the smog filled cities to try their hand at agriculture.
If you would like to book their gîte or a themed holiday please contact Gregg at Le Petit Viala
Happy and safe travels, from My expat life, Eva HAMORI!