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Breathing, Again

I’m standing next to my girlfriend Aisling, and a new friend, a jeweller in his sixties, Patrick. We’re standing in Patrick’s secret garden that he and his wife had built, atop their 13th century medieval house, in the middle of farm-town-southern-France. We met Patrick only a few minutes before, and were now late to our dinner reservation. 

How did we get here? 

Four months into a long distance relationship, and already in Europe, Aisling and I were hoping to spend a week of quality time together outside of Copenhagen. We set our sights on a cottage in the south of France, a couple hour journey outside of Toulouse. 

I’ve never been much of a city person, I find the pace draining after extended periods, and when travelling, I find cities can be an over-commercialized view of a culture. I’m most connected to a place when I get off the beaten path. This often involves missing famous landmarks, or moving through cities with no infrastructure for tourism. Beyond the realm of comfort and the ordane is where adventure lies.

We booked the cottage prior to arranging flights or research. The country home spoke to us through it’s blurry photos and poorly translated description. It sat on farmland, located next to a medieval town with a population of 384. From Denmark, it took two days to, 3 countries, and 4 cities to finally arrive.

The drive through the town and fields was even more serene than the train ride there. Didn’t think that was possible. We kept going further out… fields, hills, fields.

We pull up to a several hundred year old house that sits at the edge of a 100 hectare property of family land. There’s not another house for at least several kilometres. Inside, it’s recently renovated, complete with a bibliotheque, and two pieces of art that sat strategically in the corner of the living room. The art (windows) told a story of rolling green hills, and of a town that still used horse and buggy to cultivate their crop. There’s no TV or tech. The pixelated photos hadn’t prepared us for this environment. Mind you, a week later writing this and I’m still processing the place and it’s surroundings. 

Our host gives us a lay of the land, presents us with a local wine from the region, and is off. It’s quiet. Partly because both Aisling and I are speechless, and partly because we’re truly in the middle of nowhere. 

Overwhelmed by the 360 degree vistas, we move out to the terrace.

Something interesting happens…the discomfort of silence. As we sat and looked off into the fields, we couldn’t help but talk.

I can’t remember the last time I let my mind completely relax. Sure, there’s been the occasional meditation or a slowly sipped espresso, but this kind of stillness felt foreign to me. How could I not sit down and stare out into one of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen? When I was confronted with pure, and slow silence, it provided me the reference point of how fast I’d been going. It was time to breathe. 

Aisling and I made a pact. We would use this week to reconnect with ourselves. We agreed we wouldn’t use any tech, apart from our phones for 10 minutes before and after bed.

The week that ensued was refreshing and personal. We enjoyed slowing down completely. The morning espresso would last a couple hours. Local cheeses, charcuterie, and wine would be the last few before sleep. When the sun set, we grew tired and went to sleep; at sunrise, we’d wake up. There were no alarms, and, frankly, no time in any meaningful way. It felt healthy to settle into the slower pace. We felt connected to the town and to the lifestyle. 

Each day that came and went took us one step closer to detoxing the city smog and stress. I’ve learned that it takes about 3 days of French wine and rolling landscapes to shake out two years working from home in a tiny downtown Toronto apartment. The rest is gravy – time I felt so grateful to spend with Aisling.

The nearest town, Cordes sur Ciel, was a 45 minute walk via dirt car road, or, for the adventurous, a 15 minute walk through farm crop and backwoods paths. Never have I enjoyed going to get groceries so much.

Cordes is an enchanted medieval town that was almost completely built in the 13th century. Nothing’s changed for the better part of the past 800 years. Strategically built around a small castle at the top of a hill, standing out in the valley looking into Cordes paints a storybook mountain of charming homes and store fronts. Standing in the town paints a view of the rolling farmland every step of the way. 

One night, Aisling and I wanted to treat ourselves to dinner. We headed into town. The setting golden sun was particularly flattering on Cordes, and on Aisling too.

We left several hours early so that we’d have time to explore the town prior to our reservation. We picked up a local organic wine and then set off drinking and climbing up the steep streets of Cordes. If there was any piece of us that hadn’t fallen in love with the town yet, it had now been smitten.

Close to the top, we hear ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles being playing softly off in the distance. I couldn’t make out whether it was a recording or a musician. Afraid of disturbing the moment, we stood there with wandering eyes and ears taking in the entirety of the moment. The song finishes, we turn the corner, and there’s a man in his sixties sitting on his doorstep with a guitar. He makes eye contact with us and smiles. We take a seat with our wine, and to our luck, he starts off again, this time into a French tune. We sat there for the better part of twenty minutes listening to him play a mix of classical and folk French tunes. At the end of every song he’d look over to us and smile. We’d applaud, grateful for the cozy, private concert. 

That was until he started playing the blues. A couple songs in and I approached him with my broken French-English cocktail. He hands me his guitar, heads inside, and brings out another. Before exchanging more than a “Bonjour”, we’re trading off solos and playing the blues. He even starts singing. 

Music truly is a universal language. A way of travelling and communicating with others that I feel so privileged to be capable of.

After ten minutes of playing, we start talking and I introduce myself. His name is Patrick, a local jeweller. Ironically, he’s the best English speaking Frenchman we’d meet throughout our 8 days in France. He offers us a drink on his doorstep and pours us a Martini. He explains his story and we listen intently. 

Patrick was born and raised in Paris. At 22, and looking for a place that was provided a more ‘romantic’ lifestyle and environment, he settled into Cordes and never looked back. I always understood that Paris was the city of love. How could someone from there yearn for something more romantic? Visit Cordes and it’ll all make sense. 

At this point we’re late for our reservation and deep into our conversation with Patrick. We’re learning about the town, the lifestyle, the architecture, and the houses that were all constructed in the 13th century. Picking up on our interest in the buildings, he offers us to check out his secret rooftop garden that he and his wife built as their own little oasis. Even the stairway up had a confident charm, the walls and ceiling revealing their own unique character. 

There’s a real call to and comfort in a town that’s been lived in for close to a thousand years. Its homes have seen generations, world wars, life, hardship, and love. Coming from North America where everything is new, Europe offers the comfort of past generations, and relatively ancient wisdom. 

I left Cordes lighter, all because we took a chance on a small cottage out in the middle of nowhere. We learned an important lesson: give yourself time to breath outside of your comfortable environment and routine.

I also left with a call to move there, maybe, one day. After all… Patrick needs a friend to jam with. Maybe you’ll come listen and dance in the streets too.

Speak soon, 

J