Retire now, work later: Like many in her mid-thirties FELICIA BROMFIELD felt there must be more to life than 12-hour days at the office – her solution will tantalise you
08:47 GMT, 23 November 2012
The way a wood-burning stove explodes into life when you place a log just so. Or how once vivid green vines become brittle and buckled like barbed wire as autumn tightens its grip.
These are among many simple pleasures I’ve come to cherish of late. Since I decided, at the age of 33, to retire now, and work later.
Admittedly, it’s not quite how I had envisaged things to turn out. When I first chose to jack in my career mid-ladder in favour of la vie francaise, I didn’t view it as a slowing down.
Quite the opposite.
Bon viveur: Former city girl Felicia Bromfield 'retired' from the hustle and bustle of London for a life of simplicity in France
After forking out a small fortune on one-to-one French lessons, I had pictured myself jabbering away at a whirl of dinner parties, a glass of vin blanc in non-gesticulating hand — having been embraced by my new neighbours, naturellement.
I had expected injections of excitement to come from whipping up to Toulouse or even Paris for spur-of-the-moment soirees, or at the very least drifting in and out of boutiques.
If someone had told me I would actually fill my days spying twigs for kindling on walks or relishing a book under a blanket by the fire, I would have retorted sharply: ‘I’m not a pensioner yet, you know.’
But today, nearly four months into our rural sojourn, I realise this is precisely what getting-away-from-it-all has done: it has turned me — a fan of London, low-lit bars and perfectly threaded eyebrows (at 50 a go) — into, well, a bit of an old crock. One who no longer mixes with anyone under 60. And has barely spoken a word of French.
The penny only dropped a week or so ago when I heard my boyfriend Ed on the phone to a friend: ‘What do I do Nothing — I have retired.’ He continued: ‘Yes, retire now, work later, that’s my theory. It’ll be all the rage soon.’
Stark, rather cynical assertions like
this are Ed’s thing, but I had to laugh. He was right — we had, albeit
unwittingly, retired. And in doing so, our attitude to life has altered
saved for months so that we could live — modestly — in France without
working . . . for the first year anyway. The intention being that we’d
fill this time with a stream of stimulating engagements.
instead, we’ve become quite cocooned in our isolated little home. We’ve
happily fallen in step with a pace of life that allows even the
dropping of a leaf to be seen, heard and noted.
And the real shock I don’t think I’ve ever been more sprightly or — not wanting to sound smug — so happy.
The good life: Felicia Bromfield in France with her boyfriend Ed enjoy a rare trip out
contrast to my old life couldn’t be starker. Having grown up in London,
I’ve never known — or wanted to know — anything but city life.
when it came to work, I was quite at home with the frenetic hours on
this newspaper, which left tantalising slivers of time for black cab
dashes to dinners and drinks with friends.
I concerned myself with the latest fashions, the newest restaurants, theatre productions or art exhibitions.
sooner have spent my hard-earned weekends poring over landscapes by
Turner in the Tate than wandering the countryside itself.
once had a boyfriend of Devon stock, whom I mocked relentlessly for his
battered Barbour. I disparaged the seemingly magnetic pull, which had
him traipsing to and from the ‘wilderness’ for a weekend. It was all so
alien to me.
I had been in my job four years when
change loomed. I’m not quite sure how or exactly when it came to me,
this voice that told me I must give up my career and move to France. Or
how it became so bold as to suggest to Ed that he came with me, even
though we’d only been seeing each other for two months.
soon it was just a fact: we were both going to give up our jobs (Ed
worked as a national newspaper journalist, too) and move to the South of
At first, friends greeted the news with hastily smoothed frowns — such dramatic action was quite out of character.
And when it came to handing in my
resignation, my boss’s bemusement was palpable: why step away at such a
crucial point in my career
answer was that I felt the need to submerge myself elsewhere for a
while, to force myself to be more gregarious, to live life.
‘But what on earth will you do for money’ she asked. ‘Isn’t this terribly reckless’
reckless isn’t a word I often associate with myself, I had to admit
there was a risk. But if my life was going to involve the odd gamble,
now seemed like the right time to roll the dice. I was in that brief
hiatus between having established a career and lacking dependants. There
was nothing holding me back.
Bliss: Felicia settles down in front of the fire with a book for another night in
At first, friends greeted news of Felicia's move with hastily smoothed frowns as such dramatic action was quite out of character
it was down to the cloak of global financial doom, but the past few
years had felt unendingly gruelling, too. I worried that while I clung
steadfastly on to a salary and prospects, life and its myriad other
pleasures was passing me by.
was also buoyed by the thought that others of my age had already taken
similar leaps of faith. One of my closest friends had recently left her
sought-after civil service job for Argentina — without a shadow of
And so many
friends of my age feel horrified at the prospect of another 30 years of
solid work and often express their desire to take their own mid-life gap
As for money, Ed and I had estimated how much we’d need for six months’ rent plus living expenses.
The fact we had a finite amount would mean we’d have to budget carefully, but I was prepared to be sensible in that respect.
And OK, I couldn’t be absolutely
certain of guaranteed work once my ‘retirement’ was over, but I had
never struggled to find a job before.
root, I just wanted to invite the notion of chance into my life. So
much of my time thus far had been constricted, accounted for, and I
wanted to try a different approach.
‘We’ll never forget being in France,’ Ed assured me. ‘What would you remember of the equivalent time spent at work’
we forged ahead with our plan, searched online and found a charming
stone villa nestled in a lovely hilltop village near Beziers, not far
from the south-west coast.
For the journey, we’d drive down in the 33-year-old VW camper van so beloved by Ed, who’s also 33.
bridge the gap between lifestyle extremes, we would spend the first two
weeks of September acclimatising in Antibes on the French Riviera.
off we set. But our little adventure was not without pitfalls. The
crotchety camper refused to go above 40mph on the motorway — French
lorry drivers were not our friends. At other times, it bucked
bronco-style and backfired like a machine gun. Worst, though, were the
four occasions it gave up altogether.
just say I mastered second-gear push-starts. Ed would take the wheel
and I’d have to push with all my might. My punishment for never having
taken a driving test.
a couple of occasions burly French men volunteered to help, but not so
one dusk when I had to push the recalcitrant machine up a precarious
Alpine road, toute seule.
five nights in campsites — another reluctant first for me — we finally
arrived in Antibes, where we indulged in just the sort of behaviour I
had anticipated. Our days were spent languishing in the sun, wine in
hand, chatting to locals in restaurants and bars.
Adventure: Felicia with the battered VW camper van that took her and her boyfriend to their new life in the south of France (at speeds of no more than 40mph)
Tanned and rested, we set off again full of hope and expectation. Imagine our crashing disappointment when our romantic villa turned out to be more like a grotto. Grubby fridge, rusty cooker, soiled furniture, detritus strewn everywhere.
The owner boasted of having bought it six years ago, and it was clear he hadn’t cleaned it since. It was so bad, we opted to sleep in the van rather than stay in the eerie property overnight.
Next morning, when the owner proved entirely unreasonable, we decided to leave altogether. Our grand plans momentarily faltered, our dreams hung in the balance.
We were very lucky to find an alternative, through a friend, relatively quickly. It would be far more remote, with only a handful of farmhouses in the surrounding area, but it would be clean and cosy.
When the van stammered into the road below a little church near Gaillac, we felt instantly at ease.
It was all stone buildings, turquoise shutters, field upon field of vines, with a swimming pool overlooking a magnificent vista. Ironically, this haven would set us back pretty much the same as the hovel.
The owners, Irish and Scottish, were up ladders trimming roses round our door when we arrived. They climbed down and gave us hearty handshakes.
‘Bienvenue,’ they welcomed us.
It was weeks before they confessed their initial horror when we arrived in our beleaguered camper: ‘They’re hippies!’ Then their amused relief when we emerged — Ed complete with tie and me in five-inch heels.
And so our new life began in earnest.
At first, novelty shielded the strangeness of blank hour after blank hour. We cherished lie-ins and spent hours reading or cooking — I hadn’t used an oven in five years.
Ed drew up a weekly schedule of activities. But the cinema trips and dinner dates in local restaurants were soon replaced by Scrabble night, record player night — yes, we’ve acquired one of those as well — and, to our shame, X Factor night (we can get British TV here).
To begin with, these changes were practical — it turns out you cannot hail black cabs so easily after a night out in la France profonde.
But then something strange began to happen — we realised we just didn’t fancy dashing about.
Never having lived in the countryside before, I felt genuinely astonished every time I opened the shutters to be greeted by yet another shade of beauty.
And it sounds ridiculous, but I nearly fell over in shock the first time I looked up at night to find a blanket of piercingly bright stars above.
I realised that this is where the excitement, the emotions, came from — the startling surrounding landscape. (What remains of the old me is entirely baffled by this sentence.) Meanwhile, we began to befriend a group of five locals — by ‘local’ we mean they have lived here longer than us. Between us, we make four English, two Irish and one Scot.
A far cry from Soho: The rolling hills where Felicia and Ed have made their new home and some great new friends
The reality is, we only ever meet French people during fleeting trips to the market or out shopping for food. The only regular French I hear is on the radio every morning.
Another notable thing about our new acquaintances is their age; we are their junior by about 30 years. Rather fitting, when you consider we have become quasi-pensioners.
Some nights we are invited for dinners of cod cassoulet or steaming root vegetable bake. Other afternoons, we are beckoned on sunny afternoon walks. In the past, I might have grown impatient, but now I relish such considered, non-intrusive pursuits.
Another bonus is how cheaply we live. My daily budget is no more than what I’d have spent on a taxi home from work in London — but once we have done a weekly shop, we can live for days without parting with a bean.
And I have surprised myself by adapting easily to many of the rustic constraints. My tight budget means I have had to freeze my mobile — and now rely on a shared phone line which is split between us and the owners of the gite (much to the frustration of my more impatient friends!).
And then there’s the fact that my not driving means I am wholly reliant on Ed to get anywhere. Even the nearest shop is too far to walk.
Whenever I feel a prick of frustration, I only have to glance outside at the ever-changing landscape to remind me why I’m here.
You could argue that considering how little French we’ve spoken, we might as well have withdrawn to a Suffolk or Herefordshire English idyll, but it wouldn’t have been the same. The draw of London would’ve been too powerful, and frequent visitors would have punctured the peace.
There are moments, I must admit, when I feel slightly concerned by the dramatic change in me — however will I repatriate when the time comes
But mostly, I am quietly amused and intrigued by the transformation. And grateful that I have an ally in Ed, who, with his new passion for shopping lists, makes an even more convincing retiree than I do.
So now you will find us, of an evening, wedged into our wicker armchairs by the fire, blankets at the ready, books on our knees — unkempt eyebrows and all.
And no one could be more surprised by our contentment than me.