A Decade in the Making… More or Less (Part II)

[Part I of this post was published on 30 April, 2019.]

Not Epcot Center

Plans to retire to the U.K. now scuttled, we were feeling a bit adrift. After our initial disappointment, we began to think about France. We had always loved the idea of France as a nation, its people and culture(s). And the thought of living here was attractive. But – and I’m ashamed to admit it – the thought of learning French was daunting and probably what had put us off the idea earlier on. How lazy is that?

Languages can be difficult. But it’s not as though we were being asked to consider the study of quantum mechanics – a subject which is, I am entirely unashamed to admit, entirely beyond me. Cherie studied French in high school and she later learned a bit of Spanish and Italian. I, being the uber-liberal arts nerd that I am, have studied Latin, Old English (Anglo-Saxon), German, Italian and a smattering of French.* How hard could it be to properly learn French? So, we decided were were up for it and therefore, with unwarranted confidence, crossed that perceived barrier off the list.

Having tamed our fear of learning a new language, we began to look into France’s immigration rules. We were surprised to discover that they are straightforward and liberal. Relative to those of most other european countries, that is. Even better, they allow for non-European Union citizens to take up residence as retirees. Of course, a few conditions apply, but they are not considerable. There are three principal requirements:

1.) Idle hands. If one retires to France, they must promise not to work. In practical terms, this means they do not want people flocking to France to take jobs away from French citizens. Our entire raison d’être for this move was to retire an never have to work again. So, yeah. Perfect. Next?

2.) Show me the money. France requires that prospective retirees living in the country demonstrate they will have sufficient income to support themselves. This is to prevent them from becoming a financial burden on the state. Fair enough, we thought. We had never paid any taxes in France. Why should the citizens of France have to bail us out if we foolishly moved here with minimal bank accounts and then ran out of cash? Luckily for us – and, yes, we are fully conscious of the fact that we are very fortunate indeed – we had gathered enough funds to show that we could sustain a reasonable economy for ourselves.

3.) In sickness and in health. France’s healthcare system always ranks amongst the best in the world. It’s primarily funded through salary deductions (similar to Medicare or Social Security in the U.S.). The government therefore asks that retirees immigrating from other countries outside the European Union provide their own private health insurance. At least for the first three months of your residence. After that, it’s possible to join their national health system. Given that we have never contributed a cent to France’s health insurance system, it seems like an incredibly generous requirement. As it happens, we still found that we could get better private full-coverage global health insurance for less cost than we had been paying while working. The United States does many things very well; its system of health care coverage is inarguably NOT one of them. Accordingly, we were overjoyed to comply with this immigration requirement.

Place de l‘Hôtel de Ville, Narbonne

The universe was telling us to move to France. Who were we to argue? Willing supplicants to universal order, we finally had a new plan. Or, at least the beginnings of one. France is a large country. If we had any hope of succeeding in our move, we would have to narrow down the geographic area.

The southern regions of France were definitely out; neither one of us is partial to hot weather. It must seem crazy to many, if not most of you. Isn’t the south of France where EVERYBODY dreams of living? Such romance: Provence. Côte d’Azur. Midi-Pyrenees. The light. The colors. 435 days of sunshine a year. Nope. Not for us. We’re more the cool weather, drizzle, fog and occasional sunny day types. Like Seattle.

Well, what about beautiful Paris, you say? Probably the most dreamt-of place to live in the entire world. Yes, much better weather. And I much prefer big cities. Cherie not so much. Nevertheless, we could certainly have afforded to buy a famously expensive shoe-box apartment in the City of Lights. But then having spent nearly all of our retirement savings on it, we would be forced to eat Top Ramen and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for the rest of our lives. No so great.

Picturesque Lavoirs (laundry houses) of Pontrieux, Bretagne

After the climate and cost distinctions were made, our selection process became considerably more arbitrary. Frankly, we’re fairly certain that pretty much anywhere north of Lyon would have been fantastic for us. But we had to choose somewhere to start.

I think it was Cherie who first suggested Brittany (hereafter, Bretagne). A whole host of reasons recommended this part area of France to us. Firstly, the region’s weather is exactly as we like it. A little rain, a little sun, partial clouds, a dash of fog, cool but not cold, and rarely hot. Yessss. Bring it! The environment is also lovely, with many woodlands, rivers and hills; and 2,860 km (1780 mi) of breathtaking coastline. Add to this an interesting mix of french and celtic culture and generally good transportation links to the wider country and the rest of Europe and we were convinced. We would start our french lives in Bretagne.

Pioneer Square, Seattle

Throughout this decision process, time was marching onward. We were both working steadily and generally living and enjoying our lives in Seattle. But our jobs were becoming increasingly less tolerable for us. The stress was more and more pronounced while, inversely, we were deriving less and less satisfaction from our work. Because of this, we were even more excited than ever about our plan to retire to France.

But the environment at our place of work was such that we had to keep our scheme a secret. Sadly, past experience there had demonstrated to us that employees could find themselves at the losing end of malign administrative maneuvers. Promised advancements conveniently forgotten; statutory wage rises ignored; retirement bonuses whisked away. We were not taking any chances. So we felt we had to leave even our closest and most respected work colleagues in the dark about our plans. Such deception was not comfortable for either of us. But our future entirely depended upon the deferred retirement funds we would receive later on in life. So, at work, we maintained secrecy with the kind of absolute rigor not seen since Operation Overlord. Our two-person invasion of France was about to begin …

John at the Helm of the Arlo James on Portage Bay, Seattle

*Full disclosure: I won’t speak for Cherie, but I have mastered none of these languages and would never claim that I am fluent or proficient in any of them. By the way, beware the American who confidently claims to be fluent in several languages. They usually aren’t. On the other hand, when a European begrudgingly admits to speaking two or more languages, it is most often true. How annoying! And humbling. If I had my life to live over again, I would have begun learning a foreign language from age 5. [I also would have given up playing baseball at a much earlier age. I was hopeless.]

Our Little Corner of France: Malestroit and the Val d’Oust

The River Oust, Malestroit

It was somewhat a random choice for Cherie and I to end up in this part of France. As regions of the country go, Brittany is not as well-known (particularly for geographically-challenged Americans) as, say, Provence or Normandy. The mention of Brittany generally leads to a reaction of embarrassed confusion or a knowing nod of the head in the mistaken belief that I am referring to Great Britain. Being smug, Europe-loving nerds, we both already knew the region’s geographic location. But that was about all we knew.

Ignorance has never – ever – stopped Americans from doing a thing that might seem (and probably is) crazy, if not entirely ill-advised. I offer you the deep-fried Hostess Twinkie as just one example. So it has been with great joy that the two of us are discovering the richness of Brittany. At the time of this writing, we have only been here for about nine months. Consequently, there are huge swathes of the region which we have yet to visit. But, the little pocket which we have called home since leaving Seattle is certainly itself worth exploring.

Administrative Regions of Metropolitan France

If you’re still a little fuzzy on the geography, Brittany (Bretagne in French) is the westernmost point in France. On the map above, it is on the far left, with Normandy to the north and the Pays de la Loire to the east and south. Bretagne is one of 13 (including Corsica) régions in mainland France. These are the rough equivalent to states in the U.S. or provinces in Canada.

There are 96 départements (similar to U.S. counties) in France. Bretagne itself is divided into four départements: Finistère in the west, Côtes d’Armor to the north, Ille et Villaine in the east, and Morbihan to the south. Each department is codified by a two-digit number and every postal code in the départements begins with these two digits. Morbihan’s is 56; Ille et Villaine 35.

Since living here, we’ve begun to realize that these two numbers show up on nearly everything even remotely administrative in nature; from your car’s license plate, to your electric bill, to food packaging to demonstrate it is locally produced. I’ve been asked for these numbers by my doctor, by cashiers at the home improvement store, and by random people we meet on walks. At first, we thought it a bit strange. But we’ve come to admire it. These departmental codes are a useful shorthand for quickly identifying any part of France. Moreso than people do with their state in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Texans), Bretons tend to link their identity with the département in which they live. It’s just a feature of the culture here and we find ourselves adopting the practice as well. At this moment we are 56’s, but when we make our final move to Fougères, we will be 35’s. Like all 35’s, we will be secure in the knowledge that ours is the best code in all of France.


Our first home in France has been Malestroit, a lovely town in the department of Morbihan. Malestroit is small enough that it often does not show up on the less-detailed maps of the area. On the map above I have penciled it in and circled its location. [Look for it just below the end of “Bretagne”. While we’re on the topic of geography, I have also circled Fougères, the town where we have purchased our home-to-be to the northeast of Rennes.] A community of some 2,400 souls, Malestroit is, like nearly all French towns we have visited thus far, a compact town with nearly all of its dwellings, shops and services within walking distance.

Cafés, Shops and the City Hall (in the distance) on the Place du Bouffay, Malestroit

We were amazed that such a small town would contain so much. There are three large grocery stores with another medium-sized convenience grocer, two more specialized food shops, a large multi-discipline health center, a hospice hospital, several individual health specialists, at least eleven restaurants and cafes, four bars, two news agent shops, two boucheries (butchers), two pharmacies, a post office, florists, car repair garages, garden centers, a veterinarian center, and more banks and insurance offices than I can count. It is, like most french towns, self-sufficient so that not often does one find it necessary to travel to a regional city for things.

Most important to us is that there are two boulangeries; both are lovely and we make daily pilgrimages to them for our required diet of fresh bread and pastries. Always pragmatic when it comes to their food, these two bakeries have arranged their hours so that one of them is always open when the other is closed for the day. And, apart from the grocery stores and cafes, they are the only shops which do not close for the sacred lunch hour(s). Very convenient, but bad for what has become our regular diet of bread, butter, pastries and tea. I tell you, though, it’s impossible to deny yourself a freshly-baked, warm pain au chocolat in the morning – or for lunch; or tea time; or in the evening. It’s a good thing they’re not open at midnight!

On the Towpath, the Nantes-Brest Canal on the Edge of Malestroit

Malestroit lies at the heart of the Val d’Oust, the Oust river valley. The Oust runs southeasterly for many kilometers through the interior hills and vales of Morbihan until it joins up with the larger Villaine in Redon on the eastern border of Bretagne. This waterway forms part of the canal network which spans 385 kilometers (239 miles) from the city of Nantes in the Pays de la Loire in the south to the city of Brest at the far western tip of Bretagne.

Cherie and Saxon in Lovely Josselin
Renaissance Doorway, Josselin

Along the Oust are several other beautiful towns, each with their unique character. Such a one is Josselin. Only a 25 minute drive to the northeast of Malestroit, this lovely town on the Oust boasts a magnificent castle (pictured above) and a picturesque medieval center connected by cobblestone streets. It’s a joy to visit, as we frequently do to take long walks along the towpath there. They also have a pretty good boulangerie!

A Sunday Afternoon Jaunt Along the Canal
Cormorants Admiring the Reflection, the River Oust at Saint-Congard

For walkers, runners and bicyclists, the towpath along the tranquil Oust and the canal which intertwines with it is a real godsend. We walk along it every day at one point or another along the many kilometers up and down the valley. Everywhere we have plied it the path is flat, paved and very well maintained by the canal authority. The towpaths are very popular and they see a lot of traffic by locals and visitors of all ages. Sunday afternoons following Holy Lunch Hour(s) seem to be the most busy times, the paths abuzz with men, women, children, dogs, bicycles and horses (sometimes pulling a carriage as shown above). Add to that the many canal boats which ply the waters, bearing their relaxed and content passengers slowly along, and the atmosphere can’t be beat. It’s a beautiful thing.

Gone Fishin’, Montertelot

A little closer to home, between Josselin and Malestroit, are the villages of Le Roc-St.-André and Montertelot. These two smaller towns are a little quieter but no less enjoyable to visit. Le Roc stands on a bluff overlooking the Oust as it wends its way from Montertelot. The stone church there sports an interestingly openwork bell steeple served by a separate stair tower joined to it by flying bridges. Lovely and very cleverly designed.

Montertelot is quite petite, with one bar/cafe, a little church and a few houses. It also sports a lock for the canal and we had the pleasure of getting to know the lock-keeper’s husband, Michael, a musician who plays and sings traditional Breton and British music throughout France. He’s a great guy who helped translate for us when we made our official offer for the house in Fougères. The towpath between these two towns offers a very nice walk through mostly woodland. At the midway point is a surprise view of a large château through the trees. These are the kinds of things we encounter all of the time in France and we love it so much!

A Humble House in Trédion

Honorable mention goes to Trédion. Although I do not believe it is technically in the Val d’Oust, this little town is located just to the west of Malestroit. Even though the town itself is rather unremarkable, it happens to stand adjacent to a lovely château. We just happened to come across this breathtaking house on a random afternoon drive a few months ago. Such a typical structure, it’s often the picture that comes into people’s minds when one mentions “France” and “château”.

Cherie, Her Mother Valerie, and Saxon Amongst the Megaliths of Monteneuf

It’s not only quaint towns, grand châteaux, and serene countryside to be found in the Val d’Oust. There is a great deal of history here as well. Some of it factual, some of it fanciful. Just a short drive to the northeast are the woods near Monteneuf which conceal an impressive group of prehistoric megaliths. These huge stones were erected during Bronze Age by the inhabitants who had switched from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. This settled existence allowed them the time to develop more sophisticated culture and even erect monumental structures such as these stones. Later, during the Middle Ages, many of the stones were pulled down, being feared as diabolical or beacons of dark magic. Today, this area has been protected as an historical site. Free to the public, it’s a very nice park where much research and experimental archeology occurs.

Cherie, Niece Jessica and, of course, Saxon Viewing the “House of Vivianne”

Further northeast is the forest of Brocéliande, a place filled with the magic of Arthurian legends. Bretagne has its own Arthurian history which is quite ancient. According to these stories, many of the events surrounding Arthur and his knights occurred in this craggy woodland, the only remaining remnant of a once vast forest which stretched across the entire spine of the peninsula. The area is beautiful and very enigmatic with lots of lovely hiking trails. Once such place is the Val Sans Retour, the Valley of No Return. Reputed to have been the magical haunt of Morgan le Fay this valley was enchanted by the sorceress to entrap knights. Cherie and I, along with her niece Jessica, spent an invigorating (if not but a little soggy) afternoon hiking our way through this dread valley of craggy outcrops, oaks and beeches, faerie lakes and and ensorcelled streams. Making our way to the top of a lofty hill we came upon a circle of rocks that is said to have been the house of Vivianne, the Lady of the Lake who, in one telling, bestowed Excalibur upon Arthur. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail she is referred to as a “watery tart” with the acute observation that:

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, no some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

In the current political climate, I’m beginning to wonder if forming a government in a large puddle in a forest in Brittany couldn’t be more ridiculous than what we see in many countries right now. But I digress…

Regardless of how seriously one takes these legends, the journey is worth it and just one more example of how rich and varied Malestroit and its environs is. And the people here are just as lovely. So welcoming and friendly. We’ve made many friendships which we know will endure long after our move to Fougères. We love it here and we’re so glad we have had the good fortune to immerse ourselves in this wonderful, magical place over the past several months. A perfect place to begin our lives in France!

Thursday Market, Malestroit

A Whole Lotta Light?

Sunset Over Fougères

A quick observation about the light in Brittany. Specifically, the sheer amount of it.

For some reason it hadn’t occurred to us during our first months in France. Probably because we were so dazzled by everything else about this place. Absolutely everything was new to us back then. But, now that spring has been rolling its way through our lives, it’s become apparent to us that the days are noticeably longer here.

Last month, after a particularly sunny day had been coming to a close, we suddenly realized that it was 21:00 (9pm) and the sun was just going down. What?! This seemed quite late to us. Were we still so enchanted by being in France that we were imagining the days are magically filled with more hours of daylight?

So, I looked it up. It turns out that, in Seattle, sundown would have been just before 20:00 in mid-April. As of today, sundown in the Pacific Northwest will occur at 20:36. Last night in Malestroit it was still light until nearly 22:00. This morning I woke up at 06:30 (only momentarily, you understand) and realized that it was already fully light out.

How could this be? Further research revealed that Malestroit and Seattle are roughly the same latitude. Seattle is at 47.6 degrees and Malestroit is actually a little bit further north at 47.8 degrees. Logically, there should be no discernible difference between the day-lengths of these two locations.

It turns out that the only difference is 1. We are indeed still wearing French-colored glasses, and 2. I am an idiot. The obvious answer to everyone but me is Daylight Savings Time. Yes, sundown occurs later in the evening in Brittany than it does in Seattle, but sunrise ALSO occurs later in the former than it does in the latter. In Seattle, the sun was already up by 05:30 today. The only real difference between the two is the arbitrary shift in calculating the beginning of day.

Stay in school, kids! Study science.

Notwithstanding the science-y bit, isn’t life at least 50% about perception? [Actually, the gallingly persistent unwillingness to accept the reality of global climate change would suggest that the figure is closer to 90%.] Even though we are intellectually aware that there is little to no real difference, we still feel like the days are longer here in Brittany. And that feels nice. Especially since we are most definitely not morning people. So, the later sunrise doesn’t bother us a bit. That’s a win-win in my book!