“Are you retired?”
The question always stumps us. Every day for 37 years I went to a newsroom. Then one day a little more than a year ago, I suddenly stopped. And now, 13 months later, I’m still not sure how to answer.
On the one hand, it’s easy. Yes, Paula and I have decided not to go to an office anymore. We didn’t open a shop or start a restaurant. We don’t collect a paycheck. We are, for better or worse, now living on what people politely call a “fixed income,” which is a nice way of saying we’re living off our savings, since we’re too young to collect a pension or Social Security.
If you asked our American friends, they would definitely say we’re retired (and their tone just might betray a hint of bitterness).
But, at least so far, none of that means we’re sitting around all day, or golfing or fishing or playing shuffleboard, or doing any of the things that seem to define the word “retirement.” After nine months in the Cote d’Or region of Bourgogne, France, we’re confronted every day by The Big Question: What kind of life do we want to lead?
Essentially, here we are on the cusp of 60, still struggling with, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We want to write and travel. But that’s a little vague. Right now, things feel a bit chaotic. There always seems to be more stuff that needs doing than there is time to do it. And the things we should be spending time on every day – exercise, learning French, writing, learning French, stretching our aging joints, learning French – well, we always run out of time. It seems like every day around 5 p.m., after scrambling around and not getting enough things done, we say to each other, “How did it get to be 5 p.m.?” Then we creak on over to the wine rack, open the first bottle, and the night is pretty much shot.
It brings to mind the old Joe Walsh lyric: “They say I’m lazy, but it takes all my time.”
But life’s been good to us so far. Crazy good, in fact. This is not a lament, and anyone who follows our adventure knows how lucky and grateful we feel to be able to lead this life. But it’s also true that we are unbelievably busy, and I’m left to wonder what to call this chapter. “Retirement” isn’t the right word.
We bought a house that was move-in ready. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a thousand things that need doing in and around it. We have a garden that’s completely intimidating in its immensity, and now that we need to dive into it, we’re paralyzed by uncertainty – not to mention beset by moles. To say that there’s peer pressure in Flavigny over the garden would be an understatement. Keeping up with Les Joneses isn’t about material goods. It’s about the produce you can produce come fall.
Plus, it’s hard to convey the the time-sucking bureaucratic complexities of living in a foreign country. We just finished going through the process of filing two tax returns. We have an accountant in New Orleans and an accountant in Paris. We have a woman at an OFX firm in Canada who handles any large currency trades. We have a permanent legal address in Florida. We have a mail-forwarding service in Houston. We have a court-approved French-English translator for official documents in Dijon.
The French say come either August (visa expires) or December (residency permit expires) – it’s unclear which, and nobody can really tell us – we’ll be driving illegally on our American licenses. So we have been working for months gathering the documents needed to apply for a French permis de conduire. After that, we’ll begin the months-long process of getting a French carte vitale (health card.) In June, we have to start the process of getting our one-year visa renewed.
Theoretically, any day now Trump could “North Korea” us, by saying or doing something horrible that would make what should be a relatively routine visa-renewal process insurmountable, leaving us effectively homeless for half the year. So to hedge against that possibility, I’m trying to get an Irish passport, which I’m entitled to because my grandfather was born in Ireland. Having a passport from the EU would be hugely advantageous.
Then there’s the small matter of writing, which is what I most want and need to do. The other day, my niece Kaylan was kind enough to point out to me how long it had been since I posted something new here. This is all I need: family members haranguing me about my lack of productivity. Still, she’s not wrong. (Damn her, anyway!)
Finally, we have a social life that is far more than a luxury. We arrived in France knowing exactly one French person, and she lives in Paris. So, building a social infrastructure is not just academic; it’s necessary for survival. We’re social creatures. We need friends. Also, because we don’t know the language well, and we don’t yet know the lay of the land, everything from finding a mechanic to choosing a doctor to calling an electrician is multiple times harder in a strange land. We get by with a lot of help from our friends.
We’re very, very lucky in our friendships, and in the warm welcome we have received in our village. But it’s also true that new friendships take time and effort to nurture and grow. A lot of our friends have had us over for aperitifs, or “apero,” as well as dinner, and our reciprocal obligations are stacking up. We brought a bunch of jambalaya mix from New Orleans, and the dish is a huge hit with our French friends. But we’re about to start a second round, so we need a new dish worthy of our neighbors.
It’s more than a little intimidating to cook for the French. We only this week felt brave enough to serve the cheese course after dinner for the first time. Our American friend John tells a story of pulling out a store-bought crust one night in Flavigny for his French guests. Fabian took one look at it, grabbed it from the pie tin and trashed it. Then he immediately set about throwing together a perfectly flaky, buttery crust from scratch.
Which reminds me: We owe Fabian and Didier dinner. Where the hell are we going to find time for French cooking lessons?