Friday, May 24, 2024

The US was getting too expensive. So this artist relocated to France for a slower-paced life | CNN

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CNN
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Ditching the US and relocating close to the French Pyrenees wasn’t part of Taylor Barnes’ life plan.

But as the cost of living in the US increased, and the Los Angeles artist, in her 60s, struggled to find an affordable space where she could support other artists, she began thinking about a new life abroad.

In 2021, Barnes, who is divorced with one daughter, moved to the medieval village of Saissac, in the Aude region of France near the Montagne Noire mountain range.

“I considered, among many things, where I would like to live out the last quarter of my life,” Barnes tells CNN.

“I felt the village was visually inspiring, surrounded by forests of oak and pine trees, so many wild bird species I can’t count, and two rivers running down the gorges on both sides of the castle.”

Relocating to another country is rarely simple, but Barnes felt this remote spot in southern France would be an ideal place to hold her residency programs, providing artists with a place to flourish and feel inspired.

“In the US, real estate and cost of living was rapidly making the possibility of an affordable program impossible,” she says.

Barnes, who has spent her entire life living near the ocean, says she felt an “emotional resonance” when she first visited Saissac in 2018 and the village’s pristine surroundings reminded her of coastal California.

Built on a granite outcropping, Saissac offers spectacular views of the Pyrenees – the chain of peaks dividing France and Spain – and the valley below. An ancient medieval castle anchors the village to the mountain, creating a fairytale vibe.

“France felt like home,” she adds, explaining that the view from Saissac has the same “emotional impact” for her as the limitless view of the ocean. “It also looked like home; the topography is very similar to northern California.”

To limit the chance of any unnecessary delays during the relocation process, Barnes hired a consultant to help her navigate the system, adding that it was the best money she’d ever spent.

“He helped me get my visa, my phone, my bank account, the insurance on my building, and answered pressing questions about taxes and anything else that came up,” she says.

In 2019, Barnes bought an abandoned crawfish restaurant and converted it into a residency for artists.

In 2019, Barnes bought an abandoned crawfish restaurant and transformed it into a residency, 3.1 Art Sassaic, where artists could stay and share ideas.

The building, which dates back to the 1900s, was remodeled to offer her guests maximum privacy, with space to hold cozy dinners and events.

The top floor has been completely transformed into living quarters for visiting artists, each room designed with maximum sound insulation to allow guests space to concentrate.

Visiting artists have access to a large studio that looks out onto the gorge of the Vernassonne river, surrounded by wild oak trees and birds.

Barnes had to adhere to strict rules imposed by French art heritage authorities during the renovation process. Luckily, a restoration architect helped her to navigate procedures.

The main living area holds a large open fireplace, and a dining space with a library for winter gatherings.

“Our kitchen is state-of-the-art and residents who love to cook are welcome,” says Barnes. “The region inspires culinary experimentation with all the fantastic outdoor markets and local produce. It is amazing how many artists tend to be great chefs.”

A wild hillside trail leading to the village chateau can be accessed from the property’s garden terrace, which is used for concerts and film screenings.

In order to attend one of the residency programs, held from spring to fall, artists must apply with a specific project that they plan to work on while in Saissac.

Built in the Middle Ages, the ancient setting of the village, with its stone walls, cobblestone roads, and lavoir (a stone washing pool for laundry) has proven to be a great source of inspiration, transporting visitors to another place and time.

The area was once a popular destination with impressionist painters and it’s likely that parts of the landscape will have remained unchanged.

Local residents are made up of creative people and artisans: woodworkers, bakers, chefs, gardeners and herbalists.

Barnes with visiting artists, Dennis Miranda Zamorano, Sonya and MB Boissonnault.

Cultural events hosted by Barnes have been well attended by locals and expats, mainly from England, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Since moving to Saissac, Barnes says she has happily embraced a slower-paced lifestyle.

“My time management has undergone a transformation in favor of the leisurely pace that is a typical French day: two-hour lunches, five-day work weeks, and a reverence for holidays and weekends,” she says.

A typical day for her begins in the early morning with a walk in the forest and around the small local lake with her Berger Blanc Suisse dog, Storm.

Then it’s time for an espresso at the local épicerie, followed by lunch at local restaurant Trésors d’Oc or a more traditional meal at The Montagne Noire Restaurant.

While Sassaic is sleepy in winter, summer brings about huge street dinners, where residents bring chairs and tables, as well as homemade dishes and trips to neighboring villages to listen to music at outdoor evening markets. After work apéros at the local bar are a must, says Barnes.

“You have not lived until you have seen a full moon rise over the French countryside on a balmy summer night. I constantly feel as if I am living within a charming French film,” she adds.

Barnes, who spoke very little French when she arrived in 2021, tends to speak more softly and slowly among her French friends, in part because of the culture, and her lack of confidence in speaking the language.

She’s currently taking French lessons and using language learning apps, but says that it’s been a slow process.

Artists must apply with a specific project before being accepted onto Barnes' residential programs,

When it comes to meals, Barnes quickly discovered that the French are rather strict, and has learned to eat at more set times with restaurants, especially in small villages working to a rigid schedule of 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. lunchtimes and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. dinners.

Barnes, who has a Carte de Séjour renewable five-year residency permit, says that living in a tight-knit community has changed her social habits, and made her feel safer.

“In France I say bonjour to everyone I pass on the street, it would be rude not to,” she says.

“In Los Angeles I keep my eyes down because I would be seen as a crazy person if I said, ‘Hello,’ to everyone.

“In a city you can easily move about anonymously. But in a village, everybody knows and cares about you.

“The lack of anonymity could be annoying as a city person but somehow I find it comforting that it would be noticed if one day I suddenly disappeared from around the village.”

Barnes has been impressed by the French healthcare system, which provides universal coverage for all legal residents, and feels more comfortable with growing older in France.

“It is apparent to me how difficult it is to age gracefully, and healthfully, in the US,” she says.

“Add to that, the fact that the US tends to isolate the elderly, discarding them in favor of a youth culture, and old age in America is not an appealing future to me.”

When Barnes isn’t focused on her artistic work, she likes to explore offbeat spots in the area and activities like boating on Canal du Midi and hiking the remote forest areas of the Montagne Noire.

Barnes says she has come to rely on her friends in the village, who make key calls on her behalf when she faces challenges, and help artists attending her programs, which are held from spring to fall, book transport.

“I don’t know what I would do without my core group of supportive village friends,” she says. “You cannot do a relocation alone – it literally takes a village.”

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