Enjoying the Simple Life in Bernay, France - International Living

I’m sitting in a comfortably crowded café, a $1 croissant and $2 creamy coffee by my elbow, the chatter of friends and acquaintances swirls around the room. Every day, with the excellent food, warm friendship, and long walks through lush countryside, I feel so grateful to be enjoying the simple life in Normandy, in northern France.

My love for France started early. As a teenager, I had the good luck to be taken there on vacation by my mother. It was a whirlwind of sights and experiences and flavors. For a full month, we rambled up and down the Pyrénées, camped along the Dordogne river, and rented an old farmhouse in Provence. Each morning when I woke up and opened the windows, I could smell the lavender fields.

Once I’d tried the food—lamb roasted in fresh herbs, potatoes baked in duck fat, custard tarts topped with strawberries—I was hooked. I was determined to move to France. It took me quite a few years, but I finally made it—and I’ve never once regretted my decision.

Having lived here for many years now, I’m as in love with this country as when I was fourteen. To be honest, it’s still all about the pastries (the Opéras…the Mogadors…the éclairs…) but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to deeply appreciate the security and ease of living in a country with such a rich history, a commitment to quality of life, and excellent healthcare.

My husband and I live in Bernay, a tiny town just an hour-and-a-half from Paris by train ($27 round trip). It’s nestled in the Charentonne river valley and has 23 separate waterways running through it. There are old bridges everywhere, gorgeous half-timbered buildings, and historic outbuildings that are protected by the government.

Georgia has settled in the pretty town of Bernay in the heart of Normandy.
Georgia has settled in the pretty town of Bernay in the heart of Normandy.

When I was pregnant with our first baby, I was thankful to be living in France. Not only was the care excellent, but my eight-day hospital stay was 100% covered by the state. In fact, the government gave us €900 ($1,000) to help with our new baby’s first year. And, to top it all off, my hospital room had a spacious balcony and a view of the lovely grounds, with stately buildings that dated from the 1800s.

Prescription medication here is extremely affordable (an arthritis medication that costs my father over $300 a month in the U.S. is only about $17 here) and public daycare is wonderfully inexpensive (costing between nothing at all and $2.50 an hour).

To be sure, salaries in France can be lower than they (sometimes) are elsewhere, but it is such a relief to live in a country where no matter what happens, you’re taken care of. I actually love paying my taxes here, because I know that by doing so I’m nurturing my community and contributing to the collective sense of well-being.

And for someone who’s more than mildly obsessed with food, France is a dreamland. Yes, there’s the incredible bread and all those delicious sauces, but there’s also fabulous produce. Our town’s population is only 10,000-strong, but every Saturday the main thoroughfare is swamped by an enormous open-air market.

All along the cobblestone streets, cheesemongers sell flavorful delights (everything from Camembert to Neufchâtel to unnamed, truly local cheeses) and neighbors sell their freshly-made jams. Farmers man their stands, the tables heaped with appealing triangles of inexpensive apples, pears, and pumpkins. In the spring there’s the snappiest asparagus you’ve ever tried, tender leeks, and mild fresh garlic. When summer rolls around, there are mountains of heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of colors, each tastier than the last. And every Saturday, I remember to bring my glass flip-top bottle to fill with fresh milk from a local dairy farm (a steal at $1 a litre).

With scenic coastal towns like Étretat and Honfleur an hour’s drive away, a quick train service to Paris, and a welcoming local community, enjoying the simple life in Normandy couldn’t be easier.

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