Lending a hand

Get involved. Meet people. Find some hobbies and interests.

If you move to a new area, wherever that may be, in whatever country, the advice is always the same. If you want to feel at home you have to put some effort into ‘doing stuff’ and meeting new people. That’s how you make friends.

Ever since I first left home as a teenager to go to University, I have moved around. Studying, following the work (mine and other half’s), chasing the promotions and more recently trying to escape the rat-race. Each time the resulting family upheavals, home-building and getting to grips with a new and more challenging job have left little time for anything else in life. I’ve always tried to make an effort to do the obvious – join the local gym, maybe find a club or an evening class to participate in, all with varying conviction/motivation/success.

So when we moved to France full-time, I definitely had to set about finding something to get involved with. Gymns are not a thing in the French countryside and as I do not have a competitive, sporty bone in my body team games were out, but I’d thought about yoga or zumba. Unfortunately the only two classes in the vicinity  were during the day and as I still work, this didn’t fit in with my availability.

I had the same problem with an art and crafts class that I would have really liked to join. (for when I finally retire, maybe). It became increasingly clear that, always having lived in a city, I had been totally spoilt for choice in the UK and there just weren’t the organised leisure opportunities in the French countryside that I had so taken for granted.

So what do the local country folk do for fun?

They volunteer.

After asking around our friends everyone, it seemed, was involved in some kind of voluntary activity, whether that was charitable, ecological, educational or cultural:

helping out at after-school clubs

running a village toy library

running language courses for immigrants

reclaiming local river banks

cataloguing exhibits for a small, local museum

So we volunteered. Our first summer here we had just missed out on a local performance of the opera ‘Carmen’ at a small chateau in the next village. The following summer we made sure we attended the production of Aida at the chateau.

We discovered that this amazing production was staged by a young opera director, Julien Ostini. Julien and his wife, Véronique, had bought the crumbling Chateau de Linières with the express intention of bringing opera to the French countryside.

For the last three years they have produced a major opera with the help of 300+ volunteers – musicians, lighting technicians, professional singers and hundreds of local people who have helped out in whatever way they can – making costumes, cooking meals, providing lodgings to participating artists – whatever was needed to make things happen.  The fact that thousands of local people have been able to attend top-class performances of major operas in their own area is a phenomenal achievement.

In July, I saw a poster in our village mairie (town hall) asking for volunteers to provide lodgings for artists participating in the opera. We had the space so I phoned the lady in charge of lodgings and offered a couple of rooms.

A couple of weeks later we played host to a lovely lady from Morlaix, who had volunteered as an extra and two young hairdressers and make-up artists from Lyon.

We had a ball!

We didn’t do nearly as much as some of the volunteers but we spent two weeks getting to know three lovely french women who had given up two weeks of their summer to work on this project. When they finally left for home we felt that we had made life-long friends – and had spent many a late hour over a glass of wine after rehearsals, conversing in French

The final performances were astonishing!

A couple of weeks ago the local members of the volunteers’ association got together for a barbecue. It was a lovely big family affair and we got chatting with several people that we hadn’t spoken to before. Interestingly we found we had quite a few mutual friends (our network is obviously expanding!) and many of them had already heard about Les Anglais who had bought the mill in La Roche.

As Julien proposed a toast we learned of the precarious financial state that he and Véronique had put themselves in to cover the costs of the previous 3 years’ productions. Next summer’s production would not happen unless extra, outside funding could be secured. (So if anyone knows anyone who would like to sponsor next summer’s performances, please get in touch!) But that wasn’t going to stop their last event of the year – three performances of Mozart’s Requiem.

This weekend it was quite emotional as we celebrated the success of the first concert along with our house-guests of the last few days – a secondary school music teacher and two students from the Conservatoire in Rennes, who, along with volunteers from all over France and many locals, had given up their half-term holidays to take part in an absolutely inspiring performance to a packed-out audience.

Chatting to friends we had bumped into outside the church afterwards, we realised just how much ‘lending a hand’ had actually helped us to feel more at home in France.