Why an International Couple Chose Provence’s Lifestyle for Their New Home
When you can choose to live almost anywhere in the world why would you pick Provence as the place to settle and buy a home?
Mimi and Michael Pillsbury selected Provence for its lifestyle, culture and more relaxed pace of life. The South of France would indeed seem bucolic for this couple whose careers focused on international development projects.
In 2007, Mimi and Michael met on assignment in her native country Serbia. Michael is originally from Michigan. They both have decades of work on development assistance projects. Michael worked in international development for nearly 30 years in Africa, Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. His speciality was local and state level economic empowerment (helping to improve investment conditions and public services) and small business development. While Mimi’s 20+ years of work in Serbia, and other countries, focused on strengthening political parties and establishing the fundamentals for civil societies. She also participated in the engagement of women and youth in public life and local government. Please read the rest of their backstory here and how they are now fostering hands-on creativity with Jolie Vintage Atelier (details below).
Mimi and Michael agreed to answer some questions for our series on Provence Lifestyle and what it is like to live as an expat in France.
What is Provencal Lifestyle?
How would you describe the lifestyle in Provence to someone who has not visited?
It’s like living in the last ‘slow’ decade – the 1970s, you take your time to plan your meals, to buy food and to prepare it. You talk to your neighbours, and you have dinners and aperos (cocktails) with them. You take the time to walk in nature.
When you think of Provence, what are words that pop into your head?
Mimi: Slow, beautiful, old stone walls, roses and the belle epoque.
Michael: Calm, stone houses, and vineyards.
To some degree, Provence lives on its clichés in photos – scenes of lavender, sunflower fields, boules players. Is this your Provence?
Mimi: Partly yes. However, my Provence is also forests, little stone villages, and roses.
Michael: Not really. We are not jumping out of our car to take selfies in front of the lavender fields like we see short-term visitors do. I would say our Provence is very focused on nature. We take pleasure in the seasons as they change and the different flowers and foliage that each season brings. We’re much more attuned to changes in sunlight and day-length than we ever were when we had office-based jobs. Set in this natural environment are small villages, each with their history, waiting to be explored. It’s exciting but at the same time humbling, knowing that even as year-round residents, we are just “passing through” and only short-term caretakers for this fantastic place.
What does the Mediterranean climate mean to you?
The climate is pleasant all year. There are long summers with little rain, lots of sun all year, and mild winters.
What is your favourite season in Provence?
Mimi: I love autumn when there are fewer tourists, the weather is still warm, and the season’s vegetation colours are striking.
Michael: My pick is early spring when the fruit trees (cherry, plum, pear, apple, apricot and so on) start to bloom.
What is your favourite activity in Provence?
Michael: Walking and hiking to discover new villages. And, going “treasure hunting” on Sunday mornings to local Belle Brocantes and Vide Greniers.
When you first return to Provence what aroma “says” I have arrived?
Hands down it is the smell of freshly baked bread from the local boulangerie.
When you leave Provence what is the thing you miss the most and wish you could take with you?
Michael: Everything, but especially the lack of “visual pollution” that has infected so many other places in the world.
When you hear or see the term “Provence-style” what is your first thought?
Natural and uncluttered.
Provence and the Cote d’Azur appear to evoke a decorative style in homes, restaurants and hotels. How might you describe this design?
Mimi: Slow life goes with taking your time to enjoy the beauty. There is a décor style evocative of the belle epoque era that is dominant here. It is quite the opposite of the fast-paced urban life with its modern metal and glass theme.
Michael: Low-rise buildings made of natural materials (primarily stone, but also wood and dramatic wooden beams on the ceilings. Glass and steel are not welcome here, nor are high-rises. Go live in Dubai if that’s what excites you.
The Provence that many imagine today is relatively “new” thanks to the likes of Peter Mayle and others. What is “Authentic Provence” to you?
Mimi: The sight of farmers working in their fields. The manual labour required to grow fruit, vegetables and for grain production remains a big part of the economy in Provence. Regular festive meals with families and community celebrations in village squares.
Michael: Small farmers (like Mimi said). The local craftsmen who are working to preserve cultural heritage relevant to the region. Wine production that isn’t pretentious.
Food in Provence
Life in Provence seems to revolve to a degree around food. How would you describe the food in the region to someone who has not visited?
The fact that you can buy vegetables in ‘irregular’ shapes, in other words, they are not always supermarket perfect, but fresh and seasonal. Slow cooked food and bold flavours.
What are your favourite things to eat in Provence?
Bread baked fresh each day, local cheeses, pastries and fruit in season. But, we could go on.
Is there a food or ingredient that you wish you could find outside of Provence?
Mimi: Fresh baguettes
Michael: Pain au Chocolate
Expat Living in Provence
How would you rate your French Language skills?
Mimi: I am struggling but learning.
Michael: My French is good enough for all routine needs (banking, dealing with phone company/utilities, local workmen/repairmen, shopping, restaurants/cafes). I am comfortable talking one-on-one with locals who try to help you out by speaking slowly. However, it is easy to lose the thread of a conversation when native speakers are in a group talking at their regular pace.
How important do you feel it is to have a decent level of French comprehension and speaking skills in Provence?
Mimi: It’s not essential, but if you want to dive in into French society debates, movies and literature then yes you need to speak the language.
Michael: Being able to converse is essential. You are at a severe disadvantage in managing your day-to-day household affairs unless you have at least basic comprehension.
What resources might you recommend to others to improve their language skills?
We like Duolingo (a free, online app) and the Social Center Maison Bonhomme in Apt where they offer linguistic workshops to with comprehension and expression.
What resources might you recommend to expats and those considering a move to Provence?
Network Provence, a community group for women (both expats and locals) in the region. These meetings (about once a month) are a way to meet new friends and discover business connections.
Creative Workshop Information
Jolie Vintage Atelier opened its doors in January 2017, for workshops accommodating a maximum of six (6) people. However, for crafting parties for kids and adults, the numbers can be larger if held at a larger venue. Jolie Vintage Atelier is open all year.
Image credits: Photos provided by and published with the permission of Mimi & Michael