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American Artist Finds Quieter, More Affordable Life in France

(CNN) — Leaving the United States and living near the French Pyrenees was not in Taylor Barnes’ plans.

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

In 2021, Barnes, divorced with a 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 the last quarter of my life,” Barnes tells CNN.

“I felt the town was visually inspiring, surrounded by oak and pine forests, so many species of wild birds I can’t count, and two rivers running through the ravines on either side of the castle.”

Moving to another country is not usually easy, but Barnes thought that this remote spot in the south of France would be an ideal place to host his residency programs, giving artists a place to flourish and feel inspired.

“In the United States, the price of real estate and the cost of living quickly made it impossible to carry out an affordable program,” he says.

Barnes, who has spent his entire life living near the ocean, says he felt an “emotional resonance” when he visited Saissac for the first time in 2018 and the town’s pristine environment reminded him of the California coast.

Built on a granite outcrop, Saissac offers spectacular views of the Pyrenees – the chain of peaks that divides France and Spain – and the valley below. An old medieval castle anchors the town to the mountain, creating a fairytale atmosphere.

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

To limit the possibility of any unnecessary delays during the relocation process, Barnes hired a consultant to help her navigate the system, which she adds was the best money spent of her life.

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

In 2019, Barnes purchased an abandoned lobster boat and transformed it into a residence, 3.1 Art Sassaic, where artists can stay and share ideas.

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

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

Visiting artists have access to a spacious studio overlooking the Vernassonne River Gorge, surrounded by wild oaks and birds.

During the renovation process, Barnes had to respect the strict regulations imposed by the French authorities responsible for artistic heritage. Luckily, a restoration architect helped her navigate the procedures.

The main living room has a large open fireplace and a dining room with library for winter gatherings.

“Our kitchen is state-of-the-art and residents who like to cook are welcome,” says Barnes.

“The region inspires culinary experimentation with all the fantastic outdoor markets and local produce. It’s amazing how many artists are often great chefs.”

From the property’s garden terrace, which is used for concerts and film screenings, you can access a wild hillside path that leads to the village castle.

To attend one of the residency programs, which run from spring to fall, artists must apply with a specific project they plan to work on during their stay in Saissac.

Built in the Middle Ages, the old surroundings of the town, with its stone walls, its cobbled paths and its to see her (stone sink for washing clothes) has proven to be a great source of inspiration, transporting visitors to another place and another time.

The area was once a popular destination for Impressionist painters and it is likely that some parts of the landscape have remained unchanged.

Local residents are creative people and craftsmen: carpenters, bakers, cooks, gardeners and herbalists.

Cultural events organized by Barnes have been well attended by locals and foreign residents, mainly from England, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Since moving to Saissac, Barnes has adopted a slower lifestyle.

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

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

Afterwards you have an espresso at the local épicerie, followed by lunch at the local restaurant Trésors d’Oc or a more traditional meal at The Montagne Noire restaurant.

While Sassaic is a sleepy town in winter, summer brings huge street dining, where residents bring chairs and tables, as well as home-cooked meals and trips to neighboring towns to listen to music at the open-air night markets. After-work apéros at the local bar are a must, says Barnes.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the full moon rise over the French countryside on a warm summer night. I feel like I’m living in a lovely French movie,” he adds.

Barnes, who spoke very little French when he arrived in 2021, tends to speak more quietly and slowly among his French friends, partly due to the culture, and his lack of confidence in speaking the language.

He currently takes French classes and uses language learning apps, but says it has been a slow process.

When it comes to meals, Barnes quickly discovered that the French are quite strict, and has learned to eat at more fixed times in restaurants, especially in small towns that work a rigid schedule of 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at lunch time and from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at dinner time.

Barnes, who has a five-year renewable Carte de Séjour, says living in a close-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 look crazy if I said ‘Hello’ to everyone. In In a city you can easily move anonymously. But in a town, everyone knows you and cares about you. The lack of anonymity could be annoying as a city person, but it somehow comforts me that it would be noticed if one day I suddenly disappeared from the outskirts of town.”

Barnes is impressed by the French healthcare system, which offers universal coverage to all legal residents, and feels more comfortable aging in France.

“It’s obvious to me how difficult it is to age gracefully, and healthily, in the United States,” he says.

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

When Barnes is not focused on her artistic work, she enjoys exploring unusual places in the area and doing activities such as sailing along the Canal du Midi and hiking in the remote wooded areas of the Montagne Noire.

Barnes says he has learned to rely on his friends in town, who make key calls on his behalf when he faces difficulties, and help artists who attend his programs, which run from spring to fall, book transportation.

“I don’t know what I would do without my group of friends who support me in town,” he says. “You can’t do a relocation alone: ​​it literally takes a village.”

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