By Michele Reed
Photos by Bill Reed
In April I lost my best friend of nearly 50 years and my traveling companion through life, my husband, Bill, to a sudden heart attack.
In the days and weeks that followed, one theme emerged in notes and comments from family, friends and even people I’d never met but who knew us from the pages of this magazine: “You’re so lucky you had that time together in France.”
“Lucky?” I thought. In my grief, I couldn’t see anything to feel lucky about. But on reflection, I see they were right.
Regular readers of this column — which has chronicled our adventures in France since 2014 — know our shared exploration of “la belle vie” in France has been the highlight of our retirement years. We took you along with us as we first researched the idea of retiring abroad, tested the waters with three months in the off season at a popular vacation spot, and searched for and eventually bought a home there.
The truth of the matter is, I owe all that adventure, all that magic to Bill. Even before France we traveled together to Poland and Scotland. He was the one who, searching the internet one Sunday morning in Oswego, found the first house we rented, with a palm tree and a lemon tree bearing fruit in February in the backyard. And a couple of years later, when we found our little house — high on a hill in the middle of a tiny village surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye could see — he was the one who urged me to jump at the chance to buy it. If it had been up to me, we would have waited and toured many more houses, possibly never fulfilling our dream of a tiny retirement home in France, a legacy we will leave our children.
Bill was the one who was inspired to travel there through Barcelona, where we found history and culture to enjoy at every visit. And he was the one who planned “petite adventures” to explore places like Nice, Monaco and Lyon. Without him, I would never have climbed to the top of a church tower, with views stretching from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea, or stood on the roof of the summer castle of the kings and queens of Mallorca with the sea breeze blowing my hair and the roar of waves crashing beneath us. I would never have walked the ramparts of Carcassonne, the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or felt the cool water of a fountain designed by Picasso in the middle of a tiny village. And I never, ever, would have stood on tiptoes on a tiny rocky outcrop trying to touch the feet of Christ on a cross erected to greet sailors into the port of Collioure, with “nothing between us and Africa but the vast blue expanse of the Mediterranean,” as Bill noted once we were safely back on the beach.
But with all these grand adventures, all the magnificent cathedrals, historic chateaux, majestic mountains and the unbelievable blue of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s the little things I’ll remember most about life with Bill in France.
I’ll think of the begonias and pansies on our windowsill, that bloom all year long, and the year-round flower market every Friday in Beziers, where we’d stroll weekly, enjoying the scent of lavender, bougainvillea and mimosa.
When I sip my morning coffee, I’ll remember the crusty baguette or a chunk of rustic French bread cut from a giant loaf on a scarred wooden table on the sidewalk outside our favorite bakery, Boulangerie Cristal.
At 6 p.m., I’ll remember our rooftop terrace, where we’d share an apero, a pre-dinner glass of wine with olives and cheese.
I’m thankful for the memory of our leisurely lunches at the Petit Ju, our favorite café, or a cold glass of abbey ale at the Bar de la Comedie, a historic 100-year-old bistro.
And on cold winter days, I’ll be warmed by memories of Sunday promenades in the vineyards just outside our village, with the buzz of bees in our ears and the heat of the sun baking our skin.
Bill gave me many gifts during our half century together, first as college sweethearts and then as husband and wife. And one of the best is the memory of our time together in France. I guess those people were right: We were pretty lucky indeed.