It will soon be eight years since we left California and started a new life in Saint-Aignan. We found the house we now live in and put a deposit down on it in December 2002. Then we decided we really didn't want to stay any longer in San Francisco — France was too tempting. So we sold our house in S.F. in March 2003. A month later, we signed on the dotted line and became owners of a house in the country near Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. By July 2003, we were all moved in.
What a transition! We not only went from living in the U.S. to living in France, but we also moved from the city to the country. We used to live near the ocean, and now we live well inland. We lived in the temperate, nearly seasonless, kind of monotonous climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, and now we live in the much more varied, exciting climate of the Loire Valley, with clearly marked seasons. We're still getting used to that. Winter can be cold and snowy, and summer can be hot and arid. But you can't count on much of anything, weather-wise.
When we first arrived in Saint-Aignan — we live about 3 miles from the town, on a dead-end road on the edge of a big vineyard — I remember how quiet it was here. I'd go to bed at night and lie there listening for some sound, any sound. There were none. The silence was deafening. It must have been really noisy where we lived in San Francisco, but I had never particularly noticed.
Now it doesn't feel so quiet any more. I must have adapted. When I listen carefully, I can hear the little train across the river toot its horn. If the wind is right I can hear the train running along the tracks. I can hear church bells from down in our village. In the daytime, I can hear chainsaws or tractor motors off in the distance. I hear owls hoot at night and a neighbor's donkey braying. The other neighbor's rooster crows every morning. Green woodpeckers "laugh" out back when they are startled. Geese honk in another neighbor's yard. Birds, that's mostly what I hear. Once in a while a car drives by in front of the house. Or a light plane, a low-flying military jet, a helicopter, or a hot-air balloon goes by overhead, always startling me.
In San Francisco, we lived one house over from a street that ran at a very steep angle up and down a hill — as streets in San Francisco tend to do. Cars made a lot of noise on that hill, at all hours of the day and night. You got used to it. We lived maybe a quarter of a mile from the 280 freeway, which was down in a valley below our house. There was a constant roar of traffic, but you hardly heard it after a while. And we were only 10 miles from the airport, so we had a lot of planes in the sky overhead all the time. You didn't hear them much, but you heard them, sort of subconsciously — in the background, like the freeway noise.
The fact is, the French département we live in is just a little larger, geographically, than the three-county area we lived, commuted, and worked in for many years on what they call "The Peninsula" out there in the Bay Area. Those counties are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara, and they cover an area of about 5,000 square kilometers (2,000 sq. mi.).
Our département, called « le Loir-et-Cher », is — you might have guessed — basically rural. Okay, entirely rural. It covers some 6,000 square kilometers from near Le Mans on its northwest side to Saint-Aignan in the south and Vierzon on the southeast end. Blois, in the middle, is its biggest city, with a metropolitan area (called an agglomération in French) of about 75,000 people. San Francisco — and I mean the city itself, not counting any surrounding area, is 10 or 11 times larger.
The whole Loir-et-Cher département, which is barely bigger geographically than the three-county area where we lived and worked in California, has a population of about 325,000. The area in California that I've described has a population of 3.25 million! (The Paris area, by comparison, is twice as large geographically (12,000 sq. km) and has a population of 11.5 million.)
Speaking of the country vs. the city, you might not know that our département, the Loir-et-Cher, has had a popular song written about it. I can't think of any other French département (there are 100 of them — they are like counties or little states in U.S. terms) that can claim that distinction. Except Paris, of course, but that hardly counts.
The song was a big hit in the 1970s and I remember it from back then, although I didn't yet know where the Loir-et-Cher was located. I had been to Chambord and Blois to see the châteaux in the early 1970s, but I didn't know what département they were in. Now I know that the name Loir-et-Cher is known by nearly all French people, and it is synonymous with rurality, farming, and the old-fashioned life out in the country.
More about the song later...