‘Our rural idyll brought many challenges’

Michele Guinness and her husband Peter had always dreamed of living in France and suddenly it seemed that dream was coming true – or was it? Michele shares some of their adventures with Ali Hull

Where would you want to go to spend your declining years? How about a little French village, warmed by the sun? Plenty of wonderful cheeses, rich red wine and fresh croissants? That, after all, is the image of France for many of us, and it was in a way for best-selling author, Michele Guinness. But there was another side to it too – the belief in calling.

It has become a bit of cliché that Christians don't retire: God just changes where he wants us to serve him, but for Michele and her husband, Peter, an Anglican vicar, this is true. At the moment they juggle their French commitments with his duties to his parish, but for three whole months, a sabbatical took them out to France and their new property. But why had they bought it in the first place?

Michele had built on her career as an author by going into journalism and PR, ending her paid career as Head of Communications for the whole of the NHS in Cumbria and Lancaster. It was, she says, a very well-paid job, and she loved it. But, “the government decided to ‘reshuffle’ the NHS around, for the third or fourth time in the 12 years I had been working, and the new job I was offered involved three hours a day of commuting to Manchester.

“I worked incredibly long hours, the sort of thing you do when the nest empties but don't realise you are doing it – until one day you look at him across the dining-room table and say, ‘What a wonderful man. How come I give him so little time?’ So I felt there was more to life than a very tempting salary, and decided to quit to concentrate on the writing and speaking I had shelved for so long.”

And then, while on holiday in France, the generosity of another member of the family gave them the opportunity to buy a property – not something Michele and Peter have ever owned, being clergy. But why France?

“I fell in love with France as a child, and  decided to study French at Manchester University, were I met Peter. He was born in Geneva and spoke fluent French. Our love affair reflected our love affair with France. We always expected a call there any time. It has just taken a great deal longer than we expected!”

And  spending three months in their new property for their sabbatical was not what  Michele expected either. “Setting up a new home, living abroad and adapting to a rural idyll was much more stressful than I could have ever imagined.

“On the one hand, much as we love the house, material possessions alone can’t make us happy - the legal battles forced us to hold it on an open hand. On the other - owning land taught me to appreciate creation as never before. To love it as God's gift and my responsibility. To live in harmony with the wildlife - except, of course for the coypu who insist on destroying trees, lake banks and barns - whatever they get their red teeth into. But how do you kill an animal the size of a small dog, with the hide of a pig and tail of a rat? Being a church minister doesn't prepare you for that.

“We were such townies, and wondered at times if rural life might well be a mistake. We were besieged by flies and controlled them in an ecologically friendly manner with sex hormones. I have no knowledge whatsoever of the mating habits of the fly - but I think they died happy. I found it so hard to be still and to be alone - but slowly learnt to put the vac away, to value rest and reflection, and discover joys I had never really known before.”

But it was not the animal wildlife that really gave the Guinnesses problems in France – more the locals. Having bought the property and moved in, they discovered it was the subject of a raging demarcation dispute – and French bureaucracy is mindblowingly complicated. Nor could they be sure who was in the right and who was not, as they slowly got to know people in the community and heard the same story from such different points of view that none of it seemed to tally. At the same time as dealing with this, Michele was also, she says, realising that she needed to come to terms with other, greater issues – like growing older and facing retirement.

“When I said to my daughter, Abby, one day, ‘Look - a hoopoe’, she said, ‘Mother, if you've started twitching, you must be getting old.’ Ageing is a shock. I only face it when I have to look in the mirror. Inside I’m still 20.”

But being in France meant that Michele had time to face up not only to ageing, but also to its implications.  “Being alone with my thoughts made me face the fact that our paid ministry would come to an end in the next few years. Where did our lives go? Were they abundant enough? What had we achieved?  Was I really so dependent on the status and security of a career and a regular wage packet? These are issues we all need urgently to resolve to avoid a sense of waste and uselessness, and to see ourselves as God sees us - as useful in older age as in youth, because now we have maturity and experience, even if the energy is harder to muster.”

And Michele has the energy to fight for better treatment of those getting older. “I think older people may have contributed to ageism when we play at being frail and helpless. We really shouldn’t let shop owners or the NHS, or anyone patronise us or stereotype us.

“Frenchmen are a real tonic - they still think Brigitte Bardot is drop dead gorgeous in her late seventies. They don’t seem to see wrinkles - just female, and that’s grounds enough for flirting. So while I was in France, their attitude stopped me slobbing and made me do my hair and put on the make-up and glad rags - at least once every couple of days!”

She feels getting older has other advantages as well. “You can be nicely outrageous. At 30 it makes you a prima donna, at 60, an eccentric. But who cares, you could be dead next year. Better say what you know in your heart is the truth - as graciously as you can if you want to be heard.”

The best thing about having the sabbatical, apart from falling more in love with France, has been her increased appreciation of the good things God provides – and, in her case, her husband.

“The Jewish sages say that we will be judged for all the best gifts of God we failed to enjoy. I was brought up in a Jewish family, but even so we had allowed British asceticism and workaholism to rob us of God’s best and simple gifts. As I watched Peter come alive, chopping and planting, and mowing and building dams, I realised that he had abandoned all his hobbies because of church work. That was such a shock.

“I think I had even forgotten how much pleasure and fun there is to be had from the obvious - my marriage! Though, being thrown upon each other for all emotional needs for a three-month stretch did mean it took me some time to grow into that appreciation!”