A Provençal life
Francophiles should look away now. The story you are about to read will thrill you and induce soul-churning envy all at once.
“I still walk down the centre of Aix-en-Provence and feel I should pinch myself to see if I am dreaming,” muses Adi Bukman, an Aussie expat thriving in the heart of Provence. “Most days I say to myself, ‘little girl from Innisfail — here I am’. I feel so lucky to be here. It’s always sunny, that golden hour is the most magical I have ever seen. It’s no wonder all the famous painters lived here to capture it.”
To complete the dreamy scenario that is Adi’s life, she lives with her Dutch husband, Frits, and their two boys in a 17th-century stone home furnished with their eclectic collection of antiques and quirky finds, and oozing French charm. “I like that it’s 17th century, and the history of the home — that it was the gate-keeper’s home,” Adi explains. “You should see the other home a few hundred metres away. From my studio window, in autumn when the trees have lost their leaves, you can see what used to be a factory that made the old tiles in our home. During the war that factory became a transport camp to bring all the Jews together here, to transport them to the various camps around Europe. Did the Germans occupy my house with the French family that lived here? What has this house seen? The stories the walls have soaked up!”
If the walls could talk, there’d no doubt be stories of hundreds of lives lived and lost, of times of bounty and times of heartache. None of it is lost on the family who are its current custodians. “As beautiful as it is, it is a family home,” Adi adds. “The kids run through it while playing with the dog or dripping wet from the pool. It’s lived in and it lives.”
Frits is a chemical engineer, working not far from home at an oil plant. The couple had their first stint in France as newlyweds, and it took time to settle in. “I feel after three years in a place you start to feel like its home, or have enough love from the community to feel like it’s a home,” Adi says. Their first son, Remy, came along during that time. “Remy spent the first 15 months of his life here, with a French nanny who spoke to him in her mother tongue,” Adi says. Being a new mum far from home is never easy, and Adi had pangs to return to Australia, so they packed up and moved to Perth. Rafael was born not long afterwards, and the couple spent five happy years soaking up the West Australian life.
But when the chance to move back to Provence popped up, Adi and Frits felt they weren’t quite finished with la vie Française and decided to head back. “Since moving, the boys spent the first three years saying ‘I want to go home’,” Adi says. “They remember home to be the beach and their school friends. It’s only been the past two years they have fitted into the life of the French, conquered the language and feel settled. Heaven forbid if I offer a sandwich for lunch because here it’s a three-course meal at school. Ultimately, ask them where they want to live and in a split second the answer is clear — Australia — where they speak English.”
For now, another move back home again is not on the cards, and the family is savouring the slow lane of southern France. “It’s about late starts, late finishes and a two-hour break in between for lunch,” Adi says. “You have to stop for lunch. There is so much to see, so much to do and the town attracts some of the most amazing people.” Aix, as it’s known, is 30 kilometres from Marseille and boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. Its cobbled streets, cute cafes, gorgeous boutiques, myriad fountains and lively city squares attract plenty of tourists and many of Adi and Frits’ relatives and friends, who often spend summer months staying at their beautiful property. “May is spring and the amazing bloom of flowers is a sight to see,’’ Adi says. “It’s like looking at a Renoir painting. We start living outside again and everything starts happening, a lot of soirees to enjoy the warmer evenings.”
One of her favourite ways to while away the days is ‘brocanting’ — the quintessential French merger of antique shopping and flea market trawling. “I love the thrill of getting up early to get there before the hordes, walking idly through and imagining where the things I like could go,” she says. “In spring and summer it’s the season, so every weekend there are treasures screaming to be found. There are also antique fairs and those I always go to.” She’s turned her passion into a little business, sourcing one-off French treasures for others who may not be nearby, or nearly as savvy on the shopping circuit. “I have a ‘secret man’ whom I tend to selfishly keep to myself,” Adi teases. “I go to him often, treasure hunting for myself and for clients. He always has a list from me and helps me tick it off.”
Ever resourceful, and wanting to share all she’s been lucky to glean from her time in Provence, Adi, a hairdresser by trade, has found work in various forms. “After knowing enough French to get by I started my own business as a hair stylist, and now I have a studio at home and work as a stylist two days a week,” she explains. “I also hosts workshops in my home and on location in some of the most beautiful parts of the world. I do hair, make-up, photography, and collaborate with other photographers styling for them or sourcing props, locations or models. I am contacted a lot by people overseas who want to run a workshop here and need someone to organise it for them. So I tend to do a little of that too.”
It’s ingratiated her into a tight-knit, but friendly community. “We really feel we are accepted in the village we live in and the community of Aix,” Adi says. “My friend always makes a joke with me that if she comes shopping with me she must add an hour on because every corner I turn I must stop to say hello to someone I know. So we really are locals now.”
It’s a wonderful existence — the south of France has clearly stolen her heart, but it’s a place much further south that will always win it back. “I have Australia in my blood,” Adi says. “The people are so nice and real and raw. We lived at the beach in Scarborough and it’s that feeling of sun, sea, and surf that I think of when thinking of home. Also the network of people you have around you is so great. I miss that … and fish and chips on the beach.”
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 21.2. Click here to subscribe to our magazine
Words Tamara Simoneau
Photography Deborah Deulofeu, Peggy Cormary, Jinky Arts & Aki Bukman