Nothing like starting a blog with a bad joke, eh? And these kinds of jokes never go well, do they? But perhaps there is an interesting twist to this one. Because the lawyer, the retiree and the francophile are all the same person...me. And the bar I walked into, situated in a little village in the South of France, has been my home for the last three years - through COVID, the global supply chain collapse, skyrocketing inflation and the war in the Ukraine.
But this is a happy story. Fair warning, however: much like a Stephen King novel or anything by Tolstoy, it takes a bit of development to get there. So don't be discouraged if the beginning seems like a bit of a downer. We'll get there, I promise. And it won't take 100 pages, like in The Stand or It.
To quote Alexandre Dumas père from my favorite book of all time, The Count of Monte Cristo:
All human wisdom is summed up in these two words: wait and hope.
And so it begins...
While it wasn't exactly the prototypical dark and stormy night, it was a standard, cold, gray, windy February day in the Chicago suburbs. A steady drizzle was slowly building up on the yards and streets, giving everything a faint sheen. The light struggled to pierce the low layer of solid clouds. In other words, it was everything you would expect from early summer in northern England...
A man was seated at a desk in a well-appointed, comfortable home office, right out of a magazine. Dark wood panels stretched up the walls to eye level, before transitioning into neutral paint that reached up to the vaulted ceiling. Large wooden desks and filing cabinets reminiscent of the early 1900s rested against the walls. A modern sofa and side chair, along with a brass and glass coffee table perched on a bright modern rug, offering an energetic counterpoint to the otherwise highly traditional styling of the room.
On the other side of a deep window seat, large windows peered out onto a neatly manicured lawn nestled amidst a row of wildly varying houses lining the street. The entire area had been on the bleeding edge of teardown and gentrification when the housing bubble blew in 2008. But the recession ended the conversion, and for the next decade, the neighborhood retained its unusual and eclectic appearance. Once a village where the staff for the houses of the Chicago elite lived, the town now had an eccentric mix of small bungalows next to McMansions of all shapes and styles.
To round out all the conflicting styles, the man - balding, in his early 50s, with a scraggly, untrimmed beard - was dressed in what could only be described as housing-challenged chic. Faded, torn jeans and a stained sweatshirt atop a worn pair of Ugg slippers. He alternated between staring out the window and peering at his computer screen with utter disinterest. Having spent the last 20 years working as a litigator at a mid-size, specialist law firm in the city (or "fighting for the sake of fighting" as he now liked to call it), he was desperately searching for the thing that would keep him going in the coming years.
Law firm life loses its lustre
Law firm life, while an exciting adrenaline rush when he was younger, had utterly lost its appeal. He had been mildly successful as a trial lawyer and had even reached the level of Managing Partner for his firm. But for many of the other demands of the profession, he simply wasn't up to the task. So, like so many other attorneys, he had burned out, and he and his firm were now parting ways. Nothing makes a person more thrilled than turning into a cliché or a statistic, but what can you do?
That morning was like so many others in recent weeks. Get up, get ready, have coffee with the wife (also an attorney at his firm), walk the dogs, see the wife and last kid living at home off to work and school, and then sit down in front of the computer to look for new jobs. Maybe today would be the day when he would see something that actually generated a spark, something that wasn't just more of the same. But that day he just couldn't find the motivation to start the search anew.
After staring at the screen for what seemed like hours, he said "Screw this, I'm going to do something fun." Like so many others, he would daydream about retirement. What would he and his wife do? Travel, without question. Both he and his wife loved to explore parts of the world they had not yet seen. Perhaps do something creative or artistic? He had always thought about writing, but never really got around to doing much more than a few sporadic blog posts. His wife loved to draw and paint but rarely had the time.
Just as importantly where would they be? They had wrangled about this issue before. She wasn't ready to pick a place because they still had kids in college, with another to start that fall. They didn't know where the kids would wind up, so how could they possibly choose somewhere for themselves? He was worried that if they didn't start planning for a specific location, they would get stuck living in nowhere-close-to-anything Wyoming (one of the kids was making a lot of noise about moving to Utah, and neither of them wanted to live there). His choices were, in no particular order, an island like Kauai or Virgin Gorda, Miami Beach, Las Vegas or somewhere in Europe. All of which she had objections to.
Taking the next step
But now he decided he was going to figure it out. And he started with the place he had wanted to live since he was a little kid: France. What wasn't to like? The food was some of the best in the world. Cultural opportunities abounded. He loved the architecture, from the small mas (farmhouses) of Southern France to the grand Haussmannian buildings so common in Paris. And Versailles, well Versailles was his dream home when he was young, because, like so many other five-year-old American boys, he had aspired to be the second coming of Louis XIV, the Sun King...
So he quickly navigated to a website (www.green-acres.fr) that he would visit every few months to look at potential retirement houses. Finally, he felt a surge of energy and excitement. Maybe today he would find something they could start working towards. Select houses. Check. Choose a base number of bedrooms. Check. Search. Check. OK, 5000 results to go through. That should get him through the morning.
What type of place should he focus on? A rustic mas in Provence, reminiscent of the home in Pagnol's Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources? A Disney-esque cottage along the river Charente? Perhaps he should look for an elegant apartment in Paris or Nice instead. The pages overflowed with possibility.
An unexpected discovery
And then it jumped out at him. A three-story, stone-front building. Light green shutters on the ground floor. Dark brown shutters above. A Juliet balcony in the middle of the first floor (European style, second floor for Americans). An old iron street lamp stretching off the right side of the first floor (again, European). And was that a sign hanging off to the left side? What exactly was this?
Intrigued, he clicked on the listing (linked to a listing from the Pullen Real Estate agency - great people, highly recommended). And there it was. A wine bar. Small, but interesting. An inviting courtyard with shabby-chic tables and chairs and a trellised grapevine overhead. Inside an art deco bar and racks filled with wine bottles.
Looking further, he found that the bar was in a tiny little village in an area of France he knew nothing about. The Languedoc? Occitanie? What and where are those? Like many other Americans, he was well versed in Provence having read Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and its follow-ups but knew little about the rest of the country. And this region of south-central France seemed to have neither the allure of Provence nor the sophistication and culture of Paris (boy, would that assumption be proved drastically wrong).
In other words, the bar was precisely everything he was NOT looking for. After all, he was an attorney whose only experience in the hospitality industry was cooking fish sandwiches at Sea World (oh, the irony) one spring break when he was in high school, and working restaurants at the Kennedy Space Center Welcome Center for one summer (remind me to tell you a story about fries one of these days). And none of his previous retirement daydreams involved long hours cooking, cleaning and, gasp, talking to people he didn't know (he had always been an introvert absolutely mortified by social settings). So why exactly was he looking at this place?
Maybe it was the fact that in all his searches on the site over the years, he had never seen a business, especially at the price point of the houses he was searching for. That certainly made it an unusual, omen-esque event (without the terrifying little kid and a profusion of number 6s). Perhaps it was the fact that he had frequently joked with family and friends about running away from it all and (in another cliché move) opening a bar on a beach somewhere. Whatever the reason, throughout the morning, he found himself coming back to the listing over and over.
Should I or shouldn't I?
"OK," he said to himself, "For some reason I can't really explain, I want to go check this place out. But, how am I going to convince my wife to let me go? If I suggest it, she will probably look at me like I have three heads, with a large nose ring in one, an eyebrow piercing on the second, and a tongue stud in the third, all of whom sit on a body wearing a Notre Dame football jersey." (As a lifelong Alabama Crimson Tide fan, the Fighting Irish were one of his most hated teams - ROLL TIDE.) This, by the way, was a look she had given him before many times, which is why he could describe it with such particularity.
But, he realized, the family was shortly going on vacation in Italy, visiting the tiny little town of Calascio in the mountains of Abruzzo, just a couple of hours east of Rome. So, he went to his wife and, with a few introductory "Errr's" and "So's", said, "You know how we have occasionally discussed retiring in Europe? What would you think about me going over to France a couple of weeks before our vacation starts and seeing if it is something that just sounds good in theory, or if it really might be a viable option? Maybe after a few days there, I'll just realize that it doesn't make any sense for us. And then I'll meet you at the airport in Rome."
She looked at him for a moment with a hard-to-read expression in her eyes. Maybe she was trying to think of what kind of scam he might be running. Maybe she was thinking that it would be a bit odd to have him off on what was essentially a pre-vacation vacation. But more likely, she was thinking "Thank God I can get him out of my hair for a while, because he has been driving me absolutely nuts moping around here all the time." So with a slight smile bending up the edge of her mouth, she said "I think it would be a great idea for you to get away and reset. And that way you'll be in a better mood for our vacation too."
Wondering (a) how he wound up with such a supportive and adoring partner, and (b) how he had managed to pull this off, he stammered "Oh..OK. I'll go ahead and make some plans." Still trying to figure out exactly what had happened, he wandered back to the home office and started looking at flights.
Off we go into the wild bleu yonder...
We'll skip all the boring details of travel planning, with one exception. Before heading out, he contacted the realtor and made an appointment to visit the bar on the day of his arrival. Now let's zoom right ahead to the moment he set foot in France at the Toulouse airport. Despite his lifelong status as a francophile, he had actually spent very little time in the country, and he had never been in this part of France before. The pending adventure had him brimming with excitement.
Because the appointment was mid-afternoon and he had arrived in the early morning, he decided to take the scenic route from Toulouse to Ginestas, winding through the edge of the Parc natural régional du Haut-Languedoc and stopping in the village of Olargues (one of the so-called Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages in France.
The drive was gorgeous, especially once
he passed the outskirts of Toulouse, and he felt a sense of complete relaxation flood through him. After entering the Haut-Languedoc, the road began to twist and turn as it wound through the foothills of the Massif Central. As he approached Olargues, he could only get brief glimpses because the road never got a straight shot at the town. But all of a sudden he rounded a bend and saw the town climbing up the side of a hill directly in front of him. This was exactly what he had always thought of when France came to mind - towns that humbly and beautifully displayed hundreds of years of history.
Finding a parking spot on the outskirts of town, he started exploring the town. Beginning in the bed of the river under the Devil's Bridge, he ascended the winding streets, past crosses, chapels, roses the size of small cabbages, and increasingly stunning views back down into the river valley, before reaching the small tower at the summit. It could not have been more perfect.
Well, actually, it could have been a bit more perfect. He would have really liked to enjoy lunch outside while looking out over the valley. But he had arrived on the Friday following Ascension Thursday (a national holiday in France) so everything was closed. So with a deep sigh, he headed back down to the car.
As he drove south out of the Haut-Languedoc towards Ginestas he realized that he was becoming more and more taken with the region. Perhaps retirement here would be a real possibility. But he had to see what actually living in a village would be like.
On his way down, he decided to pull over and see if he could find a place for lunch near Ginestas. He discovered that sitting on the Canal du Midi just on the edge of Ginestas is the small village of Le Somail. And in Le Somail there were several restaurants right along the edge of the canal. So he made a reservation at L'Ô à la Bouche and jumped back on the road.
What a great choice that turned out to be! Le Somail was just as picturesque as Olargues in its own way. And it was hard to beat sitting out in the sun on the edge of the canal enjoying a foie gras crême brulée and a glass of rosé!
With a very successful morning under his belt, he headed off for his appointment at the bar.
The first impression
He met the realtor, a charming English man, in front of the mairie, and together they wandered the 200 feet to the front of L'Oncle Jules, un bar à bon vin. The bar was only open nights, so it was empty except for one of the current owners, an equally charming British woman. After wandering through the building and discussing the operation of the bar for quite some time, the tour ended. He was smitten, but was it realistic?
The realtor commented that it really wouldn't do to leave without seeing the bar during opening hours. So he suggested that they meet again at the bar that evening for drinks and appetizers and then wander over to the local Irish pub (now the site of the excellent restaurant La Table du Casino) to watch the Premier League soccer championship game.
So off he went to check into his "hotel," a slightly ramshackle houseboat sitting on the Canal du Midi in the neighboring village of Argens-Minervois. The small entry porch was the perfect place to enjoy the afternoon sun and think through what he had just seen at the bar.
Was he actually thinking about doing this? When he made his travel plans, this was just a lark, not anything serious. Did it actually make sense to do something this crazy, this far away from anything else he had ever done? While the visit was fresh in his mind, he began working on a pro-con list to help with the decision.
The second impression
As the afternoon wound down, he closed up his notes and headed back to Ginestas for the evening festivities. The bar was lively, filled with locals and tourists alike. The food was delicious and filling. And the wine was powerful and ridiculously cheap. At 14 euros, bottles were priced less than a normal glass in Chicago.
After an hour or so enjoying the atmosphere of the bar and chatting with a couple of the six (!!!) owners, he and the realtor headed over to the pub for the soccer game. His realtor wasn't hard selling the bar; indeed, he didn't discuss it at all. Instead, he just introduced the man to a lot of the locals and the area itself. But no hard sell was necessary - it was very easy to fall in love with the area and the people.
At the end of the night, he thanked the realtor, told him he would discuss things with his wife and get back to him at the end of their vacation in Italy. The man spent the next week exploring the Languedoc before heading for a comparison week in Provence.
Was this the right location for the long term?
What he discovered surprised him. The Languedoc was just as beautiful as Provence, with a rich and interesting history. And it was infinitely less crowded and less expensive because it was so much less known. Provence would be a wonderful place to be, but the Languedoc actually looked better.
As his two weeks in France wound down, he had come to a couple of realizations. One was that if he could convince his wife that the language barrier was not a problem, they could definitely happily retire in France, more particularly in the Languedoc. The second was that the bar was probably not realistic. But he would discuss it with his wife anyway.
Running the pros and cons
So off he went to meet the family in Rome (an adventure in and of itself, but one best left to another post). One day while sitting in the courtyard of the house they rented in Calascio, he told his wife about visiting the bar and about his pro-con list. Without the slightest hesitation, she said "Let's hear it."
They went through the list (by then several pages long) point by point. And at the end, he said, "So, as interesting as I thought it was, it doesn't make sense. It's not a good time because we still have kids to get through college, and, worse yet, we would have to be apart for several years, only seeing each other on FaceTime and when we could travel back and forth. Which wouldn't be a lot for me, because I'd need to keep the bar running. But it was fun to look at."
She gave him that same slight smile as when he first suggested his trip to France. And then she stunned him. She pulled him towards her, looking into his eyes, and said "Do you know how long it has been since I have seen you excited about doing something? Do you know how long it has been since I have seen something make you this happy? Years. We can deal with all of the problems - they aren't that big. I won't enjoy being apart any more than you will, but we ARE doing this." Once again, he couldn't believe his luck.
Taking the plunge
They made the offer shortly after arriving back in the States and making sure they had their financial arrangements in place. In France, the paperwork for buying a building takes forever, so the closing was set for October. He flew back in August to take some mandatory courses in restaurant hygiene and liquor sales. On Halloween 2019, he officially took over ownership and management of the bar.
The rest is history. Quite obviously, despite the third person narration, the man is me. Three years and one global pandemic later, I am in the process of slowly transitioning the bar to more of me and less of the prior owners. While they did a phenomenal job with the place, it is time for it to reflect my personality. The interior is being updated and the menu is changing slowly but surely. Tourism is beginning to rebound, although progress is still slow. Qnd with the bar getting on its feet, it was time to move on to the next venture, which is BOTTLES + BATTLES.
Alison and I thank you for joining us here. We hope you will enjoy our upcoming episodes, when we being pairing the wines of our region with some of the amazing history here. And we hope that one day you will come visit us at L'Oncle Jules.
LEGAL NOTICE THAT MOST READERS CAN SKIP: As a former lawyer, I unfortunately feel compelled to state that some artistic license has been taken in this post, and nothing herein is an admission that any statements made in ongoing (for more than 13 years, dear god) post-divorce proceedings are in any way inaccurate. Instead, everything in this post is wholly consistent with those statements. I have all too much experience having to waste money and time dealing with divorce lawyers of questionable ethics (at best) and frivolous court proceedings based on things I have said online. Blame it on the Illinois family court system, which endorses and encourages bad behavior by attorneys, and which is frankly worse than a joke.