Mon Retour à La Campagne

Le Parc Naturel Régional des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin. It’s a mouthful! It’s where we live, a natural park measuring about 570 square miles including 150 towns, 74000 inhabitants, over 1500 farms, around 2800 miles of hiking trails, and 105 square miles of moors and wetlands.

In other words … it’s a treasure trove of farmland (growing carrots, leeks, rapeseed and flax), oyster cultivation, and natural habitats for birds as well as rare species of plants—the most fertile area in France. Spring and summer make the wetlands accessible while winter leaves them blank, and the moors, while least fertile in the area, are covered with heather in the fall.

To France, Normandy means economic riches and tourism. To me, it has meant coming home to La Campagne, the very rural countryside.

Granted, it’s not the home from my childhood. The question people ask me the most—and some don’t enjoy my answer—is why I didn’t return to Belgium? First, I consider Western Europe my home because no matter where I go, it all feels familiar even if the area may not be.

I’ve never been to Normandy either, and yet it’s the closest to coming home I could have ever dreamed of. That is … the home of my childhood, the way things were when I was a young girl and before I had any inkling of how big and beautiful the world is.

My village was my world and in particular my street and the modest house my dad and grandfather built together in the Fifties. The view was that of a seemingly endless horizon, and the wind carried an aromatic cocktail of fresh country air, cow shit, and horses. On Sunday mornings I would scan the sky, willing for my dad’s racing pigeons to come in, eager to play outside. That’s home. Was home.

Belgium is a beautiful country and there is lots to see and taste, as I will share with you on this blog. Unfortunately the rise of economic prosperity, demand, and increasingly valuable land prices, made it irresistible for farmers to sell off huge amounts of real estate. For as long as I can remember it’s been said that Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach, a cute way to say they are eager to build.

That certainly hasn’t changed. You can still buy horse milk in the old neighborhood, but if my dad climbed back into life today, he wouldn’t recognize the spots where we used to pick wild blackberries for my mom to make jam. Knowing how deeply he loved our hometown, he would be as mortified as I am, and of the opinion more (or different) effort should be made to retain green space like they do so successfully in other countries.

So there you have it, one of several reasons not to have elected to go back to my home country: we prefer green space over industrial prosperity and prefer adventure over the familiar! That said, our new home has been a real surprise. Not only do we live in the countryside, but the land is so lush and rich in this area that they declared it a National Park in 1991, and we’re not only in the middle of fields dotted with Camembert cows but have an added bonus of moors and salt marshes, dunes and estuaries.

We got so much more than we bargained for when we chose our first temporary home in France! The ditches are teeming with frogs, storks, and duckweed. At night we go to bed with the sound of owls. In the morning we wake up to crowing roosters and a coo coo’s call that doesn’t come from a clock, but from just beyond the open window. We are observers in an incredibly rich ecosystem where large birds of prey hunt in the fields around us!

Of course, it’s the early days. Moving to a new country requires a significant period of adjustment. But I’m so humbled to have regained an important piece of my childhood that I get to share with my own little family. When we’re playing with the dogs as birds and frogs shower us in evening song, it certainly seems like we made the right decision.


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