Carry-le-Rouet is a town of small streets and large villas 20 miles west of Marseille, a port of pleasure boats protected by breakwaters from the great blue Mediterranean. It smells of the sea and tousled Aleppo pines. On sunny days, which are most days, the city shines across the water like a dusty crown.
We rented a house here from October to Christmas, knowing nothing more than you can see on Airbnb: high rooms, strips of sea through the pines, ornate wallpaper and extravagant mirrors. We could get away with it because my partner teaches and our son studies at the same online school — we could flee the Yorkshire winter! Our friends in Britain went from thinking we were very lucky to believing, as the Covid-19 infection rate roared up, that we must be mad. “You’re moving to near Marseille? In the middle of the second wave?” said one.
But the rent was committed and so were we. In one click of booking thumb we had become international remote workers, a grand title for one dauntless grandmother, two parents, one child and the dog, making our way down through France in two cars, taking great precautions with masks, gloves and gouts of sanitiser.
I broke away from the motorways via Arles, nosing down to the Camargue. Over the high reeds were marsh harriers and south-going swallows. Summer and autumn embraced in sprays of colour and light at every turn in the road. A river ferry took me across the mouth of the Rhône. I laughed for joy at the sight of flamingos on a salt pan, sleeping on one leg, heads under pink wings spread like Japanese fans. Could this really be our home, now?
Nina Simone spent her last years in Carry. Her funeral in 2003 was attended by singers, actors, poets and activists from around the world. Carry had seen nothing like it and never will again, but come summer it heaves elegantly with the in-the-know from all over. When we arrived some were still here, strolling along the quay, beautifully dressed, already wistfully missing their villas.
Carry’s rhythms are easy to catch. First thing, everyone to the boulangerie, “Deux croissants, Madame, s’il vous plaît.” By 11.30 (pre-lockdown) it was “Un Ricard!” time in the Bar-Tabac du Port. Smells of good cooking arise around one, followed by a siesta peace, followed by a flurry of food shopping and conversations.
My master chef is the fishmonger. “You fry these three minutes skin-down, one minute skin-up,” he says, handing over filets of gilt-head bream. My seven-year-old has become adept with a knife, pleading for whole sea bass, loups in French, which he can scale and gut. “Can we have loops, Dad?”
As the sun sinks, burnishing the pines and the cliffs with a hot orange glow, the bar-restaurants along the front fill up, or they did until “le confinement”, the lockdown, came.
Confinement in paradise is still much more paradise than prison. If only I could, I decided, I would always winter here, like the redstarts and the goldfinches in the garden, like the arrowhead of white storks which flew over once under a blue moon, their wingbeats carrying through the silent night.
That fishmonger, and the chatty lady at the till in the Casino supermarket, and the man with the leather-red face in the tabac become highlights of your day when you are an international remote worker.
Removed from the society of your British neighbours and friends, who even in lockdown you might glimpse and greet, you experience a doubled isolation. It takes twice as long to get to know anyone when you are only allowed out for exercise or shopping.
Children feel everything most keenly. Our boy can hear the shouts of beings his own age from other gardens, and sometimes exchanges glances with them when we pass in town, but many of his happiest moments are online, playing Minecraft with his friends at home.
His adults have adopted a peculiarly modern expat rhythm, tuning into the PM programme on Radio 4 for the reassuring voice of Evan Davies, opening one of the remorselessly excellent Rhône wines and anxiously following the twists and turns of Britain’s struggle with the virus. You are in no way detached from the cares of home. You are certainly guilty of the bigot’s criticism of the immigrant, minding more about where you came from than where you are.
Meanwhile, across the water, Marseille has been fighting a terrible battle against infection. Her docks are lined with furloughed cruise ships. The gaudy red ferries to Tunis, Corsica and Sardinia became a rare and melancholy sight. The word from friends in other parts of France was that the Marseillais are a law unto themselves and are suffering the consequences of a refusal to listen to the government in Paris.
Not so, said Agathe L’hôte, a local journalist. “People have been really good,” she told me. “We look after each other in this city. But the hospitals are underfunded, there are not enough staff or beds. In the summer people were told to holiday in France so everyone came south, and so the infection spread.”
We walked along the Corniche, the city’s winding seafront, and watched her fellow citizens swimming and running and walking their dogs, each with a downloaded “attestation” form on their phone, stating what time they left home.
For everyone who can get to it, and certainly for my boy and for me, the sea has been salvation throughout these months. Online school is hard for a seven-year-old. Trying not to shout at a child to stay at his screen and concentrate during lessons is hard for all of us, especially for his granny, who does mighty work with him all week.
But every afternoon we take our towels and trunks down to our rock on the edge of the Mediterranean and jump in gleefully. The waves are still warmer than the Welsh surf that make us scream on our summer holidays. Daily swimming has become my most benign addiction yet.
The air of the Côte Bleue is famously, sparklingly clear, swept clean by the mistral that rushes down the Rhône valley. Those Cézanne landscapes, the glow of Monet’s Riviera paintings and the rich tints in Matisse are not artistic exaggeration. The light is such you feel you have found the very home of colour. Floating on your back in the swell, your eyes are so full of sky you might as well be flying.
Our walks to and from the sea, holding hands and talking of everything the child’s mind lights upon — fish! Hitler’s dog! Imposters! Skyscrapers! The French! — are the great treasures of this escape.
While any mention of home schooling makes most parents groan, remote working from another country brings many compensations to an employee. Just that hour time difference gives me a little edge against a UK newspaper deadline. Zoom meetings, performing at online literary festivals, attending book launches and readings feel all the more pleasurable, and training courses the less onerous, for being at a remove, with southern sunlight instead of norther rain-shadow beyond the windows.
People I work with and for might worry that without supervision and the strip-lit and clock-timed pressure of the office I might be tempted to slack. Do I really mind as much as I should about my responsibilities at the University of Manchester when I am 900 miles from my deserted desk? When, instead of commuting to Oxford Road on a Monday morning, I might choose, as I do sometimes, to watch French Connection II? (Justified research, I call it: on my behalf Gene Hackman roams Marseille’s demi-monde, currently closed down by the pandemic.)
In fact, I have found that I do mind, more than ever. Being remote and removed makes me very keen to perform swiftly and well, to give my students rapid and detailed responses, to never be thought to have disappeared over the horizon. Excellent food, swimming and no commuting make me and remote workers in general — according to well-known surveys by Stanford University, among others — more productive, happier and healthier.
The main challenge, especially for my partner, a ferociously driven online teacher, is knowing when to stop. We have rowed over her answering emails from students, who may be many time zones ahead of us, in Saudi Arabia or Hong Kong, at 10 at night. “You must give yourself a break!” I urge. “Back off and let me do my work!” she retorts.
Living here makes all the difference, though. This southern space and light create a very different home-office environment from our cramped terraced house in Yorkshire. Being on the Blue Coast is a sapphire-bright jewel of an experience in an otherwise dark time. Our boy has taken to it all too well.
“This villa would be perfect, Dad, if only it had a pool,” he remarked the other day. “But the sea’s just there!” I fumed. He giggled. We both know I would have to become a very different kind of writer to ever own a villa like this, never mind a pool. At least, I thought, needing offline friends and physical school as he does, the boy will be more excited than sad when we set our courses north. I will be heartbroken, though I plan to come back.
As WH Auden put it, in Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno:
“…though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was.”
More countries court remote workers
The pandemic has encouraged a growing number of countries to accelerate efforts to woo remote workers, in some cases as a way to counteract the slump in conventional tourism.
Last month, Alex Patelis, chief economic adviser to the Greek prime minister, announced that foreign workers who move to the country would be eligible for a tax exemption on 50 per cent of their income for seven years. Patelis said that as well as targeting “digital migrants”, Greece was hoping to entice some of those who had left the country during the debt crisis, as well as those considering leaving the UK following Brexit.
The tourist-dependent Caribbean island of Barbados was among the first places to see the potential in remote workers. In July it launched the Barbados Welcome Stamp, a visa under which visitors can stay for 12 months and work remotely for an overseas company, without becoming liable for income tax in Barbados. It can be applied for online, has a one-off fee of $2,000, and can be renewed at the end of the year.
Bermuda introduced a similar policy in August, though its “one-year residential certificate” costs only $263. “No need to be trapped in your apartment in a densely populated city with the accompanying restrictions and high risk of infection,” wrote Bermuda’s premier David Burt in an open letter to potential applicants. “Come spend the year with us.”
Mauritius, the Cayman Islands, Anguilla and Estonia have brought in similar visas in recent months; Croatia has plans to follow suit.
For those in the tourism industry, the additional benefit is the potential to attract clients in what would be the off-season. “It harks back to the old Edwardian notion of travelling to the Mediterranean — no-one in their right minds would go there in summer,” says Ileana von Hirsch, director of Five Star Greece, a private villa specialist that has seen a rise in long-term rental enquiries. “Winter was when you took your villa on an azure riviera, to get away from the drizzle and soot.”
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