18 Mar 2010

The French Gardien

As much as I love travelling, I love home more. Life on this farm turns with or without me. That is the thing about nature, she won’t wait and in my absence routines run, new plans must be put in place, the olives tended and the garden maintained. The French gardien, the caretaker, makes this happen. Our gardien is Gérard and without him my world would be a different place. Not because he is an employee and helps me with the jobs that need to be done but because he is an integral and important part of my French life.

As an Australian I understand the employer/employee relationship. I respect contracts and working conditions and at one time or another I have been both employer and employee. This does not work in the same way here in France; we are connected and accountable to each other in ways that go beyond the sheet of paper that contractually binds us. I am le patron. I am the person responsible for Gérard, his well being, his happiness and his fiscal future. In turn he has my back; he is loyal, he has only my best interests at heart and I believe he would protect me with his life if ever called upon. He truly does ‘take care’. Okay, that sounds a bit dramatic but life in France is not cut and dried and nor is it always business-like and set in stone. It is messy and it is emotional with traditions and practises that date back hundreds of years.

It all started back in 1999 when we bought an abandoned fruit farm in Provence. It was going to take time to establish the olive grove that would one day make the farm a viable notion and to renovate the crumbling farmhouse as our home. We were unable to live permanently in France at that time and had chosen London as our base – we needed somebody local to help supervise and co-ordinate our dreams. That is when I met Gérard and that was the start of our ten year ‘relationship’. When I use that word ‘relationship’ I cringe for all the icky connotations that this over used word brings. Yet I can think of no other word that would describe so well how things are between us. It is not a partnership in the way one would imagine because we are not equal – I am the boss – yet it is a partnership in the sense that we are co-dependent. We have come to respect each other and the cultural differences that divide us. I have learned patience and that all decisions require hours of mind numbing chat before a qui or d’accord can sign things off. Gérard appreciates my limited concentration span and recognises that glazed eyes and a lack of response mean it’s time to wrap it up. 

Gérard would never contradict a decision that I make even if it was the wrong one. This is where I find the ‘relationship’ a conundrum. As le patron in this French system, my word is the one that goes. This antiquated practise has cost me much in time and money. I am a novice farmer, I am an Australian woman operating in a foreign land and more often than not I have been clueless about many things. I am also comfortable with engaged and informed discussion between employer and employee. Where I come from every one has their say and the information is assimilated and the best practise followed. It is a more informal approach, not so here. The truths sheepishly hide themselves until le patron’s ways are well and truly proven a folly. Afterwards, there is much, ‘I would never have done it that way’ and ‘that’s not the way we do it here’ conversation accompanied by vigourous head shaking and hand gestures with a most definite, ‘I told you so’ hanging in the air. Only the French gardien didn’t tell me so and he never does tell me that I am doing it all wrong and he never would. That would be far too familiar and not his place. I have wised up a little now, after countless frustrations, and always ask for his opinion. When resistance and reluctance to share his pearls stand in our way I cloak my question with an, ‘If it were you’…This way I get to the heart of the matter; I save face and my pennies.

The French gardien and le patron are emotionally dependent. Well Gérard and I are at least. It is very simple; if he is happy, I am happy. (See the word  ‘relationship’ is perfect…) We meet every morning when I am home and talk…at the risk of repeating myself, I mean talk. We talk until there are no words left, until the subjects have been thrashed and thrashed over and over and then some. It is the tumble dryers of conversations but without the timer. There is no such thing as a quiet morning at the farm and as much as I make fun of it, I love it. It is the way it is; it is my status quo. In amongst our farm talk, our garden chat and our household natter we gossip about the nitty gritty. Health (always lots of that) and family matters pepper our professional dialogue. Gérard seeks out and values my opinion when it comes to matters of the heart or family dramas. I listen, for that is my role as le patron. He has confided in me many times over the years yet I would not with him; that would be crossing an invisible line of propriety that must remain to preserve our relationship. That is the strangeness of our pairing. We are more than friends but never that. 

Today’s meeting ran for hours and included much tree lopping talk and a garden tour to evaluate the snow damage (yes lots of that – we had two heavy snowfalls this winter that created havoc with the olive trees and the more fragile plants in the garden). We measured the quantity of camouflage netting we will need to recreate the shaded area at the swimming pool (more snow damage) and we chose the colours for the re-painting of the outdoor furniture. I heard all about an Elvis concert in Paris that he attended with his wife (he lost me there for a moment…all I could say was, ‘long live the King’…), the trials and tribulations of elderly beaux parents living alone in the mountains and most importantly we discussed the name of our new puppy who will arrive at the end of April.

It was a busy morning.

Like all things there are French gardiens and then there are French gardiens. Gérard is one in a million. xv


VA In Your Inbox

subscribe for updates from vickiarcher.com


Dumbwit Tellher

Vicki – such a well written piece honoring an important person to your lives. If we all adopted the French gardien and le patron with our employee's or employers, I think this world wold be a better place. Now I suspect we will all be lining-up to work for you my dear. Lovely post x


Thank you so much for sharing that part of your life. I found this post absolutely facinating! How wonderful for you to have someone like him that you can rely on, and feel calm in the fact your farm is in safe hands. Your life always sounds like a romantic fairy tale, but I know it is still your every day life… just different!


I smiled when I read your post because it so reminded me of the scenes from the movie "A Good Year" with Russell Crowe. I am sure you would have seen it…. how he inherits the vineyard from his uncle and travels to Provence only to fall in love with it. The scenes with his character Max and Duflot, the winemaker and caretaker, with all the gesticulating and head shaking… even though they don't hit it off immediately they develop a respect for each other and a loyalty for the estate and the winery.
I thought your comments were spot on in that if you are an employer one of the greatest things you can do is listen and in fact I believe that goes for all communication… listen with your ears and your eyes. So many people do not give eye contact which means they are not really listening… Great post because you have accentuated the fact that listening and communicating is an artform and necessary for us all!


I love that image and all that followed.
I think another book is called for….wonderful possibilities!

Jeanne :)


I think you're very lucky to have Gérard. I'm not sure you'll find that sort of loyalty in the young people here any more.
So, are those boots chaussures de sécurité (a lovely photo of Carla's, as ever)? The work inspection might have something to say if they're not ;-) In my work in a garden we are supposed to wear them at all times. One never knows when one of those 10 kg vegetable crates might fall on our toes…
Enjoy the starting spring, Vicky, according to me the best time to be in Provence!

Beadboard UpCountry

Hi Vicki!
Sounds like you not only have a gardnier you can communicate with but a friend. you are very lucky. I know that here in the country where I live, there are plenty of ranch workers that are like family to the ranchers one could not function without the other…..xo Maryanne


Vicki, I feel exhausted after reading about your mornings. I so treasure the quietness (and no talking) after everyone has left for work, school etc.

Oh, those customs and ways of doing certain things … would drive me insane, especially when you know what you want, but have to go about it by protocol.

I'm sure it has cost you a lot of heartache and money (as you explain) … but you have also learnt to live symbiotically … which is the best and happiest way!

You sure do you have a very full life … which is fabulous!
I so enjoyed reading your post this morning in my quietness (with the clock ticking in the background).

Linda C

I love your posts. Different subjects, informative, interesting and fun. Thank you.

My Carolina Kitchen

How interesting Vicki. I had no idea how the French system worked. After reading this, I know I would be asking, "If you were me…." quite frequently.

Glad you're back in Provence and I'm sorry to hear about the two heavy snows and the damage. This has been a very harsh winter. They say the Farmers Almanac predicted it. I think I'll be using the Farmers Almanac as my winter travel guide from now on.

mondo cherry

What a fascinating post. I really enjoyed hearing about your amazing gardien and feel like I learnt more about the French way of life…thanks! When I lived in Hungary we had a cleaner with whom I had a similar sort of relationship. We too talked and talked (and often signed since my Hungarian is pathetic) and she mothered me, told me off, helped me and was totally indispensable. I miss her a lot!
Clare x


tending the ground requires a purity of soul and unconditional love which seeps over into all lives around it, you are blessed and a blessing. thanks for sharing. Sandi


Sounds like a mutually respectful & valued relationship Vicki. How fortunate you found each other those 10 years ago. Some things are just meant to be.
Millie ^_^

hostess of the humble bungalow

Your life on the farm has a definite rhythm…and the relationship that you share with your valuable employee does appear to be very symbiotic.
Routines are comforting in so many ways, aren't they?
I have recently read a book called The Olive Garden, and your recounting of life on the olive farm i very similiar.
I would very much like to read your book!
I love olives and olive oil too!
Your blog is sheer delight.


This post is one of my favorites, Vicki! I feel as if I know Gerard myself now. "Like the tumble dryer of conversation without the timer!" Parfait!!! And of course the photograph of his boots is just wonderful.
Well done mon amie!

A Gift Wrapped Life

I think I need a french gardener, especially if he would defer to me and listen to my chattering each morning………or should that be my husband? Great post Vicki. A puppy! I have been thinking about a new one too, alot. XO

Haleigh @ Bardot in Blue

After two years in France I see I still have a long way to go before I learn all the things that you have! Today…I am a little bit wiser to french culture thanks to this lovely post you have written.

xoxo Haleigh @ Bardot in Blue

The Chef In My Head

What a wonderful story. I find myself living my dream through your words and experiences. I wonder aloud if I could ever talk my husband into pulling up our stakes, a lifetime, and moving to an adventure just as yours. I wonder if the draw I feel so strongly, is the faded memories from another lifetime I lived, and I am just trying to "get back home". It all feels so familiar. It must be, as I have never been there before and long to visit as much for the experiences or just to see if I'm crazy. Keep writing! I love it! ~LeslieMichele
PS my maiden name is Beaubien, still need to make the trip to check out the family history that my Grandfather traced back to 1452.


Vicki, what a beautifully written insight to le gardien and the "relationship." Loved your book!

(Coastal Alabama, USA)

Laura [What I Like]

I read this with rapt attention, so fascinating! I find the relationships between employee and employer in various countries to be so interesting…there really is quite a bit of variation.


Oh, Vicki, what a lovely post. I could feel the richness of life and love running through it. I know exactly what you mean about Gerard. Having been raised overseas and working here with treasured hispanic workmen (restoration specialists, upholsterers, etc.) that same type of multi-layered relationships has evolved. Such a blessing–I'm going to the baby shower and wedding (such an honor) of one of them next week. Happy Spring! Mary


Dear Vicki – I loved reading this – an extension of the Gerard story you told in your book..how reassuring that you can go away and know that your beloved farm is in such safe and caring hands. Coming from Aus it would be a huge transition from the democratic decision making process to becoming 'le patron' – I am sure he values the down to earth australian-ness of his lovely patron as much as you value the loyalty of your dependable gardien – looking forward to hearing more about the new puppy! Best wishes x

red ticking

we are even more alike then i imagined… i feel the same way about people… relationships are so important… and "silvio" "jose" and "simona" are my gems… i love them all… dearly… xx


wow..i long to one day experience a french garden….thanks for sharing…i am with you, there is no place like home.

*Chic Provence*

HI Vicki

"If it were you…." brilliant little phrase to elicit true response when otherwise might be reluctant!

The boots tell a thousand stories, and support yours so well!

Great post, a little slice of the life you live on a farm in the South of France..ahh!




What a wonderful tribute to Gerard and your relationship. It is wonderful to hear that exists in a time where things are so black and white between a boss and their employee. Makes me want to buy a farm in the Provence and maybe hire Gerards…brother? LOL! You are both lucky.

Nutmegger Workshop

Very nice reading this post Vicki. Just had a rough-going newspaper deadline come to an end and what a way to begin my mid afternoon … with a cup of tea to boot!

Thanks. Peter


Dear Vicki,
We all have our own jobs to do and each of us need to be respected.
I would think that Gerard is a godsend, and that you are really lucky to have him. He is definitely part of the reason that everything runs smoothly, as are you.
Gerard plays his part in a major way and, as you know, you need him as much as he needs you. XXXX

Shell Sherree

Oh Vicki, this is beautiful. Such lovely imagery, with a touching insight into such an important person in your life. I suspect Gérard considers himself similarly blessed that you found each other. You made me chuckle too ~ I feel good knowing your attention span resembles mine!

Vintage by LOU LOU

Hi Vicki,
I absolutely adore this post and will be sharing it with a support group I co-founded for Women in Business because what I love about this is the French employer/employee "relationship" (there's that word again). To me it seems much more like a work to live rather than a live to work approach to life. Last night I heard the very inspirational speaker – Robyn Moore – talk on the amount of people who complain about their job. We have to work. That is life. So why not make it so much more than just a job that when we hear the alarm wake us each morning instead of cringing be excited about each day and every moment :)

A Refocused Life


You are so fortunate to have found such a man and treasured friend. The photos in your book attest to the beautiful gardens and landscaping that have resulted from your collaborative efforts. You are both truly blessed to have each other – an extraordinary partnership.


Such a touching and beautifully written piece…it conveys your relationship with the Gardien so well. Such a great insight into the unique quirks (shall we say)of the French…you are so blessed, obviously in your life and it seems people like the Gardien make it ever more so!




You certainly strike a chord with this post– you have a gift of unwrapping the subtle layers of relationships and the nuances of accompanying feeling and emotions – that go hand in hand,
Here not only are you on very precarious footing with lots of unknowns, with a language barrier, diversity, old customs, gender, and friendship and employer all mixed in together — but through your frustrations with the learning curve you manage to pull it off with grace and style and dignity. You have very high moral and ethical standards. It shows in your blog in your pictures, in the home life you share.
wonderful post,


I've always found the cultural differences (between the English and French) somewhat perplexing.
Great insight in this post Vicki, and I'm sure you're a wonderful 'boss'. x


Vicki – Here in the U.S., it's a blessing to find a great "contractor" you can trust, so I can only imagine how you feel blessed to have found a great French "gardien."


Oh Vicki, you've painted such a lovely picture for us today. His boots are the essence of him aren't they? Yes, we learn different ways when we live in another country and, soon, those ways become our own. Brilliant post, lovie. Shine on. xx's Marsha


Oh how wonderful – I loved hearing about the relationship with your "gerard!'
It seems so apt to describe your relationship with him as so much more than employer and employee. A friend, a confident. Certainly very special.
Thank you for taking us on the journey of of every day with you –
x Sui

Ingrid Mida

What a beautiful post! I found myself hanging on every word Vicki. How you manage to transact such important discussions in another language is most impressive!

The Pink Poodle

Dear Vicki…

ditto to all above comments…

Your stories/life makes glorious reading..
thanks for articulating everything sooo well!!

ps…Just had my little delivery of the CHANEL tattoos…now to figure out how to apply without messing it up!!

xx andrea


Vicki,beautiful post — as always, I love the way you interweave your Australian-ness with your French life :) 'He has my back' says so much – such a telling and efficient phrase to describe something so essential, which takes me back to the name of your blog and 'French Essence' – fantastic!

I never thought about a gardien in Provence … our gardienne in Paris is a similar treasure and I cherish her and our relationship as a precious and unique part of my own 'French life' (when I'm lucky enough to have such a thing).

Cheers from Sydney.

Alison Gibbs

Sounds like a perfect 'relationship',except maybe Gerard needs a bit more of an 'Aussie' in him to let you know when your decisions are NQR 'not quite right' so it doesn't end up too expensive when it doesn't quite work out!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

powered by chloédigital
Read previous post:
Shaken Not Stirred