Finding Wellbeing Through a Life Made Simple: My Story

The Back Story

Thirty years ago, I was in Pennsylvania and nearly homeless, working 50+ hours a week in all kinds of jobs to feed, house and put myself through university. A cast-off child of parents whose divorce broke the family and the bank; after years of mostly taking care of myself, I was left on my own for good just before my 18th birthday.  

My parents weren’t horrible people; they just let a lousy marriage run too long. But, its effect on me lasted much longer.

As a Cuban-American child growing up in New Jersey, I found solace in writing, gardening, cooking and the dining table. Charged with making family meals at the age of 10; it was a “chore” which (ultimately) brought me joy. I created recipes that included the fruits and vegetables that I grew in a little garden in the corner of the backyard and sketched elaborate tablescapes and menus to match. 

In university, I found refuge (and the only food I could afford) in a local Amish farmers’ market, where I relished my conversations with farmers, cheesemakers, bakers and others. I’d leave with a few essential bits to cook – onions, beans, potatoes, turkey cutlets (the least expensive meat sold at the time), the occasional sweet – and a heart filled with inspiration.

Life then was about survival, not about following a passion. So, being the teacher’s daughter that I was, upon graduation, I quickly got a “real job” in the only world I knew —education, and I never looked back.

For over 25 years, I worked in the education sector, mostly in Massachusetts, where I had opportunities across nearly every part of the field. Along the way, I put myself through graduate school, volunteered in my community, married, divorced, remarried, raised my children, moved to London and, more recently, purchased a house in France. (Phew! That’s a lot of life to paraphrase!)

I spent my little free time in my garden, kitchen, bar… growing, cooking, inventing, mixing flavours, hosting friends…passions that both renewed and exhausted. Although I always felt pulled towards these passions, I had responsibilities, so I stayed on my existing path and kept climbing the ladder of life. Anyone who knew me then will confirm that I charged through life like a runaway train. 

Of course, then, like all runaway trains, I crashed, precipitated by the sudden death of my healthy and just seventy-year-old mother in a car accident late last year. But, the truth is, I was already suffering from burn out. 

Soon after, the holidays arrived. Menus, cooking, tablescaping and hostessing provided respite from grief. Reality soon struck after New Year’s Day 2020 when it became painfully clear to me – and my family and closest friends – that I was out of steam. 

With the support of my family, my doctor and my boss, I took a (much-needed) pause. It’s the only break I’ve ever taken in my adult life aside from a few, almost-always-brief vacations in which I still responded to work emails.

I was given the gift of time, something I hadn’t experienced since childhood. 

Finding Wellbeing

During this time, my pace of life slowed considerably, and I mean, it became S-L-O-W., as I started to focus on restoring my mental health and well-being. The first 10-12 weeks were just brutal. Words cannot express how painful it was to slow down, reconnect with myself and start to accept life as it is. 

I hid from sight and kept wondering when the “old me” would show up so I could get up and go. But my ‘get up and go’ had got up and went and all I could do was wait for her to come back. Eventually I somehow just gave into it all, and relaxed.

With an empty calendar in front of me, I reverted naturally to my passions – gardening, cooking, wine, reading, writing, the outdoors and making a home – nurturing myself and learning. 

A great counsellor, mindfulness training, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive, and good friends helped me to move forward slowly. Although I had time, I never felt like I was on holiday, which I found so strange. I worked on myself every day, to confront and heal childhood wounds, map new habits and recover – it all took a new kind of courage.

I split my time between London and a remote medieval village in the mountains of Provence. My husband and I had waited for months on the purchase of a little house located in a town where we celebrated our family honeymoon years earlier. The sale happened to come through during this time. An American who loves all-things English and Provençal, it has been a lifelong dream of mine to design a life around both; suddenly that dream was reality. 

The COVID-19 lockdown in London provided time to shop locally in my village-y Notting Hill neighbourhood. So, we created recipes from whatever the local shops were selling and held family cooking and cocktail theme nights…my daughter had the best names – Cafe Quarantino stands out. 

Like many people stuck in a small space then, I reorganised the house and decluttered. I wrote in my journal and read a handful of books. A long daily walk with my dog through my neighbourhood and Kensington Gardens – filled with greenery and nature – soothed the soul. So did the tiny urban garden area we created in front of our house in a fenced space meant for parking. Thank goodness for local vendors that sold spring plants and delivered them right to our door during quarantine!

While in Provence, I savoured the outdoors; its beauty always leaves me in awe. I shopped the weekly markets for seasonal produce and goods, took long walks with my dog in the countryside and the streets of the medieval village, and drank mountain spring water that flows through the local fountains. 

I learned to cook some regional dishes, unpacked and organised my new house, learned a little more French, and met new people. Rather than drive far to the supermarket, I continued to source locally, from farms, vineyards, bakers, butchers and those who make olive oil, vinegar and more. It’s been a privilege to learn from them, and I know I will continue to do so.

Now, eight months into this journey, I’m somehow back! I feel like I’ve found keys to a new life. 

I’ve restored my well-being and reflected. I realised what’s always been true for me: I am fulfilled, happy, and my best self when fully-absorbed in my passions. So, I’ve decided to take my first giant leap into the unknown and follow those passions. 

In October I will return to school, realising a latent dream of working in the food and wine industry through a programme at Le Cordon Bleu London. (Yes, I will be blogging about this!). Starting a new journey in my late 40s is scary. Still, I take inspiration from many women who’ve gone before me. 

Giving Back

Over the past months, I’ve thought a lot about how I’ve been able to restore my well-being. Time, counselling, good friends and mindfulness work continue to be invaluable. But there’s something else that’s helped, and it’s taken me a long time to put my finger on it. I’m convinced it’s the benefits of slowing down enough on a daily basis to truly experience the precious elements of life – like those that I’ve called out in my first Simply Eau-de-Vie blog post

I know it sounds strange, but I firmly believe that the combination of these elements played a huge role in reviving me. In fact, the gift of time, which enabled my recovery, comes as a direct result of living and working in the UK.

I’ve shared my story and my observations about the restorative powers I see embedded within aspects of life in Europe with friends in the US and across Europe. They tell me it’s resonating with them well.

At a time when every reading of the New York Times and The Guardian stirs angst and disappointment in the world, I find the smaller, taken-for-granted, and nearly forgotten elements of life, to be calming and positive.

But, Eau-de-Vie is more significant than that. I’ve seen it inspire community and fortify the soul. To me, it is a good reminder of what’s important to focus on when the world seems out of control, or you feel powerless: loved ones, the beauty found in nature, in small gestures and daily practices, and, of course, in fantastic, easy-to-prepare meals (and drinks!).

So, with the encouragement of others, I’m sharing my story and starting my blog to give others a taste of the “water of life” I find so valuable – through Simply Eau-de-Vie. This is part of following my passions, and I’m very excited about what lies ahead.

Although the elements of the Eau-de-Vie lifestyle co-exist in abundance in parts of Europe, they also exist in other parts of the world. Slowing down a little bit each day, these elements can be incorporated into every life, everywhere, simply. The more of the elements you include in your life, the more you will benefit. Shared with others, it can support communal well-being – as we say in Spanish, ¡imagínate!

I’m at the beginning of this work, and I am not sure where it’s going, but I hope you’ll join me in growing a movement to inspire well-being through a life made simple.

Here’s to the journey – cheers!

—Janine

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