Sunday 21 October 2012

The 'before' time: 2006 / 2007


My house search on the Internet was gradually providing us with an idea of the type of property we, in theory, could buy, and I found one which looked as it if might fit. It was old but looked in quite good condition.....

Then on a shopping trip to the local supermarket I bumped into Jeral, a fellow student from the French language course I had been half-heartedly attending. Nearly two hours later we parted company, after an interesting discussion about how he got his home in France by remortgaging his house....methinks I was meant to bump into him because it sparked off an idea that perhaps we could do the same. I don’t know why we had not thought about that previously, but we hadn’t. 

So off home I went to present the idea to Lester, that we could remortgage our house, find a French house, then commute between the two for a year or so while we find our feet out there. 

Then other options presented themselves: sell our present house, I go to France, Lester to stay here and carry on working while I roam France looking at houses to buy. Or sell up here, we both go, we both roam France together househunting. Or remortgage this house and stay here for a while, during which we could both go and look at houses in France on our holidays. 

I wondered which of these options would work out, but not really, after all there were far too many obstacles to negotiate, far too many difficulties.....

But one thing was happening, which was that France was being cemented into our future somehow although I did not know it, and no matter where I looked, the south west region of France always pulled me back, particularly the inland border of Aquitaine, not the coastal region. 

February 2007. 

We thought it would be a good idea to have a look at that area of France to which I kept being drawn, so we booked a holiday for early April. We thought we would find an estate agent and see if they would show us around some houses. Just for curiosity really. See what we were going to get for our money. 

Still looking at houses, but looking forward to a holiday although did not have any expectations in regards to houses. Just going to have a look around, that is what we were going to do, and I had managed to find a camp site an hour's drive away from that area of France, Aquitaine, which was forever pulling me to it. 

I think, in truth, that I thought that by going to that area that somehow the reality of being there would throw cold water on my urge to live there. 

A couple of weeks later, and another weekend spend having a look for possible houses on the Internet had left me saturated with the theoretical house hunt project.  It was now Monday morning and  I needed to do other things on my PC. But no, my best intentions were not to be realised as running straight across my mind came an urge to have another house search, and with this urge came the words, ‘Houses for sale. Gascony.’ 

‘Oh, for crikey’s sake, I thought, ‘Now what’. First Aquitaine, and now Gascony. But I put up a search on Google anyway, knowing full well that if I didn’t then it would just stay on my mind until I did. 

A new estate agent’s web site came up, one that I had not looked at before. It had Gascony as a region to look at. So I did. 

And thwack, the breath was knocked out of me. This is no exaggeration. My heart was pounding, I could not breath, and I felt in a state of shock as I stared fixatedly at the screen, at the second house down on the list, on the one which we were to buy. 

This was the one. 

And it was not quite what I had expected......

It was a ruin, or almost. The roof on one side had collapsed. There were no window frames in the windows. It was covered over with ivy. It was dying. But it had five hectares of land, with a river on one of its boundaries. 

And it was the one. 

I called Lester in to see it. He took one glance at the photos and went straight on to the phone to book an appointment with our mortgage company, something which he would have normally left as a job for me to deal with. Yes, well, we probably wouldn’t get a second mortgage anyway, that is what we thought. It was all theoretical anyway, this going to France. I know I keep saying this, but it was. 

Most surprisingly we were offered a second mortgage, if we wanted it. France, it seemed, was becoming less theoretical. 

This took us in to March, and time to pack for the holiday. 

Off we went, this time travelling across the Channel via Dover to Calais. It was a long drive down. Lester was not happy about travelling such a distance. Typical of most motorways, the countryside did not really seem to change much. I was not particularly happy either. But the house had been found. And do you know where it was? Right on that border of Aquitaine! Yes it was! First the house had jumped off my PC screen at me, then we looked at the photos, then we went into shock about the state of the house, and then I looked at where it was. Aquitaine. On the borders of the Gers and the Haute Pyrenees. This I kept in my head as we took that first long drive down. 

A day or so on the camp site, a bit of a tangle with Estate Agents, (which is a bit complicated to go through here, just to say that we were involved in a squabble between Estate Agents and it was not pleasant), but we did see the house. It was exactly as shown on the photos. Half the roof down, the rest tottering. The interior was jammed full of rubble apart from the room to the left of the hallway, and that was dark and damp, with a small pile of belongings suggesting someone was camping out there. It was beautiful, though. 

Fiona, our Estate Agent lady, tried to get us to buy elsewhere. She could not see why we would want to buy such a place, but it had ‘spoken’ to us, so that was that. This was the one. There was no electricity apart from some bare wires hanging loosely on a side wall of the Tall Barn, there was no running water, apart from a cold water tap by the Front Porch, there was no loo, well actually there was but it was laying on its side in the middle of the rubble in the back of the house, so no facilities did it have. Surprisingly we were not fazed by all of this. This house had told us that we were to be her new owners, and, as I say, that was that. 

Fiona phoned her partner, a builder, and he came and had a look at it. Said that it was do-able. Well he would. He was a scammer, but I shall tell you all about that in a few pages time. 

I saw in my sixtieth birthday parked up in a motorway services area near Calais. I remember jumping out of the cramped space of the campervan, still in my tracksuit pyjamas, feeling excited, very excited, as I trotted off to the loo, but was left with a feeling of great sadness as we boarded the ferry to cross the Channel and left France, not knowing when we would return.

Back home all that changed, because I went into a panic about the state of the house in France. At this advanced age of sixty, did I not deserve proper facilities, like a proper loo and shower, like central heating, like carpets, like hot and cold running water, like a roof, windows, and proper doors. And where would I put my stuff, and where would we sleep. My comfort zone would be shrunk considerably if we went to live in that ruin, indeed, there would not be a comfort zone. For two weeks this panic lasted. Lester was the same, although more concerned about carrying two mortgages. If I had given in to this panic, then we would have shelved the France idea for good.

Ah, but that house had spoken to me. Of all the houses we had looked at, both on the Internet and in France, this was the one which had impacted on us. 

Time was running out on the mortgage offer. To do, or not to do. 

So we did. We signed. We took the leap. 

Tuesday 16 October 2012

The 'before' time: 2005 / 2006

When one has been away on holiday, after the first flush of enthusiasm about being back home again, there will often follow a sense of anti climax. This we had. It made us restless and dissatisfied with our lives. We started talking about moving to France, but made ourselves feel even worse because there was no way we were ever going to be able to do so. And, anyway, what we would do there. How would we earn enough money to live on. What about the language..... 

So we shoved the idea away. It was no do-able. 

And then I started browsing the Internet, just to have a look to see what properties were available. It was a most enjoyable pastime, but theoretical because we could not afford to move. But a seed had been planted. 

Over the following months, and after many discussions, thoughts started evolving about maybe running a smallholding. Lester held the line that we would need to have land which had running water on it, like a river or a stream, and that it must be flat so it would be easy to farm. He started talking about wanting to keep animals, like pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats. I was keener to do veggies. I felt very squeamish about providing our own meat. It meant deceasing an animal. Cutting it up. It seemed a messy business. I therefore felt no keenness to have animals, no desire to be involved in the recycling of them, but I went along with Lester’s enthusiasm, and just agreed when he spoke about how what types of animals we should keep: Tamworths, for instance, were to be the breed of pig we would have. ‘Pigs? You must be joking’, I thought. Chickens, maybe. Bees, definitely. But pigs? That was pushing imagination too far. 

Time plodded on.


I found chateaux, lots of them. Big, glorious,.....and expensive. And I found myself talking about maybe running a place of rest and recuperation for people, a place where a person could get off the merry-go-round of their life for a few days. They could join in the running of the farm if they wanted to, or they could rest, it was their decision as to how they wanted to spend their time. Splendid daydreams, but dangerous to our everyday lives, because the restlessness kept on growing. We found ourselves irritable with each other, we argued, then came together for peaceful pow wows about what we would do when we moved to France. 

The months were rolling on. Everything was still the same as it was before France, only we were not the same. 

I started becoming addicted to Internet searching, and stretched out my search for possible homes to embrace the world. For a while America captivated us, then South Africa became a passing focus followed by brief thoughts about New Zealand. Even the north of England, Northumberland perhaps, was thought about. But always, always, it was to France that we returned. 

So where in France... it is a big country with plenty of choices. I began to understand the different regions of France. Perhaps the north coast of France would be best, our thinking being that it would be easy to travel to and fro between the UK and France, and easy for people to visit us as well. Perhaps the middle of France, where we had friends who could look after us as we adjusted to French living. Of course, this was all still theoretical. We had a high mortgage, some collateral but not much, and some savings because Lester was insistent that we should not spend money on the current house, but should save money just in case he was made unemployed. The mortgage was like a noose around his neck, and his fear of having to find the money to pay those monthly payments was a raw and constant worry with him. So money was building up in savings because of Lester’s worry about our finances. This frustrated me because I wanted things done to the house. We argued a lot about this. I wanted to spend the money on the house because I was feeling restless and unsettled so thought making the house more comfortable would solve these feelings, and Lester was worried about paying the bills and wanted a cushion against falling into debt, and so he forced us to save. 

Still I continued to fuel my addiction about searching for a theoretical new home in France. I had a look round all of France, but the area I was always drawn back to was the inland border of Aquitaine. But it was theoretical anyway, it passed the time, but that seed had started to grow roots although we didn’t know it as yet. 

Another addiction, apart from eating, mostly junk food, chocolate, which is what both of us do when under stress, but I suppose it is better than other addictive behaviours like getting frequently drunk for instance, well that other addiction which arrived was the hours I began watching the ‘Moving to France’, ‘Living in the Sun’ and ‘Starting a New Life’ programmes on TV. But here’s a curious thing. Although I watched many of these type of programmes, of which there were several during the day, I never became caught up in the sales spiel of them. What I mean is, that I never put myself in the shoes of the people whose lives were being filmed. I always saw through the story that was laid down by the film makers, never wanting what we saw on the television for ourselves, realising that it was false reporting most times, the programme makers having a need to fill air time. 

But did we have a ‘dream’ about going to France? I don’t think so, because the ‘dream’ would have started before we had that holiday. Most times we didn’t think that we would be able to go. Really, I suppose, during this time the France Project was more a case of, ‘If we could go where would we go. If we did go, what would we do.’ And although we were restless we didn’t wish that we were there already because we didn’t think we would ever go in the first place, but there is nothing wrong with hoping, so to contribute towards the France Project I enrolled us in an Adult Education French language course and bought some French language books. 

We really did try to learn French but could not maintain the enthusiasm to do so, maybe because, as I keep saying, we never thought we would go anyway. As for the French classes, we drifted away from them during the second term, me because I felt silly speaking foreign words out loud, and Lester because he had heavy pressures at work. The books challenged me because I could not keep the words in my head, and I became very good at avoidance tactics whenever I went near them. Lester did not have time to read them anyway. 

This twinning of lives, of feeling the pull of France despite trying to unhinge ourselves from that land, meanwhile continuing on with our life as we knew it, sapped us, making life itself seem an uphill struggle and hardly worth living. Stress built, and kept on building. 

And one question bugged me the most: How on earth could I be homesick for a foreign land. This did not make sense to me, and endlessly I fought hard to keep happy with being a UK citizen. It was not so bad for Lester, although he had other worries, but at least he was being kept busy at work which made the time pass quicker for him. I think, in hindsight, that I probably almost drove him nuts with my constant hunt for houses though. It was driving me nuts as well. 

Thursday 11 October 2012

The 'before' time: 2004 / 2005

Once upon a time I was a resident in the UK. Having spent all of my life in my original homeland, never for one minute did I think, nor yet want, to move anywhere except within the UK borders. I am not a travelled person, just a few foreign holidays to the usual places. Lester is more travelled, being born in South Africa, but he, too, does not have a thirst to travel. It was all I could to get him to go on camping holidays two or three times a year, even then he was keen to get back home, back to his computer, back to his own bed, back to his home comforts. 

And then, in 2004, a bubble of an idea began floating into my mind, and that was to have a trip to France in our campervan. It was a surprise, this idea, and bothered me mostly because I was worried about venturing forth from a country which I knew well into a country I didn’t. Driving, for instance, wasn’t that on the wrong side of the road. And what about the language. I did have schoolgirl French but it was minimal, not exam standard, just some basic words, some verbs, nothing else, and certainly no conversational skills. 

So I pushed the idea away, considering it too complicated and potentially terrifying a holiday to have. 

It wouldn’t let me go. For a while the idea remained dormant, and then it would bounce back into my head again, surprising me because it was so unexpected and making me increasingly interested in undertaking such a venture such that I started thinking that perhaps a little drive along the north coast of France might not be such a terrifying ordeal to go through. But I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t look at maps or make specific plans. I did, however, get Boolie, our Springer Spaniel, passported so he could travel abroad with us. Nothing else did I do in regards to France. Nope. It was not to be. Too much effort required just to go on holiday.

So we continued holidaying in the UK, travelling to North Wales, Derbyshire,  and Somerset, while I, determinedly, kept trying to put the France idea into deep freeze. 
Now it was 2005, and I finally stopped fighting with the France idea and booked a holiday there, but not to the original plan of the north coast, no, for some reason, and I know not why, I booked us in at a camp site further down, in the Tours area of France, travelling via the Southampton to Le Havre ferry which was a longer Channel crossing but it meant less driving in France. 

We started the holiday as two people who were not looking for change, did not have dreams about moving even in England, did not have any thoughts about doing anything else other than continuing along the same tracks when the holiday was done. But France hit us straight in the face. It was so different to the UK. Of endless empty roads, of a country so big that it took hours to get even half way down to our holiday destination, of dilapidated old houses, of no road side pubs,  and lots of other things as well. But it was not any of this. It was the fact that France hit us in the heart as well. I cannot explain this to you. It was not that we thought we would like to live in France. As I say, it was that France pushed itself into our hearts, not that we had the thought that we might move there. Oh no, not that. Just that France wiggled her way into our future. Of course we didn’t know this. And if you had said that we would eventually come to live here I would have laughed my head off at such a suggestion. 

........ in the middle of the night during the holiday, ..... needed the loo urgently, ..... had to get to the camp site loos across the field, ..... it was dark, no stars out, ...... busy shining the torch to see where the numerous pot holes were, ...... didn’t want to trip over, ...... thought drifted into my head, ..... ‘I wonder where we might live here’, ....... arriving straight back came, .... ‘Aquitaine’...... oh so where the hell was that, I thought, as I did the necessaries and headed back to the campervan, and anyway, what nonsense, there couldn’t be any town or region of that name in France because it was an old and ancient name, wasn’t it? Ah, but it wasn’t. A map search the next day showed Aquitaine to be a region down in the South West of France, and a long way down it was too, being almost on the borders of Spain. Far too far to even go on a holiday, let alone live there. Anyway, we weren’t going to move anywhere, let alone to France, let alone down to the lower regions of that country.

And so the holiday became finished. The idea of visiting France had been accomplished. Back to the known reality of our UK lifestyle we headed. Getting on to the ferry to head homeward, looking forward to living in a house again rather than the cramped environments of the tent and campervan, and so why did I feel homesick as soon we drove on to the ramp of the ferry. Why did I feel a wrench in my heart.  How could this be, when I was travelling to my home, and yet it was feeling as I was leaving my home. 
Strange that. Still don’t know why this was. Perhaps it was the future beckoning us, perhaps that was it. Lester, in his way, felt the same. 

I had followed through with that idea about coming to France, which wouldn’t let me push it away no matter how I tried, and our perspectives on life had been changed forever. Now it was only a matter of time before France saw us again.