When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window. This is how it was for David and Doris Johnson when they found a down-at-heel mini chateau in the heartland of France. A three year restoration began - and with it a journey of discovery.
I was 68 years of age when I lost it completely. The wheelbarrow had already spilled hardcore left, right, and forward before we parted company. It accelerated down the plank way, lunged sideways like a cyclist after a liquid lunch, and emptied the remainder of its contents onto the floor of our kitchen.
Doris appeared with tea and bandages. She surveyed the scene. The dust swirled round the wheelbarrow, I was sitting untidily on the grass wiping soil and sweat from my eyes. I was also cursing loudly.
‘I think that’s enough for today,’ she said, ‘you’re overdoing it again.’
‘But we must be in by winter.’
‘But if we’re not, what’s the worst that can happen?’
‘We’ll freeze to death in the caravan.’
‘Yes, but it will be at least be peaceful. I mean, what will the postman think of us when you learn to swear in French?’
‘Was he here just now?’
‘The ‘what’ is that the postman is also the Mayor. And, if the Mayor is upset, what happens to our planning permission?’
‘I’d forgotten,’ I said, ‘oh merde’.
The slippery slope which led to my hardcore outburst had begun five years earlier. Doris and I had been married, although not always to each other, for the best part of fifty years. We had both been college lecturers – although not in subjects of massive practical use – and had ended up in Kent because the weather was better than Northumberland and most of our children had already migrated south.
We missed Northumberland; it has great swathes of wilderness and glorious golden beaches. But you don’t splash around in the North Sea – even in summer – and come out a whole man. Kent was mellower but without the wilderness and miles of scenic sands. Ideally, we wanted to combine the best of both.
Although our careers had been only semi-distinguished we took great pride in our children – eight of them, plus a dozen grandchildren and counting. Here, we had done a decent job. In turn this meant that, though we were rich in life, our bank balances were humble.
As retirement approached we considered ways of bringing things together. In England, old people are politically invisible. Perhaps this is because governments believe the only things we would vote ‘yes’ to are higher pensions, bringing back Gracie Fields and the death penalty. Whatever the reason, which I suspect is mainly to do with the fact that we belong to a generation that doesn’t make a fuss, we have the poorest health and smallest wealth in western Europe.
Worse still, England has become a place where the ‘senior citizen’ has become the ‘old git’ (or worse) and where the melody of life has become a thumping drum and bass. We have seen gangs of youngsters hanging around shopping centre escalators, as damaged, derelict and threatening as the estates that spawn them. But we never see a parent, a policeman or a social worker. Like the old, these youngsters are always somebody else’s problem. Britain has lost its self-respect. We did not want to lose ours. It was time to move on.
We thought about the Costa Del Gringos but rejected it. We had noticed that, as we became older, our body thermostats didn’t work as well as they once had and, perhaps because of that, we had begun to enjoy seasons. We could do without a long winter but not perhaps without a faint dusting of snow and we wanted summer to be warm, but not so hot as to turn our legs to jelly.
Perhaps it was sipping the odd glass of Muscadet, but France seemed to loom ever larger in our thoughts. We were great Francophiles anyway, and so were many of the children. Once it had been camping. Then caravanning. There was not much of the country that we did not know and we liked most of it. That, in itself, created a problem: where should we go?
A villa in St. Tropez was not exactly us and, anyway, it was way beyond our means. Essentially we were looking for la vie tranquille in the rural France that was not running, so much as limping, into the 21st century.
The property would have reasonable access from the autoroute network. It would have to be far enough south to enjoy a decent year-round climate. It would have more potential than pretension and it would have to be large enough to accommodate our family in holiday ‘shifts’. The garden would also have to be large enough to pitch tents and also be suitable for children to play safely.
Like most buyers, when it came down to it, the prime considerations were location and affordability. As far as location was concerned we crossed out the whole of France north of the Loire, the approaches to the Alps and Pyrenees, the Massif uplands and finally most of western France and Brittany on climatic grounds. Then we ruled out pretty much everything south of Angoulême on the grounds of either access or cost. Our target area was narrowing.
We also looked at conversion and renovation costs in general terms. We were aware that turning lofts and outbuildings into guest accommodation could be potentially pricey, however our wish list indicated that we would require at least three permanent double bedrooms and perhaps other smaller areas that could be adapted as temporary bed-space when the occasion arose. We would need lounge and dining areas large enough for a dozen or so people to munch and mingle without locking elbows, a proper kitchen area with breakfast space for six, an indoor zone where children could be stupefied watching Disney on DVD, some office and bookshelf space, and up to three bathrooms or ‘wet areas’. Outside there would have to be secure parking for at least three cars, a caravan or two, and perhaps the occasional motorhome. There had to be space for children’s slides, swings and paddling pools and an aperitif and barbecue area. A few shady trees and some designated produce areas – to grow whatever came to mind – would also be desirable. We were looking at a pretty substantial rural property.
We amassed material on local climate and property prices. We subscribed to French property magazines. We also read the very best books on the subject. This, of course, included ‘How To Buy Property in France’. We hoped, for instance, that by being up to speed on key planning matters we could potentially avoid a few headaches. I recall wrestling with the notorious coefficient of building which indicates how much of a terrain could built on. There are also other national rules which apply to what you can and cannot do living close to, or even within line of sight of, a ‘monument historique’, and the possible local governance which can affect matters such as ‘change of use’ applications. I rapidly forgot most of the detail, but retained a general understanding of the way to approach planning matters if I hoped to get a result.
We also came to an understanding that, for us, moving to France would mean more than adapting to a new language and culture. It would also mean making the most of rural life. This, in itself, would mean adapting to a lifestyle that would be very different from the Suburbia UK way of doing things. And it was going to be more than that. All our reading indicated that ‘rural’ in France means something more for most people than it does in the UK. Although it was clear the French were wrestling with problems that have destroyed communities in Britain – schools and shops closing, more rural crime, more second homes and gîtes and an influx of ‘foreigners’ who may not share local values – it remained clear that whilst a village in Oxfordshire was likely be more commuter than community, for the French the commune was still just one stage removed from the family. We had been surprised to learn, for instance, that if a complaint is made about a cat mewing late at night, the mayor is duty bound to investigate.
We had already determined that a substantial house in a village community would be ideal. Anything too isolated, even with solid doors and shutters, could be an easy target for crime. Much better to have local people walking by and ultimately, perhaps, the kind of good neighbours who know your routine – when you go to bed, when you are likely to expect visitors, etc. We have always felt that this brings greater peace of mind than elaborate alarm systems and all risks insurance.
I had read of a simple experiment: at a village – one of several claiming to be at the very centre of France – a large stone house stands next to a modern brick-built pavillon. The stone house stood, unheated, at around seven degrees in mid December and took three days to warm up to 17 degrees. The brick house started at nine degrees but warmed up to 20 in four hours. In mid July the situation reversed. The stone house started at 16 degrees and, when windows and doors were thrown open, edged cautiously up towards 20. The brick house started at 17, but, once the windows were open, the temperature soon hit 28.
The downside of stone was therefore that the property would take ages to heat through on a winter weekend, but that was not important to us as we intended to live there. Ultimately the stone would become be our friend. Once heated up it would retain its warmth, and in the summer the house would be deliciously cool. We even closed our eyes and imagined the chill of the flagstone floor on our bare feet on a scorching summer day. Stone seemed very much the way to go, particularly as it seemed to offer a possibility of renovating, at least in part, with reclaimed materials. We also liked the idea (at least) of restoring a vernacular building to something approaching its former glory. We were, though, still prepared to be seduced, at the right price, by an irresistible pile of bricks: we wanted to keep our options open.
We began our personal preparations earnestly: I took evening classes in plumbing, plastering and bricklaying and, although my conversational French was still only adequate, I gained some confidence through coming to terms with the technical language that would help me through the nuances of French septic drainage. We further developed our linguistic skills through a programme known as Accelerated Learning. As you approach 70 there are still some things that need to be learned quickly.
‘Accelerated Learning’ for us mainly meant getting together with the like-minded and punctuating an evening’s conversation François with baguettes and Brie washed down with a couple of bottles of Pays de L’Aude. It was tough but we battled on.
I am glad that we did. There can be no doubt that the main reason why the British fail to adapt to life in France is the language. On holiday you can fumble around with a few phrases and extravagant gestures. It’s even quite fun to see just how much you can wing it. But, as time goes by, this becomes an irritation. Later on it can even become a nightmare: it keeps you out of the social loop, it keeps you out of the system. This applies even more to the telephone where you have no clues as to expression and body language.
This can be overcome with practice, but I admit I still avoid the telephone whenever I can. Two years on I still make my doctor’s appointments in person, and before the visit to the surgery I rehearse any phrases I may need such as 7 can’t sleep because of the late night mewing of Chatanova – the neighbourhood torn cat\
Perhaps the greatest difficulty with spoken French is that every noun has a gender and they like you to get it right. For a nation, however, that prides itself on rationality the logic of gender is totally irrational. A gendarme is masculine but the gendarmerie itself is feminine. Prostate is feminine and what my Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘part of the reproductive system of most female mammals’ is masculine.
The written language avoids the embarrassment of this problem but has pitfalls of its own. Official language can seem to be convoluted, but it is also very precise. Until recently, French has been the official language of diplomacy. We have learned to be wary of ‘false friends’ – words which seem to be similar to English, but have very different meanings: a letter from the water board saying they are coming to renovate your furniture applies to your drains not the sideboard.
During these months of preparation we were also talking to several UK based estate agents who had fingers in the French property pie, and came to realise how important it was to put the pieces of the financial jigsaw together before we went shopping. So, we looked carefully at our savings and pensions and tried to work out how far they would stretch in terms of our desires. The answer was that we could do it, but we would have to take care. There would not be a lot of cash to spare so we could not afford many mistakes.