Today is a very special one on La Lune. It’s 20 years ago to the day since we first saw our house. During our five days’ house-hunting in France, among the legion of properties we saw only two fitted the bill. Here’s the story of our adventures. It’s a rather longer post than usual, but that’s because I have edited and stitched together four posts that I wrote some years ago. I thought those of you who are new to the blog since then might like to read about it.
Asking for the Moon: Part 1
‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we already have the stars.’ This is the final line in the film ‘Now, Voyager’ with Claude Rains (born in Camberwell but often played Frenchmen) and Bette Davis. I always think of it when recalling our journey to find our house.
Most property hunters have experienced the days driving from one house to the next in search of the dream. We’ve all seen houses described as habitable that couldn’t possibly have been for at least 50 years. For us, there was a happy ending and some interesting events en route.
Under starter’s orders…
We planned to buy a holiday home in France, having spent many enjoyable holidays here. The SF spent several years working in Limoges in the seventies and loved la vie française.
Our plane landed at Toulouse in bright April sunshine. This felt like a different continent. We drove up to Cahors in our small hire car, delighting in the sunshine and the burgeoning green of the countryside. Of course, we were fooled into thinking the weather was always like this and no one disabused us of the notion.
…and we’re off
We saw 21 properties in five days. Each time, our expectations rose, only to sink again each time a house failed to live up to them. Only two were ever possibilities. We have lived in one since August 1997. The other, an imposing but decrepit white stone Quercy farmhouse, would have been ruinous to our finances.
The estate agents taught us two key lessons. First, nearly all the people selling had had overstretched themselves. That lesson averted the potentially disastrous purchase of the imposing white stone house. Second, every house has its maximum value. Whatever you do to it, you will never exceed it, no matter how many gold taps you install in the bathroom.
The French estate agents had an idée fixe about what British people wanted, so they disregarded our specification and showed us whatever they happened to have on their books. We drove miles to places that we would never have considered purchasing.
Negotiating the first fence
A French estate agent in Cahors sent us off on a 50 km wild goose chase to a water mill. A harassed-looking woman with a clutch of small children showed us distractedly around the house, which was poorly restored and badly decorated. We got away as soon as we politely could.
Asking for the Moon: Part 2
At Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, we stayed for two nights in a gîte owned by a British estate agent. During the day, he ran us around in his car to view properties and we lunched at his house on pâtés, charcuterie and salads.
On the first night, we sat outside as dusk gathered and listened to the sliding song of the nightingales in the thicket by the River Aveyron. When night fell completely, we were entranced by the clear sky, spread with stars and unpolluted by artificial light. A comet that was only a faint smudge in the London night sky showed up clearly as it arched across the heavens.
One property looked idyllic – a small château in a village by a river. The reality was somewhat different. It turned out to be a terraced house with a tower. On one side was a restaurant; on the other was a dilapidated house, also for sale.
The ‘château’ had a nice courtyard with a fountain, a lovely garden and well-restored bedrooms in the tower. But the living room had all the charm of a doctor’s waiting room and two people would have constituted a crowd in the kitchen. Buying the next-door house was de rigueur if you wanted any privacy, but it needed restoring from top to bottom. This would have been beyond our budget. We crossed that one off our list.
Snakes included in the price
The next one, a mill house in Aveyron, sounded ideal but was miles from the nearest village and too far from an airport then. Two so-called ‘trout lakes’ were foetid ponds covered in green scum. An outbuilding with ‘gîte potential’ was a tumbledown shack by the front gate. The house was disappointingly small inside.
Worst of all, however, was the stream that actually ran through the back of one of the downstairs bedrooms. This room had French windows opening onto a small courtyard. A handwritten notice read, ‘Please keep the curtains closed to stop the snakes coming in.’
Opening the front door, I came eyeball to eyeball with a huge snake basking on the opposite bank. It was at least a metre long and as thick as my wrist. For a split second, we observed each other and then in a flash it was gone. Fortunately, it was a grass snake. Still, that settled it. No way was I going to cohabit with a snake.
It was with somewhat less optimism that we clambered into the agent’s car the next morning.
Asking for the Moon: Part 3
Des res Adams Family style
We had specified a farmhouse, but the agent wanted to show us an ‘interesting’ maison bourgeoise in the style of a Basque chalet. We had already christened it the ‘Adams Family house’ since its brooding gables gave it a sinister appearance.
We rang the bell. Footsteps echoed down the hall. Hinges creaking, the dungeon-like front door swung open to reveal Uncle Fester himself. He was completely bald: the spitting image of the TV character. Avoiding each other’s eyes, we followed Uncle Fester around the house. The house was elegant and well-maintained but not what we were looking for.
Going outside, Uncle Fester announced proudly, ‘I’ve got 20 hectares’ and set off down the field at a spanking pace. We were spared a tour of the entire estate but had to climb over a gate and cross a field of cows to get to the derelict barns.
‘I’m 77, you know,’ Uncle Fester declared as he scaled the gate. We laboured after him, trying to avoid the cowpats strategically placed on the other side.
Having looked at the barns, we started back across the field. A hefty bull not far away was eyeing us balefully. He started bellowing and pawing the ground and the dust rose in clouds around him.
‘You’d better come quickly,’ Uncle Fester said. ‘It’s not a good sign when he does that.’
Itching to move on
That day we also saw a house that was infested with fleas. Set in a tiny hamlet on top of a hill, the place was a mess. A warren of rooms was connected by dark corridors or haphazard staircases and, in one case, a trap door. The owners were cat lovers and unemptied litter trays graced every room. The smell was indescribable.
We discovered the fleas only later from the bites around our ankles and a few hopping dots on our hands. The owners were desperate to sell and dragged me off down the garden to look at the view. It was lovely but could not compensate for the house, which needed to be remodelled internally from scratch.
Also that day: a pretty house with a separate gîte, swimming pool and a tiny chapel in the garden. Alas, there were two overriding drawbacks there:
- The house was in a deep valley and probably got little sun except in summer.
- The only access to one of the two upstairs bedrooms was from the other bedroom. Moreover, you had to squeeze through the loo, ingeniously installed between the two rooms.
That one got the thumbs down, too. Back to the drawing board.
Asking for the Moon: Part 4
Another agent took us to view a house in a tiny Lotois hamlet. He drove off to pick up the key from a neighbour, leaving us on the veranda out of the drizzle. We drank in the rural atmosphere as the cuckoos called. After about 25 minutes, we began to get anxious. Had he had an accident? We hadn’t a clue where we were or how to get back; there wasn’t another soul around.
Just as panic was setting in, his car re-appeared and we greeted him like a long-lost cousin. The key-holding neighbour was moving house and the French removal men had lit a bonfire, which was blazing merrily. The woman had put the key in a cardboard box and the removal men assumed it was for the bonfire. There were lots of Gallic shrugs and a half-hearted attempt to retrieve the key from the inferno. The neighbour had hysterics, there were more Gallic shrugs and the estate agent left empty-handed.
Never mind; we didn’t like that property, either. We didn’t need to look inside.
A slap-up lunch at a knock-down price
That agent dropped us back at the small village where we had left our car. By this time, it was already 13h20 and well past lunchtime. Starving, but knowing the French attachment to lunch at midi on the dot, we were afraid that we had missed it.
Tentatively, we entered the small restaurant and asked if it might be possible to get something to eat. ‘Of course, no problem,’ the waitress said with a smile. Gratefully, we sat down. There was no menu; you ate what there was.
Soup was followed by fat local asparagus with ham and hard-boiled eggs. The main course was a veal stew with a mound of potatoes, followed by salad and a tray of cheeses. Dessert was a dish of the sweetest strawberries I had ever tasted: my introduction to locally-grown Gariguettes.
Wine and bread were already on the table when we sat down. We drank all the wine. The total, including coffee, was 120FF (about £12 at the time). Not per head: for two.
As we weaved off through the village, we wondered why we felt a bit light-headed. Then it dawned on us: we had drunk a litre of wine, not 75 cl. Luckily, the Gendarmes were occupied elsewhere that day.
Home, sweet home
Our five-day visit was not in vain. As we drove up to our present house, a Quercy farmhouse with a covered balcony and an integral pigeonnier, we felt we were coming home. A cuckoo was calling in the woods and the house was bathed in spring sunshine.
Set in glorious countryside, the house had everything we wanted, even central heating, which has been a boon. The house was not too big, but not too small either; just enough land, but not too much (although we have since bought a neighbouring barn, field and woodland). A bit like Goldilocks and the three bears: it was just right. We went to see it a second time before flying back to London.
As we sat talking it over in the café at Toulouse Airport, we felt convinced that this was the one and speculated about moving over full time. The SF was already self-employed and could work from anywhere with reasonable access to an airport. I was growing tired of a stressful and unrewarding job. Couldn’t I do the same? The rest, as they say, is history.
Before and after
I need to make clear that, unlike braver souls than us, we didn’t actually restore our house. That was done by someone else in about 1972, long before we bought it. Before that, it was abandoned and in a sorry state. Some photos taken around 1970 show how it looked then.
And this is how it is now…
This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance blog linky in May 2017, where you can read posts about all aspects of French life by Anglophone bloggers.
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