La Vie en France

A kind of composite of the week from 31st March when I was internet-free!

We set off at 7:00 from a Manchester shrouded in snow. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t one day before April, and it just compounded our need to get away from the grey. True to form, it was grey all the way down to the tunnel. Luckily, and unexpectedly, the traffic was free-flowing all the way down, almost as if England were easing our exit, and also due to my excellent motorway navigation skills, it must be said, having only the night before had a long discussion with Paulie about whether we should risk the M6 in the hope of getting to the toll road. I said it would be hell on earth. M60 in early rush hour, through the aptly named Death Valley. Trying to navigate past Worsley, which had always been my ‘homecoming’ sign, with its church marking the fact I was back in my homeland. Trying to get on to the M62. Trying to get onto the M6. Getting across the Thelwall viaduct. Stop-starting from there down to Stoke and beyond before finally reaching the toll road and paying almost five pounds for the privilege of being able to drive at a normal speed before hitting the hell of the M1 and M25, potentially, and sitting in traffic waiting to pay a pound fifty to cross the Dartford Bridge. Forget that!

Steve's back yard, last day in March

So we went against all the traffic across Woodhead Pass, 4 miles longer according to multimap and the AA website, but infinitely smoother. And it was clear. Steady all the way down the M1 and then even smoother along the motorway, which was extremely weird. I was expecting 10 mile tailbacks to get across the Dartford Bridge, but no, fairly straight through, although there was a hairy moment when I thought my brakes were going to fail to stop the boot-full of Steve’s essentials. My essentials were make-up and three pairs of flip-flops. His included an air compressor, a box full of tools, several boxes of gardening tools , seeds by the dozen, boots, wellies, ratchets, spanners, paint brushes, hose heads, surge-protected multi-way sockets, plug transformers: in other words, everything useful. I hadn’t even brought my (lovely!) wellies.

It's amazing how much a fluorescent jacket makes you fit in!

I’ve now realised that Steve is notoriously irate when driving. He leaves England to me, and I’m such a pushover, I always go for it. I am not a calm person myself, but I can navigate the worst of the British motorways. We had a pit-stop at the Vallée de Somme, where I inevitably ended up attracting the attention of a trucker. We’d stopped for coffee, as Steve was already tired (one hour into his stint of the drive) and as I retrieved the best 1 € 30 motorway stop coffee, he’d run off to top up with a  Redbull. As I turned around, some Southerner told me Steve had disappeared, and so we passed the time talking about the weather, and the time his wife made him walk 26 kilometres. This always makes Steve amazed. Within 30 seconds of his absence, I’m new-best-friends with some randomer. This happens a lot. I don’t know whether it’s the Northerner in me, or the Nana in me. My Nana is notorious for cornering (non-English-speaking) strangers and giving them her life story. Maybe I’ve just got one of those faces. I have to say at this point, it’s more often them talking to me than the other way around.

We made our way past Rouen (fill up there, cheaper than the motorway!) and then on to the long long long leg to Alençon and on to Le Mans. Once you’re at Le Mans, it’s a bit less boring. You’ve got Tours, then Poitiers… and then you’re almost home and dry, but it’s a huge nothingness between Rouen and Alençon and it seems endless. You see no cars. The road is quiet. No-one goes from Rouen to anywhere else, it seems. If you over take a couple of lorries, it’s a rat-race road-rage-inspiring melodrama! Steve had developed some kind of issue with my time-estimation skills. I’d estimated we’d be at my dad’s by midnight. In fact, we were 33 km out. We arrived at 12:23, after a petrol stop in Mansle, and boy was he sore about it. He whinged from Tours. That’s 1 hour and 15 minutes of pure whingeing. His legs hurt. His (non-existent) arse hurt. His head hurt. His arms hurt. His back hurt. I said many, many times that he should pull in and let me take over, but No! He likes to be a martyr. And he likes to let me know he’s being a martyr. I think it’s a pride thing. He also wasn’t having it that I had driven for 4 hours and 45 minutes with ne’er a whinge. He said it was way less than that. And, if the facts be known, you can get a long way into France in that amount of time. He still wasn’t having it.

I have to say, as an April addendum, we arrived home exactly bang-on-the-nose at 9:00 p.m., just as I said we would. Now that’s accuracy.

So… long journey, long sleep.

Thursday morning, La France, and fine sunshine!

Thursday we’d planned on it being an acclimatisation day. We went to La Rochefoucauld, did a bit of shopping (which is GREAT without the boy – sorry, Jake, but you do love a moan once you’ve got what you want!) and compared prices and looked for toothbrushes. Steve now knows la brosse à dents, not ‘la brosse de dents’, which in my opinion might be a brush made out of teeth – an entirely different thing!

However, on the way to La Roche, it seemed rude not to stop and have a look at the house, being, as it is, on the main route there. Steve as yet still hadn’t seen the house and I was too eager to wait 24 hours. So we stopped for a wander about our boundary. The gate was locked, but we made our best efforts. Just as we’d got about 30 metres past the house, there’s a flood tunnel which seemed to be an excellent place to keep a troll. Seeing as we have (jokingly!) contemplated barring the D6 off and charging a toll, having a Dom-Joly inspired Troll Booth seemed very tempting. Jake could man it and we could make a tidy profit. The tunnel goes right the way under the road, into our garden (nice!) and across to the other side. Luckily, the last time it flooded was 1999 when the Grande Tempête of the same year struck, so we aren’t expecting les inondations on a regular basis.

Anyway, on emerging from the tunnel, it strikes Steve that it’d be a mighty fine thing to climb over the fence and break into our soon-to-be property, seeing as it looked fairly deserted. We climbed over the fence, for Steve’s first look around. I am happy to report he liked what he saw, which is all good because if he hadn’t liked it, it would have been a bit difficult to deal with! Still, having seen the barn close up, having seen the atelier and the rooms there, we took a wander into the garden. I was happy to note several blossom trees, which I suspect may be a mixture of apple, almond and perhaps peach, but time will tell. There’s a beautiful chaenomeles in the garden, which will make leaving mine behind less painful. Here, it’s in bloom. I doubt England is yet.

Madame has left us a ‘chalet’ and a ‘cabine’. In true French-moving-out style, lots of random bits and pieces were left there… a strange clown/cymbalist, several delightfully kitsch table cloths… odds and sods of a life gone by. The chalet hadn’t been open when I went last – Jake’s chalet, should I say – and it was wide open. It was too much temptation to go in and have a rummage, seeing as it was only 24 hours until the property was officially ours. It was full of old Nana-type treasures: drawings done by grand-children decades ago, a picture of a boat, several shelves full of rocks and fossils, a stuffed pigeon, a scary doll, a Magic Roundabout lampshade that I’m sure I had when I was little, a pair of shoes, a hoover with a hand-made cover (it takes toilet-roll covers to the next level), and all kinds of strange things. It was a little like a 1960s caravan.

A fond memory and odd coincidence

We’d made our way out and were foraging around the garden only for Steve to see a car parked outside the house in the courtyard. A car that hadn’t been there before, especially since the gate was locked. A car that was filled with people. After some quiet, frantic debate, we decided to jump over the back fence and leg it. Prendre le clé des champs, as they say in France. Not such a good idea to break in and be confronted by la vieille madame on her exit. We made our escape, drove away à toute vitesse and hoped that was the end of it.

Friday was a marathon of signing and so on. We met the estate agent at 10:30. Steve has now taken to wearing his fluorescent worker jacket wherever he goes. At first, I mocked. Now I’m a convert. I thought it looked a bit – I don’t know – a bit…. practical, but I soon saw the error of my ways. Because the workers in France are also converts of the yellow fluorescent jacket, Steve looked like a native. He got nods from the men on the road-works and no-one batted an eyelid. House insurance is now sorted. Unlike England, you estimate a value for your insured things, for if they need to be replaced or so on. It seemed expensive, at 300 € and I’ll be shopping around. I know it’s kind of an in-crowd set-up, but it seemed better to just go with it at first. I was happy to note I understood most of what was said, especially the money stuff, so hopefully it’ll all be easy eventually.

After that, it was a long wait until we signed on the dotted line. We went to L’Eclerc a second time. Steve is not a fan of croque-monsieur, let it be noted after this visit. We also saw the man who is probably our mayor, Laurent. I didn’t want to be impertinent and go and introduce myself, but I wish I had now. It was very exciting to recognise someone based on their official internet photo. I’m such a geek.

And then, on to the house to agree the meter readings. Not such an alien concept. Madame and her two daughters were there. When the sister saw us, she said ‘Ah…. les voleurs!’ – Yes, we had been seen. Apparently we’d caused a little consternation and Senor Gonzales, the younger daughter’s husband, had been dispatched to prevent an attack. Madame Gonzales laughed it off, but I felt hideously embarrassed and wished for a moment that I wasn’t with Steve – le voleur – let’s just say the break in wasn’t my idea and leave it at that. He knows and I know and several of his friends know what happened at a derelict Tottington Police Station circa 1986, but that’s between Steve and his conscience and a few people I like to tell for amusement.

I let my embarrassment die on the embers of my excitement about signing for the house. We were left with a kind gift of a working freezer, and, bizarrely, a fondue set. Hmm. Très bizarre.

After that, a trip to Maître Ferrant’s, the notaire.

I think many French people worry about the English. I don’t know why. I think they assume Steve and I are a pair of retards. I still think Thibaud, our delightful estate agent, thinks we’ll be back with complaints about the flooding and the road. We have a ‘départemente’ road running alongside us, which Thibaud seemed to think was some kind of detrimental thing. I tried to explain that we wake up to the heady sounds of M66 traffic at home, but he wasn’t quite getting it. He tried to explain that in the rush hour, it is quite terrible, but it’s not. It’s not Manchester-worthy at all. It doesn’t even compare with an A road, let alone a motorway. Perhaps some of the less busy B roads get as much traffic. Let’s just say I can work out the weather by the sound of the traffic outside at home: snow, slow; rain, splashy, dry, quieter than usual. And as for the flooding, firstly, we live in Manchester, which may have a record ‘dry’ spell of 2 weeks, and United Utilities still have to fix the ‘stream’ at the bottom of the street. A pipe burst weeks ago, and they’ve still not fixed it, despite having excavated it twice. I lived in a bog until Bellway finally fessed up that they’d not put drainage in behind my house. So the flooding once every so often, whilst it might leave our garden under water, isn’t as serious as we may have been led to believe. But we did have concern from Thibaud about finding our way to the notaire’s. I’m not sure why. My dad’s had a house here since 2001 and I know the area well. I’ve been to Ferrant’s a few times, and to the (now-boarded-up) inn next to it many, many more. St Anger, as we call it (after the Metallica song, of course!) is practically our nearest town of any size at all.

I like the fact they worry about us, when I’ve lived in metropolises (metropoli?! I thought ‘maybe’, but the red underline of the authoritative Microsoft Word says no to ‘metropoli’ and yes to ‘metropolises’) all my life. I can tell you how to get from Victoria to MoHo, or from Piccadilly to Belle Vue… I know Oldham St and its environs like the back of my hand. I know the one-way Manchester system better than a taxi driver. King St, Deansgate, Canon St, Blackfriars, St Peter’s Square, Albert Square, Chinatown, Portland St, John Dalton St, Quay St…. I don’t ‘do’ getting lost, and I don’t ‘do’ forgetfulness about where places are, not even in places I’ve only been to once. I can tell you where my favourite churrascaria is in Rio, and how to get to Tokyo Tower from the nearest tube. But it is sweet of them to worry about me. And I mean it. I’d rather they worried than they didn’t. And I’d rather they tried to be helpful than not. I suspect, though, that now will be the beginning of all their advice and so on, when in reality, I might look like a dimwit, but really I’m pretty good at finding my own way. Despite what Steve says (though I don’t think he believes it!) I’ve got street-smarts.

Still, I have to suck up my problems with getting unwanted advice and deal with it. I suspect more will follow!

After that, the day blurred. We signed. We got the keys. Mme Arrouet was in much better health and has that lovely old lady thing going on. At one point, she pulled a lemon out of her bag. It looked a bit peeled at one end, sucked even. I don’t know what that was about! And when we were talking about the flooding, she said she once found a carp in her garden. I want to be an old lady with stories to tell about finding a carp in the garden! I very much hope to see Mme Arrouet in the future, and I hope she tells me many more stories about the house, since this is a house with a history. I’d like to know about it, rather than trying to work it out for myself!

Still, at 4:00 GMT +1, we owned our first French property. The deed was done. We got three keys, one for the gate, one for the doghouse and one for the house, and that was that.

And I could finally show Steve about! It felt good, that second time, to open up without breaking in, let me tell you.

Everything was as I remembered it, pretty much. It was very empty, much to Steve’s disappointment and my joy. What I love about it is that it took us three hours to have a proper scout about. And even then, we didn’t find everything. I suspect it will be a house that constantly surprises us. Yesterday, Steve found another room. I like living in a house where you can just ‘find’ rooms you didn’t know about. Today, I realised that some windows we didn’t realise would open actually open.

Yesterday, it was a case of entertaining a little. Isabelle, my dad’s next-door-neighbour, had set us up with the estate agent, and it was as much a thank-you meal for her as it was socialising. I’m a big fan of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ and so any excuse, for me.

After that, it was getting into the work. I’ve made a start on the poly-tunnel earth and started a bit of planting. Steve has been dismantling one of the several outdoor toilets. Essentially, they’re just holes in the earth with a bit of a box around them and  a hole to do your business in – I’m sure they’ll always remind me of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – but there’s one less there today. I’ve been wary of Steve creeping up on me, because I am the queen of the horror-movie scream, but it never fails to amuse him. I’m sure this will last as long as we’re in the house. We’ve also met all of our nearest neighbours. In fact, we’d met those opposite in the notaire’s, an elderly lady and her mother. I love how people live longer here. I’m amazed Madame is still alive, given the amount of asbestos she’s used to build the house. I realised that the beds in the poly-tunnel are entirely asbestos-sheeted.

Asbestos being useful in the polytunnel

We’ve also seen a sullen-looking youth of about 10 or 11 who wanders around Les Ecures looking surly and bored, who will hopefully be an ideal companion for Jake. I was a little worried that there would be an overwhelmingly ageing population but there’s also Christophe just behind us, with a little five-year old lad called Artur, and a 14 month old baby girl. So… two children so far, not so bad.

The people behind us seem to be another ageing family, perhaps with their son living with them. Leastways, we’ve had a little chat and I’ve done my usual spiel about how I read well, write okay, understand a lot and speak with a terrible accent. It usually works. A little modesty goes a long way. And it’s no doubt true.

Today, we realised there’s at least three or four nesting pairs of swallows (swifts? house-martins?) in the grange. I’m not sure when they moved in, because they weren’t there yesterday or Saturday, so I’m guessing they may well have come home for the summer. My mum says we’re very lucky!

Les hirondelles

I’ve pruned back 30 of our 110 (count them!) vines. I’m not sure how I’ll make it through the other 80, but I’ll do my best. That’s one hell of a lot of grapes, and very little to do with them other than make wine. I’m sure there’ll be some grape juice, but even so, we’ll have about a ton of grapes we won’t be in need of. Roy mentioned some kind of open home event in September to get them cut off the vines. You invite your neighbours and feed them, and they pick your grapes. I think I’ll be making the most of that experience! I’m hoping to get most of them done before we go back on Friday, but I’ve been relying on ‘mother’ pruning skills – i.e. cut it back as far as it can go. According to Isabelle, this is the way to go about it. We need to save the pruned branches to dry out in our grange for barbecues and kindling. Having seen how much kindling we’ve used on my dad’s, I reckon that would last us about a week. I can see that it would be good for barbecues, though.

I’ve also been busy in our thyme-smelling poly-tunnel, pulling out a thin layer of weeds and getting it back to soil rather than dust. I’ve hit the 200l mark in water, and it’s only a quarter moist. There’s already basil, parsley, pak choi, dill and thyme and I’m hoping to get the rest down by the end of the week. Likewise getting the potatoes, onions and tomatoes in by the end of the week… like I’ve been saying, the house isn’t going to deteriorate if we leave it. If we leave the garden, we’ll end up with a jungle. I’m very glad Madame has looked after it so well, though I suspect her sons-in-law have more to do with it.

Steve’s been getting busy with the hammer and ‘deconstructing’ the kitchen, as well as the toilets. Cracks have been filled in, and the house is now ready for a lick of paint. I’m sure it’ll look the better for it. He seemed to spend quite a bit of the day watching lizards – it’s his fascination. He isn’t quite so fascinated by the swallows and blue-tits, or the cuckoo, which sounds exactly like a clockwork cuckoo.

It’s only been three days since we owned the house, but it feels like it’s going to be a real good life. I feel all country-side already, except maybe a little more appreciative. I wonder when it’s all going to wear off – this amazing feeling that it gives me. I feel like there’s so much more sky – it seems like the world around me is at least two thirds sky, rather than just a narrow band above the houses and buildings and hills of Manchester. Even then, it seems overwhelmingly grey. Here, the weather seems to change so quickly. We had fine weather on Thursday, a couple of rainy days over Friday and Saturday, and then it’s been sun, sun, sun. It’s the beginning of April and the trees are beginning to blossom. There are five or six cherry trees, maybe ornamental, a tree that’s most definitely a fig, and a few other blossom trees that may be peaches, apricots or plums. I’m looking forward to seeing what grows on them! I was thinking of getting a Japanese cherry blossom, but it seems sad when we’ve got so many other trees! And seeing them against the blue sky, with the swallows flying in between and the cuckoos in the distance, well, it’s literally a dream come true.

That’s not to say it’s not hard work. Both of us have been aching at night, and even at the tail end of our thirties, we’re still suffering from bad backs after strimming, planting, weeding, though I knew it would be a full-time job, I don’t think my body was prepared for it. It’s nice, though, to form our own rhythms. Steve doesn’t eat much unless he’s had some kind of appetite stimulant; he can go days without eating properly and he’s had all manner of herbal remedies to stimulate his appetite. One day here, though, and the fresh air and hard work has made him eat more like a normal person. This is good, as I was worried about being able to get enough food into him to stoke his fires. So it’s good that he’s getting into the rhythm of eating well.

I have to say our other rhythms are more Manchester than Les Ecures. After a late start (let’s say nine thirty) we boil up the coffee, have a cigarette and a coffee for breakfast, watch a bit of Jeremy Kyle and then we’re ready for the day. Unfortunately, this is at half eleven France time, which is almost the time for everything to shut for lunch. We’ll be alright as long as we’ve got everything for our siesta-work-through the evening before – we’ll be fucked if we need something first thing in the morning!

After that, it’s a couple of hours work, a brie-et-jambon sandwich (and there is nothing like a fresh baton from the boulangerie, no matter how pretentious it might seem!) and work through the afternoon until about sevenish. Today, Steve’s fixing my dad’s mower, which had a belt break yesterday, and you don’t want to be without a tondeuse-a-siege when you’ve got land as big as he’s got… and it’s half nine. So whilst we might have a late start, we’ve still got a full day’s worth of work under our belts by tea, and then we finally sit down to rest our weary squelettes at about ten o’clock. I hope this is the way it goes on! A couple of episodes of Six Feet Under have been getting us prepared for the evening.

“A few pieces of skin missing, a few millilitres of blood, back’s gone, let’s see if it works.”

The battery sounds a little flat.

Hmmm. I sense Steve may be a little frustrated! Something about all the tools at my dad’s place renders them unusable. We’d hoped to put our new French mailbox up today. We’d dismantled some of my dad’s endless miles of extension cables in order to get it just long enough. We’d got a drill. We’d got the screws and the masonry bits and the rawl plugs. We found a socket that got us about 2 inches away from the gate post. We found another socket that just reached. And then the drill didn’t work. Story of my dad’s tool-based life.

I know he can’t wait until he has all his tools about. What I like about him (and me) is that we can potter about our jobs without interfering with each other and we’re both entirely productive. Me, less so, I think! But we’re practical people who don’t want to stop. Yet.

And yet it’s not all work. Steve spent about ten minutes creeping round the garden perimeter today in order to sneak up on me and poke me with a stick. I’d just finished pulling up my 250th weed (I count. It’s therapeutic, goal-setting and also a little anal. I admit it.) and I’d slipped out of my camouflage-fleece-lined-crocs and put my foot onto the lush, cool grass underneath my feet. I was looking up at the trees, wondering if they would bloom in full tomorrow when I saw him. I didn’t scream, for once, though given my complete state of peace and quiet, it is quite surprising that I didn’t. He was laughing more at the fact he’s spent ten minutes creeping up on me than the fact that I’d screamed. It must have been funny to watch me going about my daily business, singing to my newly-planted Charlotte potatoes (Bob Marley) and counting off weeds as I threw them to the side, then stopping to slip out of my so-de-rigeur crocs. I love my crocs. I got them today at Leclerc Brico, and they are sooooo farm-yard chic. Perfect.

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