I had never thought about living in France until my husband came back from a press trip to Thailand. Before he had unpacked the suitcases, he told me we were moving there. I ignored him.
‘I met a couple on a boat,’ he said. ‘I want to go there and write a book.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Things aren’t that bad.’
‘They live in the Languedoc. It’s in the south.’
‘The what-e-doc?’ I said. ‘Never heard of it.’
To me the south of France was Cap d’Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Monte Carlo. Beautiful people, vast yachts and rocky beaches. Good for a holiday, but not a place to live and bring up children.
At the time we were living in Sussex in a converted printing press. We had just finished doing it up, a job that had taken almost two years. Rupert, my husband, worked for the European newspaper. I was working freelance as a journalist, as well as headhunting for media companies. Although my mother is Swedish and my father is Italian, after their divorce when I was two years old she had married an Englishman. I had been living in England almost all my life and felt totally at home there. I couldn’t imagine a life without Marks & Spencer, thatched cottages or muddy country walks.
Nothing more was said about moving until a letter arrived three months later. It contained a hand-drawn card showing a lovely house on a hill, surrounded by olive trees and vineyards.
I read the contents of the card and looked at the photo the couple had taken of my husband lying in a hammock on a cruise ship. Obviously another tough assignment for him.
‘It was such fun meeting you on the Star Clipper,’ read the card. ‘Do come and stay if you’re ever in the region, we would love to introduce you to the Languedoc.’
I looked at the drawing of the house again and compared it with the view from our front door. The French house had palm trees, sunshine and a swimming-pool.
Idyllic though the village of Mayfield is, we looked out over a car park and constant drizzle. Next door was the pub, which I had grown to hate. Not so much because it was next door, but because Rupert wasted too much time and money there.
‘That idea of yours about moving to France,’ I said. ‘Let’s go and have a look.’
Within a week we were planning a trip to Pézenas, a medieval town twenty minutes away from the Mediterranean. Olivia, our daughter, was then around three months old. We left her with Rupert’s parents and drove to Stansted. Just the drive to the airport was enough to make you want to leave the country. Despite allowing for more than two hours to get there we almost didn’t make it. We ran on to the plane and arrived at Carcassonne in blazing sunshine an hour and a half later. It was early October.
Peter Glynn-Smith, an attractive man of around 70 with more energy and wit than all the 30 year olds hanging around the Mayfield pub, met us at the airport. It was him Rupert had met in Thailand. Married to Dominique, a French woman, Peter had lived in the Languedoc for 12 years and had grown to adore the region.
‘This is a wine growing area, the biggest vineyard in the world,’ he said, as we drove from the airport. ‘There are a couple of great cities, Montpellier and Nîmes, we are close to Spain—we often pop down there for lunch—there are large sandy beaches, flamingos and oyster beds, and mountains to the north, which funnel the wind in another direction. They say we get more than 300 days of sunshine a year, but when it rains, it really rains. I have lived all over the world, but I like it best here.’ The best news for house hunters was that the house prices were a third to a quarter of what you pay in England, helped by the strong pound. We were sold.
The housing market in the Languedoc, when we first started looking, had agents, but they seemed reluctant to give us any information about houses for sale. A former Buddhist monk turned estate agent drove us long distances to look at unsuitable properties. He was deaf in one ear and overtook cars on corners. Another agent, an Englishwoman, was reluctant to sell anything. Rupert explained to her that this was her job.
‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘I don’t want the place overrun with foreigners. I liked it best a few years ago, when it was quieter.’
We wanted an old property in the middle of nowhere, ideally with five bedrooms and a swimming-pool. We looked within a 30 kilometre radius of Pézenas for over a year.
Every time we came out we would stay with Peter and Dominique. The problem was that, because Peter is an interior designer, their house is one of the most elegant in the region. We would trawl around wrecks all day and come back to the tranquillity of St Siméon, and wonder if we had started on a mad mission.
To make matters worse, Peter introduced us to all his friends, most of whom he had designed houses for. For example, Norman and Stephanie, who live in one of the most beautifully converted mills in the world. We would go for long lunches on their terrace, which is in between their pool and the vineyards next door. It was the ultimate in luxury picnicking. You felt you were in the middle of the countryside, while sitting at a marble table drinking local wines.
In all we must have made seven or eight trips, some with Olivia, some without. I’ll never forget her taking her first bath in the Languedoc, in Peter’s beautiful round marble sink. The trips were great fun. Peter and Dominique looked after us splendidly, organising dinners and showing us the region. As soon as we found a house with any potential at all, we would call Peter in to take a look. ‘This could be the most exquisite house in the south of France,’ he would invariably announce, tape measure in hand. I would stare at three rotting walls and a hole in the roof and try to share his vision and enthusiasm.
By now, of course, I was totally set on moving. I had come to love the way of life I had seen so far. I imagined my children (I was pregnant again) running around Peter’s pool with his daughter Laura. I envisaged daily trips to the Pézenas delicatessen to stock up on marvellous cheeses and local goodies. I thought more and more about a life in the sun.
But by now we had also given up all hope of ever finding the perfect place. The isolated house with swimming-pool and five bedrooms didn’t seem to exist. We would have to try to rent somewhere and try to find a house once we were installed.
On the final afternoon on what we had decided would be our last house-hunting trip we ended up near Clermont l’Hérault, a small town to the west of Montpellier. Another English agent showed us a couple of properties. He had been a plasterer and came to the south of France ten years ago on holiday. After a week in the sun, he decided not to go back to Bolton. The most impressive thing about him was the amount he drank.
‘I start off with beer,’ he explained. ‘And move on to a bottle of wine and half a bottle of Ricard every night.’
His shape and colour confirmed this.
We told him that we were visiting one more place before returning to England. We were about to give up on the whole thing or try to find somewhere to rent.
‘Well, you’ll buy it,’ he said.
‘How do you know that?’ we asked.
‘I just do,’ he grinned, tapping his red nose.
We drove away resolving never to drink as much as he did. But the strange thing was, the minute we turned off the main road to follow the small track to the final property, we knew it was right. The tiny country road ran through vineyards and garrigue, the scrubland made up of stunted oak trees, broom, rosemary and thyme.
I was expecting something disappointing around every corner, but instead, three kilometres after we had turned off the main road, we saw the house on top of the hill. Old stones, blue shutters, swimming-pool, roses and olive trees in the garden, and not another house in sight. As we turned up the drive, my nipples stood on end. Historically this has always been a good sign.
I found it hard not to smile as we were taken round. The lady who owned the house insisted on showing me every cupboard in it. I felt like jumping up and down shrieking: ‘I don’t care if there isn’t a single bloody cupboard within a ten-mile radius.’
‘Will you stop grinning,’ hissed Rupert as we looked round the garden. It was stunning, filled with yellow, pink and red roses. There were palm trees by the pool and olive trees dotted around.
‘I can’t,’ I replied, almost in tears.
The couple suggested we walk up to the vineyard behind the house to get a feeling for the countryside it stood in.
‘Just make an offer now,’ I said to Rupert. Both he and Peter glared at me.
‘I love it,’ I said.
‘Well of course you do,’ said Peter, trying to look patient.
We walked back to the house and I tried to look nonchalant. Downstairs the whole vast room was lined with books. One of our main concerns about moving had been where to put our books. It was a sign. I had to concentrate on not throwing my arms around the owners. Could it possibly get any better?
‘The house is called Sainte Cécile,’ said Madame Millière. ‘She is the patron saint of music.’
I envisaged opera blaring from the house as we swam naked in the pool on balmy summer evenings. Did I imagine it, or did Bea, then in my tummy, do a somersault?
After about an hour we said goodbye to Monsieur and Madame Millière and went back to plan our strategy. There was no question we wanted the house. We could just about afford it, although it would mean re-mortgaging in Sussex. How easy would it be to close the deal?
We spent a night dreaming of life at Sainte Cécile, how the children would learn to swim there, the walks we would take, the dinner parties we would give, repaying the hospitality we’d been shown on our visits to the region.
At the estate agent’s the next morning we resolved to play it cool. But we were due to fly out that day and there was no way I wanted to leave without signing something. We were instantly shown in to the boss’s office. When I started telling him that there were cracks in the walls, he said that we could arrange a survey if we wished, but the property was sound. Besides, a Swiss couple had already made an offer. Just then, his phone rang. I caught my husband’s eye. I thought it was important that he realised how crucial his next move would be.
‘If we don’t get this house I will never recover,’ I whispered.
When the agent came off the phone, Rupert asked him how much the Swiss had offered. What about if we offer a sum £10,000 higher? I will ask them, he replied. We had to sign a formal offer, then the agent drove off to see the vendors in person. We were told to go for a walk and a cup of coffee.
We walked around in the sunshine for an hour, worried to go into any shops in case we lost the signal on our mobile phones. I kept telling my husband to call back and offer the asking price immediately. After an age, the phone rang.
‘Please come back to my office,’ said a voice.
They had accepted!
We all drove to the house, went on another tour and were shown all the cupboards again. Then we were offered a glass of champagne and some canapés. It all seemed terribly civilised.
‘It’s a bit less than we had hoped for,’ said Madame Millière, patting my pregnant tummy. ‘But I wanted the house to go to a young family.’
We sat down and went through all the things they would leave in the house and decided on a date for us to move in. They wanted one final summer there with their grandchildren so September the first was agreed on. This was six months away.
‘And you must come and have lunch next time you’re down,’ said Madame Millière. ‘I want to introduce you to my gardener.’
We went back to England with a photograph of the house, which I put on the fridge as I counted the days until the move. It showed the French windows downstairs, framed with roses. You could see the strong sun lighting up the glass.
From then on my life was taken over with ‘the move’. I began to arrange the mortgage, the French bank account, how to give birth in France, childcare, having telephone lines installed and so on, all issues I will be covering in this book. I didn’t speak any French. I spent most of my later school years in Sweden, where the first foreign language in schools is English. I took this as an opportunity to bunk off instead of doing something useful like learning French verbs. We employed a local French friend, Isabelle, to give us lessons twice a week. But I found it incredibly hard to get my head round the language. With Isabelle’s help I fired off faxes to the Post Office, the local mayor’s office, the local GP and banks. By the time we moved in September I would be seven months pregnant and wanted to get as much organised as I could beforehand.
The last week in August Rupert left for the Languedoc with Hugo and Julia, his two older children, then aged six and eight. The idea was that he would be there to sign the final papers and sort things out for when we arrived. Olivia and I would travel down a week or so later with Donia, our nanny, who had agreed to come and live with us.
Once Rupert had gone we started putting the whole contents of the house in cardboard boxes. The removal van arrived two days before we were due to leave and took everything out of the house. I was going to spend my last two days in England staying with a friend.
I locked up for the last time and handed the keys over to Pat, our neighbour. Her dogs, Hector and Camber, came out and started running around, barking madly. My appearance was usually a sign that they were going for a walk. I wondered how much I would miss the walk out of the back of the house over the fields, and the views of Sussex I loved. Pat looked as if she was going to start crying and I thought briefly about cancelling the whole thing. What the hell was I doing going to give birth somewhere I didn’t even speak the language? What was the French for epidural?
Instead I gave Pat a hug and told her to come and see us. Hector and Camber looked glum as I opened the gate and walked out without them.
Two days later at the Ryanair check-in at Stansted I was thinking even more seriously about going back to the unfurnished house in Mayfield. My main worry was where Olivia and I would sleep. The floor might have been an option for her, but in my advanced stage of pregnancy no way was it for me.
‘I’m sorry,’ said a particularly po-faced member of the airline’s staff. ‘You’re too pregnant to fly.’ Rarely have I come across such unpleasant people, and I am including experience working for a headhunter in the city of London, as I have whilst flying the dreaded Ryanair.
This sadistic member of staff was telling me I wasn’t, in fact, going to get on the plane to pursue my dream, that, no, I wouldn’t be pruning my roses by the pool that afternoon. Instead I would be driving back to Sussex with Donia and Olivia to Mayfield.
I thought briefly about leaning across the check-in counter, grabbing her polyester necktie and slowly strangling her.
‘You’re not serious?’ I asked, hoping it was all a nightmare.
‘I am,’ she replied. I could see the beginnings of a smile form under her fourteen layers of cheap foundation.
‘But I have flown all over the world while pregnant. I even called BA to check how many weeks pregnant you can be and still fly.’
‘Ah, well, they have different rules than us. With us, anyone over seven months pregnant has to have a certificate from their doctor.’
‘And if I have that I can fly?’
‘How do you suggest I get you one now? I mean can I call my doctor and get her to fax it?’
‘Oh no, I shouldn’t think so.’
Olivia started to cry.
I picked her up and looked around me pleadingly. Was there a doctor in the check-in queue?
A colleague of Miss Sadistic came to my rescue.
‘If your doctor could fax us something now, on this number, we could let you on,’ she said, handing me a piece of paper.
I didn’t dare explain to them that my doctor had recently committed suicide and that the lady who had taken over hardly knew me, so it was unlikely she would be able to say whether I could fly or not. I gloomily took the piece of paper and headed for the back of the queue.
Donia, who had been looking for some last-minute supplies of Calpol, joined us.
‘You haven’t got very far, have you?’
‘We’re not going,’ I said.
She laughed and picked up Olivia who was falling asleep on the luggage trolley.
‘No, I’m serious.’ I explained what had happened.
I’ve always found a pregnant woman weeping hysterically is pretty effective in any situation. So when I got through to the secretary at the surgery (thank God it was the grumpy one’s day off) I wept and told her what had happened.
She reacted like Moneypenny when James Bond is in a crisis.
‘Don’t you worry my lovey, we’ll send it through straight away. Leave it all to me.’
Less than an hour later we were airborne, heading to our new home. I have never been so relieved to be on a Ryanair plane.
We landed in Carcassonne an hour and half later. It was wonderful stepping out of the plane into what felt like a sauna. I stood at the top of the steps and breathed in the air of my new home: wonderful, if slightly tarnished with aviation fuel. Rupert was there to meet us. He told us that the furniture had finally arrived that morning and the men were busy unloading the truck. Max the cat had made it too but was refusing to come out of the cage he had travelled in from England.
The three kilometre drive from the village to the house was even more beautiful than I remembered. The vines, the olive trees, the huge pines close to our house were all swaying in the gentle breeze. I was desperate to get to my new home and float in the pool. In fact, that day was spent mainly arranging for the beds to be put up so that we all had somewhere to sleep that night—Rupert had so far been camping in the garden.
By early evening the beds were in place and I went for my first dip. It was one of those situations where the reality is better than the fantasy. I felt totally relaxed and happy, despite the fact that the house was a shambles and there were around 150 boxes still to unpack. Olivia ran around the pool with her plastic caterpillar. Donia was busy covering herself in baby oil to ensure optimum tanning.
After the swim we opened a bottle of wine on the terrace. I remembered a moment of doubt I had had a few months previously about moving. ‘I bet you,’ a friend of ours in Mayfield had said, ‘that after six months you’ll be wondering what on earth you’ve been worrying about.’ He was right, but it happened on the first day.
Helena’s book More More France please! is available from Amazonand other book sellers from the 1st of July.
Tagged in: book, french living, Helena Frith Powell