I moved to France on a beautiful sunny day in early June. My forever home was a two hundred year old, stone built Norman farmhouse, with numerous ancient outbuildings, and a huge barn. The house, the barn and a wonderfully tumbledown old stone building were set around a south facing, sun trap of a courtyard. Even in February, when viewing the property, I could picture how I would be able to spend summer days wandering in and out of the house, tending to pots of ivy-leafed geraniums and savouring a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc in the late afternoon. From the courtyard, you could hear the stream trickling behind the ancient, near derelict, building opposite. This was the original farmhouse, built around 1700, which had been converted into storage and animal housing at some point after the “new” farmhouse was built. The house and its various outbuildings were set at the end of a quarter mile long drive, and coming over a slight hump in the lane, you would catch your first glimpse of the property, nestled comfortably into the land, and surrounded by eight acres of meadows and woodland, with a huge pond fed by the stream.
Purchasing a rundown French farm meant that I had already spent a tense 3 months prior to completion waiting to hear whether the French SAFER (the French land agency which has the right to purchase most rural property when it comes up for sale), were going to exercise their right to purchase. They didn’t, and I completed in the May. Over the long 4 months since I’d found the house of my dreams, the weather had been amazing. Gorgeous sunny days… the sort of spring that hints at a long hot summer…I couldn’t wait to get to France and start putting down roots and making memories.
The drive down was long and arduous. A convoy of three vehicles containing my remaining possessions that were not already in storage in France, and my beloved pets. A dog and three cats. We set off on a Saturday evening, and travelled by ferry and road, through the night, arriving late morning on the Sunday.
My memories of that day are of my cats, who hated travelling, yowling and yowling; the sun belting down, the heat shimmering over the meadows. In the days that followed I spent afternoons romping through the long grass with my dog, exploring the cool and shady woodland, paddling in the stream, the sun not setting until nearly 11pm. It truly was idyllic. Yet overnight it began to rain torrentially, and it didn’t stop until September! The stream flooded. The pond flooded. I worried we’d all end up with trench foot! My wellies were on all summer. One day in July, I commented on the rain to our nearest neighbor, a wizened French dairy farmer, who gave a nonchalant Norman shrug, and replied “c’est Normandie”. I soon came to understand that this was a regional variant on the phrase used with studied nonchalance by the French to describe any tricky or troublesome event, “c’est normale”.
When I moved in, the house had no running water, no central heating, and no kitchen… not even a sink! French property sales are very different to ones in the UK, and traditionally, the French remove everything when they move, even if it’s bolted down. I had a builder for one month, rushing to put in a water pump to bring running water from the well to the house, a water heater so that I could wash, installing a wood burning stove, and knocking up a working kitchen before he had to return to the UK.
Moving from a busy city in the UK to a rural farm in a very deprived part of Normandy was an amazing experience (and quite a culture shock). One that I’m proud to have had. Learning that at midday, everything shut for lunch, that it was no good whinging about it, and to just go with the flow was the first thing. It altered my entire daily routine. I found I rose earlier. Got more done in the morning, then I would kick back, relax and enjoy lunch properly in true French style. Life moved at a much slower pace. Aside from moving to another country, it felt as if I’d moved back in time. The local commune resembled something you’d imagine from 1950s Britain, with some of that austerity, and I learned a new frugality in the style of my neighbours as work proved patchy and difficult to find. Total immersion strategy in a part of France where few people spoke anything other than very limited English meant that I quickly became a fluent, if perhaps not stylish, French speaker.
I remember little things that you take for granted in Britain, (or fail to notice at all), taking on a whole new excitement. The beauty of the changing seasons. The first blossoms of Spring. The Daffodils flowering. Water Irises bursting into life in the pond. The call of mating frogs and toads. The joy of turning on a tap and having not just running cold, clean, water, but hot too! Walking my dog on my own land and being captivated by the beauty of the Autumn leaves. The pleasure of wandering into the house at the end of a long, cold (and very wet) day, and lighting the stove, with logs from your own woodland, before sitting down in front of it with the dog, cats and a cup of tea. Ah! Such bliss.
Sadly, like too many expats who attempt to live their dream, I was eventually defeated by economics and after three years I was forced to sell my lovely home, pack up and move back to the UK. But I am so glad that I pursued the adventure. It really gave me a renewed appreciation of life, a greater understanding of myself, and memories that will stay with me for the rest of my days.