That Anne and I have had a holiday home in Charente for nearly 20 years is no secret. It is a source of constant, ineffable smugness. I wonder if we would have had the guts to do it today. With Brexit looming (I have avoided mentioning it in this blog until now), we would almost certainly not have gone through with it. But that’s not the only reason.
Are you considering living somewhere else when you “retire” (assuming that retirement is an option)? Perhaps as you grow older the thought becomes, rather than more enticing, gradually less so. Anyway, whither to go? The world is a big place.
I have certainly become more cautious with age, increasingly looking for reasons not to do something “exciting”. What if it all goes wrong? You may think of me as fairly confident and open-minded. But that is not the way I see myself. I’ve always been reticent about grasping nettles; I have been scared of failure; I need to force myself, or to be forced.
But anyway, in late 1999 we saw and bought this little house in Charente, in a tiny hamlet, in the middle of France: almost a ruin, to be truthful, for about £15,000. It was all we could afford.
It was in the middle of bloody nowhere
Even at the time it felt like it could have been a mistake. First, my French wasn’t very good (though Anne had A Level). To converse with the natives it would have been more sensible to buy a place in Spain or Portugal, n’est-ce pas? (But France has the huge advantage of being nearby; you can drive there in a few hours.) Second, the house wasn’t in the mountains, it wasn’t on the coast, it wasn’t in a beautiful old town, like La Rochelle. There were no shops or cafés within walking distance of La Bréchoire, or barely even within cycling distance. There didn’t seem to be anything much to see, or to do. Third, as I said, it was a wreck. What’s more, there was a terrible storm right at the end of 1999, precisely as we were buying, which meant that every builder in the region was fully occupied fixing his own roof. Unfortunately our knackered old roof stayed on, or we could have claimed for it on the insurance!
We bought this wreck, and for more than a year nothing got done. On more than one occasion we drove down from London, opened up, looked inside, then went off camping. We didn’t attempt to do any serious work ourselves. We didn’t have the time or the skills, and it was just too daunting.
The house that Jacques built
Gradually things got sorted. Through friends, we found a great French builder. Anne drew up some basic plans and Jacques just got on with it. We drove down and gave him some cash and asked him to do some more work. This process continued for over a year. Eventually we had a place we could actually inhabit, with beds and a kitchen and a bathroom (something that the house had never had).
We haven’t regretted it for a minute
When I look at the house and garden now I see, all around me, work that Anne and I have done, and decisions we have made, always together, and that is a very satisfying thing. It has been a challenge, and a lot of fun at the same time. I do not feel the same way about our house in London. It has been a great project and continues to be so.
I realise that there is an element of self-congratulation in all this, but it’s our experiences I want to highlight.
If you are going to be anywhere for longer than a few weeks, the people you meet become at least as important as the attractions, the restaurants, the swimming, walking and cycling. I have never understood this grumpy English antipathy towards the French.
It seems mostly to come from people who can’t speak the language or don’t like garlic or oysters. While not as extrovert as people you may generally encounter in Spain, I have found our French neighbours to be honest, open and helpful. Some are a bit shy, whilst others will readily invite you to drinks or dinner. We have had no problems at all. You are judged on your character rather than your wealth or status. Why should I even have to say this? Should it be so surprising? Making French friends (and English friends who have settled there) has been a big plus.
We have been to markets, country shows, concerts, New Year parties and weddings that have been truly memorable. Often we have been the only British people there.
Financially it hasn’t been a huge drain, but neither has it been an investment; if we are lucky we may get back what we spent on it. If not, we do not really care. We could have spent the money on luxury holidays around the world. But that would not have given us the chance to integrate into a different society, if only part-time. And we do still go on holiday to other places as well.
So would you retire there?
Wasn’t that the point of buying while we were relatively young, to see what it would be like? The problem (if it is a problem) with holiday homes is that they are one thing when they are just holiday homes and something else if you live there all the time. Maybe just a small house in the middle of nowhere, where you have to drive to get anything to eat.
The great attraction, for us at any rate, is the peace and quiet, the countryside: in short, the contrast with London. So without that contrast… probably we wouldn’t love it so much!
But I wouldn’t mind living somewhere else in France, maybe a small town wth shops and a café, so I could join my neighbours in moaning, even more enthusiastically than in London, about bureaucracy and the hypocrisy of politicians. You can do that anywhere of course, but in France it’s a social movement. Hopefully they’ll let us back in at Easter.