Whenever we say that we live in France, people reply with, ‘Oh, how lovely’. There is a romantic image in everyones mind that probably has a rural house with a shady terrace overlooking fields of cows and perhaps a paddock where your own horse is stabled. The local village has a boulangerie and a café situated near the thriving market where local producers come to sell their fresh from the fields produce.
When we arrived in Reims we rented a town house for the first year while we searched for our dream house. Every week we would search the housing section of the newspaper for something that tallied with our wishes. We saw houses in cute little villages, but how would our daughter get to school each day? We saw houses where DIY enthusiasts had overreached themselves and created a nightmare of work for future buyers to put right. One set of owners had removed all the old wood panelling that had covered the walls from floor to ceiling. The terribly rough and uneven walls that were now exposed had been skilfully hidden for many years. The owners had also sought to remove an interior wall to join the kitchen space to the living space. Unfortunately the two floors were of slightly different heights – another problem waiting to be solved.
We saw the outbuildings that were choc-a-bloc with old machinery and tools. Great if we wanted to open a museum. The cellar was full of the jars of bottled beans and carrots that the now desceased lady of the house had preserved – vegetables grey with age and covered in cobwebs. The seller told us we could have them and most of the old, heavy, dark wooden wardrobes and furniture. As I had recently cleared the home of a close relation I had no desire to do the same for this man who somehow thought he was doing us a favour!
Another house drained into a small brook at the bottom of the garden and had a skull in the attic. Another had gutters that drained into the small garden at the front of the house, which explained the ominous damp patches climbing the sitting room walls. A relatively modern house was fine except the kitchen window looked out onto the side a large industrial farm building on the other side of the road – not the country view were were hoping for unless I asked if I could paint a mural on it.
Because of Napoleonic law, all children inherit part of their parents houses. Sometimes the property gets divided by cutting it in halves or thirds among the children. Imagine if your house included the ground floor, but only half of the upper floor and none of the attic. A friend has a house, but the garden is down a nearby lane.
After a year of looking we were on friendly terms with the nice young estate agent, but had got nowhere with finding our dream house. One evening the neighbour from number 5 knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to buy his house. His work was moving him to Brittany. In our row of 4 terraced houses, his was nearly identical to ours. I cried.It was the end of our French dream if we said ‘yes’. But our daughter was at school in the town and the bus stop was close enough for her to still be eating that last mouthful of breakfast as she boarded. Both of us had found work as English teachers in different parts of the town and we had different schedules – impossible with one car and a house in the countryside. We knew the neighbours, the neighbourhood and all of the amenities. Our bank was down the road and our doctor was within walking distance. Our heads said ‘yes’ but my heart was forlorn.
Having lived here now for 16 years, we are so glad our French dream was not realised. My husband suffered serious heart problems and was in hospital for 3 months. The bus took me straight there or I could go by bike. What would we have done if we had lived in the countryside? Our house has a tiny garden yet I grow raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, and am harvesting nearly a pound of blackberries each day and we are gathering enough homegrown tomatoes for our daily needs. The autoroute is less than 5 minutes away, the TGV can get me to the UK in just a few hours in emergencies.
I have a hazelnut tree that gives me several kilos of nuts. (for this paragraph you need to know that 2.2 pounds equal I kilo and that there are 16 ounces in one pound) As I was shelling them and longing for a machine that would do the work more quickly, I reflected on the misconceptions of the ‘French Dream’. What we think we want is actually far from easy, and far from what we are used to in our normal lives. We have freezers where we can find frozen peas and beans – do we really want to spend afternoons and evenings shelling peas, blanching them and preserving them? Do we really want to be far from medical services as we get older? Do we really want to be stranded if our car doesn’t start? I have always liked the idea of having my own chickens, but would I really trust eating the eggs or feeding them to guests, having read that someone nearly died after eating duck eggs – the doctor said it was the worst case of salmonella he had ever seen. On reflexion I really do want my eggs tested before I eat them. We have bought cheese from market stalls at eye-watering prices that make you love your local Aldi and Lidl. Here, I have 7 kilos of hazelnuts that take 30 minutes of shelling to produce 8 oz of nuts, is quite enough exposure to the ‘french dream’ of self-sufficiency and rural isolation that I can cope with!