Life in France, Two Years On

The two-year anniversary of our arrival in France came earlier this month and passed without the slightest hint of a bang. A day I’d hoped we’d mark with some kind of celebration – or at least acknowledge – became a day of stress with us viewing two more unsuitable pieces of land (north facing, etc., – the usual) and having heated discussions about a plot we saw a while ago. It’s a plot that I like and think a few compromises are worth it but James is struggling with compromise, period. Maybe he’s right to stand firm. I’ll say no more lest the argument begins again!

Anyway, the fact that it’s been two years is remarkable. Time seems to march on irrespective of what we do. The children grow but so slowly we hardly notice in the day-to-day. Then one day we see the changes. Their bodies are longer and more robust, their language has changed, their expressions, and all the while their personalities stay the same. The evolution is so natural, so inevitable. Their eyes, their energies are the same as the days they were born. It’s a magical thing to facilitate and to witness. They have both adapted so well. DD is as good as bilingual and DS, who is just starting to master English understands pretty much everything that is said to him in French. When he’s ready to start speaking the language, I’m sure he’ll blow us away. By the end of our first year he’d spent more of his little life in this country than his country of birth but it’s been in this second year that he’s been exposed to the language. This time last year I was trying to settle him into creche. A year on he now asks to go. He’s happy there, as DD is happy at her school.

The preferred outfit of small children: naked every day

Home-wise we’re a long way from where we wanted to be. And that’s fine. I’m happy with what we have and what we don’t. It’s been a big learning curve for us and we’ve made some sensible decisions and had some lucky escapes from some stupid ones! I know some people just turn up for two weeks and find a house, but that’s not the way it’s working out for us and so be it. Part of me wishes we’d bought 10 years ago, when it was just me and James and we had a full salary to cover repairs. But then I suspect now we’d be stuck up in the mountains with two children, wishing we could be somewhere busier, more accessible, and also wishing we had the money for the new roof we need.

The old railway tunnel on the voie verte between Chalabre and Camon

So why haven’t we found anything? Honestly, the state of some of these houses is just depressing. They’re fine if you want something for a few weeks in the summer. No-one cares about an old uninsulated roof when it’s 35 degrees C outside. Likewise, the house’s aspect. A stone East-West or North facing house provides a welcome respite from the sun in July. Not so in winter, where temperatures can fall below freezing and stay that way for weeks. Last winter we had no sun so even the well-position houses felt the cold (and damp) but the first year, while it was cold the sun shone almost every day. With this, one side of the valley stays buried deep in frost while the other basks in the winter sun, where clothes can still be dried, children play, life goes on much as before – but in jumpers and woolly socks.

Just in case you’re thinking it’s endless sunshine, we had plenty of snow last winter

Any house that ticks our boxes (that’s 8/10 for me and 10/10 for James) comes at a price we can’t afford. Anything we can like is on the market at cost + however much was spent on repairs + imaginary profit. Anything we can afford requires money spending on it to get it how we want it – and by that I’m not trying to win any Home & Garden awards, just to have a liveable house that we can is  warm and dry in winter. By the time that money’s factored in we’re back in the range of houses we can’t afford! So there’s that.

Sunshine is plentiful though

Add onto this the shoddy workmanship that goes on. There are so many builders, carpenters, handymen (it’s usually men) here. But trained where? With what qualifications? From what I’ve seen, all self-taught, either learned on the job from someone equally as unskilled, or by doing their own build or renovation project. It’s mind boggling how lacking in common sense some of these apparently registered artisans have when it comes to construction. There’s a renovation in a hameau close to us being carried out by an apparently reputable builder (registered, advertising with a large billboard on the side of the road) and wow, the workmanship is downright dangerous! The roof looks good, admittedly – all new timbers – so once it’s all finished (as in rendered and plastered) you could walk in and no doubt it’ll look great, but what’s hidden behind there is an archway without a supporting lintel, just breeze blocks at the top of the gap. That’s one of the worst things we’ve seen but it’s not an isolated find. I have other examples like this and a blog post about it in draft. I send the pictures to my dad from time to time (he’s an old-style 5-year apprenticeship on site type of actual carpenter who’s seen it all) and he can’t quite believe it either. The idea that we might spend our actual money on a house that’s been repaired/renovated/built by someone who was in all likelihood winging it. Not exactly reassuring.

Lazing around watching the sunlight on the cotton-like seeds of willow. I love days like these.

Which is why we’re looking for land. And the search continues. And it will go on. We’ve decided to focus less on the house (we’re renting a “good house” at the moment, as in plenty of space and warm in winter) and more on the life side of things. That’s why I’ve been trying to get my business going and also we’ve been enjoying spending this time, while we can still afford to be very part time, with the smalls. This phase won’t last for much longer, I know. With DS approaching his third birthday, he’ll soon be at maternelle along with DS and then it won’t be long after that before they are out all day every day for most of the week. I’ll be ready for it but I know it will be bittersweet and that I’ll look back on these slow-progress no -progress years (by adult standards) as some of the best.

Would your British neighbours let you use their garden – no strings attached? Here they do, so this year we’ve been able to grow some veggies.

Language-wise, I doubt I’ll ever reach a standard I’m totally happy with. I like to talk so it can be incredibly frustrating not to be able to talk to anyone and everyone. Chit chat is something I miss, in the shop, in the post office, in the street. Without that there’s always a barrier. Our neighbours here are lovely, they know we want to chat. A few times I’ve become upset when not being able to say what I want. It does get me down. And that’s why I have to keep trying. It’s paying off little by little. Today I spent 30 minutes at the French equivalent of the local council office sorting out an ongoing admin issue (the system for paying the bins is exceptionally complicated, it seems) All In French. Yes, check me out. That is one hell of a change from two years ago. It’s exciting, actually. Having the time to work on this some more is one of the reasons I probably won’t notice my kids are in school full time once that happens. I have so much to do. Like them, I like to learn and I like to be busy. Which is lucky!

Lucky to be here everyday, not just on holiday.

Am I glad we came? Hell, yes! Would I go back? Actually, no. I really don’t want to go back and can’t see myself going back, ever. There are many ways that life is better here, not least the weather!

So what’s in store for year 3? For one I hope I’ll start to be able to understand what the locals are saying to me. That would make life drastically easier! I’d like to get my business going and making enough to cover rent and bills as that enables us to relax a bit more about the fact that we haven’t found what we’re after. I also have a new venture to work on with James, but that requires extra time that we just don’t have but will have one both children are at maternelle, so all eyes on that bit change. Finally, I got an e-mail this morning about arranging a cycle tour. Since cycling is my passion this is a really big deal for me and gives me a reason to be very excited indeed about 2019. This activity is very time consuming and being able to do that full time dependent on quite a few other things, so this next year is the perfect time to dip my toe into the water and see where it leads. It’s all go and I love it.

Photo by Grégoire Bertaud on Unsplash

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