This week it is exactly two years since my goods and chattels turned up in a whopping great van at my new French front door. The heavens opened, great spattering rain – welcome to the Languedoc. Lace curtains in the houses opposite danced the Twitch, faces peered out cautiously at this short, stout alien disturbing the peace of Petite Rue.
I had burnt all boats and bridges in England to buy a house, with big bro Mike, and move to France. The idea which came from nowhere – I mean I wasn’t looking to move across the Channel – was for me to live here permanently and my brother would take on the apartment on the first floor. It was to be one last great adventure.
As I attempted to marshall order out of the chaos of furniture and boxes that were disgorged from the van I tried to quell fears about whether I had done The Right Thing. How would I cope? Would my schoolgirl French stand up to scrutiny? Would I feel isolated, would I fit in, would I, would I? The thoughts buzzed around like a swarm of angry hornets.
We had spent just a week looking at properties and The Old Lady of Petite Rue got our vote. It is a village house in the middle of a row of others. There’s a barn at the back, a walled garden and about a quarter acre of land beyond. The house had received the twin curses of basic neglect and “modernisation”. I’ve come to the conclusion that many French do not like old property and do all they can to eliminate or cover up its origins with cladding, Upvc, plaster board and the dreaded crepi (sort of decorative plaster). It was a case of ‘out with the new and in with the old’ as we tracked down old windows, shutters, doors, door handles and so on.
I have learned a whole new vocabulary relating to building, electrical, plumbing and roofing along with more colourful tradesmen’s terms, appropriate for moments such as when opening up an electric socket and a whole wriggle of burnt out wires, which had no business being there in the first place, spew out like demented worms.
As I have got to know my neighbours I have also learned to tread carefully through the tight-knit family circles that make up the community. Some folk have lived here for generations and spats will break out from time to time which resonate through the village. Last Armistice day at the little ceremony held in the village square, the divorce of a village couple had split families and friends. A ceremony intended to celebrate peace was blanketed by silences, back-turning and gorgonesque glances. It is hard to know at first who is related to whom so the fear of putting foot in mouth is always at the back of my mind.
Like many rural villages its currency is gossip and the old stone benches that have survived modernisation and sit outside some of the houses – gossip seats – provide the means to pass on the latest ‘on-dit’.
“He didn’t, never! Bah alors!”
“She said what? Incroyable! Oh ma foi”.
After two years I still feel I’m a bit in limbo land, wedged between England and its culture and my adopted country. I miss my UK friends but now there is a civilised spare room, I expect visits and I have my french and other expat friends. We expats are known collectively – Les Anglais, Les Irelandais and so on. This last summer I almost graduated to becoming an individual again – Shayla or Madame Weelliams – so I must be making progress.
Group conversations still baffle me a bit – they go so fast, ‘du coq a l’ane’ (from the cockerel to the donkey). often I’m still framing a response to the cockerel whilst the conversation has whizzed on to the donkey. But I arrive in the end.
I am writing a lot more regularly now; the house is still work in progress; I scour the vide-greniers (boot sales) for goodies for the house and the garden is beginning to take shape. I have centuries of history on my doorstep waiting for me to discover and breath-taking (literally) landscape to explore. So this last great adventure – based on a totally unplanned, spur of the moment decision – is proving to be one of the best I’ve ever had. I hope I’m not tempting fate.