I’m in Strasbourg, so I’ve scheduled this excerpt (the first 2,600 words or so) from my living in France book to appear in my blog. The working title is Heads Above Water. Hope you enjoy!
Aux grands maux les grands remèdes.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
We arrived in Ireland in 1992, when times were good, cars were held together by string and food prices were almost non-existent. Having only ever lived in cramped housing estates in England, with tiny gardens and too many neighbours, we couldn’t believe our luck at finding a bungalow in the countryside to rent. We called it Harry’s House, after our amiable landlord, Harry Kidney. He didn’t put the rent up in over three years, and on the rare occasions we had a building-related problem, he was at the front door to sort it out within minutes. Even though he lived half an hour away. Harry’s House had a large back garden and a fantastic view over nearby fields and distant Cork city. It was in a row of five other bungalows, all housing friendly families.
We were a young(ish) couple with our first child, Benjamin. Chris had been made redundant, a victim of Thatcher’s Britain, literally a few weeks after I’d smugly told my previous employers, an accountancy firm, that I wouldn’t be coming back after maternity leave. So the search to provide for his suddenly frighteningly dependent family brought him to the Emerald Isle, initially on a temporary basis. After a few months that became a permanent basis, and we moved everything across between May and September. The biggest part of the move was interesting, to say the least. We needed to get some kind of document from our solicitor before our possessions could be shipped abroad. Hours before we were meant to leave, we still hadn’t got it. Chris was afflicted with a stomach bug so I was the only functioning one. With infant in arms, I bellowed at the solicitor to get his finger out and give us the damned bit of paper. We didn’t like our solicitor. About six months earlier, our neighbours had suddenly decided that their lives weren’t worth living without a few extra inches of land. So they dreamt up a boundary dispute in which our solicitor was frankly worse than useless, giving contradictory advice and doing nothing helpful at all. And now we depended on him to be allowed to get our goods and chattels out of the country on time. It was worrying. Anyway, the letter appeared with minutes to go so we could drive off into the sunset. Boy, were we glad to go.
We’d worked out that, with careful budgeting, I could be a stay-at-home mum, at least for a few years. Before my misguided foray into the world of finance, where I was a square peg in a round hole, or rather an English graduate in a world of maths, I’d been a desk-editor in the educational department of Hodder and Stoughton in Kent, and then a sales rep for a clutch of academic presses, working from home in Cramlington, Northumberland. I’d done an MPhil in Publishing Studies at Stirling University after my degree at Oxford, and publishing was my first love. So I seized the opportunity parenthood now gave me to get back into it. I slowly established myself as a freelance editor and indexer, something I’m still doing. From editing I meandered into authoring, and produced almost thirty books during my years in Ireland.
Caitlin arrived in 1994 and we were well content with our gentleman’s family, as they call it in Ireland, of a boy and then a girl. We finally sold the house we’d left behind in Hartlepool in 1995 and, within weeks of burying my Mum, we moved out of Harry’s House and into our own one at Killountain, Insnishannon. We loved Binn an Tí, despite never knowing for sure what the house’s name actually meant. Some people said it meant ‘apex of the roof’ and others ‘the woman of the house’. Not a great deal of common ground between these two, but that seems to be a feature of the Irish language. No-one actually knows what it means.
The house was perched at the very top of a hill. There was a stunning view but a permanent gale. Nothing grew in the garden and our bathroom at the back of the house was always sub-zero. When the hurricane hit at Christmas 1997, it’s frankly amazing that we only lost a few tiles and not the whole top storey. As before, and always the case in Ireland, we had wonderful neighbours and we were happy. This was it. We were Settled. We started to map out our future now that we had our perfect family and our house. But it doesn’t do to make plans. Things suddenly change.
My dad finally smoked himself to death in 2000. Now, there were two major repercussions from this. Now that he’d gone, all ties with my childhood home and town were gone too. On top of losing a wonderful human being from my life, that was tough and I was very upset. Chris was amazingly and constantly supportive, so much so that six weeks later, the day before his 42nd birthday, we found out that I was pregnant. The baby was due somewhere around my 39th birthday. That was funeral fallout number one, and talk about gobsmacked. This most definitely hadn’t been on our ‘to do’ list. We were too old for this! After a stunned day, our shock turned to delight at the prospect of welcoming a new life into our family. The prospect of labour pains, broken nights and having to borrow back all the baby equipment we’d given away after Caitlin outgrew it was less appealing, but an integral part of the deal. We also realised that there was no way we’d fit an extra person into our already bulging-at-the-seams house. Binn An Tí had always been on the small side, but we liked it so much. However, now we would have to move on.
The second fallout was that Dad left some money, enough to buy a plot of land at Finnis, near Bandon. We luckily got in just before the Celtic Tiger began roaring and Irish land prices went crazy. For 50,000 Irish punts, we became the owners of over an acre of land. It had a stream and was generally rather boggy, but the top end of the site was ideal for our new chez nous. And so, thanks to Tony Barry our builder, Srihain an Sionnoch came into being in 2003. The name means ‘Stream of the Fox’ (well, that was the intention anyway). We were offered a variety of versions and spellings for it, naturally, but stuck with that one. It was a fantastic house, way too big, but after Binn An Tí we felt the need to overcompensate. Size matters. Its best feature was the glass frontage to the hall, which filled the house with light. We had more space than we knew what to do with. We lived there three years but never got round to even setting foot in one of the rooms.
I continued to be happy in Ireland. Now that I was a popular children’s author, I added visits to schools and libraries to my job description. Ruadhri came along together with his travel playpen, and took part in every workshop. I loved these sessions which included getting the kids to dress up as a book, and later as all the people involved in producing a book – author, editor, printer, bookseller and so on. I was aiming to make writing seem fun. I’d been to author workshops where a po-faced writer mumbled his or her way through one of their stories and I thought that sucked. So I aimed higher and came up with my act. But then, I always was a show off.
Chris, however, was on a downward spiral. A chemist by training, he started off working in Ireland in 1992 for Angus Chemicals, running a lab. Angus became Hickson Pharmachem very shortly afterwards, just in time for an explosion at the site in 1993. (Nothing to do with Chris, honestly.) Needless to say, that brought it a lot of bad press. Hickson never thrived and the factory was taken over in 1997 by Warner. Finally, in 2001 Pfizer couldn’t resist having a go at ownership of it. Each time new layers of management came in and Chris was moved further and further sideways. Promises of promotion never materialised and people-persons rather than technical-persons seemed to dominate. It became harder to keep going. There was the real threat that he’d lose his sanity or succumb to heart disease and stress. Life wasn’t fun anymore. Then redundancy loomed. This was our chance to change our lives.
We’d toyed with the idea of moving to France a number of times, but never very seriously. It just seemed too big a deal. After our honeymoon in Cornwall, every other holiday had been in France, discovering different regions of it. In the early years of our marriage, we’d roll off a plane with our bikes, tent and minimal supplies and cycle tour a particular region, covering up to two hundred kilometres a day. Post-children that changed, inevitably. We took the car, either fitting the bikes precariously to the roof, or in later years, on to the top of a small trailer. Child life-support filled most of the car. Oh yes, and the children. We tried a couple of campsites but didn’t have a whole lot of luck. One year a hurricane hit the coast of Brittany and literally blew the tent away from over our heads. The next year we holidayed late in the season and the area around the caravan (we’d upgraded) was black with barbecue-tray emptyings-out. The kids were covered from head to toe in ash every night after playing in it. And that was the year Benj took against personal cleanliness. The whole campsite reverberated to his incessant, earsplitting but polite bellows of ‘No thank you!’ when we shoved him under running water every night.
So we moved even more upmarket (but downpriced surprisingly) to hiring a gîte, a holiday cottage. This was more like it – proper beds and space to swing a cat in. However, there was always a strong element of the unknown with a gîte booking. Those days, i.e. pre Internet, you based your entire rental decision on a very brief paragraph with puzzling abbreviations, and a postage-stamp-sized photo. Frankly, you had no idea what you were actually getting. Some we booked were great, some turned out to be disasters, but we just got on with it. (Oh, if only that mentality still existed!) In 2000, that fateful year, we even looked at a couple of properties. One was tempting. For the equivalent of 19,000 Irish punts we could have bought a rambling, rundown farmhouse. True, it had no bathroom facilities other than a toilet literally in the kitchen (and the house was inhabited). There was, bizarrely, a large swimming pool full of goldfish in the huge garden. The pool had been there so long it had sunk roughly 50 cms into the ground. But then Dad had his stroke and the struggle to get home began and we forgot about buying a house in France.
Until 2005. Never mind that we’d hardly started decorating our new house yet. It was time to leave it. It was truly a ‘now or never’ moment. Benj was about to start his Junior Cert course, Ruadhri was set to start in Junior Infants and Caiti would be moving up to senior school. If we were going to move, it had to be before September 2006. It was going to be fairly tough on the kids, and the older they were, the harder most likely. It was time to do some serious househunting in France.
I prepared for it like a military campaign. I spent hours on the Internet. OK, I used to spend hours on the Internet anyway, but now this was time usefully spent for a change looking up properties that matched what we wanted. Which was? We needed somewhere to live, and some means of making a living. I’d be able to carry on part-time editing but that wouldn’t keep us alive. Chris wouldn’t be able to carry on his professional career, so what could we do instead? The obvious option was providing holiday accommodation. Time was you could live off a gite or bed and breakfast in France. But then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there is now a surfeit of holiday properties. The famous Gites de France network alone has around 55,000 self-catering properties on its books. (Clévacances, the next largest, has around 24,000, and there are dozens more smaller outfits.) Quite frankly, if you get ten weeks’ bookings for a gite per year, you’re doing well. There’s that much competition. The way to better that is to specialise. Look for a niche. Well, Chris was an angler so why not provide fishing lakes with our gite? There’s a lot of pressure on the fishing waters in the UK and Ireland so there’s long been a tradition of anglers going abroad on fishing holidays, and particularly on carp fishing holidays in France. That seemed worth checking out. It proved to be our best bet, so we added a lake to our requirements.
Chris got busy doing a correspondence course on fishery management, and I carried on my research and planning. I found out all there is to know about owning lakes in France. I read book after book about how to make a living by running your own business in France. Some were inspiring, some were depressing, but all of them, it turned out later, not actually that helpful. A couple were positively idiotic. I read books by other pioneering ex-pats. Those were much more useful. I also worked for a TEFL diploma, just in case times grew very desperate.
But mainly I looked for our future home. I cordoned off half the (unpainted) lounge and spread out maps with cunningly colour coded pins stuck in showing what property was where. Red for hot favourites, blue for lakes without houses on site with them, green for promising all round and yellow for when all else failed. But every day there were changes. The place we thought was absolutely perfect and the only one that could possibly work for us got sold on a regular basis. Despair. New dream properties appeared on the scene. Rapture. I was up and down emotionally a hundred times a day and rapidly becoming a nervous wreck. Would I even survive long enough to make our planned move?
We’d narrowed our physical search to Limousin. This is pretty much slap bang in the middle of France. It consists of the départements of Creuse, Correze and Haute-Vienne. It is the lake district of France. And remember, we needed a lake. Limousin has thousands of lakes, and even more crumbling farmhouses and cottages, just waiting for deranged foreigners to come and nurture them back into full health. French people don’t do renovating. They prefer new houses. A further bonus was that it was also pretty much the cheapest area of France for property then.
We settled on a week in late November to go and match reality to my coloured pins. Everyone advises you not to take children, and above all young children, when you go househunting abroad. But we had no alternative. We were already ex-pats in Ireland so had no handy family to leave them with. But anyway, they needed to come. They were part of the adventure – three fifths of the driving force behind it. Our search for our better life was so our youngsters would have it too. They needed to see where they were going to live. Besides, they were very excited about the whole thing.