Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tout Sweet


So, I got an email from a real live author - how super cool is that? Ok, I wrote first but hey she still replied. Anyway, thank you to Chris for spotting her book online and knowing I would like it and thank you to Amazon for sending it to me - well hopefully it will arrive. Here's the story of someone else's adventure - enjoy enjoy enjoy!

Six years ago, I went to France for the weekend to visit a friend — and bought a house. I hadn’t been planning to, but the opportunity practically dropped into my lap, after a chance meeting with the local estate agent. Over a petite noisette (espresso with a dash of milk) in the local cafe, he mentioned a place that had just come up for sale in the centre of a village 15 miles south of Poitiers. Half an hour later, I was standing in front of a shuttered house with a worn-looking exterior.

Inside, the plaster was flaking like a freshly baked croissant and the brown flowery wallpaper that blighted every wall — brown wallpaper being curiously prevalent in the French countryside — was peeling off in strips. The kitchen floor was about to collapse and there was no indoor loo, heating or hot water. But it was love at first sight. I was taken with the narrow wooden floorboards, the original fireplace and casement windows. Above all, I fell in love with the price. “It’s how much?” I asked the estate agent, thinking I’d misheard.

“€49,000,” [(about £35,000, at the time]) he repeated, misinterpreting the look of amazement on my face. “But don’t worry. I am sure I can get you a reduction.”

Poitou-Charentes, in central western France, is one of the country’s most affordable regions for property. For less than the price of a midlife-crisis car, I would have a holiday home with my own front door and a private courtyard, a big deal for somebody who had spent most of her adult life in London with no outside space. The house would be my hobby and a bolt hole whenever I needed a break from city life.
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I returned after lunch to sign the papers committing to purchase, not even sure if my bank would lend me the money. Fortunately, it did. There was one small problem: as a fashion and beauty writer, I knew nothing about property renovation (the only thing I had ever painted was my nails) and, having recently split up with my long-term boyfriend, I would have to rely on French artisans to do the work.

But I figured the house would also be a distraction from my failed love life. Aged 35, I had closets full of designer labels, a beautiful flat in west London and a successful career, but my closest relationship was with my iMac. And so, after a year of attempting (unsuccessfully) to organise the renovations from my London desk, I decided to move to France — initially, I told myself, for a year, to get the house finished. In reality, I wanted a break from London and time to reassess the materialistic city life that was no longer making me happy.

Although I had no savings — I spent most of my disposable income on shoes — I was lucky in that I would be able to make a living as a freelance journalist, working for British newspapers. And at the back of my mind was the thought that I might find a French husband (of my own, not somebody else’s, I hasten to add, although there is a lot of that sort of thing in rural France).

Surely it should be easier to meet somebody in a small village than a big city, I reckoned, since there would be less competition. Indeed, as a single anglaise in rural France, I told myself I would have novelty value, not least because most Britons who decamp to the land of the long lunch do so as part of a couple or a family and, more often than not, are drawing their pension. Friends have described me as the Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw of the French countryside, but neither Bridget nor Carrie was foolish enough to renovate a house in France while looking for Mr Right.

I can’t claim that what followed was plain sailing. On one memorable occasion, I asked the decorator to give the slatted wooden ceiling of le petit salon a coat of white gloss. I returned from a work trip to London to find he had painted everything — walls, skirting boards and even the fire surround. Something, it seemed, had been lost in translation.

Gradually, I ticked all the big, boring (and costly) jobs such as plumbing and rewiring off my ‘To Do’ list. Then came the fun part: I had read every book I could find on French country interiors and pored over paint charts searching for that elusive shade of blue-grey typical of shutters. (The nearest I’ve found is Farrow & Ball’s Lamp Room Grey.) In contrast to my former flat in London, I decided to forgo tasteful minimalism and fill my French house with a riot of pattern and colour. Inspired by the brightly tiled bathrooms of the celebrated Hôtel La Mirande in Avignon, for example, I made a trip to Aix-en-Provence to buy hand-painted tiles from Carocim, which I used in a clashing patchwork above the kitchen sink.

I also became addicted to Laura Ashley, where I bought two cream iron beds, a distressed leather sofa, a mirrored chest of drawers and a large oak refectory table and benches, all of its shipped over at vast expense. Other pieces, including the vintage lampshades in my kitchen, I picked up at local dépôts-ventes or second-hand shops.

Not everything about the French countryside is perfect: it drove me mad that shops, even supermarkets, close between midday and 2pm every day, and on Mondays most do not open at all. I missed the M&S food hall and cappuccinos made with fresh milk rather than the revolting long-life stuff. The winter months, when rural villages, and life in general, close down by 7pm, can be long and cold. If you don’t make the effort to socialise, it is easy to feel isolated behind tightly closed shutters.

I was initially worried that, arriving in France on my own, I would be lonely, but it proved surprisingly easy to make friends. Living in a village rather than a remote hamlet, I soon realised, was a huge advantage. In the cafe on the square I was astonished at how many people, both French and English, would strike up a conversation. This is how I met one of my best friends, Martine, the glamorous lady mayor of a nearby village.

The first months were the most difficult. Often I woke up pining for my power shower, broadband connection and built-in closets. And yes, there were tears, mostly of frustration, as a result of dealings with France Telecom. It didn’t take long, however, to realise I didn’t want to return to my former life. Along with the other 12,000 Britons who live full-time in the Poitou-Charentes, I love the vast expanse of countryside on my doorstep, the fields of sunflowers (for which the region is famous) and the feeling of belonging to a small community.

“This is a very underrated part of France,” says Nicki Wade, the editor of Living Poitou-Charentes magazine (yes, the region even has its own English-language glossy). “Unlike the Dordogne, it is uncommercialised and unspoilt. It’s the authentic French experience.” It is also just four to five hours’ drive from the ferry ports of Caen and Le Havre and has more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in France, other than the Côte d’Azur.

Kim Cowles, of the French estate agency Agenssimmo (agenssimmo.fr), says price is another key factor. “You can pick up a small village house in need of renovation for as little as £39,000 — £74,000, if renovated — while fully restored farmhouses with a hectare of land can be had for about £87,000,” she says.

As for my house, it was recently valued at £74,000. Since I’ve spent £39,000 on renovating it, I wouldn’t make any profit if I sold. That was never the point. My French house has brought me a lifestyle and experiences that would not have been possible in Britain.

The good news is that I did eventually find my equivalent of Carrie’s “Mr Big”, in the form of Luis, the Portuguese builder living in the house next door. Last summer, my dog, Biff, escaped and jumped out of the window. The next thing I knew, there was a knock at the door and there he was with my dog in his arms.

But some city habits die hard. Every 10 weeks or so, I travel back to England to get my highlights redone in London. You can take the girl out of the city, it seems, but some aspects of city life are impossible to give up.

Tout Sweet: Hanging up my High Heels for a New Life in Rural France, by Karen Wheeler, is published by Summersdale, £7.99. Or read Karen’s blog at toutsweet.net