Yesterday Andy and I sat in the Artisan Bakery on The Quay in Exeter, raising a cup of coffee to celebrate the 3 years since we signed the papers and picked up the keys to our long-dreamed-for house in Provence.
Of course we would have rather been in France, sitting in one of our favourite boulangeries doing the same, but this year family (and jewellery) commitments have meant that it wasn’t possible, so we settled for our local version The Boatyard Bakery and spent an hour chatting about what has really made the last 3 years so special.
When we were buying the house, we never felt that it perhaps wasn’t the right thing to do, but we did have little worries that I suppose are only natural. Would there be any glitches in the process? Would it live up to our expectations? Would we really want to spend as much time there as we thought? Could we ever really live there full-time and leave England?
One by one though these worries fell away, firstly as the buying process was smoothly processed by the Agent and the Notaire, then as we opened the door and walked onto the terrace for the first time…..
And now 3 years on feeling an almost physical pain every time we have to leave to return to the UK.
As we sipped our coffee listening to the rain pattering gently into the waters of the Exe outside, we started chatting about the key things that have happened since we bought the house that have made it feel so much like home.
The first thing that came to mind was the friendships we have made since moving in and the difference that these have made in helping us settle and really feel part of the community. It was as we started chatting about how key this was, that Marina (our dear friend and Andy’s French Tutor) put a comment on our Instagram photo which simply said ‘La vie nous a rapprochés! L’art de la rencontre!’ ……. it was as if she had been listening to our conversation.
Life certainly has brought us together with some wonderful people and chance meetings and conversations have led us along a route that has made our little place in Provence a real home.
Three years ago we took the hard decision to make sure that for the first year at least, one of us was in France for the entirety of the Summer, enabling us to equip the house, find our feet and start to form a basic life there. It wasn’t easy as the wi-fi at the house was non-existent and I spent many hours sat in our local MacDonalds, sipping Hot Chocolate whilst chatting to Andy via Skype (not exactly living the dream, but an absolute necessity at the time)…..it was especially difficult when I was sat in the sun and Andy was spending the days braving the elements back on Dartmoor
This time though allowed me to settle in and start to find out about the things that would help us establish our life there over a longer period, including sorting out the phones & wi-fi, getting urgent electrics work done and finding out where best to get French lessons for Andy. This is where the first chance encounter came in and a conversation over the edge of the terrace with a neighbour, who suggested we go for a walk together so she could show me one of the cooler, watery places to visit in the height of summer.
Whilst we walked we chatted about so many things, many of which pushed my French to the limit and I mentioned the need to find French lessons for Andy, who had felt demoralised after some of the conversations he had had with potential tutors. Immediately she smiled and just said ‘Marina’, promising to drop off a leaflet as soon as we got back.
That chance conversation led to our first contact with Marina Learning French to enjoy life in Provence and the start of Andy’s journey with French, which has been hard, but has seen him progress from faltering, basic conversations to being able to chat to builders and friends with more confidence that he ever thought possible. He still makes mistakes, but realises that he will only improve by chatting and practising his language skills particularly with people he feels comfortable with – hence now, rather than cringing with embarrassment, he roars with laughter when the builder raises an eyebrow as he exclaims ‘Il y a un sourire sous le lit’ (There is a smile under the bed) rather than une souris (mouse) This has put our final worry to bed over whether we would be able to live there full-time as one of the biggest concerns was the language barrier….. now that isn’t a problem.
Thanks to Marina other opportunities have opened up for us too. We’ve been introduced to a fantastic local builder, together with electrician and plumber who have managed the renovations brilliantly, only raising an occasional eyebrow at our desire for slightly wonky walls. This is certainly a far cry from the horror-stories we’ve heard from others whose experience has been very different.
An early conversation with a neighbour introduced me to the delights of the local Recyclerie, full of furniture and ‘bibelots’ , which has now become the principal source of furniture and garden bits for the house Saving money & having fun furnishing our house with us slowly but surely now getting rid of the bits we bought when we first moved in to make room for wonderful, quirky finds that just add character to the rooms.
She also showed me the back roads of Apt, a quick route around the town allowing us to avoid the traffic in the height of the summer – in fact we now find we spend time cycling across into The Alpes de Haute Provence in high season, which is still wonderfully peaceful and takes us away from the crowds that understandably visit the Luberon valley. In fact this summer we will be back in the UK for the first couple of weeks of August as I have commitments with a number of events here (we are still considering whether to let the house out for these weeks that we are away)
Further conversations have led to me having a jewellery Expo-Vente, with others being planned for this summer and I now go to a delightful Yoga class, where I am now fluent in French Yoga terms, thanks to concentrating whilst trying not to fall over during poses.
The biggest surprise was that our eldest son, who was probably the least interested in our French dream ended up living in France for just under 2 years, cycling with a local team, enjoying the area and learning French with Marina. Bearing in mind that his French teacher at school said he would never be able to speak the language, he learnt quickly and has returned a confident speaker, with a passion for Provence and a long-term wish to return to live there himself – the joys and mind-opening opportunity that comes with freedom of movement!
Drinking our coffee & looking back we realised so much has happened since we picked up the keys 3 years ago, but I think though that the biggest lesson we have learnt is simply not to rush. When we moved in although every bone in our body was screaming at us to get on with major renovations, or at least cover the lilac paint effects in some of the rooms, our experience of doing up houses in the UK held us back and we realised that rushing in wouldn’t be the right thing to do and that first we needed to get a feel for the house.
This was the right move as we have really got to know the idiosyncrasies of our little place; how every room is on a slightly different level; which bits are in the shade all year round; where you can catch the sun in the depths of Winter and how we can incorporate the large ‘buanderie’ into the living space of the house to give access onto the terraces.
We found a fantastic and efficient local architect, who drew the plans and managed the process through the Mairie, which has led to us starting to transform our house into the long-term home we want it to be.
Three years into our part-time life in Provence we feel we have come so far. Our chance meetings and conversations have opened-up new friendships and opportunities that we never imagined. We honestly love every moment that we spend there and long for the days when we don’t have to book a return ticket and can just make the most of our life there and everything the area has to offer.