10 things I wish I had known...
Buying a house in France is the single best thing we have ever done and we’ve learned a few things on the way that are worth sharing.
We bought our house on little more than a whim. We had been mulling over the idea for a while, did all the right things such as subscribing to French Property News and going to The France Show in London to meet agents but it was still an idea, not a project.
We had a week’s holiday booked to come to the Dordogne in February (good time to view property; out of season, see it without the gloss of summer sun and leaves and get a feel for what stays open all year round. So we spoke to a few agents, asked if we could come and see their area and made a few appointments to just meet and chat and possibly see one or two properties.
And of course, we came across the perfect property in that week. A complete renovation that we could tinker with for several years before we retired. So having gone for a look, we came home with an accepted offer and 3 months later it was ours. 2 years later we loved being at the house so much that we sold up in the UK and moved here, lock, stock. And these are some of the things I have learnt since that first thrilling week when we found ‘the one’:
1 The French you learn at school and adult learning classes will take you just so far.
But I never learnt the word for chainsaw or the phrase for ‘someone’s donkey is in my garden’. Even if you don’t need these specific phrases you will need things of a similar nature. You will find yourself trying to discuss the local jam-making competition or how late the maize harvest is this year. ‘Un grand crème, s’il vous plait’ is a good start but the words you learn because you really need them will stick harder and quicker than anything you learn in a classroom.
And you’ll learn by your mistakes and make good friends into the bargain. A friend once asked if he could use someone’s lave vaisselle (dishwasher) rather than la WC (pronounced la vaysay - see what he did?). It was an unforgettable moment, but quite bonding when the mistake became clear.
2 There is life after cheddar
OK, so there is nothing (absolutely nothing) in this world that is as good as cheddar for cooking. But, if what you want are interesting choices for a cheese course (before dessert, please), then try some of these for size:
Chaource: a soft and creamy cylindrical cheese made from cow’s milk. Originally from the Champagne-Ardenne but widely available
Brebis fermier: a hard, sheep’s milk cheese. Crumbly and cheddar-like. Go to the deli counter in the supermarket to buy it. If there is a choice go for the ‘fermier’ option as it will be an artisan cheese. Ask to taste before you buy!
Coulommiers: another soft, round cheese from the Seine-et-Marne département. Look on it as brie’s little brother.
Cabècou: small, round, flattish goat cheeses from the Midi-Pyrénées. This is what you need to make the best goat’s cheese salad.
Bleu d’Auvergne: a great alternative to the famous Roquefort.
3 There is a huge difference between privacy and isolation
Working in London and living in Essex our lives were one never-ending stream of trains, traffic jams, crowds, queues… Now, I’m a city girl at heart, despite having grown up in the country, but when we first thought about buying in France my first reaction was to want to be alone. No neighbours, off the beaten track, the more remote the better. Luckily we got talking to someone who pointed out that it gets pretty boring driving half an hour every time you run out of milk, that your french language skills come on much quicker when you have french neighbours and that privacy was what we were actually craving. And he was right.
In Chelmsford our next door neighbour’s kitchen window was a full 20 feet from ours and any barbecue might as well have been a street party as, if the weather was good enough to eat outside, everyone was doing the same thing either side of us.
In France it’s easy to find a property with no near neighbours, or neighbours discretely placed so you are not overlooked or overheard. So if I want to put my music on loud and dance round the garden that’s just between me and The Eagles.
4 Be careful what you (inadvertently) wish for…
Soon after we made the permanent move I mentioned to Jean-Marie, our French neighbour that I quite fancied the idea of having a couple of sheep one day. 3 days later a farmer appeared in an ancient Renault with a lived-in looking trailer behind. He bounced both Renault and trailer down the length of our field and deposited two bored-looking ewes and a perky ram in the back garden along with a bale of hay before disappearing with a cheery wave.
Amelie, Baaaabara and Frank settled in and we roped in a local expert for a crash course in sheep management. The sheep became a great land-management team and I became much more cautious about my chats with Jean-Marie.
5 Having a septic tank is just the way it is…
Having spent my entire life taking for granted mains drainage, the idea of having our own private drainage was a bit of a shock. But if you want to live in the country or in a hamlet, or even in a small village, you are almost certainly going to have a septic tank or fosse septique.
It’s fine. It doesn’t smell if it’s working properly. The more the house is used the better the fosse works and you can buy magic powder (Eparcyl) to flush down the loo to top up the active bacteria which deal with, ahem, stuff.
You’ll get a report when you buy a house telling you if the fosse conforms or not and what is needed to bring it up to the norms. From the point of purchase there is a year’s grace for any works to be carried out.
6 The wildlife is a joy on a daily basis
Whether in the garden, on our lane or driving around the quiet local roads, every day brings sightings of a range of animals that I would have seen once or twice a year in my old life.
Deer, foxes, buzzards, red squirrels, salamanders, coypu, badgers are all just quietly going about their lives and we have the fortune to be there to see it. For walkers, photographers and nature-lovers in general this is an added bonus to the beautiful countryside.
7 It’s possible to rediscover the joy of driving!
We play a game when we’ve been out for dinner. Can we get home without seeing another car. It’s not much of a game because we win so much more often than we lose and it’s commonplace to drive 30 minutes without coming across another soul.
French roads are legendary for their quality and for the lack of traffic. It’s only on the peak French holiday weekends that the autoroutes fill up. Any other time you can rediscover the pleasures of driving on clear, well-maintained roads.
8 Gardening is completely different in France
I rated myself as a bit of an expert before we bought in France. But I have had to learn afresh what will thrive in our very chalky soil and what will just turn up its roots and die. Who would have thought you could have plumbago growing outside all year round? And who could envisage struggling with old favourites such as foxgloves and lupins? It has been an adventure and there are things which just grow here willy nilly. If you don’t have green fingers try lavender, abelia, hollyhocks, roses and acanthus and climbers such as trumpet vines, clematis and even more roses.
9 Winters are short but can be quite sharp!
We hear of people being told that they won’t need heating in the winter. Hmm, I wouldn’t want to be in south west France during the winter without either woodburners or some sort of central heating.
Winters here tend to be shorter than in the UK with lots of clear, sunny days and very little rain in autumn through to Christmas. In the early part of the year the temperature can dip well below freezing, albeit for a short period.
For a holiday home, woodburners can be sufficient. For a permanent move my choice would be central heating that I can programme.
10 You’ll fall in love with the seasons all over again
Not just the changing of the countryside but the coming and going of various foods at the market and in the supermarket. There is a real pleasure in only having, say, strawberries or asparagus when they are in season and, preferably, locally picked. A peach is just, well, peachy, if it is straight off the tree and you haven’t eaten them since this time last year!
For properties to fall in love with check out our Featured Properties list
First published in French Property News