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A place in France – expat Joie de Vivre

a place in france

Jeanie Marsh and her husband Stephen were feeling disillusioned with life, working hard in London, stressed out forty-something’s, worrying about the economy and their pensions they needed something to perk up their lives and invigorate them.

Jeanie says that in 2003, it came to them like a revelation, a real Eureka moment – they decided to look for a place in France, somewhere they could put all the tensions of daily modern life behind them and completely chill out… They bought an old oak Normandy colombage cruck-frame, upturned boat of a house in Haute Normandy, northern France.

Jeanie tells her story of how her journey to a life in France has begun…

My husband and I were driven to Avesnes en Bray by an angel disguised as an immobilier (estate agent). We had been searching for a few days, viewing a number of unsuitable houses in Upper and Lower Normandie (Upper Normandy) where we chose to look as it’s a reasonable drive from our home in London.

a place in franceOur spirits lifted at the sight of a mellow, friendly looking old house; a 12th century church came into view as we walked through the entrance gates on a cold February afternoon. Considerably different to and bigger than anything else we had seen and at a price that would blow our allocated budget out of the water. However, we smiled as the church bell tolled the hour and just knew in our collective bones this was THE one we would buy, without even exchanging words.

Owned as a residence secondaire by a “journalist Parisian”, neglected for many years, being fought over by him and his estranged partner for a share of any meagre profits after taxes – we knew negotiations were not going to be amiable.

Four months after we signed the compromise de vente, (Agreement to Purchase) having nervously handed over 10% of the agreed price, we completed the transaction in the sombre Notaire’s office in Neufchatel en Bray. It fascinated me to note that the dogs’ pet passports had been by far the most complicated thing to arrange! We rolled up at the house, car laden with children and necessities – the first thing that confronted us were body height stinging nettles and grass, the rooms full of discarded junk, the door and window handles and all the light bulb holders had been removed. It was unrecognisable as the home we originally viewed.

a place in franceOur children thought we were insane and looked panic stricken at the idea of being incarcerated here for school holidays. However the next morning, the removal van full of home comforts arrived, the sun shone, the kids started investigating & climbing trees and everything seemed to be going well.

We started writing lists… long lists…. and asking questions like where does the poo go?  Yup, I was the person shouting “why would anyone buy a house that they don’t know where the poo goes?” at the TV screen when avidly watching channel 4’s “No Going Back” series……That would be us then…groan.

Why do the fuses keep tripping out? Why are there bulges in the water pipes? HOW MANY slates need replacing on the roof? Why does that chimney stack wobble? Where do we start and how much is this going to cost? Logs for the fire cost HOW MUCH? Pour large vodka & tonic. Sit. Calm down. Remind ourselves that we have chosen to do this.

a place in franceOur first year was full of discoveries, both good and bad, our resolves were tested and our bank account drained. Neighbours introduced themselves, rallying round, bringing plumbing bits, heaters, food, inviting us for drinks and supper, checking that the “only Brits in the village” were ok. I counted 140 bisous (kisses) exchanged during one show of concern for our wellbeing!

Our young daughter was soon riding our neighbour’s horses up the garden & around the hamlet. Free as a bird. Local kids congregated in our garden and communicated in that effortless, uninhibited way young people have. Our son was blushingly given his first love letter by a local girl! We started to feel at home quickly during that first year. We realised that this house old will always be a work in progress, will remain long after we have gone, merde happens and is generally fixable.

A couple of years ago we found the money to gut, rebuild and convert the building alongside our house into a glorious art studio: Atelier Marais. I designed it so that one day it will be used as a gallery space for exhibitions. Meanwhile it is used as a creative space, huge dining room when the neighbours dine chez nous and are introduced to the likes of sushi, a movie room, extra beds, or whatever space is needed for. We restored the ancient bread oven, the only working one left in Avesnes. A memory of the days when the inhabitants would daily bring their bread to be baked here.

a place in franceTen years later our only regret is that we have not won the lottery to pay for the new roof and we still don’t know where the poo goes, even after a SPANC visit (French Public Service for Sanitation). It is hard having to accept that our French will never be quite good enough, though our lovely neighbours in Avesnes are patient, and we manage to gossip, talk politics, sex, families, food, work, monarchy/republic preferences, you name it, we still manage to mangle their beautiful language….sigh.

It is a home to us, not a second home. Emotional detachment is not an option. We have become part of the community. Our goals are always on roller skates: The reality of moving here full time soon is unlikely, generating income is a necessity as retirement is not something we can afford to think about and we have commitments to family and business in the UK.

A dear friend who has visited many times wrote: I leave with a sad heart but will return one day as I am part if this place probably forever. Sums up my thoughts exactly, I feel privileged to always be able to return.

Now, where’s that plumbing for dummies book…

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