I hope that you and yours are well.
This week it’s been fffffreezing in my part of France, teeth chatteringly, hand-numbingly cold. The chickens laughed at me when I insulated their coops but I like to think they’re grateful now.
It is 17 years to the week since I first saw my old French house. It was the week of our 3rd wedding anniversary and we decided to take my Dad to Calais for a day trip to buy some wine. He had become too fond of whisky after my mum died 2 years before and I knew I’d never get him to stop, but I figured wine might be better for him than whisky all the time. We left our home in the suburbs of London. It was a bitterly cold day, sleet fell and the wind howled around the ferry as we headed from Dover to Calais.
We finished our wine shopping and headed inland to find a cosy restaurant for lunch. We’d never been to this area before, though we’d driven through on our way to the south. We ended up in a pretty little town called Hesdin. Alas in this rural part of France, all-day service is rare and the restaurants were closed to late diners like us. A property agent saw us looking in his window at the houses for sale as we wandered back to the car. He offered us a cup of hot coffee and my Dad didn’t hesitate – in he went. I sat with my husband and chatted to the kind French agent while my dad thawed out in front of a radiator.
“No” we said, “We don’t have any money.“
“No” we laughed, “We’re not here to look for a house but to buy wine.”
“No” we were firm. “We don’t want to look at your three cheapest houses for poor people who have no money…”
But we had nothing else to do before catching our ferry home. So we decided to take a drive through the Seven Valleys in Pas de Calais. A place we’d never heard of.
The first two houses we looked at were nightmarishly horrible. The third one we couldn’t see because it had what looked like a prison wall round it. But, just as we decided not to bother to even try to look at it, a man came out of the house and asked if he could help us and offered a cup of tea (he was British!). In we went. This house too was horrible. Concrete block walls, metal doors swinging in the wind which was whistling through holes in the roof and via windows that didn’t fit properly. The floor was so damp our feet made sucking noises, some floors were bare earth and the upstairs was reached by a sort of submarine style hatch in the ceiling and a winding staircase suitable for Hobbits.
But there was something about the sad old house. It had beautiful beams in some rooms and a big garden. When the church bells started to ring, ducks nearby started quacking and a beam of sunlight burst through the clouds – I had what the French call a coup de foudre, love at first sight (literally it means struck by lightning)…
An hour later I put in an offer for the rundown old French house in the middle of nowhere that cost less than a posh handbag…
It looks very different from that first day (you can see the before and after photos here on Instagram) though we’re still not finished renovating! Since then, I’ve become maid to 72 animals, made more friends through my website, newsletter and social media than I ever thought possible, written two books about my life in France, and have a life I had never even imagined before I saw that house.
I think the late, great John Lennon must have been right when he said “there is nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…”
Wherever you are, I wish you well, bon weekend and bisous from the frozen middle of nowhere, rural northern France.
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Janine Marsh is Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream – ebook, print & audio, on Amazon everywhere & all good bookshops online, and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life
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