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The expat good life in Charente Maritime

The phone suddenly burst into life with a sudden jolt of energy, and picking it up, I heard a distant voice, “Susan? Susan?  Is that you? I think I may have found something….”. My heart gave a lurch of excitement, the dread I had been feeling for a week lifting tantalisingly off my chest. There were more words on the other end of the line, but I was already gone, drifting back to France and the sound of cicadas.

House hunting in France

With five children at school and a house to pack, we’d decided it was my husband’s turn to go house-hunting. We’d lived in France before, we knew what we wanted this time, going back to a country we loved so much, and we’d drawn up a check-list of things that were vital to the purchase, along with a second list of things that would be ‘nice’. We’d already chosen the area, the Charente Maritime, for the prospect of living in France’s second sunniest region appealed to us greatly. The seaside, figs, lemons, olives, grapes and melons all drifted in and out of our conversation, as did mutterings of beach life and coastal marshlands. So, he packed a small bag one late June morning and I drove him to the airport as we discussed gardens, rooms, schools and resources. We were confident enough he would find something from the list of properties we had booked to see.

Except he didn’t.

For five days, he drove his little hire-car back and forth across the corn-studded hinterland of the region, and down dusty little coastal roads by the sea. He sent nightly reports from a remote chambres d’hôtes via intermittent internet, and he slowly whittled down the list of appointments till they had finished. There was nothing to be found that matched our list of requirements; certainly not for the budget we had in mind, anyway. Each house he visited had a problem with it, lack of schools, distance to a town or distance from the coast; there was always something out of kilter. The one house that had seemed idea was signed away the day before he was due to view. We talked late into the night as our dreams grew dimmer and dimmer.

A stroke of luck to find “the one”

The morning before he was due to leave, in desperation he parked his car by the Place Colbert in Rochefort and went round the estate agents picking up the magazines in the rack outside each door. Settling into a chair at a cafe, he ordered coffee and set to work. It took him an hour to cull through the properties and by the time he finished it was nearly lunchtime and he still had nothing to show for his efforts. Looking up, he saw an agency on the far side of the square he had missed. He paid for his coffee and set off across the cobbles.

After an initial greeting the estate agent quickly gathered some particulars of properties that fitted our parameters. Two of them, he had already visited, and his heart sank as he scanned the others. As he did so, the agent fussed with a notepad, and then he looked up; “I have something else, but I don’t have any particulars for it, I’m afraid. It came on the market two days ago and we already had someone to see it. Would you like to have a look, maybe next week?  It is within your price-range, and it is in a village, as you want.”

“Yes,” laughed my husband, “but it will have to be today!”

The man across the table scowled at the difficulties this was going to present, but he picked up the phone and made a call, and then asked, “This afternoon, after lunch?”

That was when I received the message I had been hoping for, a simple text which read: “FOUND SOMETHING POSSIBLE WILL CALL LATER XXX”

Dream home in France

It was in a village, it had a large garden, outbuildings, grapevines and a fig tree and the village had a school and a bakery. It met just about all of our requirements. It belonged to a very old lady, and his heart quailed at the thought of finding something in a perfect situation, but in complete disrepair as the asking price would leave little change from the budget for much more than a new coat of paint.

Piling into the agent’s car at the appointed hour, the pair of them sped across the ancient salt marsh towards a church tower far away on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later they rolled down a dusty sunny street into a village, and came to a stop at a huge pair of gates, covered in ancient peeling paint. Beyond the gates lay a driveway bordered with hedges, and a garden that stretched as far as the eye could see. My husband told me later that he’d known instantly this was to be our home.

The house belonged to a family that had been there for generations. The old woman had gone to a nursing home near Paris, the interior was in a time warp. In one room, upstairs, a shelf groaned under the weight of every Paris Match ever printed, and in corners books stood in stacks, covered in dust. In the attic, boxes of scientific journals going back a hundred years lay ready for serious study, and each room seemed to live on a different level, steps leading up and down like a rabbit’s warren of dark and shuttered spaces. The outbuilding turned out to be the old farm manager’s cottage, complete with a kitchen and bathroom untouched for decades. But despite the long grass and unkempt appearance, he knew this would be a good home for a large family. The garden even came with a sun-dappled set of childrens’ swings – a proper set, proud and tall with room for three siblings.

Moving to France

After a frantic night of phone calls and photos, I put it all in his hands, and told him it was his decision. The next morning he rang the agent made his offer, and agreed to sign the papers at lunchtime. At half-past two, as he sat at a desk in the agent’s office, scrawling his signature across the contract, the phone on the table rang. It was the people who had seen the house first, wanting to put in an offer; but they were too late, the ink had already dried. Two hours later, he drove back to his chambres d’hôtes in a daze, a copy of a power of attorney in one hand, the sale papers in the other, and two weeks to pay the deposit. When he rang me, the children whooped with excitement and my eyes grew moist with elation. We were going to France.

Find out how life is in France for Susan and family at her blog: Our French Oasis

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