Vive La France

Posted 19 May 2015

Anyone who thinks owning a house in France is the ultimate idyll, think again. Or are we the only ones to face constant threats to our tranquillity, view, finances, well-being and general peace of mind? It’s not that we’re not grateful for what we have - all five acres of it, but its certainly not an adventure for the faint-hearted!

For those of you who haven’t read Autumn Leave and how the story began, and for the rest of you, for whom it ended in 2009, let me re-cap, briefly.

We bought our “pavillon” in 2006, a few weeks before Peter’s final sabbatical (the three-month booby prize break given to ministers for lifetime of no weekends off) and went out to see if we dared retire one day amongst a nation of 54 million people, most of whom drink and smoke too much, drive like lunatics, are dangerously oversexed, and have no concept of standing patiently in a queue.

“On top of which, they wilfully persist in speaking French - though many will speak English if you shout at them.”

Fortunately both Peter and I speak the lingo, a pre-requisite for the survival of any ex-pat with serious, long-term missionary intentions.

Miraculously (and I don’t get many of those, but essential guidance given what lay ahead) we had found ourselves with the wherewithal to buy, and led to an X-marks-the-spot. And that gift from heaven was the end of our beauty sleep. Within days we discovered we had inherited a ferocious, six-year boundary dispute between our nearest neighbour, the shotgun-toting, erstwhile postman-turned-farmer-in-retirement, Jean Lavale and our predecessor, the fiery young Henri Bouvier.

“The acrimonious and costly legal battle that ensued threatened our dream almost before it began!”

Miraculously, (yes, another one!) we survived without losing a euro, after three long, testing years, meeting on the way a host of near neighbours and village characters straight out of a French farce. Some have died, some have gone, for example the goat farmers...

“...leaving a mass of unpaid debts and a thousand tonnes of manure - in mountainous piles.

(No wonder we were besieged by a biblical plague of flies!) The departed have been replaced, but more about the old and the new, a great deal more about the latter, as the story progresses. Meanwhile, in 2009 we were informed that the prefecture in Limoges had decided to put their quota of wind turbines in the furthest flung, forgotten corner of the département, on the principle that out of sight is out of mind - virtually in our garden of course.

Two of them, 300 metres high, virtually in our garden, 500 metres from the house. I’m not opposed to wind turbines - though gather (expert that I’ve become) that they’re certainly not carbon neutral. But close enough to blow dry your laundry...?!

France is the only EU country that refuses medical advice suggesting a minimum 1,200 metres from a dwelling. Each night the country is an array of bright, burning, winking red spots - like a child with the measles. But six years into this particular battle still no sign of them chez nous - thanks to our earnest prayers and the magnificent Liliane Guignard, the bespectacled, late middle-aged community physiotherapist, who dispenses movement to limbs and muscles damaged by heavy farm machinery, rebellious cattle, slips on the muddy bridle paths, or, in the case of the ex-pats, a fall from a horse.

“As she climbs off her bicycle at the end of a busy day the mild-mannered, very ordinary Liliane metamorphoses into a force of nature, resisting the monster, bureaucratic Establishment with all the cunning and clout of Superwoman...”

Virtually single-handed, she managed to overturn the encircling of the village of Tilly that sits on the edge of La Brenne, one of France’s foremost rare bird sanctuaries. Madness even to consider putting wind turbines in such a spot - but tell the French that! If national government gets involved, even La Brenne’s respite will be temporary - let alone ours.

Our one hope is the dashing new mayor, elected on a “don’t sell our countryside” ticket. He already has plans to overturn the previous council’s decision to allow the company to dig up miles of bridleways to give access to the massive machinery. But how long can we all hold out?

We are, it must be said, no fans of M Hollande. But then, he’s not overly fond of the us Brits, so it’s quits. He, and the precarious euro are the reasons we finally decided not to give him our taxes, and keep a foothold in the UK. And then, of course, there’s our children, three grandchildren and my 86-year old Mum to consider, not to mention the fact that our property with its acreage will eventually beat two OAPs, and if we lose our marbles as well, I’d rather do it in English.

So finally, almost settled into our new UK abode, we set off to France - in a van that had done 270,000 miles - filled to the brim with all the clutter we can’t find room for, which we’re taking to France, only to find, probably, that we can’t fit it in there either!

The driver’s door wouldn’t close until the back doors had been slammed twice, and anything more than 60mph made it creak, (that’s old age for you!) but once we accepted its idiosyncrasies, we really enjoyed the journey. The slow realisation dawned upon us that this wasn’t precious holiday time, that we could amble along, stop at “Brioche Dorees” for the best coffee and patisseries because now we had all the time in the world.

“All the time in the world - the boundlessness of it all filled me with a surge of unanticipated joy - and a certain terror.”

What does that mean in terms of our responsibilities to use that time wisely and well? And what if it goes before we learn how?

And then we arrive - and I remember why I love it here so much, despite all the setbacks and frustrations. Impossible to describe the colours in November - the real French autumn in colours of aubergine, bronze and lime, gilded by the low sun shimmering through a tangle of balding branches, black against an ice blue sky. Long shadows play on the swathes of green and paint gentle, swaying reflections onto the silver water of the lake.

All this the previous council wanted to sell to an energy company that promised them enough euros to paint shutters of the town hall. I would have given them 40,000 euros if I’d had them so that there would be no necessity to destroy this beautiful, restful corner of the commune forever.

But wind turbines are only the start of the threat to our peace! I shall need to backtrack a little and tell you all about the arrival of the Belgian farmer...