A year in the life…

Our second year living in France is now two weeks old. This time last year France was in a strict lockdown, time outside was limited and Rochechouart felt like it was asleep. Our initial excitement was very real, but certainly tempered by the restrictions we were facing. So much has changed since then, and certainly since this summer Rochechouart has felt alive, with just a mask when indoors and amongst crowds being the only difference from the previous ‘normal’. With a year gone it’s a good time to reflect, to look back at what we’ve achieved and to take stock. Some decisions we’ve made have been urgent and essential. With more than a little help from others, administrative, business, health and legal requirements have all been taken care of. Other choices we have to make have been less urgent, some we are still pondering on, waiting to see how things develop and how our feelings and requirements may change with time. No need to rush. When in France…

Much happens in a year, especially when we have a new life to start: a new house, new businesses and new friends to make. But everyday life continues, with good days and bad, illnesses and injuries (the French healthcare system has been excellent, so far), stresses and anxieties, laughs and adventures. To end this on a high I’m going to start with the downs, the negatives and the ‘shit happens’ stuff. Talking about the weather seems so trivial. If it gets cold put on an extra layer. If it’s wet, put on something to keep you dry. If it’s really hot, it’s shorts and a t.shirt. Simple, right? We didn’t come here just for the weather, but we certainly thought that a long, warm, dry summer was almost guaranteed. Well, the wettest spring and summer here for over 20 years put pay to that. Weather conditions feel more intense when looking out from our terrace, and the rain was most certainly that with a bold and capital ‘I’. Intense and persistent, not easing up until the middle of August. We had drainage problems, several internal leaks and spent the first eight months of the year pining for the glorious, balmy Scottish weather we’d left behind. It’s improved since and next year cannot be as bad.

After driving for over 30 years, the last 10 in car-packed Edinburgh, I’ve waited to come to Rochechouart to have two serious car incidents. Hitting a deer at about 80kmh about a month after arriving was an awful experience. Traumatic with another capital. The sight of that deer will live with me forever, and the hyper awareness I have now driving through the countryside in the dark is unlikely to lessen any time soon. Having had my car back from the garage for a couple of months, the next issue was less traumatic, but just as damaging. An Alain Prost wannabe driving through Rochechouart at 1am after two bottles of Bordeaux was all sorts of illegal under lockdown curfew. Our car’s rear end took the brunt this time, being second in a chain of cars hit. Cars have not been our friends this year. Again, next year cannot be as bad.

Like any dog owners, we’d love to know what Pepper is thinking. Is she happy? Is she happier than she was in Edinburgh? What makes her the happiest… the nobbly end of a baguette, a pizza crust or a carrot? One thing we’re sure of though us that she’s still affected after twice being attacked and bitten by a husky, soon after we arrived. The fact that the owner saw what happened and just decided to disappear at speed, rather than stop to apologise and check that Pepper was okay still grates with us. Now, when we’re out and Pepper gets sight or scent of the husky she starts to snort, pull, and her anxiety level rises massively. Pepper loves people, but they’re a rare sight on our walks, so when she sees a hooman she gets a bit excited… and French folk aren’t used to dogs being over-friendly, so, the lead it is. We’re as sure as we can be that Pep is a contented doggo. She gets massively excited when it’s walkies time, and her favourite spot, like our own, is on the terrace in the summer sun. Walks here are beautiful, but on occasion not as relaxing as we’d like them to be. Other moans and groans are available, but most are just everyday life, and not related to our new French ways. It’s impossible not to miss friends and in particular, our beautiful families. We knew that was coming, but didn’t expect to have to wait one year until we’d see them again. It’s been tough at times, but we were back recently and we’re back again soon for a festive jolly. Next year will be easier, especially if planned visits from Scotland aren’t scuppered by the ‘C’ word.

Right… if there’s been some downs what has brought smiles to our faces? We wanted a new way of life. A life more outdoors, and as much as we loved our jobs working for Shelter, we didn’t want to spend over 40 hours a week working in a shop. Our Etsy shop kicked off in February, and our gite in July, and what was important to us was not only that we could earn enough from both businesses to pay for our ways, but also that we were happy whilst managing them. Well, the early signs are very promising in both respects. We are both registered here as ‘Micro-Entrepreneurs’, myself as an antique dealer and Heather is a gite owner although we share the workload for both. Having together managed a super-busy Shelter charity shop, we’re used to working as a couple. We both like routine and are now happily settled into our roles. So far the Etsy experience has been a very positive one. I love the thrill of the hunt, and finding vintage and antique items (at a nice price) before taking them home to clean, polish and research has been an absolute pleasure. Taking desirable photos, and adding them to the site with an honest and enticing description is also a joy. I also like the way Etsy looks, and also that it’s choc-full of stats and figures. Then, selling an item (at a nicer price) to someone who wants to give it a new life is the best bit, and finally, receiving positive feedback makes me a particularly happy man. I love patina, rust and to keep evidence of an item’s history and use. If an item is over one hundred years old I like it to look its age, whereas Heather generally prefers things to be ‘clean’. It’s a healthy mix of preferences. We’re learning what our customers prefer and base our polishing and cleaning duties on that. I remember the first time I sat down with an item (an old wooden wine bottle crate) to make it look beautiful, sitting on our terrace, with Heather, Pepper and a glass of wine by my side, not to mention a view to die for, and feeling like a dream had come true. I don’t see that feeling ever changing.

I could talk about the view from our terrace all day. The first time I posted a photo of our vista on social media, a friend commented that it looked like we were living in a fantasy. He wasn’t wrong, and that fantasy changes constantly with the light and colours making panoramic magic happen. The neighbouring chateau never looks less than majestic, then visually sweeping around through trees and fields before the valley appears due south, at the front of which is Lake Boischenu, which shimmers beautifully under sunlight. To the east, over neighbouring gardens the view extends beyond Biennac and up to hillside abodes. Cattle, horses and sheep are regular friends on our walks, and to see them make their temporary home in the fields within view of our house is another dream come true. Mist across the valley is a regular morning feature, and my camera cannot resist it. A few years ago in Edinburgh the view from our lounge window treated us to a view of a pizza takeaway whilst the kitchen window brought us a car park. We’ve achieved the ultimate upgrade.

Our gite adventure was another huge unknown. We both came to France with a huge amount of customer service experience, and we’ve both done our fair share of gite rental holidays. So we had some knowledge, but until La Terrasse du Citron was open for business, and customers started to make bookings, we could only trust our decision on the property we purchased and the changes we made. We said, before the first reservation was received, that if we can take around six booking, maybe up to ten this year then that would be a decent start, and something to progress next year. Well, our twenty-fifth guest is currently staying with us, and like the previous twenty-four he’s already sent us positive and friendly messages. To find a gite just a four-minute walk from our home was literally perfect. We couldn’t place it in a more ideal location for our guests, or ourselves as it nestles close to the lake at the foot of the chateau. We made some changes the weeks after we bought it and early next year we’ll make a few more. There is room to expand if that’s what we decide, but as with a few things we’re taking our time to see how things progress. There’s an unconverted attic and room off the kitchen to move into, but we love the gite as it is, and as we’ve received nothing but positive feedback we’re a little reluctant to change too much. We’ve already met some lovely people from various parts of the world, and knowing they’ve been happy staying in our gite gives us a very warm, contented glow. Laundry and cleaning duties are obviously a bit of a chore, but we have been blown away by the respect our guests have shown us, leaving the gite, with the very odd exception, almost exactly how they found it.

When the move to France was in the planning stage we wanted to live on the edge, not in the centre of town, and Rochechouart is exactly the type of town we dreamed of. Well, we are on the outskirts but the chateau is just a minute’s walk away and historic town centre just two. We have everything we need and want here, but there’s not too much of anything. Maybe three boulangeries is one too many, but we’re not complaining. We are surrounded by beautiful landscape, and whilst we’ve visited many lovely nearby hamlets and towns, we know there’s endless exploration available. We’re enjoying learning about a new culture, and whilst there are parts of Scottish life that we miss, we know that the longer we are here, bringing familiarity with the lifestyle and language, the more it will truly feel like our forever home. But, if there’s one aspect of our move to France that has brought smiles to our faces more than any other it’s the people we’ve met, and the new friends we’ve made.

We love hearing from our gite guests asking to meet up for drinks and a natter, and are doing our best to be on first name terms with as many Rochechouart locals as possible. Maurice (Chevalier) is a beautiful horse we’ve become particularly fond of, and the longer we’re here the more we feel like we’re a part of a lovely community. We are though, truly blessed to have found ourselves living next door to the world’s best neighbours. Since we arrived, and needed help with the initial contact with our energy suppliers, Carole and Frank have been a constant source of positivity in our lives. Positivity, wine, food and conversation. They are natural storytellers and have lived very full lives so being in their company is always an absolute pleasure. They have gone out of their way to help us settle in France, introducing us to their friends, wine suppliers and golf courses, and our very regular meals, drinks and over-the-fence conversations are almost daily highlights. We try to reciprocate their kindness and generosity, and Heather’s shortbread has achieved almost legendary status, feeding not only Carole and Frank, but also their entourage of plasterers, electricians and friends who entered their house during its construction. We know we have friends for life and many stories and adventures to share together.

Life is for living, and we are doing our very best to live ours to the full. Life is however rarely simple, and whilst in many ways our life here is bliss, it has thrown up challenges that we are still trying to overcome. Our language skills must and will improve. We are learning and can get by. But we want to do better than just get by. We know we will only really feel at home here when we can natter with our French neighbours as comfortably as we can with the British. When we can have easy, friendly conversations with Pascale at the bank, Peggi at the boulangerie and the team of staff at the post office and shops who we am becoming increasingly familiar with, but are yet to chat with beyond the pleasantries. Our French adventure has only just begun. We have so much to do, so many places to explore, but the truth is at the moment we just can’t wait to get back to see our family in Edinburgh this Christmas.           

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