It was the day I took Brett back to the Toulouse airport, after a longer than expected IKEA stock up, that I arrived back to Le Couloume late. It was October 16th, eleven days after we had closed on the house. I hadn’t thought to leave any exterior lights on, not yet familiar with how dark the French countryside can be after sun down. I nervously fumbled trying to unlock my particularly French antique door by only the light of my iPhone.
Unnerved by my darkened welcome for my first night alone at Le Couloume, I locked and relocked all the doors - and the front door shutter for double protection - and headed straight for bed. The howling wind and a couple of mice having a party behind the wall only added to my disquiet. But it was seeing the “pas de service”on my iPhone — no cell phone service, no wifi, no neighbour — that it finally hit me that we had really, really just bought a house in the country in another country.
It’s been six months since that “this is real” moment. Our wifi - inclusive of two additional networked routers to deal with the stone walls - is up and running (and miraculously of excellent quality!) after a convoluted sequence of steps I could never walk anyone through. The mice have quieted down now that we know where to leave the bait and though the French antique door key remains special, we scarcely keep the doors locked when we are home.
And starting from zero, the house is according to my husband and credit card bills to Westwing France (an online French homewares marketplace for flash sales) fully furnished. I agree until I visit Didier’s brocante (antique) shop called Un Coin du Passe in Castera Verduzan … most recently I found two 19th century fencing masks to use as light sconces … which is squarely in the miscelleanous/want to have category. And of course we have kept Amazon France very busy filling our house with all the things you need but can’t fit into your checked luggage.
To keep my chin up during these last six months of figuring it all out, I read Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence. The book was written thirty years ago but many of the trials, hilarities and missteps of a foreigner setting up a home in France - be it Provence or the Gers - are exactly the same in 2019. The important differences for us however being a) we were fortunate to have bought a house that didn’t need work and the help of local contractors and b) the technological advances of Google Translate (my pocket BFF) and online shopping (<ajouter au panier>). We have also used our boys a lot to help with translation.
No one can write more winningly than Mr. Mayle on the subject of what it’s like to become new owners of a old farmhouse in France. I don’t think he covered the need to burn dangerous caterpillar nests in the spring or how not to lock yourself out of your own house. Our experience hasn’t been near as colourful or challenged, but there have been a few notable highlights and wins over the past six months:
A holiday house needs a house alarm. What a holiday house owner doesn’t need is a middle of the night call every 48 hours for the first three weeks because the alarm keeps going off. And then a follow up call 90 minutes to confirm - after sending security - that yes, it was indeed another false alarm. We may not have a pet but as owners of a holiday farmhouse, mice and spiders are like your pets and alarm systems *must* be calibrated with them in mind.
We have a working, very sophisticated furnace after finally understanding, three service calls with Michel later, the only 5 buttons of the 850 settings we should be touching. In what can only be related news, we’ve had three 1,000 litre deliveries of oil to our oil tank. This could be normal if we had been living in the house full time but since we don’t, a) someone siphoned our oil or b) we misunderstood Michel’s “holiday mode” instruction. There’s some evidence pointing towards b).
We have water but no water contract. This after seven calls and currying favours with every French native speaker I know kind enough to call on my behalf. The company is “upgrading to a new system” but I am not to worry because we are in the queue!
We *believe* we have completed our file with the dozen plus documents and local stamps to register our car in France, which feels as certain as how many digits are there after the decimal point in pi.
We have troubleshooted our own electrical problem over a holiday weekend. If you can’t get an electrician to come out to troubleshoot a blown circuit that happens to run your furnace and all kitchen appliances, try unplugging the lame toaster you had your doubts about from the very beginning. Who in France even uses a toaster? Case closed!
We have already had our first septic tank dig. Nothing says “welcome to the countryside” like shit coming up your shower drain 12 hours before departure. The fix was in last week … phew, phew, phew.
Far outweighing the hassles and headaches, the joys have been pouring in. We have been able to spend Christmas, a week in February, and the April school break at Le Couloume. It was our hope that Le Couloume, though remote in terms of geography, might be not just a personal pitstop for refreshment (and lots of cycling) but also a place of connection making. A few stories of how that is already happening:
The trickiest part of having a house in another country is finding reliable people you can trust to take care of it. We have that with the person who mows the grass, signs for delayed deliveries, fixes odds and ends as well as the amazing cleaning lady we found through a referral. They along with the fantastic stone mason who rebuilt the house for the previous owner and is now building us a terrace garden table and benches give us confidence in our absence. The table is going in this week …
The first people to use our house were a young couple from the USA. He is serving in the military, spending extended time apart from his young family, and he and his wife were able to use our house for a long overdue vacation. It also just so happens that he is the son of the first people to ever have hosted me in Europe when I was 19 years old. A full circle gift 30 years in the making.
The next person to use our house is a college friend who has a spiritual coaching small business. She is just starting up a year long coaching program but had been looking for a place to use as a kick-off spiritual retreat … and next month she’ll be doing that at Le Couloume.
Another college friend, moved by our desire to share our house with others, sent an email not asking to use the house but asking if she might gift us a logo. She recently finished a second degree in Advertising and Graphic design, and gave herself the project of designing two logos for Le Couloume … just because. It was her way of vicariously participating and paying it forward. We picked the beautiful one with the sunflower above.
Over Christmas, we were invited by a Seattle colleague of my father-in-law to come round to his French’s girlfriend’s family’s home in a nearby village. Nothing says “welcome” like being invited to a huge extended French family gathering over a holiday and leaving with the 92 year French patriarch’s business card urging us to stay in touch so we an get together again this summer.
Our realtor Karen Pegg who owns Bliss is also a writer who just published her first book of a three part series. So after reading Peter Mayle’s book, I had the pleasure of reading another memoir set in France but this time written by someone I know! A Stranger in Paris is a great read that I would highly recommend. Karen also hosts these writing retreats in France called A Chapter Away. Who knows how Le Couloume might be able to support her writing retreats?
On our most recent visit, I met another American women in the small village of Lectoure. Upon hearing that I was originally from Seattle, she mentioned another Seattleite who owned a well-known Seattle restaurant had also recently moved to the area to start a cooking school called l'Abattoir. Susan and I have already connected over email and plan to meet next time I’m in town. Who knows how Le Couloume might be able to support her cooking school?
When you believe that everything you have is a gift, it is easier to keep those gifts in circulation. The hassles of an old farmhouse in France make for good storytelling, but since that’s a story that’s already been told and told better, I’ll keep my ear to the ground for other stories of connection like these. La vie est belle.