Le Couloume

What I've Been Up to Lately (in the South of France)

Last year I followed my heart to Spain to check out a piece of property. Though I wanted the house more than the 47 years I’ve wished for silky hair, I couldn’t deny the not so small whisper after the visit saying “not here, not now.”

As is often the case with decisions led by intuition, there was no residual regret.  Not the next time I went out for tapas, or it rained sideways in London, or even when I heard the house sold a couple of weeks later.  In fact, it took no concerted effort to prune web surfing of holiday homes from my regular online activity.

In the time since, a couple of notable things happened.  That first summer after the Spain expedition we sold our house in Seattle.  Goodbye mortgage! Then this summer, Brett’s work contract in London got extended by two years. Cheers to July 2020!

With no owned property (we rent in London) and the prospect of being in Europe for another couple of years, the door to the possibility of a holiday house nudged open again. It didn’t take the shape of an active pursuit. More like a thought bubble that lingered long enough for Brett and I to have a general conversation about it.

One day this past May I was casually browsing a property website when I stumbled on a listing for a “Magnificent Stone Farmhouse.” The photos and prose literally shimmered from the screen.

The description began like this:

Our first glimpse of the property is from the top of a long private driveway, down a leafy country lane, far from neighbouring properties.  
 
The alleyway to the property is so long, there is just a hint of house, barn and rooftop; a promise of tranquility and countryside bliss against the backdrop of a stunning view.  
 
The old stone farmhouse has privileged views over the valley in what is the heart of Gascony’s most beautiful countryside, in an area renowned for its undulating fields of sunflower and corn so reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside.  
 
Here we are close to the popular market towns of Condom and Lectoure, with Toulouse international airport and regular flights to the Uk and Europe just over an hour away.

The views are uninterrupted by telegraph poles, or other modern blights to the landscape, enhancing our sense of rural beauty and that feeling of stepping back in time.  
 
The estate comprises the main farm house, and a non-adjacent barn, with another small outbuilding in stone.  
 
The acquisition of additional plots of land around the property by the current owner has ensured that the private park (5 hectares) is pesticide free, creating a protective barrier around the house.  
 
From a distance nothing appears to have changed since its construction in 1700. Only an internal inspection can reveal the extent of the work that has been carried out to ensure every modern comfort, from: solar heating, underfloor heating, thick insulation, a new roof, a perfectly functioning state of the art boiler, etc.

The house was reminiscent of the Hilltop Farmhouse, one of the first houses we rented in France and one of the few places we’ve returned to. The house was also in a part of France we had spent enough time in to know we liked it.

I sent the link to Brett at work with the subject line: “A better version of the Hilltop Farmhouse.” My only added comments were: “Wow. Check out the video too.” No exclamation point. No typical female flourish. This was the first photo.

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In our relationship, I am the excitable one.  My husband is the measured one.  So when he called - not emailed - 10 minutes after I sent the link, I naturally assumed it was for another reason.  When I picked up the phone, his first words were: “You HAVE to go see this!!!” 

With my husband’s exclamation point endorsement, I sent a blind email query to the realtor marketing the property.  I was fortunate the realtor I reached out to (turns out there were 3 realtors working on the property) was a British woman who had been living in France for the last 20 years.  Without any language barrier, I was able to get a lot of our questions answered over email.  I soon learned she is also a published writer which explained why I connected to her description of the house as much as I did the photos.

We arranged for me to visit “Le Couloume” (it has it’s own name!) two weeks later.  That was in early June. My son Quinn, who had accompanied me on the Spain expedition, happened to be back in London for the summer and agreed to go with me.

It seemed highly probable I was going to like the house.  The looming question not easily answerable by a visit was still whether a house so far from the USA made any long term sense for us.  Quinn was highly doubtful, rewinding many of the same conversations we had already had in Spain.

This time my on-site visit felt very different.  It was rainy and ugly outside so the views were obstructed.  The house was amazing.  Better than the photos. But it wasn’t just the wood beams and stone walls that drew me in, it was a feeling I had being at the property.  The “yes now” whisper.  I felt it in my bones.  Like Le Couloume was somehow meant to fit into our story.  The more striking thing was Quinn felt it too.

After a couple of hours at the house, connecting with both Karen the realtor/writer and Annie the French/American owner whose background as an interior designer and chef shown through the meticulous renovation, we all seemed to have a sense that this turn of the page might be the start of a new chapter.  The reality however was that someone else had seen the house the day before with another realtor and an offer was very likely the next morning. 

We talked to Brett by phone that night.  Quinn sent him videos he painstakingly took of every room.  I told him about the whisper.  Karen laid out the facts.  Highly unusual for a holiday house in a rural part of France, she said that if we wanted this house we had to make an offer the next morning. We decided to sleep on it.

In our relationship, neither of us are risk takers.  Buying a house in a country you don’t live in would certainly qualify as a risk.  But after 26 years of marriage, my husband has learned to listen through my excitability knowing that sometimes I’m on to something before he has done his due diligence.  He was willing - even with a big price tag attached - to forgo his normal approach to big decisions and trust me.

So when he called the next morning, I was not entirely surprised when he said: “Let’s do it.” We made an offer that morning. It was the first offer.  It was accepted.  Brett saw the house the following week (after we had committed to it) and came away with all the feelings.

“Yes nows” may come with nudges that get amplified and then confirmed by another person but they are not immune to roadblocks.  In fact “now” is a complete misnomer for the protracted and herculean process that is buying a holiday house as a non-resident foreigner.  Friends: whatever Google tells you, if you are getting a loan in a country that is not your own and in a country that takes the month of August off, it’s harder and way more paperwork than that. 

There have been roadblocks, headaches and sleepless nights but every gut check has come back with the same refrain.  For both of us.  There have been other things that have amazingly fallen into place.  Like finding the right bank contact through my running group friend Meredith.  Or finding the perfect car from my friend Jannine who recently moved from Luxembourg to London and was looking to sell theirs. Or having our families get behind us without hesitation. 

We are on the home stretch now.  We finalised the sale and I am here in France today, October 5, to pick up the keys to Le Couloume. (Brett would have been here too except he is heading to Switzerland to run a full marathon this weekend.  He hasn’t run one for over 12 years and he’s been training months for it.  Timing isn’t always perfect.) If I’m honest, anxiety had its way with me in the last 48 hours due to some important details that only finalised at the 11th hour.  It took Brett and prayer to crawl out of the hole and remember again.

The bottom line of this whole process is that we don’t consider this simply buying a holiday house.  It feels like we are making an investment in a project.  

This project isn’t about restoring an old farmhouse in France.  That was Annie’s story.  We get to pick up the story after that.  Our project is about finding a way to share a lovingly restored farmhouse in France with people who never thought about France as an option.  It’s about paying forward the gift that travel has been to our family.  And it’s about passing on our favourite kind of travel — a destination that won’t make the Top 10 Travel List or most popular Instagram feeds. 

The house is out in the country in a region called Gascony sandwiched between Bordeaux (2 hours north) and Toulouse (1.5 hours south.)  There is a high speed train from Paris to Agen that takes just over 3 hours and the house is then a 45 minute drive from there.  It’s far enough South that the Pyrenees are only 100 kms away, San Sebastian a 3 hour drive and Barcelona 5 hours.  You won’t find many user reviews of Gascony but you are sure to find rest and inspiration. 

In a 2017 New York Times article “Is Gascony the Most Delicious Corner of France?”, the writer describes the region: “Gascony is not merely distinct from Provence and the Côte d’Azur. It is, in my estimation, better. Gascony is more open, more soulful, more deeply French, and, in its un-self-conscious devotion to tradition, more pleasurably frozen in time.”

The project will only be a success if it’s used.  We will go as much as we can while we are still living in London.  But there will be a lot of dates in the calendar to fill.  We don’t have any plans to rent it out.

We simply want to give back in some small way the unmerited generosity we’ve received.  So ATTENTION writers, teachers, retirees, families, artists, people on sabbatical, digital nomads.  This is not an invitation to the world wide web.  This is an invitation to people who know us.  Come and use it.  Please.

It’s a place that has lots of room.  It sits on 12 acres and has 5 bedrooms with 5 in suite bathrooms making it ideal for large families or groups.  The kitchen is the hub of the house.  It has a pool.  The cycling in the area is amazing.

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What is doesn’t have just yet is furniture (it’s being sold unfurnished) so there’s a lot for us to do before people show up.  That will be my project.  Beds and a ping pong table are high on the priority list.  I hope my gut and willingness to learn French is up to the next task.

Nothing gets us more excited than imagining the creativity and connection that a place like Le Couloume might make room for.  What words might be written, art that might be created, relationships that might be nourished.

We have no idea how this project will play out but there is one thing we are confident of: this is a place we whole-heartedly want to share. 

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