Finding our Feet; Settling and Adjusting as a Family
(Above picture: Summer 2013 - Scott and Summer (aged 3) taking 5 mins break in our field where the cows usually live)
After arriving in December 2012 and before unpacking all our bits. We very quickly needed to get to grips with the heating system, which the previous owner had told us was very effective once it got going.
The heating was a radiator system running through the whole house and connected to an extremely old log fuelled boiler located in the stone log shed which adjoins the house.
It was freeeeezing!! Bitterly cold!! We were wearing layers and layers of clothes and with holes in the roof, bare wooden slats and no insulation, getting the house to a comfortable temperature was going to be quite a task!
There were no rooms upstairs - it was just a bare, empty attic space. The 2 bedrooms the house had to offer were located downstairs. We referred to them as "The Dungeons" as they were seperated from the windows by a partitioned hallway which linked the lounge from the kitchen and we used to refer to as "The M4 Corridor". Being a longère and with the rooms being at either end of the house, it was a very long walk from one room to the other, so making a cup of tea was quite a task!
To get the heating going, Scott would have to put his hat, scarf, gloves and jacket, go outside to the boiler and get the fire going. We must have had that boiler going constantly for a good week and the best we got was luke warm radiators! The excitement and novelty of having such a heating system had soon warn off and with it not even being effective, that was it! We planned to get rid of the whole system and went out to the builders merchant to get ourselves a proper log burner to install in the lounge.
The next thing was to find a good, affordable log supplier close to our house. Luckily, we have forests around us, one of which being half way between our house and my mother's house and she was able to recommend. Recommendations through word of mouth from someone with real experience of living in rural France are invaluable! Living 40 mins away from my mother, we have had to learn most bits the hard way - by doing our own research and through trial and error as systems, processes and merchants obviously vary, depending on your area.
To be warm enough, which was a real worry with Summer being so young, we had no other option than to use the electric heaters that we had. A tough lesson learnt once we received our first electricity bill from EDF later the next year! Electricity here in France is extremely expensive and with not much choice of supplier, there is nothing you can do about it. Having electric heaters running for 3 months did not help this! Our Electricty works out to be almost €2000 a year!
Still, even now using strictly woodburners for heating, we dread the date we receive the letter each 6 months for EDF to come and read the meter. It really is not cheap!
We were also dreading to find out what the cost of water would be, but that was not at all as bad, even after we filled a swimming pool some time later! It also helps to have a well as this can reduce costs when a pump is used to water the garden etc (and believe me, once the dry months come, you will need to water whatever garden you have thoroughly, every evening if you don't want to end up with a field full of hay!)
We were prepared for the Tax d'Habitation and Tax Foncière, as my mother had warned us! These bills come together, nicely timed - just before Christmas and for us amount to around €500, which needs to be paid in full within a certain time frame!
With our plans to try and convert the attic into 4 bedrooms with 2 ensuites, knock out the current bedrooms and create a kitchen, remove the kitchen and make it into a family bathroom (which later became a play room as we ran out of time and had a further shower room anyway), re-point all the walls, re-decorate the whole house, install further windows in each bedroom, take out the current stairs (or ladder, as it was more like) and create 2x new staircases, re-plumb the whole house, re-wire the whole house, source and fit all fixtures and fittings, source and install all furniture and furnishings, install a huge microstation sewage treatment system designed to cater for 20 people and re-landscape the 2.5 acres of garden, as well as maintain it at the rapid speed it grows out here - all with the hope of gaining some lettings that summer and already being in January, we had a lot to do!
We had friends who would come and visit who, when they saw the project we were undertaking, the plans we had in the timescale we had - thought we were totally mad. Although we believed we could do it, it becomes extremely nerve racking when so many people doubt that it is possible. It can really make you doubt yourself and panick a little when the reaction is so severe.
I, being the over serious project manager that I was at the time and knowing that Scott tended to take the more laid back aproach and not having an excellent reputation for time keeping, had pressured him whilst we were in the purchasing/planning stage to sit with me and go through every single stage of the process of the renovation, step by step, to try and gain a realistic plan and give us a deadline to work to. He absolutely hated having to do this and it caused endless arguments and biccering, but it did its job - we had a plan to work to and an amount of time allocated for each stage to be completed. The way we saw it, it was more than doable and as long as we could stick to the plan as much as possible, we would be able to avdertise the gite from 31st July 2013. A date I remember well as not only was it the completion date we were all focusing on, but my late aunty's birthday. This willed me on no end - like it was a tribute to her and something that would make her proud. (I know for sure, she would have had a fair few laughs at our expense and head in hand moments along the way if she was watching down on us at the time!) :o)
So, it really was a case of hit the ground running. We very quickly had to learn the best places to source materials, find the right networks of people to speak to to gain help and advice (the Mairie being the starting point for anyone and a great source of help, information and guidance of do's and dont's), start getting to grips with the language (we still have lessons now 2 years on), find our bearings and get well underway with the project.
We have found through our work that we have been introduced to many good frends - both English and French. There is a real community spirit here and people are always willing to help.
If there is something you are trying to source, with so many others undertaking building projects in the area it is very often you find that there is someone not far away who has the thing you are looking for and will willingly give it away if you can come and collect it.
One couple who we have become extremely close friends with, we met when we were advised they had a huge amount of earth they were trying to get rid of at the time when we were re-landcaping after the installation of the microstation system. We got in contact and it turned out they were literally at the end of our road. So, off we went with our spades and filled up the van with the earth we needed, feeling like bank robbers (or in this case - mud robbers), whilst Summer sat on a picnic blanket colouring in and playing with toys. Who would have known such a great frindship would come from a heap of earth. That is the way we roll out here!
Although we both had a basic knowledge of the French language when we arrived - it was very basic and difficult to get by when conversing with the locals. Our lessons have proved to be invaluable and we have progressed a great deal.
Although schooling is not obligatory here until the age of 6, they do take children on in the école maternelles from the age of 2.5 years - as long as they are toilet trained. We felt that to give Summer the best start in life here with the language and to give her the opportunity to socialise with other children her age, we wanted her to start at school as soon as she could.
We viewed 3 local primary schools ("école primaires") - 2 private ("privée") and the other public ("publique"). All of them were very nice. The difference between privée and publique schooling is not the same as in UK. The privée schools teach religion and are mostly catholic. You do have to pay a small fee for privée schooling, but it is something like €20 a month, so didn't really count towards the decision for us. Neither of us are religeous and want to raise Summer with the freedom to make her own choices. Regardless of that, the main criteria for us was the feeling we got from the school, the way in which they structured the daily routine and the activities available to the children. We also felt it very important that Summer went to an all French school, not one that was set up for international children with English speaking teachers. We decided on the école publique. It was everything we were looking for. Summer was the first English child to start at the school and was so warmly welcomed by all - being the local celebrity to the children, who would often greet us with a cheeky "good day!" accompanied by a big smile.
Summer is extremely happy at school, has adapted very well and is doing brilliantly with the language. She has many friends. We are very proud.
Through the school, we have also met some very good friends, who we enjoy socialising with and have made us feel very much a part of the community. It is a very nice feeling. It has also helped a great deal with developing our language skills.
You can't help but notice all the beautiful, well kept vegetable patches out here and the huge variety of fruit and vegetable seeds on offer in the supermarkets and builder's merchants, so as February approached, just to make it a little harder for myself, to save on money and having a real want to live the organic lifestyle and to provide for my family, I decided to dig myself a vegetable patch. I started to dig by hand with fork and a spade, rolling the strips I had scored out and dug up as I went and putting them to one side. We were digging the hole for the microstation to go in at the time, so I knew the strips of grass would come in useful for re-turfing once the hole had been covered over as we would need to encourage a quick re-growth of grass before the summer. Not a lot ever gets thrown away here as we have found that if you think outside of the box, most things can be recycled and re-used.
After a huge amount of time, effort, sweat and hard work, loosening and turning the soil as I went and pulling out all the well embedded weeds, (Summer finding worms and establishing me a compost heap as I went along) I had managed to dig myself a vegetable patch of all of 4m x 4m. For the rather ambitious (being a total novice gardener with not a great deal of spare time) variety of fruit and vegetables I wished to grow, 10m x 4m was more like the size I needed. With the digger in digging the hole for the microstation, it was time for me to give in - within an hour or so - the job was done! Oh well, at least I had had a good workout!
It is tough work maintaining a large vegetable patch ("potager") with the work schedule we had and a young three year old to look after. It requires daily maintenance, which (as my uncle Tony taught me on one of his visits when he had to do a severe de-weed and thinning out of crops through slight neglect on my part), if kept to, should only take 15 - 20 mins a day. I remember Scott's father, Bob - a keen gardener - visiting us in April 2013 when every window sill was full to the brim of tomato and pepper seedlings. Knowing the effort it takes, he told me that it would be too much and that it was not worth the time and effort. He was probably right, but even still, due to my stubborness, which was at an all time high at the time, I made it my mission to make it a success! The feeling of picking the crops with Summer before dinner time each day was extremely satisfyling and knowing that we had grown it all from seed together, with her taking such an interest, learning and being so excited with what she had accomplished, is really lovely.
(Below picture: Summer and Mummy feeling very impressed with their first crop - all that hard work has certainly paid off!)
Lucky for us, Summer has always been a good natured child, who adapted so naturally to the move, even with all the craziness that was constantly going on around her. She has just taken it as a huge adventure - always finding some way of getting involved and making a game out of whatever it was we were doing at the time, or just sitting outside painting on her little eisel in the sunshine, chasing butterflies, picking daisies, playing in the sandpit created by the huge mount of sand we had used to make up concrete mixes - whatever we were doing - she was never out of sight and always occupied and enjoying herself. Always smiling and singing, she has been as good as gold throughout the whole process - went to bed with no arguments at bedtime, had regular naps in the afternoons and never complained about anything. We could not have been any luckier as if she didn't have the chilled out and happy temperament she has, thikngs would have been far more difficult for us. We are truly blessed - she is amazing and we are so proud of her!
Some would say that having a young child around whilst working on a renovation like this would be a hindrance, but in our case we would totally disagree. If anything, she has been our motivation and has lifted our spirits throughout.
(Below: A few photos of our little ray of sunshine getting stuck in and helping Mummy and Daddy
Well, as you would know from reading my featured story "The Story So Far", we did it! Just!! The gite was completed, a little later than planned, but in mid August, we had our first let.
There is no way we could havve done it without the massive and extremely overwhelming support from our family. Thank you soooo much!! For this and as a tribute to your fantasticness and selflessness, I have dedicated a feature story, featuring you which you will find on my blog and is appropriately titled "Heros and Heroines", because you are!! xxx