How I renovated a house and moved to Gers on my own
PUBLISHED: 17:18 23 February 2018 | UPDATED: 17:18 23 February 2018
When she inherited a ruin of a house in Gers 15 years ago, Paula Middleton decided to take on the challenge, completely renovated it and now lives there on her own
How did you come to live in Gers?
Fifteen years ago I inherited the ruin of a house in Gers, ‘La Taste’, as part of a divorce, and chose the ruin over an apartment in London – taking the route of the romantic. I had to go away and earn my keep as a single woman again, and my work took me all over the world with the British Council. I would visit La Taste during my leave and think to myself ‘keep the faith’. It seemed an overwhelming amount of renovation work for someone with better diplomatic skills than technical skills, but I had made my choice and one day I knew I would come here. In all my years of working abroad, I never found anywhere else quite like this little corner of the world called Gers.
When did you move in permanently?
I retired three years ago and it was overgrown with grass, full of bats, owl nests and gaping holes. The suitcases were put away and a pair of French working overalls replaced the business suits. All those diplomatic skills proved useful for negotiating ‘devis’ (builders’ quotes), planning consents, and the design and build of the house. Over these three years, La Taste has emerged as a beautiful space and beautiful home.
How have you adapted to French life?
My French improves daily and so do my technical skills. My favourite retail therapy locations are now bricolage outlets on the outskirts of towns. As I settle into making La Taste my residence principale, I am getting to grips with the French system on taxation, health and residency requirements, which currently remain unchanged post-Brexit referendum. Sometimes going it alone in my adopted country feels daunting, but for me the Ladies Lunch Club de l’Armagnac has proven to be a wonderful support system for English-speaking women in our area. Many of us meet for lunch once a month to enjoy local restaurants and local cuisine. There are also groups who meet on a range of interests, garden visits, book club, language learning and community support.
Have you been welcomed into your local community?
I have encountered kindness and courtesy throughout my adventure of the build. I live in a hamlet of about 20 souls called Ste-Fauste named after the old church which looks out over a wide sweep of valley towards the Pyrénées. When La Taste was gutted and the land dug up for a new fosse septique in one of the coldest winters on record, my French neighbours gave me the key to their home so I had somewhere warm to live. Flowers and fruit, sweet-baked delicacies and mushrooms appeared on the doorstep.
What is it like throughout the seasons?
What I most enjoy about living in Gers is the clean air (reputedly the cleanest in Europe), the tranquillity of the countryside and the slower pace of life in the towns and villages. Everyone stops to say hello if they recognise you to have a chat with their distinctive Gascon accent.
Is there any aspect of living here that surprised you?
What has surprised and fascinated me about living here is the variety of cultures that have influenced the area from prehistory to modern times. The Pyrénées have been a passage for migration for centuries and today you see pilgrims, distinguished by the scallop shell on their backpacks, walking the Camino de Santiago through Gers.
Is there a special place in Gers that you particularly like to visit?
I love many of the beautiful Gers villages and towns, but I especially love Marciac which has an annual international jazz festival in the summer (usually late July to mid-August), bringing the normally quiet and pretty town alive with music and markets for three weeks with some of the biggest names in jazz. Music spills out everywhere – from cafés, street corners, bars and the big marquees.
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