A new beginning in France

Stumbling across their dream French property while on holiday, led to a new start in St-Antonin-Noble-Val for Charlotte Buckingham and her daughter

Sunday is market day. Every Sunday, without fail. In the wind, the rain, the intensity of summer; even on Christmas day. It’s a new kind of worship, this market day, and it is something that the French take very seriously.

Ironically, Sunday is a good day for business in St-Antonin-Noble-Val and also for the townsfolk. A rich tapestry of dried fruit, herbs, saucisson and cheese shroud the streets. A fine feast of food for the eyes, heart and stomach. Not forgetting the gossip.

A congregation of locals can’t help but busy themselves with the ‘he said, she said, who said what?’ A hive of excitement… words buzz like bees over pastis and grands cr�mes at the market place with its bar standing proudly like an altar in the centre of town.

Today is no different. This little town is packed with proud market traders who colour the cobbles with the fruits of their labour. Like a river that has burst its banks, people pour down the streets to see, smell, taste and buy their sweet delights. After eight months here, I still love to meander through the winding streets, collecting my thoughts as I go and reflecting on what has been a life- changing experience.

My story began on holiday, here in St-Antonin-Noble-Val, five years ago. A colleague of mine had a renovated barn which he rented out to holidaymakers in a nearby village. The opportunity to bask in sun in the south of France for two weeks was something I could not refuse. As a young girl I had always holidayed in Brittany and Normandy but this was my first visit to the south. With my family in tow, I drove through France in the scorching month of August.

Exhausted from the 12-hour drive, we decided to stop for chocolat chaud and croissants in St-Antonin-Noble-Val. And as clich�d as it might be, the moment I set foot in this old French town I felt I’d come home. It was the most bizarre sentiment and one shared by my dad who felt exactly the same way.

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Although the barn was based in a nearby village, we spent most of our time here in St-Antonin. Summer festivals, fireworks, swimming, canoeing, street markets… It was heaven for holidaymakers.

So it is no surprise that when we stumbled across this old bourgeoise house for sale, curiosity got the better of us and we had to arrange an appointment to view this beautiful, almost regal, town house. And she was beautiful. It was love at first sight, with her thick stone walls, overbearing fireplaces, and a twisting oak staircase with its spine-like appearance holding together her insides and connecting a rabbit warren of bedrooms.

Family investment

The house was a mass of period features, crooked oak beams, terracotta floors and absolutely terrible 1970s wallpaper. As if in a dream, I threw open the shutters, casting sun on the smoke-stained walls and saw the most amazing view of the old town with its dramatic mountainous backdrop: blue sky, white gorge walls, the bright sun; like a painting framed by the worm-eaten windows. The house spoke a language, more familiar to me than French. She prayed that I breathe life into her old pores, to make new and to love what has become our home.

We very quickly decided to buy the house. It was to be a family investment. My parents, sister and I formed a French Soci�t� Civile Immobili�re to protect our asset which made the buying process much easier than expected. Fortunately, the local estate agent was fluent in English and she explained what we needed to do in great detail. She also helped to arrange a French mortgage, which again was extremely straightforward. The notaire was local. He is quite a character and is based in offices a short walk from the house. With the estate agent on hand to help with translations, the language did not prove to be a barrier at all. She even collected me from Toulouse airport when I flew in to sign the papers.

I distinctly remember the day we were handed the keys. It was January, at dusk; freezing cold and miserable. The town was eerily quiet. The only sound was the wind as it raced through the streets and alleyways, rattling the shutters of old buildings and sweeping up what was left of the silver papered Christmas decorations.

There was no water at the property, and nor was there any electricity. The house was so dark, we couldn’t see it properly. A stark contrast to summer – it felt exhilarating and exciting but, at the same time, it was also completely nerve-wracking.

I remember thinking: “What have we done?” But it was an adventure. That day, we also had the opportunity to meet the family who sold the house. It had been left to three siblings in their late 60s. The family had grown up here and kept the house on as a holiday home when their parents passed away but sadly it was no longer in use and had fallen in to a state of disrepair. They shared lots of stories with us (translated by our friend the estate agent) and were clearly fond of the old place.

Fit for a princess

On the surface, the house looked pretty dilapidated but we were very lucky as on closer inspection the majority of work on the house has been cosmetic. Shabby chic is the name of the game here. We need a new roof. We have a loft to renovate and a room used as a store for logs, which we hope will become the kitchen one day but we are in no rush. My daughter has a huge room fit for a little princess with pink walls and plenty of space in which to play. The bathroom and kitchen are very basic but adequate for our needs.

We always intended for the house to be a holiday home as I had dreamt about living in France but never imagined it possible. However, after a difficult period for me in England, I separated from my long-term partner and decided to move here permanently with my four-year-old daughter to help give us both a fresh start.

It was a romantic idea and I desperately wanted an escape. I took a long hard look at all the things that were making me unhappy in England and realised that I had found myself living in a city but city life was never for me. I had always craved more of a rural life for my daughter too. I wanted, needed the time and space to think and write, feel inspired by my surroundings and focus on living life instead of chasing my proverbial tail. I also felt a strong desire to protect and nourish my daughter’s childhood. However hard I tried to live a sustainable and green life, city living exposed her to a ‘throw-away’ culture that was driven by commercial giants too big to battle with and all-consuming.

Paradise for kids

St-Antonin-Noble-Val has given me all of those things in abundance. It is a safe and joyful piece of paradise for children. We have exchanged the too-familiar absurdity of grey modernity with peaceful nature. Life is colourful. It is about dipping our toes in the water and surrounding ourselves with all things real. We spend our time deer-spotting, watching the sun rise, marvelling at star-filled skies and eating tarte aux fraises. We make playthings out of bark, pine cones and leaves rather than plastic bottles. The weekly run to Toys R Us is a thing of the past and thank God!

I know that my friends and family members think I’m insane. From their point of view, I have turned my back on a career in the media, on England and all its offerings. And it is never easy. I am trying desperately to learn French, to be accepted by the French in this community and am finding that earning an income here is so difficult.

My long-term goal is to write and illustrate children’s picture books but in the meantime, in order to make ends meet, I am selling organic children’s clothes in a children’s shop called Petite �toile in the heart of town. The shop is owned by a fellow Brit who sells toys, gifts and accessories and she has very kindly agreed to share her shop space with me.

Of course, I miss England. I love my home country and, of course, every day brings a new challenge. But whether you consider it bravery or stupidity, at least I am living my life. In my darkest hours I have the most incredible doubts and can feel uncomfortably disconnected from the world. However, I must confess, this town has become my new faith. I have hope, aspiration now and, at long last, I can say that I am doing something I believe in with every part of my being. I am living my dream. n

Petite �toile

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