After recovering from the shock of being told her husband wanted to move to the south of France, Nicola Barber tells how she threw herself wholeheartedly into French life once she got there
It’s August 2003. We’re sitting on the terrace of a rented holiday gîte in Lot-et-Garonne (remember the record-breaking temperatures of summer 2003?) and I am sobbing uncontrollably into my glass of chilled Berticot rosé.
My husband, Stuart, has just told me of his grand plan for us to move to south-west France for his retirement. Of course, I should have seen this coming; he has always loved all things French, we have visited often and he’s never been one for getting stuck in a rut.
For me, it just seems such an enormous life change. I love my home in the medieval Kentish town of Sandwich. I love my job. The children are out in the world but we see them often. What would life be like if we were deep in the wilds of the French countryside?
I recover my composure and concentrate on thoughts of long, hot summers, filling my basket at French markets, sampling formule lunches at local restaurants and trying local wines. In the fullness of time, I decide I’m up for the challenge!
Lists and listings
Being the inveterate list maker that I am, the first thing I do is construct a definitive catalogue of requirements: accessibility to major transport links and to a good hospital; plenty of room for visitors; swimming pool; close to a lake or river for our water-loving labrador, and several more. We begin to househunt. We see possibilities but I’m waiting for that moment – you know the one – when you walk in and you and the house look at each other and say, “yes, you’re the one”!
We returned home, put our house on the market and in December came back to France, list in hand, to continue the hunt. We travelled through Lot and Tarn until, one day while in Lot-et-Garonne, we viewed Le Ga.
The long, creamy stone maison de maître sat snugly on its hillside in the Vallée St Martin, overlooking the sloping fields, thick woods and distant church tower on the opposite side of the valley. The pool, sitting above the gently sloping lawns, glinted in the bright winter sunshine. The gardens, despite the fruit trees and enormous ornamental lime tree having lost their leaves, were full of promise for the spring to come.
When we got inside, the kitchen was so dark and gloomy we could barely make out Monsieur nursing his coffee at the table in the corner. Undaunted, I mentally sloshed white paint over the brown wallpaper, replaced the tired dark kitchen units and even formed an idea to knock down a wall.
Upstairs, we only had to throw open the shutters of the huge windows in the largest bedroom and gasp at the view, to hear a small internal voice say, “you’re the one”.
Great on paper
What, you ask, of the list? Well, I wouldn’t have listened to that voice had I not ticked the boxes first.
Le Ga is 15 minutes from Agen, the préfecture of Lot-et-Garonne. It’s a small but thriving city with its cathedral and university, and the mighty River Garonne has endowed it with a rich history (it changed hands between the English and the French 11 times during the Hundred Years’ War).
The fast TGV rail service stops on its way from the south to Bordeaux and Paris. There’s even a small airport with several daily flights to the capital, and the Toulouse, Bordeaux and Bergerac airports, served by budget airlines as well as mainstream ones, are all less than an hour and a half away.
Most self-respecting valleys like ours have a river running through them so the dog is in heaven. At one end of the house, a partly renovated pigeonnier was perfect to fulfil our need for extra accommodation. Our first job was to turn it into a pretty two-bedroom self-contained apartment, though I didn’t realise at the time how little our family visitors would make use of the well-equipped kitchen area in favour of the catering at the big house!
Our big adventure
So we embarked on Stuart’s Big Adventure. By squeezing in French lessons before leaving the UK, speedily recruiting a French teacher on our arrival and finding a friendly local class, we were soon stumbling along with the language and fairly quickly found we could really use our expanding knowledge. Now we can hold our own in all sorts of French conversational situations and have made sure we’ve involved ourselves in village life.
The maire asked us to assist in the English classes at the tiny village school, something we have loved doing. We’ve also had cookery lessons in local cuisine; thank goodness we love duck in all its guises, from foie gras to canard à l’orange and cassoulet.
We’ve learnt to respect the seasons and their produce, as the French do. We’ve made really good friends, both in the expat community and among our French neighbours. We’ve enriched our knowledge of the countryside and wildlife enormously. I love to watch great birds of prey gliding over the valley, and listen to nightingales singing their hearts out.
We’ve learnt when to give our daily rambles over the fields and woods a miss because la chasse is about. We’ve partaken of the chasse feasts, eating wild boar and venison from surrounding forests. We’ve seen Shakespeare performed in French in the tiniest theatre in a local village. We’ve struggled – and failed – to share the local passion for dancing the paso doble at village parties. We’ve gorged on delicious chocolate at the annual chocolate festival each March in Agen.
Sharing the dream
Each July and August, I stand back and allow our large and increasing family to use Le Ga as a holiday camp. The house accepts the invasion benignly and come September it’s easily restored to its normal calm state. I’ve loved my assaults on local brocantes to find pieces of furniture and vintage finds to give the house its French feel – though I suspect my extensive use of light and white may land it somewhere in the Franglish area.
Stuart has doggedly brought in English roses to line the drive, surround the pool area and create rose beds. The existing deep red French roses which scramble over the house and fences look very handsome alongside their pale cream, yellow and pink English cousins.
We have had several occasions to make use of the fantastic French medical system and have nothing but praise for its efficiency and care. Stuart underwent a groundbreaking operation on his brain last year to alleviate a steadily worsening tremor. Although now practised worldwide to treat Parkinson’s disease and benign tremors, the use of electrodes inserted in the brain was pioneered, according to a professor at the hospital in Bordeaux, here in France. The result has been little short of miraculous.
So do I sit on our own terrace weeping into a glass of Buzet rosé? Of course not, unless it’s because, after 10 years of magical experiences, we have to leave Le Ga to return to England for family reasons. I hope whoever comes after us will love the gentle views, the friendliness of the neighbourhood and the village as much as we do. And if they have a dog, I hope it’ll enjoy the nearby river as much as our labrador has.
Le Ga is currently for sale
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