Life in the French Alps

Considering selling up. Don’t call the agent until you’ve read Ali Gaylor’s story of her beloved Alpine apartment

Last June I sold my little flat in the Haute-Savoie. It had been on the market for over 18 months, and I guess I just thought it wouldn’t sell. I put it on the market just before la crise, the credit crunch, hit; not for monetary reasons but due to ill health. There was soon a flood of properties for sale, I suppose because of the global financial problems.

As the months passed, I grew healthier again and was changing my mind about the sale. I started to write the letter to the agent to cancel my agreement to sell. That same night I checked my emails and noticed there was one from her. “I have a buyer for your apartment,” it read, nothing else and although it was quite late in the evening, I emailed straight back: “But at what price? You didn’t contact me about an offer.” I was amazed to get an immediate reply from her iPhone: “Asking price. Exceptional in this market. Brilliant news. You must be very happy.”

I was heartbroken. The half-written letter on my desk; my decision made that I would keep my little place in the mountains, and it was too late. In France, depending on the mandate signed, the vendor cannot refuse an asking price offer. The agent has power to accept on your behalf and there is no consultation necessary. It was, as they say, a fait accompli.

I had my last week’s holiday there in May. I went with a really good friend who hadn’t seen it before and I had the best week that I had ever spent there. I showed her all the wonderful sights and places I had spent nine years discovering and re-discovering them simply reinforced the growing feeling that I had done the wrong thing.

I always try to view life differently: that no choice is ever the wrong choice, no decision the wrong one, that whatever path we choose will simply lead us on a different route to new discoveries, new experiences and new people to meet. I was having trouble with that now. I just wanted to stop it all happening and, right until the day of signing, I kept hoping that the buyers would back out. I didn’t want to sell but I had to. I didn’t find out until much later that my buyers had previously offered on a larger flat in the same chalet. The offer had been accepted and then the vendor changed her mind; only more fortunately for her, the agent had forgotten to get the agreement to sell signed when my neighbour’s flat went on the market, so technically they had only agreed verbally that the agency would sell it, and so she had an escape route by default.

The buyers were naturally furious with the situation and the agent and desperately wanted to buy in the same chalet. So it was that my agent showed them round my little bolt-hole, and although smaller than the flat upstairs, they went straight in with an asking price offer, just so the same thing wouldn’t happen to them again.

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I returned in June and packed up. My things went into storage nearby and I have begun my search for a house in the north of France, which was the plan after my illness, with easier access from England and more house for the money.

But the seasons... It’s not just the fantastic scenery and Alpine culture that I will miss. How can I live without the wonderful seasons in the mountains? They are so different; sharper somehow; more defined.

Autumn comes later in the Alps but it is worth the wait for the kaleidoscope of colours: a patchwork of oranges and reds, yellow and gold painted on a backdrop of mountains. The lowering sunlight casts its golden rays over all and soon the night time frosts give way to the first tentative snows.

By December a magical wonderland unfolds of bright duck-egg blue skies, white diamond-sparkly snow and blue shadows by day. At night, there are fairy lights and star-filled inky black skies, and you wake to mornings which look like the world has been touched by sugar-frosting in the night. In the soft hush of downy snowfall days, when all is a silent white-out and when flakes fall like feathers, it is simply stunning. There isn’t the chaos that snow brings in the UK because in the mountains it is the norm and it is magnifique.

As winter passes in a blur of twinkly days and even twinklier nights, the skiers gradually depart and the snow melts. At first, there is a gentle trickle in the rocky river beds, and as the days pass, a torrent of grey-blue melt-water fills the rivers and plunges down waterfalls; spring arrives, a true awakening. The brown frost-singed grass appears from under its blanket of snow and begins to turn green again. Soon everything is burgeoning into green: the grass, trees and shrubs, and oh, the blossoms!

From nowhere the insects and bees get busy and there is birdsong everywhere. Le printemps est arriv�. Gradually even the snow capping the tallest mountains melts and the mountain pastures begin to burst into bloom. Spring gives way to early summer and a host of flowers adorn the pastures and the mountains alike. I saw my first gentians here; the stunning deep blue of the tiny star-like flowers of the spring gentian in May, and later, the large bugle-shaped flowers of the mountain gentians, which I found on rambles on the higher slopes, where once the pistes were.

There are violas, all shades of mauve, lilac and purple, yellow globe flowers, like huge blousy buttercups, and wild thyme. It’s hard to imagine that all this wonder has lain beneath the snow for months, just waiting for its turn; waiting for the skiers to leave and the warmth to return to the mountain tops. The scent is intoxicating and the wonderfully Alpine sound of cowbells fills the air.

The cows and sheep are turned out onto the slopes again; a cacophony of bleats and dongling bells! The first swallows arrive to feed; stopping over on their way north. Maybe I have even seen the ones that will arrive at our home in England. My swallows, mes hirondelles. Some of them will stay and raise their young in the Alps and I know where I would spend my summer if I were a swallow. Another season is under way and different tourists arrive: the walkers and climbers, hikers and paragliders.

My village has a hot air balloon company and every clear morning they take to the skies. During the last week I was there, I was awakened every day at about 7am by the sound of them, and I scrambled to the balcony to watch in fascination, as I have done so many times. I counted five on the last day. How pretty they are. Mongolfi�res rising silently into the blue sky on bursts of dragon breath. How majestic the view must be. I wish now that I had braved a trip just once in my nine years in the village.

So, where will I end up I wonder? In my searches on the web I am turning back more and more to the Alps. What I’d really like is a modest lottery win, just enough for a small chalet, and I’d be off tomorrow to find it! Or maybe, if there is someone out there who would also like a life in the mountains; a millionaire, preferably French, so I can brush up on my language skills! Oh well, I can but dream. Best not tell the husband though. He doesn’t share my dreams of France.

Oh, and one last thing. If you have a property for sale and have any doubts at all about selling it, my advice would be: don’t put it on the market until you are really sure. Always follow your heart and don’t destroy your own dreams. Maybe, like me, you have had an unexpected brush with the fragility of life. And if you have, you will no doubt understand when I say that now really is the time to live the life you have imagined. It is the time to live your dreams! n