Mountains of memories

Judy Pinner looks back at how a spur-of-the-moment decision led to more than a decade of wonderful times living in eastern France

Moving to France had never been part of a plan or even an idea for us, so when it happened it was more like a small volcanic eruption than a long-planned dream come true. In 1990, my husband Laurie and I were living in a picturesque cottage that nestled comfortably into the Kentish countryside. Although the cottage was small, the garden was large, lovely and landscaped. We spent most of our spare time re-designing certain areas, growing our own vegetables and soft fruit. I started a small but satisfying cottage industry growing flowers to dry and to sell. Laurie, although a conscientious teacher, was an outdoor man at heart and felt frustrated at being in a profession that kept him confined between four walls for most of the time. The idea of being able to change our circumstances never occurred to us. Like many other people we had a rather hefty mortgage and about �500 in the bank. In addition, we had family and friends close by and although the children had left home they still had a room to call their own in our house and came home whenever they needed to. Many people were quite envious of our rural and simple lifestyle. Everything changed rather rapidly and unexpectedly after a particularly difficult and stressful period at school brought on by the increased frustration of teaching. Laurie's job satisfaction began to dry up. He became restless and withdrawn until one Friday night in the middle of April, he came home from work with a spring in his step and a different look on his face. He waited until we were relaxing in front of the fire with a glass of wine when he said without introduction or preamble: "Let's sell up and go and live in France!" It was, to say the least, a bolt out of the blue but I was excited. I love new ideas. My enthusiasm lasted 24 hours before it became tempered with doubt and misgivings, and the what about…?' list kicked in. What about the children, the parents, the money, the language? The list grew into monstrous proportions. My husband teaches Latin and is, if nothing else, a very logical thinker and not a muddle-headed romantic, so I was persuaded to listen to his reasons and arguments. It transpired that on his way to work, he passed an estate agent's office and over a period of several months he noticed that property prices had been steadily rising. It had reached a point where the house was actually making more money than he was! He thought that we should take advantage of this unexpected opportunity to sell the house, move to France, buy something for less money, and thereby get rid of the millstone round our necks – the mortgage. We gave ourselves a month's thinking space and kept quiet about our possible course of action. Towards the end of the third week, consternation set in when Laurie came home from work saying that some prices in the estate agent's window had gone down. The housing boom was coming to an end. Momentous move That weekend we made a list – a very long one – of all the things we would have to do in order to make this momentous move across the Channel. First on the list was to contact the estate agent and put the house on the market. This was the key to the rest of the plan. Without it, nothing else could go forward. The list itself was frightening enough. It contained things like resign from present teaching job (our only source of income) tell family and friends that we were upping sticks and leaving the country, and somewhere near the bottom was: go to France and buy a house! A few weeks later we had a seriously interested buyer for the cottage, Laurie had handed in his notice for the end of the Christmas term, we had made enquiries about temporary accommodation for us to use once the house deal was sealed and, perhaps the most difficult of all, family and friends had been informed. Soon the summer holidays were upon us and it was time to go to France and buy a house. But where? We solved the question very simply. We went into town and picked up lots of French holiday brochures and within 24 hours we knew exactly where we were heading. Not south (too hot in the summer and too crowded); not central (too quiet and too remote); not north (too damp and too close to home); and we didnt want an English village on the Continent. We wanted to be well and truly in French France. Taking everything into consideration, we were heading east to Rh�ne-Alpes, a region of mountains and lakes; scenery that we both love. We booked a two-week holiday at a lakeside campsite at the foot of the Chartreuse mountains. It was beautiful; far better than we could ever have imagined! Finding a house was not quite so easy. We contacted an agent and spent the first week looking at a motley bunch of very uninteresting rural French houses. By the Saturday, we were both plunged into a mini-depression. Beaming smile Phoning home had confirmed that our house sale was going ahead. We were heading for homelessness! The start of week two found us in front of the agent's door as soon as it opened on the Monday morning. We walked into her office with measured steps. When she looked up and saw us, her face broke into a beaming smile and she said: "I have found the house you are looking for." We were more than a little sceptical because what we had asked of her was almost impossible. In discussions before leaving England, we had decided that Laurie would give up full-time teaching and that we would earn our living by finding a house with space for a g�te. I would continue with my dried flowers and Laurie would do some English coaching with private pupils, so any house that our agent had found would have to provide the necessary space and accommodation to provide for our needs. We had even added that we would like a view and, if possible, a truly beautiful one! As we left her office and drove towards the house, we were filled with a mixture of emotions: anxiety, curiosity and, of course, hope. It was Monday and we were due to leave France the following Saturday. The very first glimpse filled us with optimism. The house itself was rather striking. It had a large greyish-white fa�ade which was covered, in part, by an attractive creeper. It was set to one end of a rather overgrown garden, but there were ponds fed by a natural spring and a small stream connecting them. The ground was gently sloping and there didn't appear to be any defining boundaries, which gave it the appearance of being at one with the surrounding countryside. Beyond the garden, the view was breathtaking. We found ourselves in an elevated position looking down onto a small village and on the wooded hillside opposite stood an imposing ch�teau and unbelievably, beyond this, the rugged peaks of the Chartreuse mountains. Bright and full of charm All that remained was to inspect the inside of the house. We were not disappointed. It had everything in it that we had asked for and more. There were exposed beams everywhere and a most attractive and unusual fireplace in the living room. The bathroom and kitchen were in dire need of an update – both being very heavy and gloomy. The bedrooms, on the other hand, which are, in our experience, often an unattractive feature in French houses, were large, light and full of charm. There was even an extension to the side of the house that could be converted into a g�te. We were hooked and to add delight to delight we were told that the splendid old furniture that fitted the house so well was also for sale. We were so excited and by the time we left France the following Saturday we had signed the compromis de vente and we were to take possession the following January! January is not exactly the best month to move into a new house in a new country. We had no friends and no contacts. The only things we did have were plans and lots of them. Before our departure from England we had advertised our as-yet-non-existent-g�te and we already had several bookings. Our first guests were to arrive in mid-March. There was no time for procrastination or misgivings. We were plunged immediately into frantic activity. The kitchen and bathroom were first on the list for a complete overhaul. We were ever-mindful of the daunting stories about French workmen turning up on the first day of a project and then having a few days off before putting in another appearance. Fortunately for us, the stories proved unfounded and if anyone caused us anxiety during our first weeks, it was the English removal men who were very good, and rather clever, at giving us reasons why they couldn't come this week and why next week would be just as difficult but they would keep in touch. In one way it was easier not to be cluttered up with our furniture from the cottage. It made room for the electrician to insert a dreadful machine into the wall that ground out a long and winding groove in which to insert the electric cables. It was a pure horror story. The noise and dust were just unimaginable. Once his job was completed we were able to get on with stripping and re-painting the walls in the downstairs rooms. Next came the boiler and the central-heating system and, even though it was midwinter, there were jobs to be done in the garden. There were moments of panic. Would we be able to get it all finished for our first arrivals in mid-March? To give us more time, we had decided that the house would be best used for the guests and that we would do up the extension for us to live in the summer months. To this end an architect had been contacted to draw up plans, which would be put to use at some unspecified date in the future. In the meantime, we were going to spend the first summer in a caravan at the bottom of the garden! Drinks party One lunchtime, when hard work had lowered our spirits and made us slightly uncertain about our chosen direction, there was a knock at the door. A small grey-haired gentleman with a kindly face and a warm smile introduced himself. He had come to say that he had organised a drinks party to welcome us to France and to the hamlet and, more importantly, to introduce us to our neighbours. We were quite overwhelmed. It was just what we needed to lift our spirits and the start of friendships that would span two decades. It has to be said that to begin with we were the subject of some curiosity and certainly something of a novelty but time is a great leveller and it wasn't long before we were accepted as being a part of the community. We were invited to weddings and christenings and attended funerals when the occasions arose. We made the March deadline. The removal men arrived just 10 days before our first guests and we added the finishing touches to the house as their car drove into the drive. The caravan wasn't yet in place so we sought refuge in the farm across the field and were made to feel very welcome.

Holiday brochures Once the house was set up and guests comfortably installed, we were free to explore the region which, so far, we had only experienced between the pages of holiday brochures. Although we were very definitely in rural France, surrounded by fields, farms and cows, not very far away lay endless treasures to be discovered. We visited the large towns in the vicinity: Lyon, Grenoble and Chamb�ry but found that our love affair was with the mountains and the smaller towns, such as Chamonix, Annecy and Aix-les-Bains. There seemed to be magic and enchantment round practically every corner. It was quite difficult for us to get used to the idea of being able to wake up in the morning, to see the sun shining and be able to say: "Let's go walking today." To pick up your walking boots, stout poles and backpack and within a short drive be walking among some of the world's finest scenery is just magical. However many times you see the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc, contrasted against the cobalt blue sky and the vivid green of the Alpine pastures, its impact and its magnetism never diminishes. All this took place a long time ago. We continued with the g�te for 10 years and loved it, meeting all kinds of people – the interesting, the funny, the loveable and of course the not-so loveable. Laurie found enough pupils for his private coaching and as planned we put down quite a sizeable part of the garden to dried flowers. We certainly weren't rich, but with the money left over from our house sale plus our odd bits and bobs we made ends meet, we were happy and we were free (except for change-over days). In the scheme of things, 50 would never be considered as young, except perhaps in the context of retirement! We continued to make improvements to the house and our summer quarters evolved slowly into an attractive and relaxing place to spend the warmer months. Even now we no longer rent the g�te, we still move out of the main house in the summer to live in what has come to be known affectionately as the woodshed. Our circle has been completed. It is time for us to recognise that the mountains have become too high to climb, the garden too big to manage and that the house has gone as far as we can take it. Time to let someone else take over what became our dream. The architect's plans for the woodshed are waiting in the wings and although we leave with heavy hearts, we are taking with us countless precious memories that will stretch beyond the two decades into a lifetime.