Writer’s blocks: building a home in Collioure
For one Scottish author, building her dream home in sun-drenched Languedoc-Roussillon was the culmination of a life-long connection with France, as Vicky Leigh discovers
“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” Or so 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine thought. However, sometimes in life, you find it on the road you have always felt you were supposed to take. I certainly think Jane MacKenzie has.
My own fondness for la France began long before I entered the world of work. It started during my first French lessons at school, and my love of the language has since taken me through a university degree in the subject, leaving me with many happy memories of time spent living on the other side of the Channel.
It’s always nice to find someone else who shares this affinity with both the language and the country, and that’s exactly what happened when I interviewed Jane. I think I was always going to have a connection with France, and it seems Jane did too.
“France will always be top of my list,” she says. “I loved French at school and went on to study it at university, and spent a wonderful year abroad in Aix-en-Provence.” That experience stayed with her, and despite her extensive travels and periods living in countries across the world, it is France that has always felt like home to her. And now she can call it home too.
After graduating from university Jane returned to teach at a language school in Marseille, before moving on to Africa and then the Middle East, where she met her husband. They moved back to Scotland and started a life together there, and although they tried to visit France as often as they could on their travels, family life meant time to do so was unfortunately in short supply.
“For a while the connection with France dissipated, but then my husband sadly passed away very suddenly at the beginning of 2003,” she explains. “After several years of readjustment and with the children grown up, I had a huge hankering to rediscover my French roots. I didn’t want to just have holidays in France, but to rediscover it properly, which for me meant having a home there and becoming part of the French community.”
THE CALL OF COLLIOURE
Although Jane’s search for a property began in the Aquitaine capital of Bordeaux, it ended in the picturesque fishing village of Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast in southern Languedoc-Roussillon.
“I knew I wanted to be near the sea as I was used to it being part of my life,” says Jane. “My husband and I always lived by the sea, as he was a marine man and worked as a harbour master wherever we were. The Atlantic coast didn’t really do it for me though, so I decided to look further south. I didn’t know Languedoc-Roussillon at all, but I thought it would be more affordable than Provence.”
Which is how she came to discover Collioure, falling instantly under its spell as it worked a special magic on her.
“The village is stunning, it has so much character, warmth, light,” enthuses Jane. “Matisse painted here and you can see why from the moment you arrive. I fell in love with it as soon as I drove in. It was also the perfect size – I wanted a place with a hub of community and plenty of life, but at the same time I didn’t want to be a in a huge town where I might not meet people as I was on my own. Collioure was just perfect in all respects.”
In 2007 Jane bought a holiday home on a complex on the outskirts of the village, where there were just seven small villas, all with British owners, surrounding a swimming pool. She had originally thought she’d be spending one or two months a year there, but gradually found she was staying for months at a time.
She soon realised that the house wasn’t a match for her needs, particularly as she often found herself alone on the site during the winter months. Speaking fluent French she had made friends locally, and was keen to integrate into the community even more, so decided she would need to buy a house that was located further into the village.
“I went back to the estate agent who sold me the first property, and he said he knew I’d be back eventually because it would just be a starter home for me,” says Jane. “He showed me a couple of properties in the village but they wouldn’t have been suitable for a swimming pool. I still wanted my dream home where I could live my dream life, and that meant a swimming pool as well as lots of space and natural light.”
CHANGE OF PLAN
The opportunity then arose to purchase a plot of land from someone who was selling part of their garden. It was just 350 metres from the centre of Collioure, and was probably one of the last plots of that size that would be available to buy in the village.
The plot had already been sold to a Frenchman who had obtained outline planning permission to build a house on it. However, financial circumstances meant he was unable to go ahead and the plot was subsequently advertised for sale once again, with outline planning permission already in place. The idea of building rather than buying her dream home began to take root.
“I took the plunge, although I look back on it now and think I must’ve been mad!” laughs Jane. “Most people I know who embark on a building project in France are part of a couple, but I just did it alone. A local architect who has become a good friend encouraged me to give it a go, so we did. It was a big project because we were building into the hillside, which meant digging out tons and tons of blue rock, some of the hardest imaginable. The architect kept saying ‘quelle aventure’ and I kept wondering what on earth I’d done!”
The outline permission included approval for a house, swimming pool and garage, so the first step was applying for detailed planning permission. It then took six months for the plans to be rubber-stamped. Having sold her villa to pay for the land, Jane was offered a job at CERN in Geneva, and deciding that it was too good an opportunity to miss she moved to Switzerland, while work on her new home began back in Collioure.
Although a new-build, the house has been designed to look much older to fit in with the other properties in the village – something that was required as part of the planning approval. Jane had a clear idea of what she wanted from the beginning, and worked closely with the architect to translate the dream home she could see in her mind into a reality. Her vision for the house included three bedrooms upstairs, a large open-plan area downstairs with French windows leading out to the terrace and swimming pool, and a separate one-bedroom apartment next door which she could rent out to generate an income.
“I was set on having the apartment next door as I was very keen to be practical,” explains Jane. “My plan is to live here throughout my retirement and that income will help me to do that. I wanted my dream home but I still wanted to be practical as well.”
The architect oversaw the project, bringing in the various companies and tradespeople needed, and reported back to Jane on a regular basis. Often at weekends, she made the five-and-a-half-hour journey by car from Geneva to Collioure to check on progress.
“If I hadn’t worked with the architect I wouldn’t have been able to take this on, as I’d have lacked both the competence and the time,” says Jane. “It can be frustrating working with companies here as they seem to follow their own pace and set of rules, but then I reminded myself I was in France so I should do it their way. It was stressful but at the end of the day I have a beautiful house.”
Jane also has a new career as an author too. Not only had this picturesque village in Languedoc captured her heart but also her imagination, providing both the inspiration and the setting for her first novel. Jane completed Daughter of Catalonia during her time in Geneva and the book was published earlier this year. She has recently completed the sequel, set over the border in Spanish Catalonia and has plans for a third book next year to complete the trilogy.
After two years in Geneva Jane felt the pull of France once more, and decided to return to Collioure to live in her new home. She now spends around nine months of the year there, although she continues to travel backwards and forwards between France and Scotland where her 84-year-old father still lives.
For someone who had felt such an affinity with France for so long, it comes as no surprise to hear that Jane has taken to la vie française like a duck to water, and while initially the decision to build rather than buy was rather daunting, she has no regrets about the choices she has made.
“I love the way French people live with the seasons, and there’s a richness in the way they live too,” says Jane. “There’s a lot of sunshine down here, and not just in the place but also in the people.”
She has fulfilled her ambition to become part of the local French community too, and feels that her ability to speak the language has played a vital role in this. “The French friends I made in the early days launched me into the Collioure community with the greatest of will and the biggest of hearts,” she says. “Speaking the language is such a big part of settling in, and without it I wouldn’t be such a part of the French community. People would be friendly but we wouldn’t have become friends, and that’s the big difference.”
It certainly seems as though Jane’s globetrotting feet have come to a rest in the sunny south of France, and she has no intentions of setting off again any time soon.
“I have an emotional connection with the area now, and the house is not just a holiday home for me,” she explains. “If I’d known how big the project was going to be I might have hesitated, but I think you just have to launch yourself into these things and I’m so glad I did now. I’ve built a home around the things that I want and have a wonderful life in the heart of this lovely village.”
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