Tag Archives: life in france

Life in France, Two Years On

The two-year anniversary of our arrival in France came earlier this month and passed without the slightest hint of a bang. A day I’d hoped we’d mark with some kind of celebration – or at least acknowledge – became a day of stress with us viewing two more unsuitable pieces of land (north facing, etc., – the usual) and having heated discussions about a plot we saw a while ago. It’s a plot that I like and think a few compromises are worth it but James is struggling with compromise, period. Maybe he’s right to stand firm. I’ll say no more lest the argument begins again!

Anyway, the fact that it’s been two years is remarkable. Time seems to march on irrespective of what we do. The children grow but so slowly we hardly notice in the day-to-day. Then one day we see the changes. Their bodies are longer and more robust, their language has changed, their expressions, and all the while their personalities stay the same. The evolution is so natural, so inevitable. Their eyes, their energies are the same as the days they were born. It’s a magical thing to facilitate and to witness. They have both adapted so well. DD is as good as bilingual and DS, who is just starting to master English understands pretty much everything that is said to him in French. When he’s ready to start speaking the language, I’m sure he’ll blow us away. By the end of our first year he’d spent more of his little life in this country than his country of birth but it’s been in this second year that he’s been exposed to the language. This time last year I was trying to settle him into creche. A year on he now asks to go. He’s happy there, as DD is happy at her school.

The preferred outfit of small children: naked every day

Home-wise we’re a long way from where we wanted to be. And that’s fine. I’m happy with what we have and what we don’t. It’s been a big learning curve for us and we’ve made some sensible decisions and had some lucky escapes from some stupid ones! I know some people just turn up for two weeks and find a house, but that’s not the way it’s working out for us and so be it. Part of me wishes we’d bought 10 years ago, when it was just me and James and we had a full salary to cover repairs. But then I suspect now we’d be stuck up in the mountains with two children, wishing we could be somewhere busier, more accessible, and also wishing we had the money for the new roof we need.

The old railway tunnel on the voie verte between Chalabre and Camon

So why haven’t we found anything? Honestly, the state of some of these houses is just depressing. They’re fine if you want something for a few weeks in the summer. No-one cares about an old uninsulated roof when it’s 35 degrees C outside. Likewise, the house’s aspect. A stone East-West or North facing house provides a welcome respite from the sun in July. Not so in winter, where temperatures can fall below freezing and stay that way for weeks. Last winter we had no sun so even the well-position houses felt the cold (and damp) but the first year, while it was cold the sun shone almost every day. With this, one side of the valley stays buried deep in frost while the other basks in the winter sun, where clothes can still be dried, children play, life goes on much as before – but in jumpers and woolly socks.

Just in case you’re thinking it’s endless sunshine, we had plenty of snow last winter

Any house that ticks our boxes (that’s 8/10 for me and 10/10 for James) comes at a price we can’t afford. Anything we can like is on the market at cost + however much was spent on repairs + imaginary profit. Anything we can afford requires money spending on it to get it how we want it – and by that I’m not trying to win any Home & Garden awards, just to have a liveable house that we can is  warm and dry in winter. By the time that money’s factored in we’re back in the range of houses we can’t afford! So there’s that.

Sunshine is plentiful though

Add onto this the shoddy workmanship that goes on. There are so many builders, carpenters, handymen (it’s usually men) here. But trained where? With what qualifications? From what I’ve seen, all self-taught, either learned on the job from someone equally as unskilled, or by doing their own build or renovation project. It’s mind boggling how lacking in common sense some of these apparently registered artisans have when it comes to construction. There’s a renovation in a hameau close to us being carried out by an apparently reputable builder (registered, advertising with a large billboard on the side of the road) and wow, the workmanship is downright dangerous! The roof looks good, admittedly – all new timbers – so once it’s all finished (as in rendered and plastered) you could walk in and no doubt it’ll look great, but what’s hidden behind there is an archway without a supporting lintel, just breeze blocks at the top of the gap. That’s one of the worst things we’ve seen but it’s not an isolated find. I have other examples like this and a blog post about it in draft. I send the pictures to my dad from time to time (he’s an old-style 5-year apprenticeship on site type of actual carpenter who’s seen it all) and he can’t quite believe it either. The idea that we might spend our actual money on a house that’s been repaired/renovated/built by someone who was in all likelihood winging it. Not exactly reassuring.

Lazing around watching the sunlight on the cotton-like seeds of willow. I love days like these.

Which is why we’re looking for land. And the search continues. And it will go on. We’ve decided to focus less on the house (we’re renting a “good house” at the moment, as in plenty of space and warm in winter) and more on the life side of things. That’s why I’ve been trying to get my business going and also we’ve been enjoying spending this time, while we can still afford to be very part time, with the smalls. This phase won’t last for much longer, I know. With DS approaching his third birthday, he’ll soon be at maternelle along with DS and then it won’t be long after that before they are out all day every day for most of the week. I’ll be ready for it but I know it will be bittersweet and that I’ll look back on these slow-progress no -progress years (by adult standards) as some of the best.

Would your British neighbours let you use their garden – no strings attached? Here they do, so this year we’ve been able to grow some veggies.

Language-wise, I doubt I’ll ever reach a standard I’m totally happy with. I like to talk so it can be incredibly frustrating not to be able to talk to anyone and everyone. Chit chat is something I miss, in the shop, in the post office, in the street. Without that there’s always a barrier. Our neighbours here are lovely, they know we want to chat. A few times I’ve become upset when not being able to say what I want. It does get me down. And that’s why I have to keep trying. It’s paying off little by little. Today I spent 30 minutes at the French equivalent of the local council office sorting out an ongoing admin issue (the system for paying the bins is exceptionally complicated, it seems) All In French. Yes, check me out. That is one hell of a change from two years ago. It’s exciting, actually. Having the time to work on this some more is one of the reasons I probably won’t notice my kids are in school full time once that happens. I have so much to do. Like them, I like to learn and I like to be busy. Which is lucky!

Lucky to be here everyday, not just on holiday.

Am I glad we came? Hell, yes! Would I go back? Actually, no. I really don’t want to go back and can’t see myself going back, ever. There are many ways that life is better here, not least the weather!

So what’s in store for year 3? For one I hope I’ll start to be able to understand what the locals are saying to me. That would make life drastically easier! I’d like to get my business going and making enough to cover rent and bills as that enables us to relax a bit more about the fact that we haven’t found what we’re after. I also have a new venture to work on with James, but that requires extra time that we just don’t have but will have one both children are at maternelle, so all eyes on that bit change. Finally, I got an e-mail this morning about arranging a cycle tour. Since cycling is my passion this is a really big deal for me and gives me a reason to be very excited indeed about 2019. This activity is very time consuming and being able to do that full time dependent on quite a few other things, so this next year is the perfect time to dip my toe into the water and see where it leads. It’s all go and I love it.


Photo by Grégoire Bertaud on Unsplash

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DD’s First Big Ride! Esperaza-Campagne and Back

She started pedalling at the beginning of the holidays. I was impressed with how easily she migrated to pedals and attribute that to her riding the same bike without pedals for the prior 9 months. It meant she got her confidence on it, grew into it, and was as confident on the bigger bike as she had been on her little balance bike. After that the switch to pedals was straightforward.

She was so pleased with herself but still getting frustrated as she couldn’t start off by herself. She tried and failed. We reassured her that once her feet knew what to do she’d just start doing it and for now the best thing was not to worry about it. And then, one afternoon when we’d popped out to a quiet, traffic-free path with them, she just did it. the smile on her face said it all.

She was only riding in short stretches because we were on foot alongside, so we’d help her get going then she’d pedal a short distance away before stopping to wait for us. To help her actually ride and have a good go at pedalling, I dug out the old Trailorgator attachment that I bought for my oldest nephew close to a decade ago and hatched a plan with a friend, also keen to get her daughter happy on two wheels, to meet and ride out as a four while the two little ones were at crèche. She had the TrailAngel attachment, which is the upgraded and slightly more expensive version of the Trailorgator, for her daughter’s bike.

After an hour fiddling with the parts the fittings seemed robust enough for the ride ahead. It was definitely a job of bad-workwoman-blames-tools, as lack of the appropriately sized socket meant alot of swearing while using a just-about-fitting-but-almost-impossible-to-use spanner. All in a good cause. We were ready to go.

I didn’t get any pictures of that ride, unfortunately: I had my hands full with the two bikes and the every-so-slightly-twisted Trailorgator we came back with. Think bike in front at 90 degress and the one behind nearing 45 and you get the picture. We hadn’t gone that far, mostly because with all my bolt-wrangling we’d set off much later than planned, which turned out to be for the best given my kit wasn’t performing properly. Of course I’d forgotten the lacklustre spanner so any on-trail repair wasn’t an option. Lucky for us DD was a tired of cycling and wanted to run back! Sometimes I swear she’s part sheepdog.

After the relative success of that ride, I hatched a new plan. I wanted to try a short local ride to see whether I could manage DD and DS, both their bikes AND the trailer. Really my concern was the trailer: could I safely transport everyone and everything or did I need to hack a contraption (or find an extra trailer) so that I could keep the children and bikes separate? My friend also has a trailer and was planning to bring it along. It would be a good chance to test it out and with another adult as back up.

The day of the ride it was raining. In France that means no-one goes outside unless they have to, so I checked the forecast – still predicting a cloudy but dry morning – and messaged my friend to make sure she was still up for it (she was but her husband wasn’t so sure). All good. Then she sent a picture of the hole in the tyre of her trailer. Then another saying that her son, who’s a little older than DD, would just bring his bike and she’d carry her DD on the bike seat. Sorted! DD would bring her bike and ride too, I said.

DD was excited to be going on a proper bike ride with her friend! I was a bit excited too of course, but also worried: would she make it there and back, and – if she needed a rest, would the trailer carry everything given I’d also said the DS could take his balance bike along. In family-bike-ride mode I started packing food and quickly realised a trip to the shop was needed. As usual I had apples and water and no a lot else. Bad planning but better than nothing at all.

After meeting our friends we got all our kit together and set off. I didn’t quite know the first part of the route and whether we could get there totally off road, so we did the first part on the road altogether. It was only a short way and both of the two smalls on their big bikes were very well behaved. Watching your own child cycle their own bike on a real road is way more stressful than a group of children or adults wobbling around for a Bikeability session! We made it to the totally traffic free section without any issues: a tarmaced but restricted road between Esperaza and Campagne-sur-Aude. Now we could relax. And just pedal.

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So we did. DD pedalled along. DS got bike envy and came out on his balance bike for a bit but couldn’t keep up and soon needed a rest, so back in the trailer he went. Thanks to my excellent planning skills and experience in planning these family rides (ahem) there was a playground at the other end, which served as a place to let the trailer and bike seat-bound little ones stretch their legs and the big ones chance to stock up on food. In my case that was the aforementioned apples and also some cheese. Luckily my friend also had biscuits, which went down very well.

After a brief rest, worried the big ones would wear themselves out on the play area and be too tired to pedal back, we got everyone organised and started the ride back. The two biggies were definitely tired by now. DD’s friend was wobbling around a bit. DD was starting to get a bit stroppy. DS was asleep in the trailer (bless) and my friend’s youngest was happily bobbing along in the bike seat. At one point DS almost bailed: she misjudged a gap between a rock and the barrier (tired) blaming her friend for bumping into her, which maybe he did but we didn’t see. I persuaded her to stay on her bike because we were nearly back – and she did. She made it!

At 4.1 miles it was the longest ride she’s ever done and I am so proud of her for making it and also for sticking it out when it got a bit tough at the end. She had an epic first ride and then topped it off by tearing round the “bike park” (in inverted commans because it’s really just a couple of ramps – but hey) with DS and her friend while my friend and I ate most of the picnic.

Having done it this one time it’s definitely one to do again: it’s great route for a socialable ride that’s just right for little legs.

A Day in the Woods

Yesterday, except for the bit where I lost my bank card and DS screamed the whole time that I was on the phone to the bank, I think we had the perfect day. The sun shone, we met some friends, we played in the woods. All Day Long.

Some friends are organising regular get togethers, just a day every week when like-minds meet up in a local park. The kids can play in the woods, the stream or on the swings, we can chat as well as join in with the little ones, we build a fire and cook together. Yesterday P kept the two eldest girls busy by mixing ash from the fire with water to make a black paste. They painted every bare inch of themselves, spread a lot of it on their clothes and faces, and had a great time. The younger ones tended to muddle around, exploring cautiously either with a parent in hand orbiting us close by. The sun shone, we found a leech in the stream (not a snake, sadly, but not an earthworm, much to P’s relief!), contributed sticks to the shelter that S has started to construct, and had fun defending their space which, according to DD, was a wild panthers’ den for most of the time.

Five hours of play later we were on our way home with smiles on our faces, the smell of woodsmoke in our clothes and two very tired children. Days like this are why we’re here, why we uprooted our family and moved to this back-end-of-nowhere part of France hoping to find a house or piece of land to call home and also find a way to live day-to-day, as financially free as possible. We’re not getting so far with the house/land but we do have a place that feels like home and the money side of things is work in progress. Yes, there are definitely challenges: the language being the main one. It’s too quiet for some with a slow pace of life but we’re getting the hang of it and we really feel the difference during the times we’re back in the UK; too busy, too many people, not enough mental or physical space. Days spent mucking about in the woods are normal here. There may come a time when we all need more than that but for now it’s perfect and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

The only downer is that we were all so busy enjoying ourselves, there aren’t any pics to share. Next time. Because I really think every blog post needs a picture, here’s one from walk we did the other day: DD and James walked and talked while DS and me followed along behind saying, “choo choo!” Happy days.

And adult and child walking in a disused railway tunnel followed by a small child in a green helmet on a balance bike
Walking through an old railway tunnel on the Lavelanet-Mirepoix Voie Vert

Busy in the garden

Over the last few days we’ve been busy in the garden setting up a new project, which is to grow veg in straw bales. This is a tried and tested method that is growing in popularity owing to it’s simplicity as well as the fact that you can get quite high yields from a small space using less water than in a conventional garden. They’re no good for annual crops, like strawberries or asparagus, as new bales are needed each year, but they’re great for pretty much everything else.

As we are short on space and on water, we decided to give it a go. It’s essentially a hydroponics system using straw as the growing medium. As the plants are watered, the straw retains the water as well as releasing nitrogen and generating heat as it decomposes. As well as being super-efficient the method also claims to extend the growing season. Obviously, James is very excited about our gardening experiment and has been initiating DD in the ways of the straw bale. We hope to build our house with these some day (soon?) and, if this all goes well, we’ll be building our veggie patch with them too!

And today I grabbed a few minutes, while DS was pottering around kicking fallen figs down the road, to sort out the seed box (bagging seeds packets by planting month) and sewing some spinach, lamb’s lettuce, radishes and lettuces seeds in the conventional patch, which is now covered up with the netting to try and keep both the cats and birds off. I’m interested to see how these will grow alongside our straw-bale-grown veg, which we can plant in a few days, once the bales have been conditioned, which involves watering them daily and applying a high-nitrogen fertiliser every-other day.

All good fun! All we need now are a few rainy days to break up the sunny ones and everything should grow nicely. What I really don’t need are any more days where the temperature is pushing 30, as that’s what did for my last crop of leafy veg, which we eat a lot of.

One thing we planned to do but didn’t get around to was sorting out the worm bin, which we’ve been happily chucking our waste into. They seem happy enough but James observed that it’s getting a bit soggy in there so we’ve decided to tip it all out and get the worms set up with some new bedding. That will also give us chance to find out whether our worm community has grown since we last freshened it up. If they’re happy they should have multiplied. If not, well, we’re obviously not doing so well at it and need to try harder. Lots to do!