August 2007


(Prestartum: This post was written two days ago, and the last two posts before that. And I meant to post them all yesterday, but we spent too long at the water park – domage. We’re getting the Interweb at home soon…)

I know I’ve posted today already, but it’s been a while and the kids are asleep.

We love this house.

It’s not only a few hundred yards (metres) from our land, so we can (and have) start (ed) working on it, it’s also a very few metres (yards) from the wine shop (two and a half euros for one and a half litres of very drinkable Bergerac), two butchers, two supermarkets, a square with two cafés, the launderette, pizza place and every other convenience a 13th Century Bastide town can offer.

My morning routine, instead of ablute, scoot, commute, is ask what the family wants for breakfast, walk (aware that I am still some weeks or months from strolling) the few dozen paces for ingredients and return, with a warm and bagged baguette, in almost no time.

If you’re reading this on Monday (and I have to wait until the afternoon to post it), you may want to think badly of me.

But wait.

Wait until I tell you it’s stopped raining. And today it was too hot to do much except lie in the hammock in the back yard and read a copy of yesterday’s Guardian.

So feel free to call me any name under the sun.

(Addendum: It’s raining today. But that stormy light rain you only get when it’s been – and will probably continue to be – seriously hot.)

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I don’t know why, but the Dordogne phone book was lying open on the rug yesterday and I couldn’t help noticing, at the top of the listings for each village, a section called “Numéros d’urgence”, with fire, police, medical and gas listed separately.

Then I realised what I was looking at: a book with villages listed separately! I looked up the village we’re going to live in (it only has a few hundred people) and, in seconds, had the names and numbers of all our neighbours. How useful is that?!

When did you last see a phone listing for someone even on your street? We get these tomes dropped on our doorsteps in England every year and how often do we use them? The people we probably want to speak to are ex-directory. How many trees could we save by stopping that waste of resources?

Almost immediately, I realised something else. The emergency numbers are all different. Far from being an inconvenience, this would save valuable seconds when seconds are the only things that matter. How many more lives would be saved if you didn’t have to wait for the operator to ask which service you require?

I’m beginning to think that the UK government should start looking across the Channel for ideas rather than the Atlantic.

Leaving Brighton was not as relaxed as we wanted. Even though there were four days between the movers moving most of our stuff and the rest of it heading for the ferry with us, we ended up running frantically from house to car, desperately trying to find places for yet more final bits and pieces (I blame the pieces – it’s hard not to), before finally waving goodbye.

Forty-five minutes later than planned.

True, we spent more of that last day chatting than we could have. But they were worthwhile chats with worthy people. Like Alphamum, who took a heroic amount of stuff (obviously) off our hands. And Yurt Professional Matt, who saved us a trip to Portslade with electrical things the ordinary charity shops won’t take. And all the fabulous friends and neighbours from our fantastic street, who helped turn around a stupidly heavy trailer, threw presents at the kids, waved us off in the rain, and even shut the door I left open. (Thanks Kristiaan.)

On the A27, drizzle turned to deluge, and I was more than relieved that Clare had spent ages wrapping the roofwheel on the roof (where else?) in all manner of plastic. Slowly, the stress of packing up began to wash away, and we started looking forward to our new life in the sun.

Which didn’t start as we drove south from St Malo (a brilliant way to come, by the way – highly recommended).

Or even when we arrived in the Dordogne (apart from a few hours in which we put up the yurt).

About that.

You remember my Really Rather Brilliant Idea about turning three grand a month of your Strange Earth Pounds into nothing? Clare researched and found an organic farm half an hour from our land. It had a compost toilet, a reed bed grey water system – all that fun stuff. She told them we be staying for a few months and we had our own yurt. She was told no problem. Come any time. This seemed a little too relaxed for our liking, so she checked again. We’re a family. We’ll be staying quite a while.

No problem. Come any time.

We came on Wednesday afternoon, in our new-used Scenic, dragging a new-used trailer, fresh from a night in an Alistair Sawday B&B, to find a hand-painted transit van with a family of eight, assorted caravans and home-made homes.

Instead of a functioning reed bed system, we saw what looked like an open ditch leading to a partially fenced pond. The compost toilet felt like the floorboards would give way at any moment. The cats and dogs were jumping with fleas. And dinner wasn’t served until after dark. Not ideal for a young family.

During my last week working in London, I joked that we were going to live on a hippy commune. I just assumed I was exaggerating.

The people, as any non-Daily Mail reader would already suspect, were lovely. Warm, welcoming, friendly, helpful. I quickly picked up my expression of the week: “Ce n’est pas grave” (pron: c’est pas grave). It means “No problem” – I use it every day. But the environment, to us cosseted city folk, felt fantastically unsafe.

Yes, we’re going to create those same elements on our land. But we’re going to do it Carefully. Beautifully. Safely.

It seems we’ve become too middle aged (and Middle Classed) to be hippies. To coin a phrase, we were a bit freaked out.

What led to the fall of commune-ism, however, was the Wrong Kind of Rain. Not rain that crept in around the door, where we could use our towels as sandbags. But rain that dripped from many of the 40 roof poles. Inside. Our waterproof canvas turned out not to be so waterproof. And the only way to fix it was to take the yurt down. Which we were not going to do… in the rain.

You’ll remember (or discover) from an earlier posting that Clare’s Brilliant Idea was to rent a place near our land while we were waiting for planning permission to come through. It suddenly seemed even more brilliant.

So the next day, we drove through the rain to Lalinde and, with the help of another branch of our estate agent, Orpi, performed a miracle.

It went like this:

Orpi: It’s you!

Us: Hi.

[Many kisses and much happiness]

Us: We’re living in a field. It’s raining inside. We need to rent a house. Two or three bedrooms. Preferably with a garage.

Orpi: There’s not much. [Pause] Apart from this one.

[90 seconds’ walk later]

Us: It’s perfect.

I’m sitting in the corner of a downstairs that’s bigger than our old house. It has three bedrooms and a garage around the corner. It costs 600 euros a month. It’s raining, but only on the outside. Here’s a picture:

The hot water doesn’t work. Ce n’est pas grave. A new boiler’s arriving in the morning.

This is the one thing that has characterised the last many days (currently wrestling with a keyboard where half the keys are in the wrong place – “q” where “a” normally is – must be hell for touch typists). Rain on the way to Portsmouth. Rain on the way through France. Rain today. But, as some people will not be surprised to know, we managed to stop the rain for long enough to put up the yurt in a field near Le Bugue.

Too much to say right now. Just wanted to say that nous sommes arrivées.

Will write at greqter length – qnd with pictures (see?) – when there’s a moment’s peace. And probably on an English keyboard…

We have some Very Excellent Friends.

Right now, for instance, I’m sitting at Brian’s Mac (one of those very lovely self-contained flat-screen jobbies with the hard drive in the monitor), the keys to his flat on my keyring and the run of the place while he’s away in Wales. Clare’s taken the kids to Hove Park and I have a few stolen minutes in which to blog.

It’s been a bit of a week.

First, we had to wrestle a Completion date out of our sale. (Not easily done, even though the buyer’s a first timer with no chain.) We were supposed to Exchange a week ago last Thursday. Then the Friday. Then early last week. We needed this date so we could book a removal company – in August – the busiest month of the year for removal companies – and a ferry crossing. So we can get on with our lives (the daughter’s supposed to be going to school in a couple of weeks!).

Then there’s the eversoslightly sensitive issue about the money we owe the bank. You’ll remember, if you’ve been reading this chronologically (I wonder how many people do that), that I extended my overdraft to buy our new used car, assuring the bank they’d have a huge pile of cash on June 21st. Didn’t happen. Then I extended until the end of July, assuming we’d definitely be goners by then. Weren’t. So I got a final, if frosty, extension until the 15th of this month.

With solicitors incapable of making firm commitments and sticking to them, it was time to make a move.

At short notice, our removal company of choice (GB Liners, if you really must know) could only pick our stuff up on Friday. Which only gave us only a couple of days to pack up the house, finish the yurt cover we’re sleeping under next week, wash all our stuff, buy anything we didn’t have… you get the picture. I don’t know what Clare had in mind, but she didn’t seem too happy when I asked her to help me empty the loft at 10.30 on Thursday night.

Friday was mental, as you can imagine. Not just clearing the house, but emptying our (Big Box) storage space of yurts, sewing machines, recycled wool insulation et cetera. By four o’clock, absolutely everything we don’t absolutely need for the next few months was gone, waiting in Brighton for us to find it somewhere to stay in France.

Last night, I booked the ferry crossing. Tuesday. Overnight from Portsmouth to St Malo, with a cabin with a porthole.

Tuesday. You read it here first. We’re supposed to be Exchanging and Completing on the same day. But it’s hard to believe when we’ve lost complete faith in the process. Don’t get me wrong. Our estate agents (Brand Vaughan) have been superb. Our buyers, old and new, have done everything they can. It’s just that selling a house in England is rubbish. Even worse than buying a coffee in Pret a Manger during rush hour. You can see where things are going wrong – it’s clearly unfair and in need of improvement – but no one seems to be doing anything about it.

All we can do between now and then, apart from tidy the house – which looks better now than it ever has – is enjoy our holiday in Hove and the generosity of friends. (This is not the only place we’ve been offered for the weekend.) Like I said, Very Excellent people.

(Clare just phoned from the park. The friend she was seeing just offered to look after the daughter for the rest of the day. Excellent.)

Thursday a-week-and-a-bit ago, an old client asked me if I could “come in for a couple of days”.

Because I’m ultimately a soft touch (and I’d been watching nothing but outgoings for several weeks and thought a little incoming might be good for the nerves), I said yes. Two or three days turned into five, and served as a Very Useful Reminder of why we’re going to do what we’re going to do.

For me, I’m leaving behind leaving the house before the kids are awake and returning after they are asleep. In between, finding, in words and pictures, the best possible solution to a given brief. Then trying to beat that idea. Again. And again. All the time pretending that what I’m producing is not going to be crapped on by the agency and/or their client, only to end up looking like a pile of shit that could have been produced by a handful of monkeys with a half-dozen computers. Then, after another two-hour commute, getting home with only enough time to cook, eat, wash and ablute before getting up and doing it all over again.

Clare, meanwhile, is walking away from playing the role of single parent. Finding, in nourishment of every kind, the best possible way to fill a given day. Again. And again. Constantly cooking, cleaning and clearing up. All the while pretending that her efforts are being Valued And Appreciated by the kids, without the need for them to say thanks. Believing that, one day, she will be able to complete the million and a half creative projects she has in mind.

Millions of people do it. It’s just not what we talked about during that Perfect Weekend in Key West almost exactly eight years ago. (Happy Anniversary us!)

Just so’s you know, about the house. We’re due to exchange early this week and complete early next. We’re so done waiting, it’s not even funny.

This is, though: I read in a newspaper about a survey on favourite words. For women, the word was “love”. For men, it was “antidisestablishmentarianism”. (Although, I suspect, only because floccinaucinihilipilification is so hard to say.)

Just so’s you know, about the work. Someone I haven’t spoken to for ages phoned on Thursday and asked if I was available next week. See above.