November 2011

Her Outdoors is realising a very long-held ambition today. After four weeks of being crafty, she’s selling her own hand-stitched Christmas decorations on a market stall. For those of you who can’t make it to Cadouin before the end of the afternoon, here’s what she has on offer.

If there’s anything left, she’ll be going to the Christmas market in Lalinde on December 10th. Of course, you could always send an email through the Booking Form of the website if you want her to make one especially for you. The decorations are €4 each or three for a tenner, plus postage and packaging. The wreaths are far too cheap at €12 and €15 (I think) – but they’d be far too expensive to post from France. You wouldn’t believe me it I told you the rates.

Here’s a shot of the pigs this morning, recovering from the terrierist attack the other day. Still small, but bigger than they were…

One question that comes up from time to time is: How did the children cope with French?

The short answer is: Better than us.

When we arrived in France, The Daughter was six and a half. Despite the best efforts of Her Outdoors, she knew next to no French. But she’s a very sociable person and we didn’t worry too much about how she would cope at school.

On the first day, it was hard to send this little person into a playground where she knew no one and had no way of communicating. But by the end of the day she had both English-speaking and bilingual friends. Before the week was out, she’d been invited back to a new best friend’s house and everything looked OK.

There were some downs as well as ups, like when the teacher (rightly) banned English speaking in the classroom, but the desire to play overcame everything and after three months she spoke French very well. By the end of the year she was fluent. And by the second year she not only spoke with the village accent, but was at the top of her class in French (where she remains, jockeying for first place with another English girl).

So it would be hard not to say she’s coped pretty well. Only her name gives her away as a non-French person.

Boy had a gentler introduction to the language. After we’d been here about a year, he went to a childminder a few mornings a week. He was going to start school in the September and we felt he should at least know what he was being asked to do, even if he couldn’t say much himself. The childminder had no English, so he had no option but to learn.

His first year at school was tough, but he was very little (his class was actually called “Very Little”) and it would have been tough anywhere. But, again, by the end of the year he was happy and competent. We hardly ever hear him speak French, as we just use English at home, but I’m beginning to ask him for pronunciation advice of difficult words (his rolled “r” is incredible), while we consult The Daughter on the meaning of expressions that don’t translate.

Our French isn’t terrible. And maybe with eight hours of lessons a day, four days a week, we would have been fluent after a year. But I doubt it. For adults, I think it takes a little bit longer.

Last year, our pigs were attacked by two hunting dogs (cute little terriers the like of which you’d expect to see on an ageing grandparent’s knee wearing a tartan collar). Fortunately, me and Her Outdoors were both on the land at the time and, in the 30 seconds it took for the dogs to jump over the pig fence, pin down our biggest pig and try and tear it apart by pulling it round a tree, we were both on the scene. Me screaming at the two beaters in robust Anglo Saxon, Her Outdoors shouting more politely in French.

The pig survived. The local Chasse president agreed to pay the vet’s bill for the antibiotics, and said they would hunt further from our boundary in future.

Despite this assurance, one of us still runs down to the land when we hear gunshots and dogs nearby. Luckily, this only happens at weekends, on public holidays and any day in between, and usually only very early in the morning when we’re just about to enjoy a nice hot mug of good coffee. Like last Saturday.

I went down to check on the pigs and stood around for a few minutes, listening like a human. Then I thought: ‘This is bloody ridiculous, I could be here all morning’ and came back for breakfast. When I went back on the animal food run, I heard yapping coming from the pig house, grabbed a stick and ran.

I chased off the dog – another lovely ickle terrier – and found all three pigs cowering in their house. I shut them in and went after the hunters. (It’s amazing how quickly you get used to walking up to someone with a loaded gun and telling them they’re not welcome – I’ve even learnt some robust French to drive my point home.) Sadly, I didn’t find them.

The pigs are not doing so well this time. The biggest had the most bites, but he’s walking around getting on with things. The smallest can’t put any weight on one of her back legs, although she’s more perky today than yesterday. The middle one was fine yesterday but wasn’t looking at all good this morning.

And we’re both a bit pissed off.

My first response is to want to shoot any dogs that come onto our land. But it’s not their fault. They are apparently starved for a few days before being taken hunting and are only doing their job – quite well at that. They don’t know the difference between a wild pig and a domestic one living in the wild, and probably can’t read the signs banning hunting here. So we’re going to catch future hunting dogs and call their owners instead. And make fencing an expensive priority.

Sure, we will probably get the vet’s bill paid, and hopefully compensation if one or more pig dies. But where’s the compensation for us being permanently on full alert? Jumping up at any dog barking (there’s one barking up the road right now) and running off to defend our livestock? It’s nerve-wracking – and not how we want to be spending our time.

I wanted to take some nice sunny pictures of the pigs on Saturday, to show you how well they’re coming along, and how much they’re enjoying their newly expanded pig area. Can’t do that now, can I?

In which we swear a little bit.

(I’ll let you into a little secret – in take one I didn’t say: “boy chickens”.)

If you’re looking for the yurt camp featured on ITV1’s “Little England” last night, you’ve come to the right place.

Or, nearly.

What you’ve actually found is the blog of the whole story, from a few months after we had the idea to “sell the house and buy a field”, to a very warm mid-November, where we’ve been fielding emails from people we haven’t seen or heard from in a very long time and getting ready for the cold weather that’s due to arrive in the next few days.

If you want to visit the website RIGHT NOW, to look at some pictures of the yurts, read a bit about smallholding, hear a bit about the surrounding area, find out how much it costs to stay, and see the availability calendar, click here.

But if you’ve got some time and want to see what it was really like to get off the hamster wheel and set up a yurt camp in rural France, pull up a coffee and start at the beginning. It takes a while to read the blog, but I did it the other day and it’s quite a story (even if I do write so myself).

You can always visit the website later.

One more thing, the yurts and us will be on “Little England” again in a few weeks. I hope the producer is as kind to us then as he was last night. He’s called Simon. Not the Simon you’ll read about in the blog. But Simon none the less.

Last Spring, écovallée got a phone call from ITV asking if we’d be interested in being filmed for “Little England” – a 12-part prime-time TV series scheduled for broadcast later in the year.

Four and a half years ago we’d have said no.

We’d just had the BBC round to do a piece on the Daughter’s school in Brighton. A very well-dressed, well-spoken guy showed up at our house at 7.30 in the morning. He did all the filming himself, and the sound recording, and the interviewing, filmed some more at the school, and even more at a political party conference, then cut together a few minutes for the lunchtime news and a longer special report for that evening. He was incredible – and incredibly nice – and I guess he worked that hard every day.

But for us, once was enough. It was a strain having to edit what you were thinking before you said it out loud. Her Outdoors did brilliantly, producing amazing soundbites from nowhere (and I’m supposed to be the writer), but afterwards she said: ‘Never again’. I had to agree – even though we were about to leave the country for rural France.

We didn’t want cameras in our faces when we were screwing up, exposing our total ignorance, shouting, crying, bleeding and everything else we expected to experience as we went from suburban family to yurt-dwelling smallholders. We wanted to enjoy it all privately.

OK, I’ve blogged the whole thing. But Her Outdoors has always said these posts lack emotional content. Having re-read them as background to a book I’m writing, I see what she means.

I’ve always tried to make light of what we’ve been through in “Dordogneshire”. But for far too long, it was hell. We lost a load of money, were ripped off, lied to, misled, exploited and punished for being English – and we discovered this is normal. I read recently that 18 out of 20 ex-pats who move here return to England, broke and broken by the experience. It sounds a lot, but it’s possible. Most of the people we know live in some kind of survival and they all have horror stories to tell.

It would make great telly. But that’s not what Little England is about.

Little England is about the sunny side of the Dordogne, which is one of the reasons we said yes to doing the show (not just because the producers are so nice – or for the free publicity). It’s gentle, feel-good TV with beautiful scenery. As a viewer, I think some shows have worked better than others. As a participant, I hope Geoffrey Palmer goes easy on us. But as someone who’s made the move, I want to warn people who might be tempted to follow the thousands of people who have made this part of France their home.

Yes, it’s a beautiful place (we didn’t know quite how beautiful until after we moved here). Yes, you can buy a large property for a relatively small amount of money (still well over-priced, as French and English alike attempt to take advantage of newcomers’ ignorance). Yes, the sun shines a lot (which is why we chose this part of the country to live under canvas). But as the occasional comment in Little England reveals, making a living here is unimaginably hard.

We haven’t done it yet. Last year’s money from the yurts went back into the infrastructure, buying the solar shower, gravel filter, new canvas and more. We’ve only survived at all thanks to the overwhelming generosity of what I call the English mafia, our friends and family, and the eventual backing of our mayor.

From next year, depending on the economy, we will move from survival to thrival (Her’s Outdoors’ expression – see what I mean about sound bites?). It feels like we’ve gained many lifetimes of experience over the last four and a half years. It’s been a genuine emotional rollercoaster, with elation, horror, fear, love, pain and joy – and our world’s been turned upside down many times.

I don’t know what exposing ourselves to an audience of several million people will do (we’re due to appear on November 14th and December 5th on ITV1, at 8pm), but it felt right to say yes. Whatever happens, we’re determined to enjoy the ride.

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