Everytime someone says…Oooh, you’re lucky to live in the south of France, I feel like screaming…NO. Luck had very little to do with it. I left Southampton in July 2003 with a van stuffed to the gills, driven by a wonderfully calm and supportive friend. We arrived in Angouleme, in the Charente region, to be greeted by a thunderstorm and no estate agent, bearing keys. We were late and not just the French version, seriously late.
It took 8 years but I finally found what I had been searching for…
And okay, there is a smidgen of luck involved in the last part but only because I made it possible.
Apparently there is a fine line between confidence and being smug. In my humble opinion (pun intended) confidence is what I feel and smugness is how others perceive it.
Watch out for first instalment of, DON’T TELL ME I’M LUCKY.
1. Southampton to Angouleme.
It was July 1st 2003, the day I had been planning for the last thirty years, in my head and on paper. It had arrived and so had I, only to be greeted in Angouleme, by localised flooding and hailstones. Hmm.
Max was with me. My co-driver and very good friend. Yeah, ok, sounds like an adventure, I’ll drive a van down to the South West of France with you. He offered. We left Portsmouth on time with a heavily laden transit van and after a calm crossing all looked well. But by the time we reached Poitiers, just an hour from our destination it was 4 a.m. and we were in desperate need of a break.
I had arranged to meet the estate agents with the keys to my newly rented flat at 10 a.m. the next day so we reckoned on fours sleep, shower, breakfast and leave at 9. Perfect.
I had done the trip between Poitiers and Angouleme numerous times in my recce earlier on in the year, so the last bit would be a doddle.
At 9.55 my ever so patient friend said “I think you better ring your estate agent.”
We had just passed a sign which read Angouleme 40 Kms!
Before I could answer, Max continued. “You say this bit usually takes just under an hour?”
He gave me his best ‘ you are prone to exaggeration’ look.
And then it dawned on me, but I decided to risk sharing my faux pas with him, hoping he wasn’t too tired to see the funny side.
“Yep, on the TGV.”
Max rolled his eyes but a slow smile let me off the hook.
“And I did drive once…”
Max tapped an imaginary tune on the steering wheel whilst waiting for me to continue.
“In a Peugeot 206. 2 Litre..aahh.”
Max’s head rolled to encompass our elderly sedate transit van and its contents.
I grabbed my mobile.
Suffice to say, over the years, communications between cell phones has greatly improved. At that moment, nothing, no signal. No man’s land.
So when we arrived, 40 minutes late, understandably the estate agent had gone; keys in hand. We sighed and stepped, well slithered really, from those high seats onto the pavement just as the heavens opened.
“Looks like you won’t be homesick at least!” Max, always looking on the bright side.
Three cups of coffee, two ham baguettes, six phone calls (using a pay phone with a phone card, 5 euros from the Tabac) and three and a half hours later I opened My Door just as my umbrella blew inside out.
It was apologies all round. It was my fault, we were late. The estate agent (now a very good friend) was sorry she couldn’t wait nor leave the key as she has to fill out a Constat d’ etat des lieux. The bane of any estate agent who deals with rental property.
Every mark, chip, stain on cupboards or carpets etc has to be registered on the aforementioned form. It’s imperative if you want to get your deposit back later and you do, as it’s usually the equivalent of two month’s rent. I had taken out the standard three year lease. You can relinquish it at any time but you have to give three months notice, as do the proprietors.
Max was due to drive back to Caen and get the ferry back at midnight; and we still had a van to unload.
Had I mentioned to him that my flat, with wonderful views to the north, of the Cathedral and to the south, of the golf course was actually on the third floor and no lift..?
Max, staggering under the first two boxes glanced at the beautiful winding dark wooden staircase with wrought iron balustrades and then at me. I dashed back into the van. The first two floors, below my flat, were occupied by a firm of lawyers. I expect they hear far worse language from irate clients, especially when they are in the throws of explaining a crime passionelle.
Max (aka Superman) waved goodbye just four hours later, promising to stop for copious cups of coffee and or take naps every two hours.
He was back at his desk in Sussex by 9 a.m. the next morning.
8 a.m. here; I was barely awake when he phoned. I had spent my first night in my new flat in France on a borrowed single mattress on the floor. I kept waking up with the irresistible urge to open the shutters, just to check. Yep. One cathedral, one golf course. And something that sounded like a giant mosquito that flew past at regular intervals. Mopeds!
But as I was talking to an infuriatingly chirpy sounding Max on the phone, the delicious aroma of fresh brewed coffee wafted up from the floor below so I inched my door open a little just to hear ( although not understand at this stage) French voices in attempt to confirm my new status. This mingled with a heady aroma of aftershave…
“Helen, you still there?” Max asked. “What’s the weather like?” he was trying not to laugh.
“Hang on” I threw open the shutters, the ones at the front facing the cathedral just as the clock started its nine gongs.
“You won’t be needing a watch there, will you?” Max laughed this time. “Does it strike through the night?”
Max was enjoying himself. He could imagine the look of horror on my face as I contemplated such a thought. He knew I was a light sleeper.
And then I thought, surely not, I would have noticed when I awoke during the night. Then tiredness and paranoia took over.
“Well I did keep waking up…”
“Just the three years; your lease was it?”
In my mind I was already constructing sentences for…the cathedral clock…what time does it stop chiming? I knew the words in French for time and stop. It was a start.
Sensing I had gone too quiet, Max added, “I’m sure it stops during the night. So, tell me, the weather?
“It’s a beautiful day. Clear blues skies and everywhere looks so fresh and glistening.”
“So, you’re glad you’re there then?”
“Yes, thanks. Just exactly what I wanted; sounds, sights and smells worth getting out of bed for.”
“You know, anyone would think you were a writer.”
Before I could think of a suitable repost Max added “Gotta go. I should be in a meeting. Take care, have fun and don’t forget to write.”
As I heard the growing clatter of people arriving below, doors banging, phones ringing with the single elongated note similar to the UK engaged tone, I felt at home.
( Three years later, checking my diary for Vendredi 4 Juillet, I see I wrote: Feel like I was never meant to be anywhere else.)
Not, how I would be feeling six weeks later, on the evening of the long weekend of the 15th August. Just which number is it, for the police? Why on earth do they have different numbers for police, fire brigade and ambulance? 17 is the number for the police. Who knew I would need the French for breaking glass, burglars, motorbikes? Perhaps living above a lawyer’s office was a bad move.
To be continued…