Breast cancer scare puts life into perspective
I’ve been with Nigel for eight years; married for the past two and a half, second marriages for both of us. In the early stages of my relationship with Nigel he was travelling around Europe doing business and, sometimes, I went with him. He speaks fluent French and German, I speak fluent German having had a German Mother. We loved France and Germany and romanticised about living abroad, a little ‘Pie in the Sky’ venture, possibly a restaurant or a B&B – it was a nice day dream……..
We married in March 2002 and are well established in our house in a pretty town on the edge of the Weald in Kent. We have four daughters between us; two each from our previous marriages – three teenagers and a ten year old. Mine live with us whilst Nigel’s girls visit regularly. We had good times together including a couple of family camping holidays to Brittany which helped develop our love for France.
During this time I had been studying for a Food Science degree and undergoing training to be a Food Technology Teacher at our local secondary school. Nigel was starting up his own business, working from home. It was a busy, stressful time during which we tried to have regular short breaks including trips to France. We loved the French lifestyle – the way they make time for everything and everyone; their two hour lunch breaks; their markets; the way they shun designer labels and mobile phones! We had been getting seriously disillusioned about life in England – the yob culture, the American influences, the fast pace of life, especially where we live in the South East.
We never lost sight of our dream and vowed to ‘buy a maison secondaire’ in France when we were approaching retirement. Then we had a bombshell. In June last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a huge shock. I was relatively young – 45 – and felt thoroughly cheated. I was worried for my children, my husband, my Dad – how would they cope without me? How long would I have to live? 5 years maybe – if I was lucky? I had surgery in July and a course of radiotherapy in October. I also have to take medication for the next five years. But I was incredibly lucky. The cancer had been caught in time and had not spread further. The outlook is good. But it brought everything into sharp focus. We evaluated our lives and commitments and ambitions.
My teaching commitments were horrendous – every evening and weekends spent marking and planning and life in the classroom could be stressful too. Nigel’s business had taken off and he took steps to integrate others into the business to help. We thought deeply about our ‘pipe dream’ and decided ‘Why wait until we retire? Lets just do it!’ Who knows what’s around the corner. Financially we were not taking silly risks – we carefully planned our budget and worked out what we could afford. It was the best decision we could have made and it’s been the biggest shot in the arm for me – the best therapy!
We have friends living close by in Kent who own a secondary home near Limoges and they invited us to stay with them in October 2003 to start our property search. We wanted to be somewhere ‘in the middle’ of France, not too far south to make the journey unreasonable but far enough to get some decent weather. The Dordogne/Limousin area seemed perfect. It’s a pretty area with loads of things to see and do and, best of all, the locals were so friendly and not at all antagonistic towards us.
During that first trip we looked at several properties – mostly old ruins! We soon learnt that you cannot just drop in to French Estate Agents and expect to get a good selection – they need to be primed and courted and they need to get to know you first. So we came home thinking we need to do a bit more homework and research and have another go.
We returned in March 2004 having been to property exhibitions, scoured the internet for appropriate agents and built a bit of a relationship with two or three. This time it was a productive, if exhausting visit. One agent spent all day with us showing us 6 or 7 properties, most of which were not right; one of which might have been.
We saw all sorts of properties – tiny cottages with no amenities whatsoever; ruined farmhouses; abandoned projects; large maisons, rather dilapidated; and one rather nice house, but no toilet!!! On the very last day of our visit we went to an agent (an English lady who has lived in France for 25 years) and she quickly got to grips with exactly what we wanted. She offered two properties for inspection – one was ‘under offer’ so we declined that one; the other was the house we have bought. We were also impressed with the responsible attitude that this agent had – she wasn’t just in the business to sell properties – she wanted to make sure that her clients, the buyers, were well matched and suited to the properties and areas and were willing to fit in with the French way of life – clearly this is an important issue with so many English people now buying properties in France, some of whom, sadly, are unwilling to integrate, learn the language etc.
When we viewed the house it was a dull, cold and drizzly day. The house stands in a tiny hamlet and has been used as a holiday home for the past 10 years by Parisiens although it has not been used at all for the past 4 years. It was furnished and obviously, showing some signs of neglect – dust, cobwebs, etc. Nothing major though. As we looked around we thought “Wow!” This is it! It has so much potential. Although there was only one bedroom, there was scope to convert the attic into 2 or 3 large rooms + en-suites. A project for the future as well as a bolt-hole for now! The garden was not huge – more like a large driveway but there was also a triangular patch of land opposite included which bore fruit trees and shrubs. Perfect!
We hummed and ha-ed and did our sums and made an offer, bidding as low as we thought we could reasonably go. Then we went to the nearest big town and lost ourselves in the shops. Our estate agent had said that she’d try to get hold of the vendor immediately and would call us to let us know if they’d accepted our offer. We walked around the shops in a bit of a day dream, nervous about what we’d just done and anxious about the outcome. I can distinctly remember the moment we got the call – we were browsing around the china and glass section of a department store (one of my favourite pastimes!). We just could not believe that our offer had been accepted. We just stood there and hugged each other – the French must have thought we were mad! It was such an exciting time – I could hardly believe that, on only the second serious house-hunting trip we had actually been successful.
The purchase went through with only minor hitches and we amused ourselves at the French bureaucracy! They really do need to know everything about you – and it’s more complicated if you have been married before! We took possession in June and spent our first glorious week there in July. It obviously needed a good clean and a lick of paint but in a short time we’ve made it habitable and comfortable – the rest of the decorating can now be done in our own time. I don’t know where I got the energy from that week but I was so motivated. Another bonus is that the vendors left all the furniture. It means we did not have to go out and buy loads of stuff.
It’s a real anchor for us. It gives so much pleasure planning our next visit and what we’re going to do. The area is interesting too – loads to explore and a market in a different town on every day of the week. The villagers have welcomed us with open arms. They are delighted that the house will be inhabited again and have been so helpful to us. Nigel speaks fluent French which is a real bonus – I can understand a lot and am enrolling in classes in September to give me the confidence to ‘open my mouth’! Our girls love it too, although it’s a bit quiet for them there. Maybe in years to come, they’ll be like us and learn to appreciate the peacefulness. Quite simply, it’s heaven on earth.
As for teaching, I’ve decided to take a complete break. I loved the classroom bit but the job as a whole was taking over my life. There’s more to life than chasing up lazy teenagers to do their homework!! It’s tiring and stressful and was hindering my recovery from cancer. I am setting up a little business making photo montages out of peoples’ photographs. It will be the sort of work I can do whenever and wherever, so taking off to France when we want will not be an issue – I’ll just take it with me! My husband’s work is also fairly ‘portable’- so long as he has access to a phone and a computer. Living with cancer has given me the strength to take certain risks and ‘go for it’! ‘Follow your dreams’ is my motto in life.
Patricia’s “Maison Secondaire” is South of Limoges. She calls it her ‘Pie in the Sky’ dream and has wondered if anyone knows of a French translation of this phrase. If anyone knows an equivalent phrase in French please email [email protected] !
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