In our Life After Brexit series, we look at how British expats in France are facing life post-Brexit. What are the personal and professional changes and challenges that lie ahead for small businesses, homeowners, and retirees? In our fifth installment, Carol Paylor tells her story of moving to France and setting up a gîte in 2017. So, did the reality live up to the dream?
“Can I do anything to help, Martin?”
The returning glare from my husband, even in the darkness, said it all: I kept quiet.
Martin was shoulder-deep with his bare arm down the toilet waste pipe in the garden, at night, in the middle of South-Western France. What a baptism of fire!
He still goes on about me prancing around our garden, panicking in my yellow Marigolds like Penelope Keith (from The Goodlife). Thankfully, we can laugh about the blocked sewerage fosse septique incident now. But back in December 2017, we struggled to see the humour.
Our first couple of months in our new French home were a bit of a challenge. An overflowing toilet, leaking roofs, a structural beam about to collapse – those things were tough and unexpected.
That said, if you are considering selling up in the UK and moving your family to France lock, stock, and barrel as we did – go for it and follow your dreams! Our trials and tribulations have been worth every minute, they truly have.
Truffle-hunting with our neighbour and his dog; speed-boat rides to the gorgeous island of Oleron off the Atlantic coast, taking part in the magical cognac vine relevage and being welcomed into our new community by our Maire are just some of our more cherished memories from our first year in France.
Viewing our property in the height of the gorgeous Charente summer with those endless blue skies and the smiling sunflowers in the surrounding fields, I vividly remember our first actual view of our beautiful Maison Bleue from the end of the drive. With its white walls and oh-so typically French blue shutters; I was smitten. My eyes locked with those of my husband and both pricked with tears. Looking back, we bought that property with our hearts. We just knew this was the one.
The winter of 2017 brought a harsh reality check when we actually moved to what we thought was our “turn-key” home with a stunning three-gite holiday complex we had already named La Grue Gites. It was raining as we waited for the removal van to arrive. Martin looked nervous. Had we bitten off more than we could chew?
Before our big move, we dreamt of long summer days by the pool, time for our children, time for each other and time for a slower pace of life with a new challenge.
We both worked in schools in the UK. We had longed for this day to arrive and to dare to follow our dream. After a holiday with friends who had taken the plunge, it gave us the impetus we needed to follow suit and there we were, in La Grue, in the rain.
On that first day, there were certainly mixed emotions. Martin was overcome by fear and I was overjoyed, busy videoing and chatting to friends in England, showing off our new dream home.
In truth, our first year was a mile-a-minute! Far from the slower pace of life we craved. We had just four short winter months in which to renovate our gites to be ready for our first guests arriving in the spring. Martin began working for a local Cognac and Pineau producer (that is another story in itself) so he was busy in the vineyards during the day and busy in the gites until after midnight. We had young children to support and to integrate into a new life as well as my Mum. We worked hard and did our best to keep every plate spinning.
In our three gites, which we thought (perhaps naively) just needed a bit of updating and redecoration, we uncovered everything from blocked sewerage, holes in ceilings and leaking roofs. We had no choice but to crack-on. We were desperate to make our new business and our new lives work for our family.
Renovations to the largest of our three gites, La Ferme, really tested our nerves. Our three bedroomed family-friendly farmhouse, sleeping six people, dates from 1827 and it needed some tender love and care. The solid, exposed Charente stone walls and characterful oak beams are beautiful and have stood the test of time but the roof needed work. It turned out, much to our horror, that all the traditionally made Charente roof tiles were black and porous. As we learnt to our cost, it is wise to take a local registered and reputable builder (your Mairie can help) with you to give any property the once over before you make an offer. You live and learn.
The new roof was finally completed the day before our first guests arrived. It was all hands on deck in a last minute push to ensure every detail was “just so”. Rather like one of those programmes on the television. I still remember shovelling and raking tonnes of gravel over the courtyard garden in a blind panic! There is nothing quite like an immovable deadline to give you real focus and strength you never knew you had. What a great workout!
All our hard work most definitely paid off and continues to do so year on year. Our first guests were thrilled. Rave reviews continue from families with children of all ages; couples who have loved their romantic break; workers from all across Europe; many, many house hunters and plenty of repeat bookings: we are confident we are learning our new trade well. Many of our guests keep in touch and have even become friends – we have met some truly lovely people from all walks of life. It is a great feeling to see our guests happy, relaxed and enjoying their time here.
Guests really appreciate our small touches to make their stay more enjoyable such as the offer of freshly-made breakfast patisserie delivered warm to their gites; freshly picked seasonal fruit and vegetables delivered from our neighbour’s nearby organic market garden; those special birthday or celebration cakes and accompanying personal touches or a few fresh eggs of a morning, laid by our own hens. Our surprise welcome gifts for those who book directly via our website or social media pages are popular too.
For our many house hunters, we know first-hand what it is like to move to a new country, to experience the joy of a new culture and to have the challenge of a new language thrown in. Sharing our experiences and local knowledge, we are really happy to offer support when needed and to signpost our guests to experienced local experts. Post Brexit, the house hunters are still arriving as we hoped they would.
We are open all year round here at La Grue Gites and as you can tell, we love meeting new people, welcoming them to La Grue and sharing all the beautiful Charente has to offer whether it is sampling the local artisan produce, canoeing down the Charente at historic Jarnac, or recommending great family days out. Golf amongst the vines and truffle orchards anyone? Did you know Aigre is home to one of the oldest Cognac Houses in France?
We explore our area as a family and our French neighbours joke that we know the Charente better than they do and they have lived here all their lives!
Our lives are slower here. We spend much more time together as a family and we work to our own pace. Our long, warm summer evenings are spent together, splashing around in the pool and barbecuing our meals. The Charente night skies are inky black: no light pollution makes star-gazing a must. The Milky-Way is so clear above our heads. To round off our long summer evenings, Martin loves to tell us about the stars. He always finishes his summer days with a midnight swim.
We do feel blessed to be living our own French dream here, at La Grue Gites.
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