Moving in....and the challenges.
In the summer of 2019 we travelled from Hong Kong to France for a family holiday to explore the area and get the kids excited about our new home. For all intents and purposes, the deal was done and we were just waiting for the final paperwork to clear. We had given plenty of notice of our presence in France and our flexibility to pop over and see the house during a 4 week period. We were continually denied access and kept extending our holiday rentals in the hope that something could be worked out. That's my diplomatic phrasing at work.
After much pleading our agent managed to secure a 20 minute window on the very last day of our trip - literally on our way to the airport to return to HK! The upside was that it gave us longer in the South of France which enabled us to take in and experience the delights of the region (castles, cycle tours, wineries, lake inflatables, tree top adventure parks, horse riding, beaches). We also met some lovely gite owners who were able to give sound advice.
The inflexibility of access signalled a catalogue of issues from thereon in. I'm fully cognisant of buyer beware but purposeful hiding of issues and being difficult is just plain rude. But nothing was going to ruin this for us. Those who know us well know that we are positive people who make the best of things and are about solutions not problems. Onward....
On the 12th September of 2019 I made the solo journey to France to pick up the keys to our new house. I went with the sole purpose of taking inventory, assessing what needed to be done, to make repairs and undertake as much of the decoration and repair works myself, to save money on contractors. 'Martha' had a purpose and vision.
I landed at dawn in Paris, after an 11+ hour flight, took the internal connection to Toulouse and then made the easy one hour drive down to Pincardel. On arrival, the main front door lock didn't work. Not a great start and not the best welcome. Although a priority this would have to wait a day or two. I was in no rush to jump back in the car after that long journey.
One of the first things I did was to open up the pool. I've never had one of my own so this was an exciting moment. That sounds sooooo cringe, but you know what I mean.
The water was a bit cloudy so, on advice, I left it open for the chemicals to be activated by the sun's rays. This was all very optimistic of me. I would be far too busy for the whole trip to even dip a toe in.
I unpacked a few HK trinkets - ginger jars, faux flowers, old chinese letter boxes and some chinese warriors and set these up to make the place more homely.
Then I got straight to work - following the drawings and to-do lists that I had already planned out in Hong Kong.
The twin room was my initial base for this trip, whilst I stripped the wallpapers and repainted the master bedroom and garden queen. These two rooms were first on the agenda and I got stuck in.
I closed the pool up, sat with a glass of wine and wrote a long shopping list of the materials I would need to buy the next day and went off to bed. I hadn't noticed that the power had tripped earlier (the house is so light and bright and the sun doesn't go down until late) so I was unaware that my phone wasn't charging.
I woke jet lagged in the middle of the night to pitch black, deadly quietness and a few percent left on my phone battery. There's always some light pollution or some noise in HK (a dog barking or distant car rumbling) that it was bizarre to be alone with my thoughts in such peace and such darkness. I actually found it a bit unnerving at first. Especially when I woke later to the sound of gushing water and just 8% battery on my phone to fashion a torch light.
Number 1 on the shopping list: Torches.
I searched everywhere in the house and could not locate the source of the noise. Taps were all off, no burst pipes or evidence of water anywhere but I could hear the water meter going bizerk. Tick, tick, ticking. Clocking up extra euros every second. I ventured outside and was faced with a fire hydrant style explosion of water escaping from under the barn onto the main lawn. In the darkness I had no clue what was going on. I found the mains water tap and shut it off and went back to bed. This was definitely one for the morning.
I located the electricity box and flipped the trip switches. Power back on. Whoop whoop.
The day's activities consisted of a trip to Mr Bricolage (like a B&Q), some food shopping and once back at the house the continuation of stripping wallpaper (master and garden queen)....this took way longer than I thought. A paint stripper may have sped things up but I didn't have one of those bad boys. Later in the trip a handyman leant me one for the final hallway wall (pictured below). However, it hardly made a difference. In some ways this was reassuring and a relief. I hadn't wasted too much time doing the previous walls unassisted after all ! Chunks the plaster were coming off so I also ended up filling holes and re-plastering areas too. This is the first time I've done all of this and all I can say is that it is a really messy job and the repetitive nature of this unfamiliar movement hurts your elbow....a lot.
The tripping of electricity continued and I ventured out in search of a kind neighbour. They made some calls and recommended an Electrician who could come later that week.
Day Two night:
I woke again to the sound of gushing water and shut off the mains water straight away. Piecing things together we fathomed that this was a timed water source and must be linked to the irrigation system (which is a series of teeny sprinklers that pop up out of the lawn). I dreaded to think how long this had been going on for. Water is expensive in France and this system had been left connected, but without key functioning parts. We were not looking forward to that bill. I like to believe in the best of people so perhaps a highly ambidextrous rabbit popped over and decided he'd like half the sprinkler heads and main connector pipe for his pad in watership down.
I filled all cracks and dents throughout the house and then popped back to Mr Bricolage to colour match the existing paint colours (so I could touch up the necessary areas) and to seek a recommendation of where I could get some tiles cut. They were unable to help with the latter request so I trotted off into Limoux town where I had arranged to meet a man about a drill. Asked for tile cutter recommendations and as a handyman himself he said he had just the machine to do the job. We trotted off back to his house and he cut two for me, free of charge. Turns out there are some good eggs out there. Back at home I attached the tiles in their rightful spots. Another job done.
Being alone and the tenacious, hardworking, perfectionist that I am I literally woke with the sun and did not stop until 2 or 3am every day. Largely operating in just my pants, googles and a face mask I was thankful for our private position and our gravel drive which alerted me to any visitors to the house. I'm not going to lie there was more than one occasion where I shouted out loud 'why am I here doing this all on my own'?!
The running theme in the house was purple. As much as I appreciate this colour is enjoyed by some, it is just not my bag. So I stripped the purple wallpapers, painted over the purple tinted dresser and threw away all the purple curtains.... in favour of more neutral tones - creams, whites, sages, greys and blues.
Day three - night.
I've always hated horror movies. I grew up in Kent, in the middle of nowhere, in a 400 year old cottage at the end of a long drive. Being broken into was my biggest irrational fear. It's silly because no one would break in....what would they take? A few DVDs? They don't even have a resell value these days. These rationalisations don't help you at 2am when you go to turn a light on, can't, and are left wrestling your imagination. What if an axe murderer had cut the power and was hiding behind the door? I absolutely did hide under the duvet willing myself back to sleep and praying for daylight to come.
Having had three tough days and long nights with unforeseen and completely unnecessary issues I was deflated, tired and mentally broken. I woke to a little knock/banging. My initial thought was 'what the hell is wrong now?' and then my mind quickly raced to 'is someone actually breaking in?' I tiptoed downstairs armed with a deodorant can and a lighter. I know. I don't know what I was thinking either. I finally found the source of the noise at the kitchen decking doors.
I genuinely thought I was going mad or having hallucinations.....because there knocking their little head against the glass door was a lost beagle puppy! It was something out of a Holly Webb storybook (my daughter's favourite). I couldn't believe it. Where on earth had it come from?! We live in 12 acres of land...they had wandered a long way from home. We had a lovely cuddle and I truly believe that little bundle of joy was sent to brighten my spirits. It certainly worked. I later found the farmer to which the pup belonged and went back to work with a renewed sense of purpose and vigour. Later FaceTimed my daughters who were gutted they had not seen the puppy. Husbeast promised them one day they'll get a puppy. Thanks buddy!
I fixed the main door lock, did some more painting and the electrician arrived later that day. Fortuitously I had a visitor pop in, just prior, who shared that the power tripping was a known issue at the house and indicated that it only happened when the pool was in action. This enabled us to quickly arrive at the root of the problem. The electrician did some jiggery pockery in the pool house and disconnected a garden light that had never been in use. Touch wood we haven't had any issues since. Now that I have the security of knowing I can turn the lights on whenever I want I can enjoy the darkness. There's something magical about a clear sky full of stars and utter peace. It's my happy place. I rush around so much in HK that actually just doing a hard graft and not dressing up and doing makeup each day was a welcome break.
Day four night
Electrical and water gushing issues sorted. Still up until crazy o'clock because I just want to do 'one more thing'.... replace the washers on the downstairs dripping toilet cistern whose fixtures I can't actually see but can probably feel for. I quickly realised I had undone the wrong nut when water gushed all over the floor. Not ideal at all. It confirmed my rule that nothing good ever comes of being up past 1am. Has it stopped me doing so since? Nope. Is it more ordinarily because I have a a glass if wine in hand? Yes.
My husband kept phoning, whilst I was mid job (not annoying at all), asking if I'd been in our pool or if I had any plans to go anywhere exciting for lunch. I'm not even going to type what expletives were swirling around in my head in response to those questions. At times it was lonely and the weight of responsibility felt huge, but in the main I was working so hard that I didn't have time to just sit back and relax...or chat idly. I was living off baggettes, charcuterie and red wine because I had no time to cook and just wanted to crack on with the next job.
Stripping the carpets from the twin bedroom and garden queen room were the order of the day today and the first coat of paint onto the tiled floor of the dressing room (open room between the hallway and master). What nails I did have were gone by now.
I opened up the pool again (had been doing so daily to allow the sun at it) and found that the water was still cloudy (first two pictures below). We had specifically discussed and agreed that the pool had to be in perfect working order upon changeover. We were fobbed off saying that the water was only like this because the cover had been on for too long and that it was absolutely fine. The pool specialist and maintenance chap begged to differ. Apparently the pool had first been chlorine treated, then switched to a salt water system and was now back to chlorine. The pool had never been clear and a new sand filter, cocktail of chemicals and proper clean was required. Honesty is the best policy people.
I have a funny thing about water. I don't like being in swimming pools or the sea alone - especially when I can't clearly see what is below me. I'm not sure where this stems from. I like a perfectly clear pool and so do my children. This was a major priority for me. However, the weather would be cooling off soon and the pool closed for winter. We could tackle this issue in Easter 2020. Another thing to worry about (see last three pictures after the pool had been fixed).
In the meantime, I had a lesson in pool management. I had never appreciated how much goes into making and keeping a pool clean. Now that I know how annoying a pool is to clean and keep clear I won't ever jump into a pool with sand from the beach on me or directly after applying sunscreen. There are actually special pool friendly sunscreens you can buy but realistically that's not going to happen. I can't expect guests to use a certain brand, unless I provide it, which would be a huge additional overhead. What I will endeavour to do and advise others to do is wait the prescribed 30 minutes before sun exposure, before getting into the pool. I know, I know....that's what it states on sunscreen bottles but no one ever follows this to the letter do they??
In terms of maintenance there are daily checks and weekly cleans to undertake, even when not used much. You should leave the pool cover off in the day to allow the sun to warm the water but also to work with the chemicals in the pool. Then at night, close the cover to maintain the water temperature and protect it from wildlife falling in.
If you have lots of people in the pool every day during a one week trip you need to have the pool maintenance team come three times - once before, once during and once afterwards. Cha ching ching.
Every winter the pool gets closed. You empty about a third of the water and shock it with a special chemical to stop the water going gross (that's the technical term).
You have to wait for a certain temperature threshold to be reached before you can even contemplate opening it up again. Who knew?! I really should have paid more attention in Chemistry. We'll have this joy in a few weeks time. Going to have to grow me some money trees I think.
I finished off some furniture upcycling projects and got a handyman to move some heavy items upstairs into the twin room and hang the heavy mirror in the entrance hallway. He also measured up for a new wooden floor in the garden queen room. I uncovered some more electrical issues which would need to be fixed to ensure compliance. Two plug sockets had burnt out a long time ago. Both inside cupboards so not noticed unless properly looking and cleaning. One plug even had the metal pin stuck inside. So dangerous. Then there was the electric towel rail in the master en suite which wasn't connected but the electric hole in the wall was open with water sources directly next to and above.... Safety first people! I certainly couldn't tackle these things so needed to get an electrician to come back for those. Typically, the person we used before was now booked for weeks and I would have left by then. Added to the to-do list.
The master bed arrived in pieces from Maisons du Monde. I assumed they would assemble it on site but no. Another job to do before bed. The bed linens and new towels had also arrived (from Out of Eden) and I was able to dress the bed and put the curtains up that I had previously sewn (hemmed and added a mini pompom trim). I looked forward to my first night in the Master suite.
Finally relaxing into the evening and enjoyed a bubble bath with candles and wine.
Think I have tennis elbow from all the paint stripping and painting.
Settled down for the night to......Japanese water torture. Drip, drip, drip from the water heater tank. I hadn't heard this before because I'd been sleeping in the twin room whilst decorating the master. Consulted various DIY groups via facebook who said we may need to replace the 'groupe de securite' since the current one was a cheaper iron version and should be brass. Contacted some plumbers but none were free. A local handyman had a look but suggested that we should actually contact the water board company because the mains pressure entering the house was three times the normal level. This could be causing the overrun of water from the group de securite.
Said company came out quickly and were shocked that the pressure was set at the level servicing fire stations! Had we left it we would have had burst pipes all over the shop and broken water heaters. Another job done and crisis averted. Although now the water pressure of the showers upstairs had fallen. Why oh why when one thing is resolved am I presented with another challenge?! This was ok for a holiday home but longterm needed to be stronger. I do love a strong shower. Added to the to-do list and has since be rectified. Tick.
Day 7 and beyond....
Martha (me) dived into the role of house makeover extraordinaire and within two weeks I had fixed cracks, replaced broken tiles, stripped wallpaper, painted, fixed a toilet, fitted new loo seats, changed the front door lock, had a floor fitted, stripped carpets and sanded floors, repainted floors and stairs, painted furniture, bought furniture, ordered furniture and assembled it, fixed furniture that we had bought from the previous owner that was broken and filthy, managed and fixed water and electrical issues, and exterminated mice and flies, dumped waste at the the local dechetterie and met lots of villagers/neighbours, contractors and tradesmen along the way.
I was approached by a few horsey people about renting our fields out to them. On investigating further the advice was not to do so because of so the multitude of legal ramifications in France - regarding future rites to ownership of land and any damage caused by the horses to neighbouring land or our own property. We sought the advice of our trusty Notaire because this just seemed crazy. Having horses on the field would be lovely and they'd be natural lawnmowers! One less maintenance issue to worry about. So, now we have the lovely Celine who manages our fields in return for her horses staying there. Win win.
We are on the countdown....in just a few days her mare gives birth! Be prepared for foal spam updates from me!
With an old house there will always be ongoing repairs and updates to be made. I had hoped to return and undertake much of these things myself but, due to covid, I have been unable to do so. Consequently we have had to outsource various jobs to contractors which has eaten into our house fund somewhat. The window and door shutters, decking and gate have all be sanded and repainted/varnished, the garden has has been landscaped, driveway trees cut back, some new plants sourced and bedded, dumped waste in the fields (old machinery and a trampoline base that wasn't ours) has been cleared, the concrete tiles surrounding the pool have been fixed - as has the wobbly garden step. The electrics have been brought into legal compliance, a roofer has fixed the barn roof and a heating specialist has installed a brand new boiler and heating system.
Putting a positive spin on it ...Things happen for a reason. Had we not had these issues we wouldn't have met so many of our neighbours and made good connections within the village. I just can't wait to be back to host a party for them all to say thank you for their support.
Nothing worth doing in life is ever easy as they say.
My 'to-do' list and 'wants' list are still soooo long but we will get there. Father Christmas couldn't manage a pizza oven last year but maybe this year is my year.
For now my online shopping basket is on hold....but watch this space.