We have lived in Hong Kong for about 14 years now. Both our children were born here but consider England their home and love travelling back at least once a year to visit family and friends (largely because they are allowed to watch as much tv as they like and eat whatever snack they want on the plane). Maintaining these relationships has always been really important to us.
Ahhh those days travelling.....when the kids fought sleep for the whole journey until the captain announced descent....
I haven't seen my sister or dad for two years now. I'd gladly battle the narrow aeroplane isles with two comotosed children precariously slung over each shoulder and three travel cases in tow to just see them.
The summers in HK are just sooo hot, humid & full of mozzies. It's hard to just wander about and relax outdoors (let alone run around) because it is just so sweaty. You really feel the pollution from the China factories more when its hot too. The kids can't just go off and explore the rivers and countryside because of the potential snake encounters. Consequently, there's normally a mass exodus at the end of June, when schools break up. Families escape to Europe for the long summers evenings and the great outdoors.
Friends and family have been so hospitable over the years but we have always hankered to have a place of our own, to base ourselves from, where we can unpack our suitcases and just relax. Where we can just pitch up and not worry if the kids aren't on tip top form straight away. Over the years we have driven up and down the country and it has been exhausting but we have loved every minute, wouldn't change it for the world and have made so many gorgeous memories....and some not so.....Fashioning a dress out of a pashmina because child number 2 had projectile vomited all over me at the beginning of a 12 hour flight wasn't a high point, nor was the time child number 1 exploded from her rear, literally filling the baby car seat (in the hire car) on arrival at my friend, Claire's in Haselmere.
We rent in HK so were desperate to find a place of our own where we could make roots
and be the hosts.....so came the decision to buy a holiday home in France! Close enough to the UK so that friends and family could pop over and see us and in a southern enough location to benefit from the hotter climate. We sought fresh air, lots of outdoor space and a swimming pool, things we didn't have in HK. Of course it helped that the French do food and wine really well!!
Will and I had both been to Paris, the Dordogne area and St Malo before but didn't know much about the other areas. I did lots of research and shortlisting of housing options online - a mixture of complete renovations to houses that had already been modernised.
Once I had an overall spread of properties I went solo to do a reccy in France.
I started in Biarritz (South West of France) on the coast and made my way East, finishing up at Pincardel, South of Toulouse. I can't remember all the places we visited but they include; Saint Palais, Sauveterre de Bearn, Navarrenx, Orthez, Salies de Bearn, Lasseube, Pau, Amou, Montrejeau, St Gaudens, Masseube, Marciac, Mielan (The Gers), Madrian, Tarn, Lescar, Saint Sever, Lachapelle, Saint Foy Le Grande, Vilenes, Moncaret, Port Ste Foy et Poncapt, Monestier, Eymet, St Astier, Margaux, Pujols, St Emilion, Bergerac, Belveze du Razes, Haute Garden, Estampures, Bologne sur gesse, St Amans Soult, Montreal, Toulouse, Fanjeaux, Limoux, Minervois, Alzonne, Cailhau, Ferran, Alaigne.
To be honest this was a really daunting prospect for me. I'd never done a gap year and always met friends for holidays etc. So going completely alone, without the kids and away from them for so long, to a country where I did not speak the language (GCSE French only gets you so far), first time driving on the other side of the road (especially after a long haul flight), and with my horrendous sense of direction) was going to be a challenge. My amazing MIL, Jane, came to my rescue somewhat and offered to meet me in Biarritz for a few days to get me started. This was so welcomed and great to have another person to bounce ideas off (and share bottle of wine with). She returned to England from Pau where I was then kindly connected to a friend of a friend called Simon Mannix. After meeting for a morning coffee in Pau I was invited to join his family and friends for a long lunch at their home. My French was pushed to the limit (all his friends were native French) and I tried my best to pretend I could understand the conversations (I largely drank and nodded throughout. I think I got away with it). I called Will to discuss my adventures so far. It was then Will made me aware that Simon was an ex All Black. I hadn't got that memo.
Will and I later returned to France together, to view more options in the Aude (I was increasingly thinking this would be the best area for us) and attend second viewings of the houses I had shortlisted first time round (Amou, Lasseube, Fanjeaux and Alaigne).
One of Will's clients also suggested we check out the Bordeaux area so we stayed for a couple of days at their lovely home near St Emillion and explored from there.
I hadn't fully appreciated how far apart things were. I was sometimes driving for hours and was the only person on the road with no mobile phone reception. Very surreal. At times it did feel like the world may have ended. Some areas were beautiful but with nothing at all going on, houses boarded up and just no signs of life. Finding somewhere to get petrol or lunch along the road trip was, at times, a mission, especially when the French decided to hold protests and petrol stations were closed, or when some wouldn't accept foreign credit cards etc! Driving for hours at night with no street lights (and not coming across another living soul) was pretty lonely too. I did a lot of singing out loud to Spotify and thinking/planning.....how I would gather and leave forensic evidence (for the authorities to find) should a bogie man come and attack me. Did I mention I don't sleep much.....all these 'what if' scenarios planning out in my mind! It was so much easier on the second visit, with company and when we had narrowed our search criteria.
As anyone who has house hunted in France before knows....the agents in France are not the best. Often they haven't even been to the property before, don't respond, take you to things that no way meet the brief, and/or sell a dream that is neither realistic or achievable. Of course this a generalised view and I'm just sharing my personal experience.
The strangest moment was when a rather portly agent accompanied Jane and me to some houses but needed to stop for food. Eating food, like his life depended on it, that was dripping all down his chin and all over his jumper. He was oblivious and talking through it. Not the sophisticated French vision I had in my mind (she sits typing whilst in a Breton striped tshirt sipping rosé). I must say that we also came across two fabulous agents; Joanne from French Character Homes (covers the South West of France -Pau/Salies de Bearn/Amou etc) and Rebecca/ Pippa from Occitanie Properties (cover the Aude region). They restored my faith in professionalism.
But back to the moaning.....it's very cathartic don't you know?!
One agent presented a 'well respected builder' for a renovation project we could undertake. We later found out that it was the agent's husband and he had done work on others houses locally (and to not the desired standard). So funny because they totally pretended not to know each other during the visit and used different surnames! Jokers.
Another agent gave their brief estimate on the renovation cost and after the smallest of our investigations we knew it would have cost 3 times the amount. Muppets.
On another occasion, we met the owners of a lovely house who were great to learn from. They discussed the renovations they had done and educated us on how tricky it can all be, even if you are fluent in French and on the ground to project manage things, let alone from a distance. It really does pay to do your research and learn from people around you.
One manor house, that I fell in love with, in Lasseube needed considerable structural work which was not disclosed and would have taken a long time to rectify and cost a huge amount.....sending us way over budget. Not impressed with the agent to push that option without disclosing these issues (the same rotund chap mentioned above). Upon enquiring about our new found knowledge they pleaded ignorant, despite us knowing for a fact that they knew. Such a shame but if they hid that what else could they be hiding?! Just not worth the risk. The ironic thing was that it was apparently owned by a couple also living in HK.
The house was just beautiful though and I did find it hard to give that dream up. However, when we revisited and snooped on existing air b&b reviews I realised it wasn't the one for us. It was just off a main road and you could see cars going past the garden. The noise and lack of privacy would have driven me insane long-term. The garden was also on a slope so no cricket happening there. And.....more importantly....it was over budget. I must remember the budget.
Another area we looked at was Eymet. This seemed like a good option for us. A lovely village with good amenities and a great friendly feel to it. However, on speaking to expatsand locals alike they shared that it was almost too British now.
A B&B we stayed at admitted that their neighbours were looking to sell. During the high summer season and musical festivals drunken tourists descended on the area leaving litter and even urinating in the streets. They had had enough of it and sought a more quintessential French existence. We actually loved a manor house there on the edge of the town there but it turned out to be double our budget and was therefore immediately discounted. The people we met made us feel better about it since apparently its location can be smelly (near a pig farm) and a new designated rubbish disposal site. That was easily squared away. It was absolutely stunning though, complete with period features and hidden door/wall panels. Still, must not think about things outside of the budget. Must. Not.
All these encounters and feedback helped us define what we were after. A house that did not require too much work, a house that was in a happening location but that also had lots of privacy (a girl does just want to walk around in her pants sometimes), somewhere that would not be impacted by noise from neighbours or tourists in the area.....a place that even when the kids grow up (and are 'too cool') they'll want to come to for a free holiday......oh and something in the bloody budget!
So why did we decide on Pincardel? More next time.....