Today, on the “Families Moving Abroad” series, Jack and Rebecca share their journey from New Zealand to the Charente region in France.
When Rebecca and I started exchanging messages on Instagram, we realised we live just down the road from each other (or in rural France, this means less than an hour away from each other!). I am so pleased she agreed to share her journey with us, and look forward to meeting up with her and her family in the near future.
Our French Origine Story
We often get asked, “Why France?”.
For me, being born in Zimbabwe, growing up in New Zealand, and traveling on a British passport, no country so far has felt like where I belong, so why not France!? I found myself here in 2016 (with a one year old, and a bun 20 weeks in the oven) visiting family, and immediately felt a sense that I belonged. More than I ever had before. I told Jack (my husband) how I felt, but had no expectation that he would feel the same about a country that couldn’t be further from his homeland, (New Zealand), where he’d lived his entire life. And yet, when we came back to France together a year later he was head over heels, just like me.
We didn’t speak French, we have no French heritage, our family of 4 lived in a tiny 1 bedroom gîte for 6 months, but we had never felt more at home. The charentaise sun warms your heart, the river cleanses your soul, the grape vines, the sunflowers, the wild cherries, the sweeping vistas of lush countryside leading the way to many a Chateau, you can’t escape a sense of wonderment and awe. We were very much in love with life in France after those 6 months, especially our river-side lifestyle. We returned to New Zealand with definite plans to be back as soon as possible.
Leaving New Zealand
Thinking back now, I’m not sure why we didn’t arrive home, start packing, sell our house and get ourselves one way tickets immediately! But we did have a little life in New Zealand, we had friends, all of my husband’s family, our children’s cousins.
We had also just bought a house that we wanted to work on. So we stayed for the kiwi summer and planned another trip that would take us across America, back to France, and then to the UK for the southern hemisphere’s winter, and northern hemisphere’s summer – ‘Hemisphere hopping’ for an endless summer is definitely my favourite hobby! One that we’re very fortunate to enjoy thanks to my husband’s remote work.
This time we picked a different region in France to spend 3 weeks, we decided to check out the Lot river and stayed in a lovely Airbnb in the Lot-et-Garonne, a department further south of the Charente. Another exquisite area of France, the river is breathtaking but does not lend itself kindly to being paddled in. Very different to the meandering of the Charente river, the Lot has gouged it’s path through rugged hilly terrain, it is deep, and fast. We loved our summer spent in the Charente, and it still had our hearts.
Upon our return to New Zealand, we really got ourselves into action. We had to spruce up our house, pack, and sell! So we did. We got one way tickets. And it really felt like we were going HOME.
Househunting in 18 Days
We had 18 days booked in an Airbnb in Angoulême as our base for scouring the villages along the Charente river for our new home. I don’t think it crossed my mind that allowing just 18 days was somewhat ridiculous.
But 18 days is the time Jack could take off before he had to travel for work, and I was going to England with our children to see my family (the same family I had previously visited in France, now in the UK). So 18 days it was!
The Househunting Process in France
House hunting for us had never been like this. It had always been a relatively short term decision, more about what we can do to a house than what a house can do for us.
This time we were looking for our forever home, somewhere for the children to grow up. Somewhere to actually spend winter.
House hunting in France is very tedious. It is exhausting and time consuming work since the estate agents only divulge the address at the last moment, insisting on meeting you at some landmark in the nearest village and making you follow them to the house. This is frustrating when a simple drive-by could have ruled it out in seconds, but once you’ve planned your whole day around seeing the listing, you may as well look inside.
The other option is to avoid the internet altogether and drive from village to village, keeping eyes peeled for “A Vendre” (For Sale) signs. And actually, on our third day this was the answer.
Finding our Maison de Maitre
When we set out on our house-hunting expedition it was the Maison de Maître style that really caught our attention and after parking up in a riverside village for a small stroll we came face to face with our future.
There was this idyllic little path along the river which took us around a bend and there stood an impressive Maison de Maître, (complete with closed shutters and a heavily overgrown garden – signs I had come to recognize as synonymous with ‘For Sale’).
And there it was, “A Vendre” in all its handwritten glory hanging from the gate.
I was actually jumping up and down at the sign and telling the kids this was our new home, without stepping past the gates, or knowing the price. Jack said, “don’t say that!”.
We got to look around that afternoon, after which my heart dropped at the amount of work to do. The Maison de Maître was completely uninhabitable, having barely been touched since they used the long drop toilet that “flushes” right into the river, which is still there to use!
However, there was the longère, or farmhouse, which had undergone some extensions and dodgy renovation work. (By dodgy I’m referring to a piece of wood plugging a hole in an indoor sewage pipe). And there was an entire guest apartment.
There was no denying that this house ticked just about all of our boxes; however, I had hoped we could buy in France for cash and have some left over to immediately start the improvements. But this house was all our money, and then some. So we diligently followed through in viewing pretty much every house in the Charente within (and without) our budget.
Chasing the dream
My goodness. we were seriously generous with our estimation on what our budget could get us. The reality was bad after worse. Everything needed a new kitchen, new bathroom, new heating, new roof, one even had someone else’s house on the front lawn. Sure, we could have purchased a rather nice townhouse, but we didn’t come all the way here for the ‘same old’. No. We wanted the dream.
It was true that our French dream was to have our own Maison de Maître and there was one sitting there up for grabs, in our ideal location! Yes, it needed work, yes we’d probably be spending money on it until we die, but maybe, just maybe, we could have the dream.
So grab we did. And we have been grabbing ever since we moved in. Weeds, nettles, rocks, a few bargains on Marketplace, even plasterboard that was hiding a beautiful stone wall, and every day we grab all the moments we can to look around us, in awe.
We are here. This is home.
Two Years On
We have been here for almost two years now, we had my daughter’s first winter here, (and boy, was she shocked at feeling the cold!). We have chopped, ripped, plastered, and worn deep tracks directly from our house to the dechetterie (the dump) with load after load piled high with all sorts of rubbish, kindly left by the old owner.
Some days the ‘dream’ is not reality as we find ourselves covered in sewage, (more often than we’d care to think about!) flooded(!), breaking our backs taming the garden, freezing cold, constantly blowing fuses, going without water for days, (because French plumbing is not like Kiwi plumbing, just FYI).
Some days I look at the Maison de Maître and consider just ripping it down!
Other days, the reality is so far beyond the dream… We came here alone, but our village welcomed us with open arms, our two kids are happy at the local school, nearly bilingual, and have introduced us to plenty of new friends. Some of the best people we’ve met.
We spent the first Covid lockdown with all the freedom we could have wanted, swimming in the river, building and cultivating our first potager.
We hardly noticed the world being turned upside down as we basked in the summer sun, raised chickens from a day old and drank too much wine.
After that, harvesting from our ‘lockdown potager’ and watching our children bite into cucumbers, tomatoes, and melons straight from the vine have been some of the happiest moments of my life. I still look at the Maison and consider ripping it down, but I’ve decided how about a Maison camping adventure this summer instead? 😉
SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS
If you’d like to follow more of our story in France, you can find us on Instagram, @growinginfrance. We will be growing in a very exciting way this year, our craziest adventures are still in front of us! 👶
What a journey, I can’t wait to see how you get on Jack and Rebecca, thank you so much for taking part in the series! I can completely relate to Rebecca’s thoughts on spending lockdown in rural France, I feel the same. If you have any questions for them let us know in the comments below.
If you would like to share your journey on the blog, you can find all the information on how to submit your post by clicking here.