Heading into the holiday season, we were invited to a lovely Christmas brunch by a couple Bob had met on Facebook; Cathrine is French and married to an Australian – Aiden. We arrived at their lovely country estate north of Bergerac complete with a gate and additional parking. It turned out to be a bit of soirée including Brits and an American couple. Once we had our hors d’oeuvres of Foie Gras (homemade we were informed), we settled around a long table in a traditional farmhouse kitchen sporting a cavernous fireplace with a large leg of ham curing nearby to complete the effect. Catherine had set the table with a holiday flair, including two hot plates at each end. These “hot plates” turned out to be “raclettes” – a traditional dish from Switzerland that not only had a hot plate for grilling or warming, but a subterranean feature with small trays to add slices of cheese for melting. Once the cheese melted – the tray is removed and the cheese oozes onto your plate a bit like a modified fondue; over bread, potatoes or whatever your heart desires. This turned out to be an enjoyable interactive experience! A bit like playing with your food along with great conversations.
We bonded with Sarah and Brian (recent transplants from Los Angeles), Basil and Gil (pronounced Jill) Irish and Australian, and then two Dutch expats.
Catherine then topped off the meal with a clever dessert of meringue covered ice cream.
Aiden showed me around their pool area as we were collecting ideas and advice on putting a pool in our new home.
Catherine had also offered up her services in case we needed to be bailed out of a bind; she speaks six languages! She had been the CEO of a local textiles company and is quite the fireball.
It turned out to be quite the lovely introduction to a new network that Bob and I were really excited about.
A few days later we ventured to Eymet (known as a sort of British enclave) to the Saturday market. It had gotten near freezing and I don’t know how the vendors managed to stay warm. Eymet doesn’t just have the charming market, it also has several stores that cater to the local British population. We picked up “back bacon” and other British goodies to add to our pantry – Bob was in his element. We also ran into Gil which was a welcome treat as she pointed us to the British shop and butcher.
We warmed ourselves in a local cafe with our “deux cafe au lait, sil vous plait” that are smaller portions and more flavorful than anything you can find at Starbucks.
We headed back to the car (now driving our lovely Hybrid and learning how to use the eco-mode) with our bounty.
Now that we were in a “waiting period” for until we could take possession of our house, we filled our days with daily hikes around the hood though during the days the hunters were out we proceeded with caution; they are allowed to hunt from roughly September to February on Sundays and Wednesdays. We would see them trundling down the road in their bright orange vests and also gathered out and about with their hunting dogs. We have seen deer, they are smaller than their American brethren, and apparently wild boar is big on the menu as well as rabbit and pheasant.
We’ve heard the shots not far from our hiking trails and it’s especially important to maintain situational awareness after lunch when they’ve had a “few” and sometimes don’t always follow the boundary rules. When I’ve heard shots not far away I usually hoof it back to the gite.
Hunting is also referred to as the “chasse” and they have signs posted for areas along the country roads where you can park. There is a real problem with the increase of wild boar in this area of France and the government even comes in to reduce their numbers. For those interested in doing game hunting, they even have special tours!
Part of the charm of our everyday existence includes being greeted by the owners’ dogs, especially the lovely German Sheperd. Sometimes they all show up along with the waddling goose that apparently doesn’t like to be left out of all the excitement. As we approach the gite, we joke in anticipation of our greeting committee.
Some mornings we hear the horses…and the donkey and even they come occasionally to greet us, especially, it seems, when the weather is sunny.
Life in the French countryside has proven to be insanely quiet, bordering on dull if it weren’t for the surrounding beauty of the woods and countryside. This transition is proving to be somewhat of a challenge as our muscle memory is used to so much overstimulation, exacerbated by constantly being on the move, it is now at a tug-of-war; trying to reconcile unaccustomed sensory that despairs to be overloaded.
I remind myself that this is what I had dreamed of and recount the reasons of why I am grateful for having arrived at this moment. Things will be less tedious once we are in the new house and getting ourselves established.
Now that we were upon the holiday season we decided to attend the Sarlat Joyeux Fete, or Christmas Festival. The weather had dipped into the 20’s and 30’s so while the festival was gorgeous it was a bit cold. We discovered none of the restaurants open until 7:00 – a unwritten code we finally realized which, as we remind ourselves, is appropriately European. We finally got settled and warmed up in La Petit Bistro with pasta and duck served with a flourish of truffle and followed by a simple gateau of apple with chantilly cream and a warming glass of Armagnac – one of the most ancient and healthy aperitifs in the world. As upscale as this sounds, it’s standard fare here and reasonably priced.
It was a dark and clear night and the roads back to the gite were virtually deserted – we saw four cars in total on our thirty minute commute. We also discovered a very clever act of engineering in our car; the high beams come on automatically then dim when a car passes or we enter a village. The European cars all have automatic dimming on their vehicles in general so you are not blinded by the obscene level of headlight we have experienced in US. We keep marveling at the ingenuity of this feature every time we go out after dark.
One clear evening we stepped outside and could see the Milky Way in all its glory; the advantage of living in rural France where you have a smattering of hamlets and the larger towns are far enough away to afford you the spectacle of dark skies.
To further occupy our time we do a fair amount of walking and working out, reading, watching TV, practicing our French and making occasional trips to the nearby villages to run errands or explore. Fortunately Eymet has a comprehensive book store that is like a mini “Powells” where we found a bounty of used English-language books to our liking.
We then received our forty page escrow papers….in French and thank god for Google translate! We were able to review the docs in English and return with any questions. So far so good. In France they do what is called a “diagnostic.” This is essentially the same as the home inspection in the US. It is very comprehensive and even includes the contractors they had used for termite control (as you can imagine this is an issue with these century old homes in Europe). We can continue to use the same services. The property taxes are obscenely low – typically less than one thousand dollars per year and the utilities are pretty reasonable. All in all the place is in good shape with the renovations performed as recently as 2017 with a ten year guarantee.
The only concern we have is what is called “clay swelling.” With climate change the clay dries out during droughts and creates structural issues on homes. While we are in an area that is vulnerable to this issue, there haven’t been any yet that have directly affected our property. The homeowners insurance now treats this as a natural disaster and there is government funding to those structures that have been severely impacted. Otherwise we are not vulnerable to forest fires, earthquakes or floods.
We then took advantage of the current exchange rate and got our cash funds converted to Euros so we can transfer needed funds when it comes time to sign the papers in January. We use “Wise” to transfer our funds and it has worked great – especially since HSBC is taking interminably long to get our French bank account open.
We finished our Christmas shopping in Sarlat, stopping by the local cafe for a warmers – and well….all the chantilly crème was irresistible.
On 21 December we headed to Toulouse to fly to the UK. The Toulouse airport is second only to CDG which is great for us as we can catch flights to anywhere in Europe for cheap from there. After what seemed like several delays and train changes we made it to the UK where we will be spending the holidays in the charming Malvern Hills area.
Kathryn had the house decorated sans the tree: They had delayed purchasing the Christmas Tree until we arrived so we set out the next day to the local tree lot. The trees here are incredibly lush and similar to the Norfolk Pines in the U.S. We reminisced about earlier Christmas Tree expeditions while they were visiting in the US – though Oliver is much bigger now!
We decorated the tree with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation playing in the background. It was lovely to unpack Christmas decorations that we had sent them over the years.
During the week we strolled to the stores to pick up some necessities, gave the dog (Ferguson) good long walks and got ourselves settled in. I assisted Kathryn with the Christmas dinner shopping; though the store was crowded the checkout was rather quick! Later as we sat around the dinner table we caught up on our adventures, reverting to our familiar humorous anecdotes.
On Christmas Eve Bob and I strolled through downtown Malvern with its shops residing in old English storefronts; as the day was partly cloudy we enjoyed the accompanying views across the valley. I helped Kathryn with the Christmas dinner prep and also mulled some wine while we spent the remainder of the day watching Christmas movies in their lovely conservatory being warmed by the fire.