Three days ago, I walked through this gate with the keys to the front door in my pocket.
It doesn’t exactly impress at first glance, my house. The fence is in a terrible state of repair, with – as you can see – the wood of the gate itself falling to bits. The garden is ludicrously overgrown, two and a half years of ivy and weeds climbing over each other to carpet everything in their path. The cedars reaching into the top left corner of the photo above are a riot of birdsong; the roses on the right snatch at clothes and careless fingers as you walk past. Everything is damp from weeks of rain, smelling of wet earth and growing things.
Then you get inside, and everything smells exponentially more damp.
The house’s previous occupant was named Suzy. She died in October of 2013, and her house has sat exactly as she left it ever since. The calendar on the wall is still turned to the week she went into hospital; her slippers are waiting for her under the table. She died without any close family left, and it was put up for sale by the judge responsible for managing her estate, complete with the contents, exactly as-is.
This house is tiny – 32 meters (about 340 feet) squared, spread over two floors – with a roof in desperate need of repair, 1970s electrical wiring, no hot water, and the aforementioned problem with damp. And to top it all off, there’s no shower or bath at all – Suzy must have bathed using a tub of water, heated in her little orange kettle. It’s in a pitiable state, a mouldy-smelling time capsule for the eccentric little old woman who once called it home.
And then we bought it.
Let me back up a little bit.
In early 2015, my wife Nancy and I were living in London. We both worked in office jobs in Westminster, with Nancy down to part-time as she worked (heroically, exhaustedly) toward finishing her PhD in music and history. Her grandparents had all passed away over the past year or so, leaving her with a chunk of inheritance which we were debating what to do with. We had thought that in the post-PhD world, we might want to leave England for a while for a sabbatical, giving us time and space to recover and plan our next move. Maybe somewhere in Spain, we were thinking? But who knew yet.
Then Nancy took me to Paris over the Valentine’s Day weekend, and we came home with a brand new plan. We didn’t know what we would do when we got there, but we were going to move to France anyway.
Fast-forward to December of 2015. We’d been in Paris for three months, and just completed an intensive 20-hours-per-week French language course at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest and most rigorous universities in the world, and we knew that Paris wasn’t working out right now. For a whole host of reasons (on which more in a later post), we were too burned out to stay. We both still love Paris, and it may still be where we end up, sometime down the road, but for the moment we needed some proper middle-of-nowhere peace and quiet.
So we moved to the Dordogne, in the rural southwest of France. It doesn’t get much more middle of nowhere than here.
We started house-hunting almost as a joke, at first (for another later post: the story of the time we quite seriously almost bought a château). Wouldn’t it be funny, we said to each other, if we bought a holiday home in France before we bought an actual house. Wouldn’t it be funny to own a HOUSE?? We’re as millennial as it gets, Nancy and I – we’d neither of us expected to ever actually own property. The concept was, and is, ludicrous to think about.
But then we saw this little house on one of the estate agent’s websites we’d been frequenting, and now we own it.
We OWN it. How utterly bonkers is that.
Three days ago, having put the money to buy the house into the escrow holding account, having been to see our notaire and having signed the paper saying we would soon be signing the papers (more on the ins and outs of French bureaucracy later), we went to the office of our agent immobilier (real estate agent) to get the keys. His secretary handed them over to us with bafflingly little ceremony, and then there we were, standing outside the office, holding the keys.
So we got in the car and drove from the office to our new house, seven kilometers away (I grew up using all imperial measurements in America, but I’m trying to become fluent in metric as well as learning French – I’m going to be here for a while, after all). We parked in the lane beside the garden, under the wild overhang of the cedars. The nesting birds overhead started singing new motifs as we got out of the car, telling each other loudly about the strangers down below. Hello, I thought up at them, we’re your new neighbours.
I stopped to take a picture of the front gate before I walked through it, thinking that I’d want to remember this moment later, share it with my friends and family (and the internet, of course) as a part of this story. I walked through the gate with the keys in my pocket, and found Nancy waiting for me at the front door, eager to get inside. I gave her the keys – it was her love of this small house, and her inheritance, which had made this moment possible – and got ready to take a photo of the door being opened by us for the first time. The start of a new era for the smallest house in the village.
And then, of course, we had no idea which key opened the damn door.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY KEYS, we yell-laughed into the drizzly sky as we tried every single enormous old brass key except, apparently, the one which would open the door. WHAT DO ALL THESE KEYS OPEN. THE HOUSE IS THE SIZE OF A FUCKING SHOEBOX, THERE AREN’T ENOUGH DOORS HERE FOR ALL THESE KEYS.
Spoiler: we got inside eventually.
So there you have it, we’ve started our journey in this new property-owning chapter of our lives as we mean to go on – laughing uproariously at ourselves as we muddle through.
We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do in the coming months to fix up our little house and make it our home. I’m going to be using this patch of internet to tell you (family, friends, interested internet denizens, roving spambots) about how the work is going – the good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly – and about how we’re adjusting to life in a sleepy French village of some 450 people. I’ve watched a lot of house-fixing-related television in my time, and I know that person-moves-to-foreign-land-and-lives-there/finds-themselves-along-the-way tales are both cheap and plentiful. However, I can promise you that I’m going to tell different, interesting stories here. At the very least, I will definitely curse a lot more than they’re allowed to do on HGTV. Sorry, Mum.