Everything France magazine
Words and pictures by Sara Moss
It’s like a Kathy Lette plotline: Australian Sara Moss visits the rolling Normandy countryside and first sees her future home and future husband on the same day. Within months they are married; and this is where the story really gets going…
After one business trip to Amsterdam this year, my life was changed forever. It’s the sort of city where anything can, and does, happen. The pivotal moment came in my hotel bathroom. I was alone, and my mobile phone rang. The voice was my husband’s: “Would you like to live in France for a while and renovate that house?”
I said: “Yes.”
I first saw the house in question two years ago, when it was little beyond a ruin. It was neatly tucked away at the end of a narrow lane, some distance behind a farmhouse. Autumn had not yet encroached on the surrounding fields and it was delightfully peaceful. The man showing it to me was an attractive Englishman I had just met. He’d owned the property for a little while, but had no specific plans for it. As he spoke, I silently took in the fresh air – worlds away from London – and pondered the probability that the first sounds of the day here were likely to come from birds, not motorcars. There were no clues I was looking at my future home and husband on that sunny afternoon in Normandy.
I returned to London from Amsterdam excited by the challenge ahead. Relocating didn’t bother me – I had already come around the world from Australia, so what harm could befall me going across the Channel? The language barrier would be tricky, but my new husband, Ben, promised to teach me phrases from his fluent vocabulary. Ultimately the move made sense: my writing and photography work is transportable, and Ben’s timber flooring company requires he spend a lot of time in France anyway. I had only a minor sense of apprehension about my undertaking such a renovation – Ben was experienced with these projects, but my knowledge would have to increase exponentially. At least with a starting point of zero, the only place to go was up.
From the outset we planned to do most of the work ourselves. We were essentially working with the remnants of a 300-year-old oak-framed cottage that had been renovated and extended with breezeblock in ensuing years, prior to our purchase. Though it had been half timbered at one stage, there were few timbers remaining. Only half the building was roofed, and the interior was in a poor state of repair. The whole place was damp from years of exposure, the garden was wild and littered with building debris, but there was promise in our little house, near the tiny Norman village of St-Roch-sur-Egrenne.
The intended timeframe of the rebuild/renovation is one year, and two-and-a-half months into the project, that still seems realistic. Making the place habitable has been the first priority and thankfully we are almost at the end of that stage, despite some interesting events along the way. Rotting, ancient timbers of the half-roofed section have been removed, and a local roofer assisted us with a new construction. Completing the roof gave us a remarkable psychological boost, and it was with renewed focus we turned our attention to item two: the septic tank.
Most people would not associate the installation of a septic tank with a near-death experience, but it depends on who is operating the JCB. Ben and his family have lived in France intermittently for more than a decade, and during this time they’ve made numerous eccentric local friends. One, nicknamed ‘The Professor’, is a characterful retired gentleman with a gift for fixing anything mechanical. He has crazy white hair, a zest for life (and the ladies) and also operated JCBs during his working life: the perfect man for the septic tank job? Maybe.
I had been out at the supermarket for the morning, practising my smattering of French on checkout operators and trying to increase my vocabulary by memorising various food names (you have to start somewhere). I arrived on-site with fresh croissants, baguettes and paté for Ben and his dad, but it quickly became clear they weren’t in the mood to eat. The Professor had been reacquainting himself with the JCB controls: the corner of the (new) roof was now rubble on the ground, and in another deft manoeuvre, half of the ancient well in the front garden had been demolished. Then as the Professor was removing a pile of debris near where Ben was working, he hit the wrong lever. The hulking metal arm of the machine quickly swung around 90 degrees, at head height. Lucky Ben has fast reflexes!
And it’s also fortunate he has four brothers. We managed to convince three of them and a friend to come and help us with the house for a few weeks in the summer, so the property progressed dramatically as strapping lads with building know-how set to work on making the interior of the original house habitable. In quieter moments, when the drills, saws, hammers and generator had stopped, I remembered with a smile my initial contemplation of the morning birdsong and the peace and quiet. Having friends and family over was a great bonus work-wise, and it also gave us the chance to explore the region during time off.
D-Day beaches, the cities of Caen and Rouen, and the fairytale abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, all cater to different tastes, but a favourite of mine is a packed picinic and a drive to watch the world go by. Because Normandy is primarily an agricultural region, the landscape changes dramatically with the seasons. Crops are sown and harvested, wildflowers blanket the fields and hedges, then slowly retreat, and there is a harsh beauty to the starkness of it all in winter, especially when it snows. But the farmers are out working whatever the weather, and their primary mode of transport is the tractor. As I soon discovered that just as Londoners plan a journey anticipating tube delays, the equivalent rule in France is the ‘tractor factor’. When driving the tiny lanes – with plentiful blind corners – it is possible to end up behind a tractor for some time, so relax and enjoy the scenery on these occasions.
Inevitably friends and family went home and it was just the two of us back on the tools. We recently celebrated two momentous events at the house: first came the connection of the water, and then the electricity. Soon we will actually be able to move in! The past months have involved hauling possessions from one spare room to another, on the invitation of kind friends and family, but the next time we move it will be into our very own construction site. And then I really must put a serious effort into learning French.
Ben and I were visiting the Professor and his wife recently (who don’t speak any English) and I was obliviously nodding and smiling along to the French conversation. Then I heard a few words which I thought I understood, and judging by the Professor’s hand movements assumed he was reliving the drama of the septic tank installation. At this point everyone suddenly looked at me. “What are they saying, Ben?”
“The Professor just asked if we were going to have a baby next year.”
I laughed and laughed; it seems even the sign language is different here.
As for the ongoing renovation and any additions to the clan…watch this space.