Wine, the food of life

Wine, what a wonderful friend. It opens our hearts and our minds. With a glass of wine in our hand we are witty and the world generally just seems a mellower place. Well, I must admit that until I moved here that generally was my experience of wine. It was something I popped into my local supermarket to pick up, or on a night out I was handed a large or depending on the mood, a very large glass of  it across the bar. It came in red, white, rosé and occasionally when the mood or occasion took us there, it was of the bubbly variety.
Bottle of New Zealand wine

You could say that generally my knowledge of wine was lacking. It’s something I enjoy on
a regular basis. I knew what I liked. If it was white, a Sauvignon Blanc, normally from New Zealand or Australia or a Pinot Grigio. And if it was red, it was normally a Merlot, occasionally a Chianti from Italy or Pinotage from South Africa. Wine was just there. It was definitely a necessity, but something that I just drank without ever really thinking about it.

When I first arrived here at first nothing changed much. Well, some things did. The first thing you notice is that wine here is cheap. In fact very cheap. You can get a bottle of wine for under €2. Secondly, you only get French wine here so, my meagre knowledge was dashed back to pre-school days in the wine department. So, this is what I learnt initially; cheap white wine tastes crap, cheap rosé tastes far better and cheap red tastes better the day after you open it.

But, slowly things changed. I graduated from pre-school and made my first tentative steps into first grade. I shed some of my friends from my pre-school days and slowly started making some new friends, as I tried new wines. Slowly it dawned on me that the supermarket shelves were like a map of France. Each of those wine actually came from somewhere. Claret actually came from a place called Claret. Champagne so named, because it originated from the region of Champagne. And closer to home the wines of the Languedoc were named after regions and villages that we drove through on a daily basis. Corbières, Faugères, Minervois, St Chinian but to name a few.

I read a fascinating history on the Veuve Clicquot (the widow Clicquot). To me it had just been a orangey, yellow label on a champagne bottle that tasted rather nice. But this woman, revolutionised the production of champagne. I learned that the legend of the monk, Dom Pérignon was more of a myth, in fact an advertising ploy employed a few centuries later to strengthen the allure of Dom Pérignon champagne.

I learnt that French wine was divided into three categories. Vin de table, Vin de Pays and AOC. The AOC system is based on the French notion of ‘terrior’, that every region in France has unique qualities and that this affects the grapes that can be grown in that region and ultimately the flavour of the wine. So in a nutshell if you fall within an AOC wine region, and not all regions qualify for AOC status, you have to produce wine using specific blends using types of grapes that are stipulated for your region. So unlike the New World wines that are made using just one grape variety most French wines use a specific blend of different type of grapes.

An AOC wine doesn’t guarantee that this is the best wine a vineyard produces, in fact a lot of the more modern, boutique wineries are opting to produce wine under the category of Vin de Pays so that they can be more adventurous in how they blend the wine.

And then like a school kid graduating from school I realised that wine in France isn’t just about what you’ve learned in books. It’s about life itself. And living in the Languedoc is living with wine. We are surrounded by vineyards, everywhere you look you see vines. It is the soul and lifeblood of this region. We made friends with people who owned and worked on wine farms. People like Simon and Monica Coulshaw from Domaine Des Trinites and Paul and Isla Gorden from Domaine La Sarabande who had decided to move to France to produce wine.

Picking grapes at Domaine la Sarabande

So, instead of just sitting on a sofa reading about it while I took a sip or two from my glass of wine I decided to actually get my hands dirty. Paul and Isla needed some help bottling their wine from last year before they starting harvesting and pressing this year. So, Simon and I, his niece, nephew and a couple of friends who were staying with us arrived bright and early to give them a hand. We arrived to the site of a large lorry parked on the road outside their domaine. It transpired that this lorry was a travelling bottling plant. Large pallets of bottles were transferred onto a conveyor belt on the lorry where they were washed, filled with wine, corked and labeled to be spat out the other side where Isla and I had to hand-fill the boxes which were then pushed down a shute at which point they boxes were automatically sealed.  We managed to bottle about 8000 bottles of wine in 7hrs. And the best part was we got paid in wine.

pressing grapes and la Sarabande

The next experience was actually picking grapes for a day or two. I’d heard that it was back-breaking work and I soon found out why. Because the vines of France are fairly low you are constantly bending over. But, a more beautiful office you couldn’t ask for, surrounded by the hills of Faugères and there is constantly a bit of banter going on to help the time pass. That afternoon I stayed on to help with the processing, that is the actual pressing of the grapes. Apart from some mechanisation, in a small domaine such as Sarabande, things haven’t changed in centuries. They also took some time to explain the fermentation process which was fascinating. We were processing rosé that day, but they already had some of their reds on the go from previous days and these had to be checked to make sure that the fermentation process was going to plan. Temperatures were taken (too low and it wasn’t fermenting properly, too high and it was all going tits up) and general mixing was going on. That night I arrive home feeling sticky and bone weary with a new-found respect for my wine maker friends who would be doing this every day for a month or so.

My journey is still not at an end, but some of the things that I’ve learnt along the way are: Living in a wine region is not glamorous, the tractors wake you up from 2.30 in the morning as a lot of the harvesting takes place at night. Grapes are really sticky and they stain your hands for weeks after you’ve been picking. Don’t buy wine from supermarkets when you’re in France, go to a vineyard, try before you buy and the best part is the profit goes to the wine maker and not just to some shareholder. And, the best part is, learning about wine is a journey that never ends because there is always a bottle of wine out there that you haven’t yet tried.

Simon Roberts BBB midi cartoon Life in Languedoc

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Summer days happen so fast

I know, it’s been ages and to be honest I feel bad, very, very, very bad. but, enough, I’ll just put the birch stick down for 5 minutes while I try and actually write something for a change and not just think about it.

I posted on Facebook a few days ago that summer seems to have gone, just like that, overnight the masses of people spending their holiday in the South of France packed up and headed north again. And while they were heading north the cooler weather seems to have crossed paths with them on it’s journey south. It’s almost like the weather knew that  it doesn’t need to work quite as hard as it has been all summer keeping the holiday makers happy with it’s daily sunshine and temperatures soaring above 30 degrees.

Summer is the season of anticipation. I remember how much I used to long for summer in the UK. Normally, because the last one had never really arrived we were convinced that this one was going to be fantastic. Spring would arrive in a flourish of flowers, sunny days and that first BBQ. This, surely was a sign that we were finally going to get the summer we deserved and had been waiting for. Only to come back to earth with a big thump when in July we were still wearing our changeover wardrobe, well less of a wardrobe and more a desperate attempt to try and keep warm in a mish mash of bits from both our summer and winter wardrobe.

Well, on that front I can no longer complain. I definitely get to wear my summer wardrobe. But, in a completely different way to how I planned during those summers that never were. I have a cupboard full of dresses, long ones, short ones, silky, cotton. You get the picture, summer is the dress season. Winter is way too cold for dresses but summer that’s a different story. You float along in your maxi dress, you jish along in your shorter flirty number. Well in my head you did, but above 30 degrees dresses just aren’t that comfortable. They don’t float, they just kind of stick to you, you land up looking less like you are jishing and more like a wilted lettuce doing a waddle.

So, living in warmer climes isn’t always everything that one anticipates. In the UK another reason for anticipation were holidays. I’d page through the cool camping book imagining long summer days in a little unspoilt campsite somewhere, our campfire glowing away as darkness fell, the sound of happy laughter ringing around the campsite as we all enjoyed our little piece of paradise on this perfect summer’s day. The dream didn’t quite meet up with reality. Imagine the scene, bank holiday August, a campsite just outside Mortehoe, next to Woolacombe. By the time we arrived the site was awash with tents and the odd caravan. We had the choice of trying to squeeze in-between the masses of sensible people that had arrived hours, if not days before us or, pitching our tent on a site on the edge of the campsite kind of hanging off the cliff edge. We went for cliff edge, with the choice of blood rushing to our heads or, our sleeping bags and mattress sort of sliding down towards the bottom of the tent. Just as we got our tent up the rain arrived, sweeping in straight from the sea. Now I know why that cliff edge was so deserted. The funny thing was though, we had fun, I look back on that weekend and smile, it was a truly British experience, cold, muddy and not quite what I had anticipated, but fun.

Now, here we live in the land of holidays, we don’t really go on holiday any more, not in the same way that we did before. Planning, booking time off, finding the perfect place to go.

People come to us for holidays, we anticipate their arrival, sometimes with a little trepidation. Family in our case is normally quite easy. We’ve spent time together over the years, most of the time we kind of know what makes them tick and if something pisses us off we talk about it.

Most of our friends though we have never spent more than a weekend with. How are we going to get on, will they help in the house or am I going to be doing the lions share of the work, will they offer to help pay for food because we can’t really afford to pay for everything while people are here (it’s a difficult subject to bring up without appearing mean), and will people understand that we can’t put our lives on hold because they have come to see us.

As much as we love seeing our friends and love to share our life here, we’ve also realised that it can be exhausting. We’re not on holiday, we still have to keep working. Even though we don’t have 9-5 office based jobs we still have to keep going and keep those Euro’s coming in, because when we don’t work we aren’t earning anything. But, inevitably the wine flows well in to the night, and we get to bed after we planned, and wake up feeling pretty knackered the next day, and the next, and the next.

We always try and take some time out while people are visiting and in most cases probably more time than we should. It’s just so easy when everyone is on holiday around one, to put things off to another day and go off to the river or the beach instead, or to just take it a little slower than normal trying to recover from the night before.

And then suddenly it’s all over and we are spat up at the end of the summer exhausted like a wet seal after a storm. Gosh, we look at each other not sure what to do with the silence, the piles of washing and the general chaos. What we really need right now is a holiday, but then we sit down and realise we’ve already spent the holiday fund and we’ve probably taken off too much time trying to make sure that everyone had the holiday of a lifetime. Well, there is always next year.

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Spring has sprung

This is just a very short blog posting. I thought that I would share the photo’s that I have been taking on my walks with the Anna our dog. It’s been a very dry winter down here in the Languedoc which has made the advent of spring even more special. I never expected the countryside to suddenly change from various shades of browns to verdant greens interspersed with splashes of colour that the array of wild flowers have added to the scene. I’ve been trying to identify them all but so far have only been able to identify about 6 different flowers. The yellow flowers with the spiky leaves are Wild Rocket. Some of which I will be adding to our salad this evening.

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All in a days work

Finally, a little time to sit back and think about the manic last few months in our new home. Yes, after all the looking and all the paperwork we finally signed the deeds, handed over our hard-earned cash and some of the banks.  On the 20th of January us and GE Capital Bank became the proud owners of a house in a village called Pouzolles.

Camping kitchen in Pouzolles

Our camping kitchen in Pouzolles

Now, I am sure you can imagine us unlocking the door, champagne bottle in hand, turning on the lights, popping the cork, taking a swig while we proudly congratulated ourselves on our find. Well, sort of. At least the unlocking of doors, popping the cork but unfortunately the little action of turning on the lights wasn’t to be on day 1. Or day 2, day 3, week 1, week 2 etc. I’m sure you are getting the picture.

Such a simple thing, getting your electricity reconnected, or so we thought. A phone call to EDF (in French of course) that went something like this.
“hello, we have just bought a house and we need the electricity reconnected.”
“of course, no problem, what is your address?”
“13 Av Paul Doumer, etc.”
” I’m sorry we cannot find that house on our system, are you sure you have the correct address.”
“Yes, I’m sure, I’ve just handed over a large sum of money for this house and the number on the door definitely says no 13.”
“Is it a new house Madame?”
“No, it’s about 150 years old”
“I’m sorry Madame there is nothing we can do at the moment as your house doesn’t seem to exist. We will need to send an engineer round to investigate”

Life By Candle lightWell that sounded reasonable, but little did we realise that because the house didn’t officially exist on their system, they couldn’t actually send round an engineer till the house did finally exist on their system. Have these people never heard of Google Earth? I even offered to send them a link so that they could virtually stand outside my house and have a look without officially sending someone round to have a look, but to no avail. Firstly there was paperwork that needed to be sent. Okay, so they need paperwork, I can do that. So off went the paperwork. Now surely they could send someone round. But no, it wasn’t going to be that easy. We needed some sort of number that allocated us a location on the grid, and that would take some time. So, we waited.

In the meantime we cooked on our camping stove and lived by candle light. How romantic, which it was for a few days but even here in the south of France we have winter and like the whole of Europe this year we had an exceptionally cold winter. So, still without electricity the temperatures plummeted and at its worst it was -12. We couldn’t use the fire because it hadn’t been swept in 2 years and without electricity the chimney sweep couldn’t use his equipment. What happened to small boys I say! The gas central heating needed electricity, so all we had was  a single paraffin heater that we moved from room to room, which in this vast space we had bought didn’t even touch sides. Why hadn’t we bought that little cute 2 bedroom place we saw somewhere along the line.

As the drama unfolded we thought it would be best to at least try to sort out all the other bits and pieces, such as the telephone. But, it wasn’t going to be plain sailing, it seemed that on their system, guess what, you’ve got it, we didn’t exist. Aaaaaarrggghhhh!

Moving in to our house in PouzollesSo, in parallel we desperately tried to get our services on-line. And I must admit, there were moments where I really thought it was never going to happen. Most days we were back to Pezenas so that Simon could get some work done and we could try to get a little warmer, have a warm shower, check our emails and make phone calls. Things that are just a part of every day life, or so you think until you don’t have them. But, the silver lining through all of this was that at least we had water and we could flush our loo.

SFR our phone people also decided that they needed to send someone around to get us hooked up, even thought we already had a telephone line. Appointment number 1, no-show. Appointment no 2, no-show! So, when we finally had a phone call from EDF telling us we had a grid number, we officially existed and they were sending an engineer out next week. We sighed a soft sigh of relief. We’d had promises of engineers before and look where that got us. We weren’t about to celebrate yet!

The day arrived, cold and bright and we waited in anticipation,  dressed up for an Arctic winter. Was this going to be the day we finally got heating. Noses pressed up against the glass not wanting to miss M’sieur EDF we saw a blue van approaching the house.
M’sieur, M’sieur, ICI!” Waving frantically, in case he missed us. Not much chance of that though.

He got a right royal welcome. Finally. You could hear the collective sigh of relief from both Simon and myself. M’sieur EDF stood in our front porch scratching his head looking at our electricity meter with a look of puzzlement on his face.
“il n’est pas normal. Je ne le comprends pas.” “This is not normal, I don’t understand it.”

Simon and I looked at each other. This was not a good sign. M EDF got on the phone back to HQ. More scratching of heads. He popped outside, looking skywards. I got that cold sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was not going to plan, what was going on?

Finally, off the phone M EDF came over to let us know what was going on. unfortunately he couldn’t do anything today. It seems that our house had physically been cut off from the main supply. He would need to send around a larger truck with a ladder that could get up to the main supply pole and reconnect us. This unfortunately couldn’t be done till next week. I felt the tears pricking behind my eyelids. I’d had it. All I wanted was a little warmth. I was tired and cold. We’d had over a month of phone calls, paperwork and promises. Enough was enough!  So, another weekend without electricity.

The next week arrived and to our relief so did the larger van with a ladder. Within minutes they shimmied up the ladder and back down again. Over to the electric meter, he clicked a switch. And Voila, just like that we had electricity. All those agonising weeks and all it really took in the long run was the click of a switch. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So I laughed.

We switched on the gas boiler and within minutes warmth radiated around our home. Bliss! Now all we had to do was get our telephone connected. I am not going to go into any further detail on that one but, 2 weeks later after more hair pulling, gnashing of teeth and some tears we finally got our phone.

It was a poignant lesson living without the amenities that we take so for granted in a modern world. The cold was the hardest thing to deal with, but the positive thing was that even though my fridge hadn’t switched on the temperature gauge told me that it had been (running) at the correct temperature.

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A year in the Languedoc

January, for most of us is a time of reflection. A time to mull over events of the past year, and to plan for the coming year. And this year, for me, more so than ever. So much has changed in my life in the past year, in fact, let me rephrase that. Everything has changed in my life in the past year. Well, almost everything – I left my job, we left our home, we are living in a foreign country learning a new language and making new friends, but the one thing that hasn’t changed, the one constant, has been Simon sharing this experience with me. And, what an experience it has been!

Firstly, we have survived! We have managed to keep a roof over our heads and have kept ourselves watered (or is that wined) and fed. For Simon, a large part of his life has remained the same. He plugged in his computer and away he went. The work, thank goodness kept coming in. Mainly from the UK, but also the odd job from France. But, for me it hasn’t all gone as planned. My life before was all about schedules, planning and deadlines. Well not anymore. Now, it’s about patience, learning and constantly changing timelines and plans.

My plan, and how clever I thought I was with this plan, was for us to find a house. Not too big, not too small, in fact 3 bedrooms would be perfect. A bit of land, not too big, not too small, in fact 2 –  3 acres would be perfect. Then, according to my research (how easy it made it all sound) I would pop along to the local ‘Marie’ for verbal permission to build a few safari tents – not too many, 2 – 3 would be perfect to start off with. After all according to my research if you had agricultural land you didn’t need formal planning permission just a friendly word with your mayor.

Les Orme

Glam camping French Style at Les Ormes

The plan was perfect, the units in comparison to converting existing buildings into ‘Gites’ was really cost effective. It’s all about the ROI (return on investment) after all. And with posh camping being the ‘in thing’ where could it go wrong? Most of our clients would come from the UK, Holland and Germany, and over time we would win the French over to a new way of doing things. I’d done my research after all. There were a couple of places already doing it in France, so it could be done, but, the market wasn’t flooded, as it was quickly becoming in the UK. And we had the cherry on top. Great weather! In crap weather, camping is still camping. It’s cold, it’s damp, your clothes and bedding take on a musty smell after day 1, no matter how much you have paid for your camping experience. But, we had the winning formula. Sunshine! Suddenly your camping experience would take on euphoric qualities. A chilled local rosé wine as the sun goes down, and as it eventually sinks the smell of perfectly barbequed food wafts though the warm evening air. Later, as you sink into your comfortable bed under canvas you can only think that you are in heaven.

Cue sound track of gentle music grinding to a halt. Life, being life, it decided to put a spanner in the works of my well laid plans. It wasn’t going to be quite as easy as that. Firstly, that perfect sized house, with it’s few acres just doesn’t exist down here. France being France or rather the Languedoc being the Languedoc, it doesn’t quite work like that. You can buy a Domaine – minimum 5 bedrooms with acres and acres of vinyards attached (just a little out of our budget at a pip over a €1 million), you can buy a Mazet (basically a stone shed of about 40-50 m2) with a bit of land or you can buy a village house with the most enormous garage you have ever seen, with a tiny bit of outside space if you are lucky.

Maison de Vigneron

A typical French village house with it's entrance to the big garage

So, the brief changed. We were now looking for a 2-3 bedroom house with an outside space (small garden, couryard or terrace) and a garage (we have bikes, camping equipment and more bikes) and all of this ideally in a village or town with a bit of life. A boulangerie, a café and possibly a little shop. I would worry about what I was going to do with my life after we had found our ‘dream home’. The chances were that the house would need a bit of work in any case, so that would keep me busy for a while and save us money.

The flat in Bristol hadn’t been sold yet – the housing market in the UK was a bit slow, but we decided to dip our toe in the water none the less and get an idea of what was out there. Nothing like a bit of research. House number 1; (don’t worry I won’t take you through every house in detail) a village house in Pézenas with an enormous cave like garage, with a small garden courtyard kind of thingy off the back of it, upstairs a kitchen, well kind of, more a room with some old kitchen cupboards in it, a living room, another dark room with no windows and finally another room with a terrace off it. Up another flight of stairs to a unconverted attic.


Another cave like garage

My gosh, we were going to need to use our imagination in this house buying lark. Gone were ideas of an open plan living area downstairs, up a flight of stairs to a bathroom and 2-3 bedrooms, possibly a converted attic and a little garage to the side with a garden off the back.

House number 1 kind of reflected a lot of the typical village houses we were going to see. An enormous garage, a collection of rooms upstairs, often with dark, unlit internal rooms and a attic space that could be converted into some sort of usable space. The outside spaces varied from sunny roof terraces that bake in the midsummer sun to dank dark couryards that never see the light of day (or as Simon called them, prison exercise yards). Basically, most of these places needed loads of imagination to make them what we wanted them to be. All, possible, but it would take a lot of money, time and hard work. Was this really what we wanted? Did we really want to buy a place that needed to be gutted completely, which was going to take a year do get it to a point where it was habitable and really push our DIY skills way beyond our comfort zone?

So, the brief changed, again. Maybe we should look at something a little newer. You know, 2-3 bedrooms, with a bit of a garden and a garage (one that was built more for a car and less for a combine harvester). So, where was this taking us? “A villa, my gosh I can’t believe it, you guys are looking at a villa”, I hear you say. Yes, well maybe, we should just have a look. Something a little older you know. From the 60’s or 70’s in an established area with a few trees. I’d grown up in a suburb, in the South African equavalent of a villa and it was great. There was space, trees, birds and a swimming pool. We had  a really beautiful home, and I’m sure we could do the same thing here. After all, we were still in France. But, the more places we went to see, the more it felt like they could have been just about anywhere.


Simon's dream villa - a little over budget!

Despite our reservations we came close. Simon found a place that he really liked. It had everything we wanted. It was walking distance from Pézenas centre, in an established suburb, there was a catch though, it really wasn’t in our budget. But, Simon really wanted this house. So, he put in a silly offer, and they came back with a very realistic counter offer, but it was still beyond our budget. Then, I went to see a place that really fitted all of our criteria, and the best thing was that all the rooms were decent double bedrooms. The living room area was open plan and bigger than most of the places that we had seen. It needed some cosmetic work, but that didn’t have to be done immediatly. But, my heart just didn’t go boom. It was perfect, but it didn’t feel right. I felt that if we bought this place it would be the last place that we needed to buy. All on one floor, it didn’t even need a stairlift in our old age. I realised that despite everything, I just wasn’t ready to live in a villa.

So, the brief changed again. Well, not really, it had come full circle, or almost. We were back to looking for a 2-3 bedroom house, with a garage but it had to be old (well at least 80 years old) and had to have a garden. The problem is, that houses like this are pretty few and far between, especially in our budget. But, we were not giving up just yet. So, I trawled the internet, looked at property papers and visited pretty well every estate agency in the area. At the end of it I had a few to go look at. Simon was stacked with work, so I was going to do the leg-work and just take him along at the end of it to see a shortlist of houses that I thought he would like.

Well, it wasn’t all surprises. I saw some very big garages, some very small garden’s and some attics that had been converted in to extra bedrooms that I just couldn’t see us living in. But, at the end of it I had shortlisted it down to 2 properties that I thought Simon should see. Neither of which fitted our criteria, but, they had something that made them more interesting than the rest and both completely different from each other.

House 1

Interesting inside but the courtyard didn't quite hack it

House no 1: In a village with all the bits we wanted. It was more of a bourgoise type house. Really lovely sitting room with wood panelling and a marble fireplace like we’d had in our place in Bath, a dining room and a kitchen (well sort of a kitchen) off it. Upstairs; 3 bedrooms and a bathroom and up another flight to an enormous attic that could be converted into a studio eventually. Then there was the barn outside, with the stalls for the horses still in place and opposite a big garage. It has potential, loads of it, almost too much of it in fact. What would we really do with all that extra space, would 10 years slip by and it would still just be a barn. It needed work, lot’s of it, but the main house was habitable as it was. Well, that is apart from the kitchen, that needed to be redone completely. And the sticking point was the garden. Well, not really a garden, more of a courtyard, but at least it got sun, some of the time.


A room with a view

House no 2; A village house that had been converted about 30 years ago. Downstairs was a large open plan living area with a kitchen extention that had been built on with a kind of covered patio next to it. Upstairs to 3 bedrooms all with french windows and bathroom with a large sunny terrace. Up another flight of stairs to the converted attic and another 3 bedrooms and bathroom. A big couryard garden off the back of the house, opening up to a more open garden off the back of that with access to the road. No garage, but we could build one. Some dodgy alimunium windows, but they were big and let in lot’s of light and could be painted. Some very questionable bathrooms, but they could be changed over time. The house generally needed a bit of character injected in to it, but it was a bit of a blank canvas. 6 bedrooms though, we really didn’t need such a big house. Well, we could just shut off the top floor and forget about it when we were not using it.


View of back of house from the courtyard

What to do? Simon seemed a bit dejected by it all. I don’t think any of them were quite meeting up to his definition of a ‘dream home’. House no 1 was out of the picture. Despite the potential, the couryard just wasn’t going to hack it. Good thing he hadn’t seen the previous 15 houses. But, I wasn’t going to let it go. I really thought that the 2nd house had potential. It had big rooms, big windows. Lot’s of light and lovely views over the vineyards. It had by far the best outside space of any house we’d seen so far, and it had it’s very own well. We could ‘shabby chic’ the kitchen. Ok, the bathrooms needed to be redone, but that meant that we would get what we wanted instead of someone else’s taste. It even had a fireplace and it was in our budget. We went to see it again and I think Simon was coming my way, he started seeing the potential. Pouzolles, the village it was in was also a great place to live. We already had a few friends living in the village. It met all of our criteria and the bonus was that in the summer they hold a regular Friday night ‘fete’, with plates of food, wine and music all under coloured lights strung between the trees.

Who could ask for more. It seems no one. We decided to take the plunge and put in an offer, and, it was accepted. Since then a plethora of paperwork has been filled in. Various hurdles jumped over to get our French mortgage. Money has changed hands and tomorrow after our final meeting with the Notaire to sign the deeds, we should be the proud owners of our first house in France.

So, upon reflection a year down the line, would I change anything? Should we have visited France more, before taking off to an area we didn’t know, with a plan in our back pocket that didn’t quite work out? I would say no. I needed a plan, but at the same time I also needed to just get out there and do it. I think that if we had visited more before moving here our research would probably have discouraged us from moving here at all. So, some times you just have to take your chances and live life a little.

The best part of next year will be taken up painting walls, learning to tile, stripping down old furniture and hopefully making us a home that both friends and family will want to spend time in. And, after that what will I do? Goodness knows, but one thing the last year has taught me is that things change, but something always comes along if you remain open to it.

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A little piece of Pézenas

I was lying in bed the other night pondering over what I was going to write next for the blog and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t actually written about where we are living. So often, what is lying on our doorstep goes unnoticed and unappreciated so I think it’s time to remedy that situation.

Rooftops of pezenas

The rooftops of Pezenas from our roof terrace on a spring evening

Considering that it really was pot luck that we landed up living in Pézenas we have been incredibly fortunate. It really is the “Jewel in the crown” in this area, and I must admit that I can’t really understand why I’d never heard of it before. It barely gets a mention in the guide books. The flavour of the month at the moment seems to be Uzes. When we say to friends that we’ve settled in the Languedouc often the first thing they ask is whether we’ve been to Uzes. So, what about Pezenas! Maybe I just shouldn’t think about it too much and just enjoy the fact that it’s not heaving with beer swilling tourists, that being said though the wine swilling French tourists seem to know something that others don’t. A bit of insider knowledge perhaps?

Tourist office Pezenas

The tourist information office in Pezenas is a wonderful example of the large period mansions that Pezenas is famed for.

A few facts about Pézenas. It has a population of about 10 000 which seems to multiply massively during the summer months. It lies about 30 minutes north East of Béziers and 45 minutes west of Montpellier. It’s about 30 minutes from the beaches and about 30 minutes from the mountains. In times past it played a far more strategic role in this area than it does now being the seat of regional government – the States General of Languedoc – until the mid XVIIth century and because of this it has a wealth of wonderful
architecture. It is particularly noted for it’s “hôtels particuliers”. Not hotels in the sense of large buildings with lot’s of beds to sleep in, (in fact those are in rather short supply) but rather large period mansions with wonderful wrought iron balconies, stone sculpture and ornate doorways. It’s other claim to fame in is that the playwright Molière spent some time here in the court of Prince of Conti during 1650 and some of his plays are based on his time spent here.

Market Pezenas

The colourfull bag stall in the warm winter sunshine - a must have purchase if you want to look like a local

It’s been really interesting to see the life of our little town through the seasons. We arrived in the autumn just as things were closing down after the summer season. In the winter
everyone seems to shutter themselves away, except for on a Saturday when the market comes to town. On that day we saw our neighbours venturing out to brave the cold weather and sit and have a coffee in the winter sunshine. Since March though our town has slowly been waking up. A bit like a swimmer dipping it’s toe in to test the water and bit by bit venturing in to deeper water we’ve been seeing our neighbours venture out with fewer and fewer layers and spend more time out doors.

flowers pezens

Summer colours - a bourganvilla spilling over the balcony

With warmth has come life and now that the summer is upon us it’s a buzz with festivals, markets and wine tastings. The eclectic artisan shops have opened their doors. The restaurants have come to life, tables spilling on to the street and the wonderful aroma of cooking food wafting in the air. Even mother nature has sprung to life. Window boxes crammed with plants and flowers add a little colour to scene. The evening skies are filled with the cacophony of common swifts calling each other as they dive bomb the unsuspecting insects going about their business.  And as the sun sets and the night sky reveals herself we watch a pair of owls that have a nest on the church tower taking it in turns to go out into the darkness to gather food for their constantly screeching young.

Pezenas market in spring

Piles of fruit and vegetables of the season

The market though has given us particular joy during the seasons, it’s been a kind of barometer as to what month we are in. Unlike the supermarkets filled with fruit and vegetables from all around the world, the local market only has locally produced fruit and vegetables, so in the autumn it was awash with chestnuts and all kinds of fungi and mushrooms. Winter came and with it came the Brassica; cauliflowers, broccoli and cabbages. As the weather started warming up piles of purple and green artichokes festooned the various vegetable stalls to be followed not very shortly after by the most delectable strawberries and asparagus. Now as we move our way into summer ; sweet melons, peaches – blanc, jeune, petit et grand. Now we just await natures next bounties to reveal themselves before we start the cycle again.

Musee de la porte - pezenas

The Door Museum in Pezenas is worth a visit and it's free

So, all in all we’re enjoying life in Pézenas, as Simon always says, “the sun is shining and the wine is cheap”. It’s not necessarily where we will finally end up but it is a wonderful and interesting introduction into “life in Languedoc”, but as we’re still really just settling in and have as yet to find a house to buy there will no doubt be many dramas that will unfold before the story is told.

Festival Pezenas

One of many street parades that we see through the season - this one to celebrate Moliere

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I love Paris in the Springtime

“Why Paris? I hear you say, isn’t this meant to be a blog all about the Languedoc.”? But, I think we are realising that ‘life in Languedoc’ isn’t just about life here, it’s about the lifestyle that we are creating for ourselves by living here. Partly this is the flexibility that not having an employer affords one, not having to submit leave requests and being able to be flexible about how you use your time but, we’re also realising that it’s about being in a part of the country that is accessible to getting away when you want a change of scenery.

A phone call from a friend. They are off to Spain for a few days and have a spare room in the apartment – do we want to join them. Now let us think, do we have any work on Thursday/Friday, no, nothing at the moment, just a few loose end that need to be tied up on Thursday morning but we can be down for Thursday evening. Perfect! Motorway signs to Barcelona have been luring us over the border ever since we arrived and now we are finally going.

Thursday, car packed (why is it you manage to take half the house even when you are only going away for 2 days) and we’re on the road. Down the road, onto the A9 toll road heading towards Barcelona and Spain – here we come. We were just popping over the border to the Costa Brava to a place called Empuriabrava. A couple of hours later and we are pulling up to…


Our 'lovely' apartment in Spain

…Oh, my gosh, the ugliest apartment block on the beachfront. Simon looks at me horrified. I don’t think this is the quite the Spain he had in mind. We go upstairs and thankfully the view is worth it. The vista that opens up before us is of beach, river – not another building in sight and the Pyrenees in the distance. As Kirsty and Phil say, “you would rather be living in the ugly house looking at the beautiful one than in the beautiful one looking at the ugly one”, and I suppose there is some truth in that. As we sat down on the sunny terrace gin and tonic in hand I quickly forgot how ugly our building was looking out over the view.
The next morning, drinking coffee at the cafe downstairs Simon’s phone rings. Can he do the job in Paris next week that we had been told wouldn’t be happening? Mmm, now let us think about that – “bloody hell yes!” This flexible lifestyle thing is great, it all feels too good to be true, well at that moment it really feels good. Mind you it’s not all sunshine and roses. When the work is there it’s great but a few weeks where the phone doesn’t ring and you start feeling pretty damn nervous.

Cadaques Spain, salvidor dali

Cadaques in Spain

Well for the moment we’re in Spain, and Paris is next week so let’s enjoy what we came here for. We spent the day in Cadaques, a typical Spanish fishing town, all whitewashed houses with blue shutters scattered on the hillside around a turquoise green Mediterranean bay. Picture perfect but it must be hell in summer – at this time of the year it is heaven though. A little lunch in the sun in a restaurant overlooking the bay, a walk after to the next bay where Salvador Dali had a house, which is now a museum and then back to the car for a windingdrive back to our apartment. Paris, Paris, I thought this article was about Paris I hear you say. Okay, time to move on I think. The rest of the trip was relaxing, but nothing really worth more of your time. The next day back to Pezenas to plan our trip to Paris.

Eiffel tower in the spring

A spring view of the Eiffel Tower

Our trip to Paris, well okay, I know this is Simon’s job but it is Paris after all, there must be some way I can sling myself along without it costing us a fortune. With a bit of research I worked out that Simon could catch a sleeper up to Paris, get there for 7.30 bleary eyed and straight up to his job or, for the same price he could go up the day before on the cheap iDTGV, stay in a hotel and get up fresh for his job the next day. This also meant that I only had to buy one cheap train ticket and I could go along for the ride. It seemed like a no brainer. So, expenses for the trip signed off by the client, book the train tickets, organise the hotel and we’re ready to go the next day.

A very fast and comfortable train ride up to Paris and by 10.30 we were disembarking at the Gare de Lyon well at least I think it was, most of the station was a very large building site. Over the bridge to the Gare de Austerlitz and we were on the RER on the way to the hotel to drop off our bags before hitting Paris in earnest for the afternoon.

Latin quarter Paris

A little glass of wine in the Latin Quater

What a perfect time to visit Paris. Warm, but not too hot perfect for putting in the miles around the city. The trees just bursting with young green leaves and the blossoms in full bloom. We spent the afternoon wandering from the Eiffel Tower up the Seine to the Notre Dame then over to the Latin Quarter for a little glass of ‘Vin Blanc’ at a pavement cafe watching the world go by. Back to the hotel for a quick lie down and freshen up before dinner and then back out on to the streets of Paris. We didn’t wander far as we had a lively little street lined with cafes and bars just around the corner from the hotel. We found a window seat where we could watch Paris waking up for an evening out, a slight difference from our very quiet backwater that we live in that shuts up at about 6 o’ clock every evening until the tourists arrive.

I opted for the steak tartar – raw minced beef, topped with a raw egg with chopped onion and capers. Our waiter was very anxious about my choice in food. Did Madame know that the meat is raw? Yes, Madame did and it was fine. He was constantly checking up on my progress, was Madame sure that she was enjoying the meal. Yes, thank you Madame really was enjoying it. I assume that he’s had a couple of bad experiences with foreigners and this particular dish.

Nore Dame Paris

Simon playing the tourist in front of the Notre Dame

The next morning Simon got up a little earlier than myself to make the 10-minute journey to the Coca-Cola headquarters where he was working for the day. I had a slightly slower start. Checked out of the hotel and made my way over to the Musée d’Orsay where I was planning to spend the day. Thank goodness I had booked tickets in advance, which meant a half hour wait to get it instead of two hours in the queue. I spent the morning wandering through the museum, which at that time of the year was busy, but you could see everything without standing three abreast. The space that the museum occupies is an old train station with the most incredible rose detailing on its ceilings. I think that I almost enjoyed the actual space more that the paintings.

By lunchtime I needed a break and wandered over the river to the Tuileries Gardens. Groups of Parisians in smart office wear were sitting in groups or by themselves enjoying a few hours away from their desks in the spring sunshine. I pulled up a chair in to the dappled shade and joined them for a few hours thinking of the generations of past Parisians that had done the same thing.

Tuileries gardens Paris

Paris enjoying the spring sunshine in the Tuileries

The afternoon I wandered up to the Musée Orangerie just at the end of the Tuileries, overlooking the Place de Concorde for another shot of artistic upliftment. It’s a small gallery but at that time of the afternoon not too busy. I saw some of my favourite paintings of the day but the highlight was the two oval rooms, which paid homage to Monet’s Waterlillies. The rooms were quiet, only 2-3 other people, I think that for some or other reason most people didn’t realise the rooms were there. It was almost a spiritual experience, heightened by the deadly quiet, apart from the tap of shoes on the cold paving.

Seine Paris

Enjoying the sunshine on the banks of the Seine

The day was drawing to a close, just as I was walking down the Champs Élysées Simon called to say that he had finished earlier than expected. I organised to meet him for a beer before we had to start making our way back to the Gare de Lyon to catch our train back to Montpellier. He met me back at the Musée d’Orsay and we opted for a cold pint under the trees at a cafe in the Tuileries. Gulp, now that wasn’t the gulp of enjoying a cold beer on a warm spring day but the gulp of horror when we saw the bill. Almost 20 Euros for 2 beers. ‘C’est la vie’, we decided it was worth it, it had been a great and unexpected trip and Simon deserved a cold beer after a hard days work, no matter what it cost.

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Our first 3 months

This gallery contains 9 photos.

It’s hard to believe that 3 months have passed since we left England. If I look back its seems like loads has happened but sometimes on a day-to-day level it seems like nothing really happens. On the 11th of October … Continue reading

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Our brand new blog

One of the things I promised everyone before I left was, that I would stay in touch and let everyone know what we were up to. The easiest way to do this seemed to be a blog. Well, now 3 months later I have finally got my ass into gear, done the deed and started writing.

This blog will be about our life here, the up’s and the downs, general advice and links to useful articles to life in France and my discovery of food so pop into the all things foodie section to see a few favourite recipes. Some are food specifically eaten in the local area but somethings are just recipes that I have made up using what can be found in the local shops and markets.

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