First of all, settle down and click on this link to listen to this wonderful version of Happy Xmas (War is Over) by Celine Dion (who I have to confess I am a little bit in love with after seeing how hard she works and how humble she is in the documentary “A new day : Accès Illimité”).
And so, this is Christmas, and what have we done?
As we come to the end of another year, it’s natural to look back and consider what we have achieved, and also, moving forward what do we wish to take into the New Year…and what do we wish to leave behind.
Christmas 2019 was our first one in our new house. Admittedly we only had a shell, and there were big gaps under 5 of the doors. It was cold, but we wrapped up in lots of layers, and had our first, magical Christmas in our new house along with Ryan who was visiting. We were sleeping in the motorhome, Ryan was in the garden house, but during the day we cooked a dinner and sat at our make shift table and just loved being inside our new home on Christmas Day.
That was right at the start of our part of the house build. The shell had been put up, and because I had been so ill in September 2019 and was still recovering, we had made the decision to pay to have the cladding put on – so we had a beautiful looking shell to start work on internally.
So, we started our part on a very unlevel playing field – and to be fair – looking back now, it’s really nothing short of a miracle that we have got as far as we have done.
My right knee was completely knackered, having torn the patella tendon in August 2018, the left one was struggling as it was needing to compensate, I had been rushed to hospital with appendicitis and the operation had left me with a problem in my ileocecal valve. Then I was diagnosed with H-pylori and needed treatment for that which completely floored me for months. 2 general anaesthetics in the space of 3 months left me missing a few brain cells, and I’m not even certain they have fully recovered now to be honest.
Martin’s illness (probable Covid but this was before it was even recognised, way before testing) left him tired, and not as strong physically as he had previously been.
So, we were not really even “one man down” so to speak – more like “one and a half” men down.
What we thought would have been the most exciting time of our lives – a blank canvas to make our own mark on – actually became the biggest challenge of our lives. And sometimes more of a nightmare than the dream that it should have been.
So, laying out clearly our starting point and now reflecting back on where we are, I can see how we should be nothing but extremely proud of what we have achieved.
The house is still not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but we have underfloor heating installed, tiles on the whole of the downstairs, one shower, 3 toilets and 3 hand sinks installed, a kitchen installed (albeit with a temporary worktop – no money for the solid oak one yet and too much messy work to do above it).
The land has been transformed. What was once 8-foot-high bramble wilderness is now tamed, and without any pesticides or heavy machinery we have strimmed and stimmed and strimmed until the grass started to grow, and we have raised beds, a poly tunnel, a flat level just waiting to become a yoga deck someday, and our very own woodland walk for the doggos.
We started up a small scale Chambre D’Hote business this summer (doing bed and breakfast in the Garden House) and loved it. We were late to start, but had the four August weekends fully booked out and everyone visiting loved it, and us! And my cooking!!! That was such a boost to our confidence as we realised, we “can do this”!!
Both of our businesses have suffered due to Covid – and mine has been particularly difficult to get off the ground due to Covid – unfortunately Holistic Therapies have not been deemed as essential services and so the windows of opportunity have been few and far between. But when I have been able to work, I have loved doing it, and my limited (but improving all the time) French has not been as much of a handicap as I may have initially thought it would be. But I do need to keep improving on my language – I have always known that and always intended to become more fluent. But the aforementioned general anaesthetics have certainly not helped my learning capacity, and neither has the Covid restrictions on meeting up and mask wearing – not to mention loss of earnings means no money for French lessons.
Martin’s small gardening services as part of his gite/chambre d’hote registration has helped to keep our heads above water, but it’s important to get a balance between him doing work for others, whilst needing to keep on building this house.
All around us are others whose lives have been seriously impacted by Covid – job and business losses, the frustrations and upset of not being able to travel to visit family. We are certainly not the only ones – in fact we consider ourselves very lucky that being here, in such a beautiful and rural part of the world, with a mostly lovely climate, when we are in our “own little bubble” we can easily forget about the stresses and strains of “life in the midst of a pandemic”. It’s only when we stop and (over) think the implications of not having that freedom to travel when we want/need to that our “bubble bursts” and an ever so slightly feeling of overwhelm and panic takes over.
I mostly try to supress that. It’s not good for me to lay awake at 3 in the morning thinking about what I can’t do. And it’s not good for me and Martin when we are both awake worrying about the same things so I lay awake quietly (sometimes he is doing the exact same thing).
Thank goodness for Skype, and WhatsApp which give us the ability to keep in touch with our nearest and dearest.
Coffee break chats with my darling daughter on a near daily basis which I love and know that no way would I get to actually go for a weekly coffee with her in “real life” if I was living in the UK. And of course, I don’t have to dress up or put make up on ha ha!! So, I embrace this side of Covid 1000%
Long weekly, sometimes twice weekly, catch ups with my lovely son. Sometimes sharing food ideas, and in fact it was him who inspired me to try out a low carb way of eating which has ended up reversing my Type 2 Diabetes.
Lots of lovely phone calls with my mum…. just chatting shit – putting the worlds to rights – and moaning about Boris mostly.
And now that I’ve found my most wonderful childhood friend again the chats that me and Tracey have about the challenges of an “expat life” (her in Montenegro and me in France) would probably make people’s hair curl! I’m sure we will be able to co-write a book some day! It’s so good to have a friend who truly understands the life challenges that moving to another country brings, not really fitting in to either camp – neither the locals, nor the other expats who have maybe lived there for longer, or do things in a different way. That feeling of being more aligned to people in some ways, but then having a language barrier to overcome for example.
Of course, some of the people that we have left behind in the UK don’t fully understand our challenges in our new life, and that’s understandable. They don’t live here, and in some cases have not even visited us here, or seen the house, so when we try to explain this and that – they don’t really get it. And that in itself can feel quite isolating. We try to explain what we are doing, but it’s hard when they haven’t seen the land (before the house) or the house itself, or met our friends and neighbours.
I do miss my Uncle Peter for that – even though he had never been out here – he was really good at being at the end of the phone to help with “technical solutions”. And of course, every single day I repeat that mantra of his “keep on keeping on, even when it’s hard”. I’m certain he still helps in spirit form. Just the other day Martin was really stuck with something, and I was watching him standing on the terrace trying desperately to bang the stair treads into the stringers on our new stair case – and it just wouldn’t go. And I said to Uncle Peter in my head “come on Peter, help us now”. Martin didn’t know I said it, but he took a few moments out and then suddenly, “miraculously” even – it all came together.
So many people have spurred us on, and encouraged us, and helped in so many other ways – it’s impossible to list every person, but Sian visiting us twice this year after such a long hiatus of travel restrictions has been the absolute highlight; Heidi coming out for a working holiday and doing raised beds, installing a polytunnel, building steps, and tiling a bedroom was a real boost to us in both morale and progression of work; regular chats with people on Skype, WhatsApp, and the phone; gifts of money to get specific things done (Mum, where would we be without you – half a stair case short ha ha); loans of items to get jobs done; and loans of money to help us get back on track; friends popping round to help move heavy things; the collective “hive brain” that is Claudia and Will thrashing out technical measurement; multiple people giving Martin the boot up the arse to make that “drastic cut” on the staircase – and yay!! It worked!!; our family members understanding that we are “boot strap brassick” at the moment so Santa is being a bit bah humbug in our household this year. All that and more, helps so much, and we would have given up a long time ago had it not been for all of this.
And of course, the friends in France who come over to have some fun, fun, fun when we host parties!
When we (admittedly mostly I, with the help of our architect who somehow got into my head and extrapolated the perfect house from the disjointed wish list of things I wanted to be able to do) designed this house, my number one specific “wish” was to be able to have wonderful parties. So, the terrace to provide a seamless extension of the interior with 2 doubles and 1 huge triple doorway, and the open plan living space which can be moved around to suit just about every occasion, is my absolute biggest “house design” achievement to date! And to be fair – will be the only one as there is no way I am ever doing this again!! We built this house with the intention of living here forever, and “covid and Brexit double catastrophe” permitting that’s what we will do.
So, those relationships with all our wonderful people will come forward into the New Year where they will be nurtured and cherished and through “hell or high water” we will do our upmost to make sure we keep those bonds going.
But, on the less positive side, we have learned some hard lessons this year and there is of course the inevitability that some people, some things, some attitudes, and some beliefs will have to be left behind.
It’s funny how a New Year really does focus the mind on what we wish to keep and what we wish to discard eh?
For our part, we have lots of discussions about how our original perception was (looking back really quite naively) that just simply being an immigrant would automatically bond us with others. We are now firmly set in our resolution to let go of that concept that it’s worth hanging on to relationships that are really hard work, because in spite of us all being English speaking, we just are not on the same wave length as some people. And we will focus on the people that feel “right for us” whether they are English, Dutch, Belgian, French, Australia, Filipino or even Martian ha ha! Whether they are here in Villefranche, here in France, back in the UK, or indeed in other parts of the world.
Martin and I are both honest, straightforward and down to earth people, and see and appreciate that in other people. If we like people they know it, and (with me especially) if we don’t like people – they also know it. But we have been quite stunned at how much “dog eat dog”, and “two facedness” there has been. It’s been explained off as a coping strategy, a way to manage life in quite difficult surroundings, but both of us would much rather sit with people (whether face to face or on a Skype call ha ha) with people who are straight. Life is way too short to be second guessing what someone’s motives might be. And we don’t want to take up space in people’s lives if they don’t want us there. We believe that it is enough for us to give space in our lives to those people who will give us space in their lives, and moving forward we will consciously and mindfully stop trying to fit where we don’t fit.
Also, I hope that some of the fear we have felt in this last year will subside as we move forward into a New Year. For me, a lot of the fear exists because I don’t like having the house unfinished, knowing that we still have some way to go to get “signed off”. Also, for lots of reasons I don’t feel I would manage well if I were to be here on my own for any reason – say if Martin had to fly back to the UK for an emergency. That’s mostly because up until this week we have had a temporary stair case and the combination of my knackered knees and blood sugar induced dizziness provides a terrifying experience for me first thing in the morning and last thing at night as I clambered up or down the rickety thing we borrowed with no banister!
Sleeping downstairs is not yet an option as the bedroom will be a tool store until we get another shed up (soon!!). There’s still a lot of the aspects of life here I can’t really manage on my own, even just walking both dogs on a “bad day” is out of the question as Lillie senses my weakness and plays me up all the more when Martin is not around.
But all this is getting better as we move towards completion, but also as my health improves.
I am acutely aware that many people do not understand my health problems as I look “normal” ha ha! If normal is a thing. Working with people with hidden disabilities for many, many years I learned that this is a common problem. In many ways a person is better off having an obvious physical disability than stuff that people can’t see. I know people over here have not understood this as a so called “friend” told me I was lying when I tried to explain that I was struggling with my French even more than normal because I could not lip read when people are wearing masks. So, if someone who knew me well thought that what must other people think that don’t know I have ADP (auditory processing disorder)? Additionally, when my blood sugar goes high, I don’t suddenly grow two heads, but I might as well do as that is what it feels like to me – it feels as if my head is spinning around and around, it feels like the floor is moving, and I can’t see right. But, no one can see that so they probably just think I’ve gone a bit daft. But it’s all these little things that make me feel “afeared” of being left on my own in France.
So, we have the approach that if we go to the UK, we go together, at least until the house is finished and less of a building site and more of a liveable home. However, since re-connecting with Tracey and realising that she is all on her own, all of the time in Montenegro, that really does inspire me to put on my big girl pants and get over that fear (which I will do…. just as soon as the house is less unsafe).
Fear of what bullshit the UK and French Governments are going to come up with next is another big worry. Currently there is some ambiguity over whether British Citizens who are not French Resident can travel across France to get back to Spain even though they hold Spanish Residency. It feels very much as if the Governments are determined to punish “us” – the immigrants, for our “country of birth” leaving the EU. Most of the people who voted for that are sat in their front rooms blissfully unaware of the chaos in the wake of Brexit – but we are caught up in the turbulence and it’s frightening to think what will happen next.
So, actually, although some days it seems to us that we haven’t moved forward much at all, when we consider everything that we have had on our plates – we really have achieved so much.
I am prouder than proud of my husband. He’s not a builder, or a plumber, a tiler, or an electrician, or indeed a tradesman of any kind. He wasn’t even a keen Do It Yourself’er. Me….ha ha, I guess you could say I’m the one with the big ideas…the creative input…. but absolutely no clue on how to put it all together.
Yet somehow, (mostly Martin, with a bit of help from me, a lot of help from friends, a lot of encouragement from the side lines) we have managed to get this far.
We have a beautiful house that when people visit for the first time they go “wow” as they drive up the driveway, and we still say “wow” when we drive up every time!
We can (and do) practice yoga on our terrace as the sun comes up – yes even in December!! And what is even better is that we have found other people to do it with us! As well as starting up a French/English Conversation Group I have also started up a “Sunriser Club” as I feel passionate about bringing like-minded people together – to both help them feel less isolated in the Winter months and also to help us find our “tribe” of like-minded people. Even though we have made a few errors of judgement along the way, we put that behind us and keep on looking for those people who will love us the way we are and we will love them just the way they are.
We don’t intend to live with OSB on the walls for ever, but a part of us likes the fact that it hides the cobwebs (only joking – the plasterboard is HIGH on our list of priorities for 2022). But to be fair, the white painted OSB did make very a very unique backdrop for our Christmas decorations this year.
We are for the most part, very happy in our lives in France, and it is only problems induced by either Brexit or Covid that rob us of our joy, so we continue in our belief that nothing is permanent and it will get better
We wish for everyone a truly happy 2022 full of laughter, love and joy, and we wish for ourselves the same of course, but as well as that, it would be really lovely if (thank you very much in advance universe) if we could find that little extra bit of self-belief that we need to “keep on keeping on – even when it’s hard”.
This evening as we celebrate our New Year’s Eve, we won’t be having the big party that we had hoped for pre-Covid, we will be quietly celebrating with a nice meal, and a glass of Champagne, and (hopefully) under the stars we will have a fire pit and burn slips of paper on which we have written the things that we wish to leave behind in the past. Simple rituals like that seem to have more meaning for us in this new life than eating and drinking copious amounts of food and drink.
Happy New Year – out with old and in with the new. I can’t help feeling that there is a special kind of significance in us returning the borrowed staircase on the last day of the year, and waving farewell to it, and all that it represents as we move into next year