It’s always chaotic moving into a new house, but when yours is deep in the heart of rural France and abides within the curly streets of a mediaeval town, with not an English-speaker in sight, you know there are going to be some humourous challenges.
At last we arrived in Belvès, around 4.30 p.m. on Wednesday 6 February, having spent the night curled by the fire at a friend’s house some 200 kilometres away, drinking wine, eating fine French food, and jawing the night away in joyful reminiscences. In Australia, “200 kilometres away” in the country means two hours’ drive (or less if Mr Plod is not around), correct? We had time up our sleeves for a fabulous (English) breakfast, and departed around lunch time.
Two hundred kilometres through rural France, however, is not two hours.
On finally consulting Google Maps, we learned the most direct route would take three and a half hours. Oopsies. Once you are off the main auto routes, the A, (Motorway), N (National) and E (Europe) roads, you get to tackle D roads. These are maintained by local councils and are as variable as Roquefort is to Camembert. I mean the cheeses. The maximum speed we could travel was 70 kph, with frequent roundabouts in tiny villages along with a small Himalayan mountain crossing. A wrong turn in Périgueux left me trying to figure out if the D7 would be a better option than the D953, because its number was closer to one. It wasn’t; but we saw some mighty pretty country, and found another rubbish tip, which we are particularly good at driving into thinking they are the “second exit”, as well as another Himalayan mountain crossing.
Four hours later, we rolled into Belvès, it was nearing dark, the owner had changed the front door key code, and we’d lost that email, resulting in the neighbours being aroused to let us in. The neighbours, Jose and Rose, yes it’s funny, speak no English, but do play charades rather well.
Once inside our 16th century, three storey, three bedroom house, we found the owners had ordered the heaters to be left on, and delivered us champagne and chocolates. It was “home” immediately.
After a cursory exploration, our first challenge was transporting 72 kilos of possessions up a narrow, almost fully spiral wooden staircase, that ascends immediately and vertically up to the bedroom level. Those 13 irregularly spaced wooden steps were navigated one step at a time, with us on either end of a very large bag, huffing and puffing like the wolf in The Three Little Pigs. In our case, our three little piggies were three bulging suitcases, each weighing in excess of 20 kilos.
We found enough hanging space and racks across three bedrooms, to install our clothes, a number of which went into the wash, for playing with the French washing machine later.
As the fridge naturally was empty of food, it became imperative we dashed out again to the local Spar supermarket – it’s the equivalent of a small IGA in Australia – to buy some dinner and breakfast provisions. At last we were doing our own shop! What should have been a leisurely stroll through shelves and shelves of gorgeous French food became “difficult”.
As tourists, we have bought frequently, and often, in France what tourists buy, i.e.: cheese, wine, olives, biscuits, bread, preserves, salad greens, dressing and fruit. When you are buying to actually cook and eat something, it is worlds’ different. You need essentials like flour, cream, toilet paper (thank heavens plentiful in the house), cooking oil, butter, meat, vegetables, yoghurt, pepper, herbs as well as cheese, wine, olives, biscuits, bread, etc. A quick whisk through the turnstiles simply is not possible when all packaging is foreign.
At first it was fun, pointing our phones at various items, and using Google Translate to tell us what the contents were. Farine is flour, although the packet looks like porridge, flavoured with oie means goose not olives, mais doux (“but sweet”?) is sweet corn, which we were intelligent enough to spot from the picture on the can, and persil is not an old brand of soap powder, but parsley. Estragon is not oregano, it is tarragon, while origan meets the former need. More mystifying was sel, I mean we all know it means salt, correct? – but what was sel rose de l’Himalaya? – we were reminded of the two mountain passes we had tackled today and decided not to buy pink salt from Kathmandu.
Armed with two weeks’ worth of provisions and two years’ worth of herbs and spices, we went to McDonald’s. (pause)
This is not true, although didn’t I say that’s always the thing you do once in a strange town? Fortunately, there is no McDonald’s, nor any other chain of fast food in Belvès, as we were to discover the next day. This first night we relied on a trusted and true favourite, fresh ravioli heated in bottled Bolognese sauce, liberally sprinkled with origan, basilic and persil, and a laurier to boot. Look that one up for yourself! Wine and cheese finished the meal, and a sneaky Sablés with thé.
As it was now three degrees outside, we felt we had to warm the bedroom and bathroom before sleeping. This was easy. We turned up the modern heating.
One is always a little wary of how much one will sleep in a new bed. As Keith romantically had carried me over the threshold on arrival, I was expecting a reasonably active night. Of course, I refer to the fact we are two Seniors with the usual range of fused back, broken back, recently repaired broken feet and bursitis in both hips. What were you thinking? The Bed looms in importance for needing to be large, comfortable and warm for our ailing bodies.
All night-time descriptions cease here, but let me tell you now about waking up. Our house is made of stone and constructed when Queen Elizabeth was on the throne. I mean the First. Fortunately, it has had a renovation and modernisation when Liz Two was the English incumbent. However, old medieval houses, and even modern houses in France, are fitted with wooden window shutters for warmth, security, night time darkening, and edging those adorable potted-plant photographs we take in Summer of stone medieval houses.
We had forgotten, as we didn’t know – it was dark after all – to close ours. On my first morning in Belvès, I was awakened at 0800 by a full bright sun streaming onto my face. This ailing body actually ran to the window to see the sublime view and hear the myriad birds. And right there my love affair began. I was sleeping in a wonderful bed with a wonderful guy. My things were unpacked; I had “nested”. There was food in the fridge, warmth in the air, the prospect of châteaux, caves, rivers, markets and food ahead, with birdsong arching over all.
I know in future Acting Classes when I am asked to visualise my “Happy Place”, my heart shall return to this, precise, exact moment and this precise, exact feeling. I call it, “Deeply Contented Happiness”, and believe I shall suffer from it every day.
Chapter 10: WWW – The Wonders of WiFi and Washing