In Australia there are regional variations to the language and words that we use. For example, in Queensland we say "togs", however in NSW they are usually called "swimmers", and in more southern and western parts of Australia, they are termed "bathers" (of course they are ubiquitously known as "budgie smugglers across Australia!).
Togs are not alone. A "car boot" is called other things in various parts of Australia (e.g. trunk), as is "port" (e.g. bag, suitcase, case etc), and many others (potato scallop, drinking fountain, sausage sizzle, rubbish bin, etc. PhD theses have been written on the issue of regional variations of lexical usage and there are "word maps" readily available on-line!
The national results are in ....
This survey of over 110,000 people to date has found that 59.77% of respondants would say pain au chocolat, with 40.22% going for chocolatine. The results reveal that "chocolatine" voters are hugely congregated in the south west of the country.
And in Verteuil?
The problem I have is that Verteuil is in situated on the cusp, on the vague demarcation line between the south west region and the rest of the country - in the "chocolatine - pain au chocolat hot zone". There are 1441 respondants to the abovementioned survey to date in the departement of Charente. 90% indicated that they use the term "chocolatine". However, interestingly, it seems that our little village of Verteuil bucks the trend.
2.45am and the jet lag has really kicked in. 2.45am and wide awake. We have just scoffed down a packet of plain biscuits with cheese slices and a left over baguette with some absolutely beautiful cherry cognac jam that we picked up from La Régie while popping in for a coffee and rosé. Now, just waiting for the effects of the remaining half of the serapax I took half an hour ago to force the onset of sleep - the first half being taking at 6pm yesterday evening, which seemed to work until ten minutes past midnight when I escaped the over-warmth of the internal heating upstairs and wandered down to the living room to take up camp on the sofa, trying to force the onset of sleep.
No success … so an hour of face book. Still no success, so a quick scan of work emails (while Sunday night here, it is well and truly all stations at hand in the office on Monday back home). Now joined by Don and a cup of tea later, along with some lychees bought at the Verteuil Christmas market an hour after our arrival from driving down from Paris yesterday, plus the aforementioned cognac jam, bread and cheese, I can sense a dampening of my attention, measured by the number of times I am having to go back and correct my spelling here.
The drive down from Paris was a trip immersed in low visibility fog for the entire 400km journey – the whole of the country must be blanketed in the dense soup. We arrived early afternoon and after freshening up, wandered up the street to the annual Christmas market in the salles de fêtes of la mairie. We dropped in to see Virginie and Benoît at La Demeure des Roses, always a pleasure to see and managed to secure an invitation to see the work they are doing on their property at Nanteil tomorrow. We also saw Jan and Adam in the street, picked our first Christmas decorations at the market and popped into La Régie to sit by the fire for a while and met some occasional inhabitants of the village.
It was good to see that there are now three resident geese at the main weir along with a large gaggle of ducks (not sure what the colective noun for ducks is?). Then, asleep on the couch by 6.30pm. I’d pay €100 for a cure for jet lag!!
Enjoying the warmth of La Regié, Verteuil-sur-Charente
It's 3.30am in the morning and I have been up since 2am, posting and browsing on facebook, waiting for just a little sign to fatigue to set in. Frustrating, the more I attempt to force my self to sleep, the less success I seem to have. A first world problem, I know. Nothing much is happening outside - let's face it, Verteuil is a quiet village at the best of times, but it's absolutely comatose at this time of the morning. Wide awake now, but I know that I will pay for this wakefulness later today by dreariness.....
After a similar 3am start yesterday morning, it was a restful day here in the middle of rural France. Apparently it was the first day of summer here, but despite this there was a little chill in the air, grey and characteristic European low-hanging clouds keeping the sun at bay for most of the day. Much of the day was spent in Ruffec, doing three or four loads of washing, buying provisions from LeClerc [note to self, 1. wear warm clothes next time - it is freezing in there!... and 2. I need to write about the French obsession with the yoghurt and dessert aisles in shopping centres here some time!!] and visiting the local hardware stores for odds and ends. Even managed to give the gardening gloves and garden shears we picked up a work out in our overgrown and sorry excuse of a courtyard. Yes, I think that this will be my "project" for the next couple of weeks - make some sense out of the first-level terrace out the back. The first level of the house is built into a cliff, the second level (living room and kitchen opens onto a small courtyard, and then terraces upward, three or four terraces to St Médard, the 12th century church (and the cemetery). The terraces are terribly overgrown, accessible by crumbling stone steps. We had the terraces semi cleared last year but despite an understanding with Andy, who did the clearing for us, to keep the area maintained, this has not been done and the vegetation has taken over again. So, we will concentrate on getting the first terrace above the courtyard in reasonable shape. Andy has done some levelling work which I will need to finish, and he has planted some roses, which I will add to. I will complete the levelling and the intention is to lay some flag stones and plant out the area. We'll see how that goes.
We were invited to Pam's birthday celebration yesterday evening. The invitation came via a call from the street, Rue du Temple, through our window. We had heard of Pam and her friend Brenda from Jenny and Jan who had just stayed in our house, and also from Wendy and Mark, who stayed here last October. Regular visitors to Verteuil, these two friends are from Adelaide, and happened upon Verteuil three or four years ago. We enjoyed the hospitality and met quite a few of the local British ex-pat community ..... but after a couple of hours we could feel the jet lag rolling in and we wandered home. I expect that we will see many of them again tonight at Virginie and Benoit's La Demeure des Roses, as they are hosting a musical soirée there tonight.
So, this afternoon a nap will be necessary to counter the ongoing ravages of jet lag ........
“What the [expletive] did you go and do that for?”, “How will you look after it?”, “Why corner yourself into always returning to the same place on holiday?”, “It’s so far away!”.
A convergence of circumstances had brought me to the point of taking a deep breath and diving head first into making an offer on the little stone terrace house in the centre of an enchanting and tranquil little village on the gentle Charente river. The complex motivations ranged from the enjoyment and challenge of using a smattering of school boy french (albeit Québec french) garnered from my exchange student experience north of Montréal over three decades ago; the thrill of immersion in another culture and language - an opportunity completely foreign to the vast majority of Australians; the serendipity of being just a little familiar with the local area due to two previous visits to the local Charente region thanks to my aunt and uncle owning a little house in a local hamlet close-by to Verteuil; the seduction of the tremendous sense of history of that part of the world; the future possibilities of spending periods of time in this beautiful, and very contrasted environment when compared to the Australian context; and an interesting, slightly exotic legacy to pass down the line.
The offer on the house was made by me through Joan of the immobilier in the local village of Villefagnon, from the northern Spanish city of Logrono after our first week of walking the camino de Santiago de Compostela. It was accepted the following day. Properties in rural France can stay on the market for years and I guess once an offer is made, they are seriously considered - the next offer may not be for another 12 months! This is the reason I would always counsel people that buying a house in rural France shouldn’t be considered an investment option - you just can’t turn them over quickly and the average appreciation rate isn’t exactly hurtling upward.
After approximately five years of scanning french property real estate web sites, one came across my radar in Verteuil-sur-Charente, a little village of about 680 persons (across the commune) that I had previously visited and with which I was somewhat familiar. It was difficult to form a mental image of the property from the photos posted on the site, but as we were due to take some time over there from May 2014, I placed it on our list of two to check out if we found the time.
The little house ticked most boxes on our wish list. As a terrace house, it is not grand, but will be low maintenance as there are no huge grounds to keep in check. It is simple and charming. It provides some outdoor living in a back courtyard that needs
work, but has potential. It had recently been renovated inside. The owner was an elderly retired artisan who used the house as a family holiday place. His wife had died and his two grown children, around my age, had no interest in it. The house has
the infrastructure for internal heating installed (hmmm…, but that’s another story …).
The house is close to the centre of the village. The village has some commerce including one or two restaurants, a gift shop, tea salon, antique store, pharmacy and such, and is close to the local town of Ruffec and the regional cities of Angoulême and Poitiers. The house is steps away from a beautiful little river and you can see the local château down the street from the living room windows.
The history is rich - the chateau has been built on since the year 1080 and has six fairytale, “Rapunzel, let down your hair” turrets. It played a role in the Hundred Years War across the 14th and 15th centuries when at various times both the English and the French were in control of it. It has been damaged, demolished, restored a number of times across its history. In the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries the château was a base for Huguenot forces. It suffered extensive fire damage during the French Revolution. During World War II the château housed French troops and refugees from Alsace-Lorraine in 1940 and for several months it was partially occupied by some German units. The demarcation line that separated Free France from Occupied France ran through the Charente département and Angoulême in the early years of WWII. There is a 12th century church behind our house, just up a long set of crumbling external stone stairs and to the left of the property. The terrace row we are situated in was constructed around 1775 (if you can believe the date etched into the stone plaque embedded above the door of one of the dwellings in the terrace row) - pre-French revolution.
So, the first offer on the little house in Verteuil was accepted. It was a surprise, not entirely expected. But this set in motion a roller coaster ride of dealing with the French bureaucracy during the purchasing period, that after many months, resulted in a ridiculously cheap and small mortgage (compared to Australian standards) from a french bank.
I know people who have higher value car loans.
The house is now furnished and ready to welcome friends and others to share the beautiful region. The title of this blog entry is sustaining a little house that is so far away. To date, it hasn’t proven so difficult. Once contacts are made with key local people who can assist with minor works and accessing tradespersons when necessary, most arrangements can occur relatively simply by email. There is a log of works still to occur at the house. Some of these will occur in the lead up to our first guests in mid May, such as:
1. Repainting some of the ground floor ceiling, stained as a result of a flooding event in October 2015 - just after the ceiling was painted for the first time. The flooding was due to a blocked and overwhelmed drain in the back courtyard after storms. Water couldn’t escape from the courtyard and overflowed into the kitchen and through the floor to the level below.
2. Draining the existing oil from the oil tank in the cave, or cellar, and then removing the existing oversized oil tank ready for replacement with a smaller tank later in the year. Hopefully the heating will be ready for the next winter.
3. Finishing the garden on the rear terrace. The back part of the property is made up of three or four terraces connected by rough stone steps that rise up to the church grounds. The terraces were overgrown and strewn with centuries old rubble at purchase. Now they have been largely cleared. Concerted effort is being directed to the first terrace level that has already been cleared and levelled, and now is ready is to be planted out. Perhaps some rose bushes and potted olive trees?
4. A minor roof repair to fix a minor leak into the third floor bathroom. Hey, one has to forgive a 250 year old (plus) house for one or two leaks!
5. A new oven and stove top. At the moment two portable, electric hot plates and a microwave are the go. More than suitable, but no good if one is into baking or roast dinners!
6. The Charente region is terrific for cycling - there are many published cycle trips available in the local area. Also, during summer, the river can be quite busy with people enjoying canoeing on its gentle waters. We’ll be on the look out for second hand cycles and canoes to keep in our cave for enjoyment in future years.
France and Australia seem a long distance from each other - actually, Verteuil is 16 881km from Brisbane, Australia. However, it only takes a day, or 24 hours, to get to Paris, France from Brisbane, and then another 3 hours by train to Verteuil. Easy!
Scenes around Verteuil-sur-Charente
Buying a bed in France. Surely, a simple, straight-forward task. A matter of selecting a bed, arranging delivery and setting it up in the bedroom of the house in Verteuil. Well, experience has now told us that nothing is necessarily as simple as it may sound in this lovely country.
Knowing that it may take some time to arrange delivery of some of the larger items that our house in Verteuil would need, and due to the fact that we were only in Verteuil for a total of three weeks to set the house up, we knew purchasing a bed was high on the list of “things to do”.
Lesson number one … Interestingly, the size of beds and mattresses are not described as “single”, “double”, “queen” or “king” sized in France. They are simply purchased according to their measurements. In our case we wanted a bed that was “180cm x 200cm”. The same goes for sheet and doona/bedspread sizing. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but articulating a single word in French to numerous shop assistants such as “single” or “double” (these two are easy as they are the same word in either English or French), or perhaps “reine” or “roi” (forget the horrors of the french “r” for the moment!) is a lot less intimidating than saying a multitude of times that you are looking for a bed that is “cent quatre-vingt par deux cent centimetres”!!
Day 3, the first business day of our stay, saw us buy a mattress in Ruffec. Ruffec is a town, about the size of Laidley (Queensland) and 7 km from Vertueil. We arranged it to be delivered the following week. Easy! Confidence growing….
The mattress was delivered as anticipated. The bedroom is on the third level of the little terrace house, the second level accessed by a little staircase that does a dog-leg on itself and changes direction as it rises. As we discovered this does not leave a lot of room for a queen size (sorry, a cent quatre-vingt par deux cent centimetres) mattress to fit. After a lot of huffing and squeezing, pushing and shoving, it popped up onto the second level like a champagne cork blowing.
Next, the actual bed. A quick stocktake of all the stores in Ruffec that we thought may sell bed-frames was undertaken, and despite our simple tastes, nothing in the style we were after could be found in Ruffec.
We eventually found a bed in the catalogue of a popular store in France called “Maison du Monde”. There is a store in Angoulême, the regional city closest to Verteuil, only 35 minutes or so away. So, a trip to Angoulême was in order, the first of many to look for, procure, arrange delivery of, and in some cases – return, many of the items that it takes to set up a tiny house in the French country-side. Like a number of other items, delivery couldn’t be organized during the time we were still in Verteuil, but fortunately the couple who will be looking after the house while we are in Australia and who will also be welcoming guests to the house, Allan and Lynn, were able to assist with all deliveries.
A week or so later Allan asked us when the “lattes” were arriving. “Excuse-moi?”
Apparently, in France, when buying a bed it is not just a matter of buying a mattress and bed frame. The bed ensemble would just not be complete (and quite useless) without a third essential component. The “lattes”, sometimes referred to as “le sommier” is a wooden frame with slats that fits inside the bed frame and supports the mattress. Why it is sold separately is beyond me, except it is perhaps due to the fact that you can buy lattes with varying degrees of firmness (the slats are taut and are constructed with a little “give” in them). Of course there are beds in Australia that have slats. However, these slats are rolled up and in my experience, without exception come with the bed frame.
This is a great example how one’s cultural background and experience, even in silly little details like this, can lead us to take things for granted and end in little bemusing surprises. So, off to Ruffec to find where to buy a set of lattes, and then arrange to get these to the house.
So, mattress delivered, lattes delivered, bed frame due to be delivered in a couple of weeks time with Allan set to rendez-vous with the delivery guys who have agreed to contact him half an hour prior to arrival on a set day. Weeks after arriving back in Australia we received an email from Allan saying that the delivery guys had arrived without notice and as no one was at the house, they left. On contacting Maison du Monde a couple of days later, the self-described “big boss-lady” (but that’s another story), said that unfortunately the bed had been sold (hmmmm….), and it would take another month to have another to be redelivered. That would be fine except for the fact that we had friends due to arrive to stay ….
Wendy, a friend from our gym and her husband Mark were due to stay in Verteuil for two weeks as part of a month long trip to Europe to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Milestone wedding anniversary and no bed! Just saying!!
Allan’s solution was to borrow a bed from Kathryn and Kevin, who have a lovely stone house in Mouton, a little hamlet about 12 km from Verteuil. After the ok from Kathryn and Kevin (my aunty and uncle), Allan and his son retrieved their bed. Not an easy exercise as Kathryn and Kevin’s staircase must be narrower than ours – the bed had to be lowered out through their bedroom window on the second floor!
So, the foreign bed was ensconced in our house in Verteuil in time for Wendy and Marks’s visit. As a happy ending to this tale, our bed was delivered 3 months after purchase and set up nicely in its place. At the time of writing, it remains unslept in – hopefully ready for our first guests in 2016.
This morning we returned from a hectic three weeks in Verteuil-sur-Charente in mid-south-west France, in the Poitou-Charente region of France. The purpose of this whirlwind trip was to furnish a little house, and make it habitable and comfortable. We want to use it next year, but also, we had some groups of friends and colleagues planning to stay at our house in Verteuil, the first couple in just two weeks from now.
It has been a hectic, busy and fun experience over the last three weeks making final preparations for making our little stone terrace house habitable. We met the lady who owns the house next door the evening before we left the village. She comes every evening to attend to them - we were wondering who feeds and waters the 10 chickens in the back plot. When I confirmed with her that she doesn't actually live there, she gasped and cried "mais non, it is not habitable!!"
Our house is now almost all furnished, but still some work to be completed in the next two weeks before some friends arrive to stay for a week.
Allan will be painting the outdoor patio area and the ceiling of the ground floor. Plus his son will be revarnishing the outside shutters at the front of the house.
Andy the plumber will be putting in a new toilet on his third visit here.
Paul the electrician will be installing new light fittings, and trying to fix the stove top and oven.
And we still need to take delivery of the bed (we have been sleeping on mattresses on the floor this week); plus a convertible sofa for downstairs; and a replacement glass cabinet that was damaged during its first delivery.
Plus a little bit of landscaping by Andy the gardener, which will be a work in progress over the next couple of years.
The last day in Verteuil consisted of rest, coffee and pineau by the river, a few internal house photos to post on the house's web site, a quick trip into Ruffec to buy a toilet roll holder (so glad we are getting rid of the current pink toilet and roll holder!), and then drive into Angoulême to catch the TGV to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
Where did this adventure begin? .... While Don and I were in Europe last year, not only did we walk the 800 km pilgrimage of the camino de Santiago de Compostela (from St Jean Pieds de Port in France to Santiago in Spain), but we also managed to pick up this cute little stone house in France. This was very exciting and has been a dream of mine for a number of years. The buying process was a very long and very French experience! And we thought stamina was needed to finish the camino!!
Our house is a small 18th century stone terrace house in the beautiful little village of Verteuil-sur-Charente, or Verteuil (pronounced “Ver-toy”). Verteuil is set on the Charente river just under three hours south of Paris by TGV. The village has a lovely, quaint character and its magnificent château, or castle, is just down the street! Verteuil is surrounded by sunflower fields and dozens of other historic villages and hamlets. It’s a great area, and we love it!!
When I first saw the advertisement for this little house back in Australia in late 2013/early 2014, I popped it in my “favourites”, revisited it a couple of times, and then it promptly took place along with a number of others in the back of my mind and deep in the memory banks of my computer. I had been receiving a number of weekly listings of French houses for sale for about 5 years, an on-going hobby. Looking primarily around the south western regions of Poitou-Charente, Aquitaine and Limousin, there was plenty of stock!
During our second week in France of a five month séjourn in Europe in 2014, and after a few emails to and from Joan the real estate agent, we had a look at this tiny house in Verteuil. It piqued our interest straight away. Verteuil was already a favourite village from previous trips – a quaint little village nestled into the lovely Charente river, a classic château, a nice selection of shops and cafés, and close to the town of Ruffec (5 km) and the regional city of Angoûleme. A week later, at the end of our first week walking the camino de Compostela, we made an offer over the phone, and that put in train the long, bureaucratic and phenomenally frustrating, but exciting and rather exotic process of buying a property in France. It finally became ours in November 2014, and we spent our first night in the house (sleeping on the floor) on 9 July 2015.
Mum, Don and I descended on Verteuil in June/July this year to help furnish and fit out the house. Over the coming years we would love to share this little piece of France with family and friends. If you are planning to visit Europe in the future, don’t just set your sights on Paris. Think about an experience in regional France to experience a slice of the real France - la France Profonde!