Monday, September 22, 2008

Franglaise Au Sud

JUNE 21st 2008
After so many farewells that my liver was in dire danger of collapse, we arrived in the South of France ten days ago having left the UK on the hottest day of the year so far, in fact possibly the only hot day of the summer, looking like the Clampits in a car packed with two stressed cats, a dog, two kids and everything we had forgotten to put on the removal lorry.
My husband Iain assured me we would arrive about 10am at our new home – a Provencal villa in Le Bar sur Loup, perhaps one of the prettiest villages on the Cote d’Azur - and be able to get straight into the house. Instead we arrived at 6am and had to break into the garden lugging a huge cage as the cats were about to collapse with stress and heat exhaustion. I would happily have killed for a Starbucks at that point. We waited three hours for the sister of the owner to come and let us in.
Opened the door to be greeted by piles of dust and rubble everywhere, windows you can’t see through because they are so grimy and three loos which don’t work properly. The house hasn't been lived in for three years, but somehow it looked much dirtier and unloved than when we viewed it in April. I found a bucket, broom and mop and have spent pretty much every day since cleaning.
The removals men arrived in a 50 tonne articulated truck which couldn’t get down our drive or the road leading to our drive because both resemble black runs in a ski resort so Iain had to hire a smaller van in Grasse and the guys had to transfer everything (100 + boxes) as well as furniture into the small van before dropping off each load on our drive. Then the van got stuck on the drive and Iain had to tow it off in our Jeep, crashing into next doors fence in the process and ruining one of the tyres. What a way to meet your new neighbours! Our burly removal men couldn’t wait to leave, telling us it was the most difficult move they have ever done.
To make it look a bit more like home, Iain hung a valuable painting we bought years ago on the wall only for it to crash to the floor and smash where the hook had worked itself loose. The spiral staircase is a nightmare....the cats won't go up or down it and the dog can go up but not down so keeps getting stranded at the top and has to wait for one of us to carry her not insignificant chubby body down again.
And last night, just when we thought we were pretty sorted, the electric gate gave up which means we all have to shimmy through a fence, clamber across rocks and jump down a four foot stone wall every time we want to come in or out.
But in spite of all that, we have not had a cross word since we arrived. The weather has been beautiful (we so picked the right moment to leave the UK) and waking up and seeing mountains outside the bedroom window instead of grey clouds and hearing birds singing instead of the sound of boy racers hurtling down the road is something I will never take for granted.
Iain has started doing pilates by the pool with me every far he's up to 20 mins but keeps collapsing in a pool of sweat and moaning about how boring exercise. I'm not giving up on him or that belly!
Our two girls, Issy, eight and Livvy, 13, are settling in brilliantly. After loads of rows and spats they are really getting on - no TV, friends or language skills is probably the reason but long may it last. They are both checking out their new schools on Monday and are a bit nervous I think.
The house has great potential although it will take a lot of work and money to turn it from the shabby unloved space it is now into the light airy contemporary house we dream of. We only have one set of neighbours, an Italian couple, in their 70s. He speaks no French and she stops for a half hour chat every time she sees me. She has lived here for 57 years but still speaks with a heavy Italian accent so a lot of the time I haven’t a clue what she is saying, I just nod a lot and say ‘d’accord’. She gives us plums and tomatoes from her garden and at the moment she has 20 relatives from all over France staying with her! We miss our friends and family but can honestly say we are not missing the UK at all. We will be on Broadband in ten days, in the meantime I am using the connection at the local hotel, a converted chateau complete with lovely waiters, magnificent views and great coffee. Could it be any better?

JUNE 27th 2008
The weather is unbelievable, 33 degrees every day, barely dropping at night and so hot that I can't sit by the pool until about 5pm every day. I know that will bring a tear to the eyes of those who worry about me and the weather.
It's all go chez nous - Iain has been filling in holes and painting out grape vine borders across picture rails so that it doesn't look quite so hideous. The only time we are in the house is to sleep - the rest of the time we are out and about, which is lovely and so different to what we're used to. The other night we all walked up to the hotel bar in the village and played cards on the terrace with a glass or two of rose before dinner. We never did that at the Builders Arms in Potters Bar!
Issy turned nine on Tuesday so we went to Moorea beach in Juan les Pins where a pug was body boarding in the surf, I kid you not. It's that kind of place. We were surrounded by fit young 20 year olds sporting tiny bikinis, boob jobs and Vilbrequin shorts so we fitted right in!
The best news is that both girls got into the schools we wanted. Issy is starting the local village primary in September. The head showed us around on Monday and introduced her to a little girl called Olivia who is English. She started last September with no French and is now fluent. That gladdens my heart. Liv had her interview at Institut Fenelon in Grasse on Monday afternoon and she was offered a place in the international section where she will have two thirds of her lessons in French and one third in English. They have offered her two weeks of intensive French lessons at the college, a week in July and a week in August, to get her a little more confident for September. It is a fantastic school, the best we could have hoped for. Fees are around 2,000 euros a year (I can’t believe it either) and there was a league table on the office wall showing that Fenelon came 12th overall in France for Baccalaureat results last year.
Yesterday we found two plum trees in the garden, along with the olive trees, oranges, lemons and figs. I may struggle to find time to work as there’s so much fruit waiting to be picked. It’s a good incentive to dump the toasted muffins for breakfast and start the day a bit more healthily.

4th July 2008
Had to have Tallulah, our miniature Schnauzer, shaved, she was coming in covered in sticky weed from the garden and I’ve been going demented trying to groom her all the time. She now looks like a comic book dog but is a lot cooler, cleaner and more comfortable. It’s so different being here but a much more cheerful place to be than the UK. They haven't heard the words credit crunch yet so we are in a blissful bubble of ignorance, while all my friends at home are emailing me to say how depressing it is.
Funnily enough, I am spending far less down here than I did at home (probably because I have no friends here!) Going out is cheaper, the food and wine are better and I guess we are just doing more at home.
We have been coming to the South of France for five years, and every visit made us more and more reluctant to return home. We stretched ourselves financially to buy an apartment on the coast near Cannes, and I can honestly say it was the best decision we ever made. Picnics on the beach, barbecues, lunch in the beautiful nearby medieval village of Mougins, it made Hertfordshire feel very lacklustre by comparison.
It came to a head in summer 2007. We were spending the school holidays at home for once and I decided to use the money we would have spent on holiday and splash out on some fabulous outdoor furniture for the terrace: a sofa with fat cream cushions, coffee table and dining table seating eight. It arrived on a sunny afternoon in early June and I started planning barbecues, lunches and summer parties with a vengeance. Instead, summer was cancelled and I spent the next three months running to and from the garage with armfuls of cushions every time the sun made a brief appearance through the rainclouds.
Sometimes it’s the little things that force you into making the biggest decisions. The sun was out, it was boiling hot so I put all the cushions out and switched on the kettle. By the time I’d taken the teabag out, a huge black cloud was directly above my furniture, raindrops bouncing on the cushions, and I just thought ‘Enough’.
Fate took a hand after that. Iain and the girls were overjoyed at the idea of living on the Cote d’Azur and when we were offered full asking price for our five bedroom Victorian house in Little Heath, Hertfordshire at the end of January, there was no reason not to go for it. Looking back, I realise that it could have been very different if we’d waited three months longer.

16th July 2008
The internet is still not working after five weeks! Am trying to be calm and collected but I’m not used to being out of touch for so long. One of the reasons for coming here was to slow down but I expected it to be a gradual thing rather than going from frantic and frenetic to zero! Not complaining. The weather is glorious, waking up every day to hot sunshine is something I'm never going to take for granted, especially when friends tell me how naff the summer is in the UK. We have been exploring our surroundings, going to the beach (but only about once a week as July and August are very busy) chilling by the pool and thinking about the work we want to do to the house. We are going to enjoy the summer here without doing anything and start in earnest in the autumn which will give us time to get quotes in. An old family friend is out here managing Simon Fuller's property renovations and he is recommending good tradesmen to us, so fingers crossed maybe it will be a smooth ride! The girls are enjoying having a three month summer holiday, swimming every day, doing arty stuff and watching the occasional movie (we have a TV but no reception yet which means DVDs only, no bad thing!) The animals are all settled in and loving the wildness of the garden and I am enjoying doing very little for a change. Have a fair bit to write in the next week or so and have just turned down jobs in Arizona and Germany because I'd rather be here this summer and ease off the travelling for a little while. Iain has just been biking with his friends around France and is back later today. He is planning to set up the property rental company this summer, managing apartments for holiday rental, ready to start work on it this autumn. He is managing our apartment now half an hour away in Mandelieu and it’s so nice not having to rely on a sub standard expensive service like the one we had before we arrived. I think it will take off, there seems to be a big demand here and very little in the way of companies offering a good, value for money service.

28th July 2008
Am currently at MacDonalds on the WiFi as still not connected after a seven week wait, hopefully it will be happening in near future but thank God for a Blackberry otherwise I would be bankrupt by now! We have builders giving us quotes as I am now ready to crack on with the work for autumn and get the house looking the way we want it. We don't spend much time inside which is just as well! We’ve had major septic tank problems which meant emergency pipe work, Iain digging trenches in 90 degrees and no loo facilities upstairs for two weeks. Think it is going to be a bottomless pit where money is concerned but fortunately we have no regrets (yet). We were adopted by a big beautiful boxer who took a shine to Tallulah while she was on heat, he came one night and refused to leave, scaring the cats witless. He is a lovely old thing, big and slobbery and very affectionate. He followed us to the village yesterday after his third day at our house and we bumped into his owners, who were calling all the dog pounds trying to find him, so a happy ending. Then he turned up at 9pm last night thrilled to see us and we had to ring his owners to collect him. I think he prefers us to them! The girls are at French today for two hours which gives me a little time and peace and they are doing a tennis club next week from 9-5 each day. I’m looking forward to some me time after nine weeks of relentless mummy duty, selfish I know.

4th August 2008
First things first, we are finally connected to the internet after seven weeks and lots of shouting in the Cannes branch of France Telecom. Hang out the flags. Have at last been able to do some work and talk to people without incurring a phone bill that is £500 a month. Have since spoken to a friend who lives in Chamonix and she says that after two years, her phone still doesn’t work properly, the connection comes and goes at will and it’s something you just get used to. As someone who relies on the phone for a livelihood, that’s a bit worrying. The weather has been really hot, even at night it doesn't cool down much but think we are adjusting to the climate difference now. The last few weeks have passed by in a whirl, we have been busy getting quotes and trying also to enjoy being here without thinking too hard about everything that needs to be done.
The girls have got used to the pool to the point where they don't go in it everyday which is something I thought I'd never see, but it just shows you how the novelty of everything wears off. Time was when they’d have killed to have a pool in their back garden at home in not-so-sunny Hertfordshire. I think they are itching to make some friends. They have been on msn a lot recently and with that in mind, they started tennis school today. They are also learning golf, archery, circus skills and going to a water park. It's my first child free week since beginning of June, so a great opportunity to chill out and try and do some work. A team of builders started today, digging up the back of the house to create a new staircase. I am trying to see the bigger picture but there's brick rubble everywhere. It will be great when it's done, then only another eight months or so before it starts looking like a proper house again! On one hand it feels like we are finally doing something instead of talking about it and on the other, I have quite got used to the house in its current quirky state and am dreading the mess of the next few months but it is one good excuse not to do any housework for a while! Our friends Sarah and James arrived last week and spent a couple of days with us before heading to their place in Mandelieu for a month. It's so nice to have friends nearby after two months of talking only to each other! I’m really looking forward to having a social life again. I'm not complaining, we love our drinks at the hotel and our card nights and they are showing the new Narnia film next week on a screen in the village square for everyone. There is certainly a community spirit here and the locals are very friendly – without exception, everyone I pass on my morning walk with the dog says bonjour - but I sometimes miss popping into my local deli for coffee or a glass of wine with my mates.

5th August 2008
I am sitting on the terrace now with my laptop and a pneumatic drill going in the background, surrounded by about five Filipino workman (they are harder working than the French, who don't turn up to even give you a quote let alone do the actual work.) Thought I was in for a quiet week with the girls at tennis school, instead they are here at 8am and leave at 6pm, which is amazing, but has curtailed the lie-ins, sunbathing and tranquil afternoons I had planned.
On the plus side, they are making great headway. They are constructing a new staircase as the spiral one we currently have is an accident waiting to happen, especially after a few in a mess is not ideal but it feels good that we have started work.
Sometimes the water and electricity are on and off while they are working so we are at their mercy. On the upside they are hilarious, we are Mr Iain and Madame to them, which I quite like. They burst into song and are so cheerful. We called several French builders, stonemasons and plumbers and having struggled on the phone in French to arrange a rendez-vous for a quote, several of them didn’t show up, or phone to cancel.
We inherited quirky taste in the house although thankfully all the walls are white which makes it a bit more liveable. It’s a real hotch potch, with mismatched tiles, swirly raised plaster walls, different floor levels and some very odd stenciled borders but we have a great vision about how it will look in the end. I’m thinking quite modern downstairs, completely open plan with lots of windows, dark wood and polished concrete, a bit LA but with a nod to the fact that we actually live in Provence, and a bit more shabby chic upstairs.
There are leaks everywhere at the moment and it's like a domino effect, no sooner do we start something than it uncovers another problem. So far we've had raw sewage pouring into the garden, leaks through the ceiling and a permanently flooded bathroom.
It will be all eco-friendly too, we have a septic tank and are having photo voltaic panels installed on the roof to generate all our own electricity. The French government gives you a grant of around 40% against the cost of installing photo voltaic and you get a cheque for about 2,000 euros each year for the power you put on the grid which should cancel out our electricity bills. It’s a very different prospect to the UK at the moment, with rising costs all over the place. That's the other thing, having no debts apart from a manageable mortgage, and money in the bank to do it all with. I have never slept so well.

12th August 2008
We went to an ex-pat barbecue yesterday, the kind I thought I'd never go to, all Brits talking about the French without a single French person among them. Some of them were quite nice, but one girl was a bit mental, she has 4 kids, the oldest is 17, and is a real party animal. She spent the afternoon walking around in a bikini and high wedges, knocking back the rose and telling me how she strips off in public when she's had a drink....don’t think I’ll be going on the town with her!
Last night we had a baby rat in the garden. Iain was stood over it with a piece of wood ready to kill it but he couldn't bring himself to do it and nor could I so we will leave it to the cats I think!

25th August 2008
The weather has been amazing, really hot and sunny and we are making the most of it but have to say sometimes it's nice to come into the office and get out of the heat. Last week my brother came over with his family and we went canyoning, jumping off cliffs 20 feet high into rock pools. The kids loved it, we were a bit more nervous but it's hard to back out when your 9 year-old has just jumped off ahead of you! It was brilliant fun. They left for home last night and I cried my eyes out, it's so hard saying goodbye. The only thing I really miss about the UK is my family and friends. The girls are brown as berries and loving their new life. We still have no TV so they are out all the time, swimming, playing tennis, on the beach, down by the river and permanently barefoot. It’s so lovely to see them enjoying an outdoor life. That's all I ever wanted for them and now they have it. A lot of our friends are over at the moment staying nearby so they have had lots of their English friends to hang out with this month. It's been a very social time, we've had a couple of pool parties but the highlight was a talent show with my 13-year-old nephew dressed up as Amy Winehouse and the girls as backing singers. The kids performing Rock Star by Nickelback didn’t stand a chance and Amy and crew won first prize, a big bag of marshmallows.
I’m working quite a bit, moving countries doesn't seem to have dented the flow of work too severely, which is a relief. I’ve been speaking to the manager of Riviera Radio about ideas. It's a really naff radio station based in Monaco but the only one in the South of France which is English speaking so I was thinking of offering to do a showbiz slot for them. It is stuck in a 60s and 70s timewarp, the music is terrible and the DJs are cheesy as hell. Maybe a weekly slot about who's doing what to whom in the wonderful wacky world of showbiz, plus snippets of gossip from recent celeb interviews I've done and a round-up of anything cool happening on the Riviera that week for anyone under the age of 70.
Only danger is I've been listening to it a lot and will have to watch out that I don't character assassinate it too much because it is pretty dire. Will let you know if I'm about to become the next Jo Whiley. Meanwhile, back at the ranch there is a hole in the floor and ceiling, a wall gone and a pile of rubble outside the back door. All very scary, just hope the house doesn't collapse now, which is a very real concern given that it was underpinned ten years ago.

28th August 2008
In a bid to fix the nightmare leak in the downstairs loo, which has an exposed pipe literally pumping out water, Iain removed some wall tiles, only to discover roots from a nearby conifer growing up the wall! This is a worry as the tree is a good 6 metres away in the garden and another reason why it has to be removed as soon as possible. Our gardener has told us that once it’s gone, the shrinking roots beneath the house could still cause some movement in the foundations, which is not what we want to hear.
Took Liv to see Madonna this week in Nice, she was brilliant. I'm not a diehard fan but I was impressed by her honed muscles and energy, I was tired just standing there watching her. Off to play tennis with friends soon. We have found a lovely Dutch tennis coach who is going to give us both lessons. All the other coaches at the club are real hotties, mid 20s, fit and tanned and one in particular is scrummy so have enrolled Issy for coaching from next month so I can admire the scenery (that's not the only reason, she likes it really!) The staircase is a bigger job than we thought and not ideal timing given that we are all at home. There's dust and dirt everywhere. The general mood wasn’t helped by the fact that we discovered yesterday that the steps are not wide enough, they measure 19 cms instead of the EU standard 22cms in depth and that 3 cms makes all the difference between going up and down safely and walking like Charlie Chaplin. Pointed this fact out to the structural engineer Medis, who nodded sagely and said no problem, they would redesign the staircase. Now can you imagine an English builder giving that reaction?
When it gets too much we escape to the beach, yesterday we were down there until 10pm, having supper with friends at a little beach bistro in Miramar, where I had the best moules mariniere I’ve had all summer. The kids and the dog played in the sea and it was bliss. It's times like that when you think this is why we uprooted our life.
I’m shattered from all the socializing. Friends have been down all month, staying nearby and after lots of late nights, we are all walking around in a daze. I’m quite looking forward to getting back to normality, some early nights, no drinking and the girls starting school.

2nd September 2008
Here’s an interesting thing. The builders finished the staircase yesterday having made a superb job of redesigning the steps to the new width. They spent around two hours pressure washing our terrace, which has doubled as a builders yard for the last month, mopping floors and wiping down doors and walls and left the place spotlessly clean.
In contrast, we had our Sky dish installed yesterday by a very nice English guy who has lived out here for several years. When he left, I was astonished to find plastic bags, boxes, plastic wire ends and a stray plug abandoned all over the house as well as his empty coffee mug. What cultural contrast between working practices.
Issy started school today. Last night we had tears, understandably as she was anxious about going to school and comprehending nothing. ‘The new kids at my old school were given buddies by the head mistress, then the buddies would go off and ignore them to play with their friends’, she wailed. ‘And they only offered to be buddies for the attention.’ I explained that it would be completely different in a French school and silently prayed that I was right.
This morning, she ate breakfast, then said she felt sick and confessed she was only 10% excited and 90% terrified. Her dad admitted he was 100% terrified (not to her, thank God) and I blithely reassured her on the 10 minute walk to school that all would be fine. I mean, look at the mountains you can see from the playground, we didn’t have those to look at in Brookmans Park, did we? (Weak, I know). No, she retorted, but at least the other kids spoke the same language as me.
So it felt like a miracle when a tall statuesque lady approached us and said, ‘Is this Isabella?’ She introduced herself as Meg, mother of Louise, aged nine, who is in Issy’s class and joy, is English, although she was born in France. To see Issy’s face change from fear to relief as she trotted off with Louise and another English girl Lucy was probably the happiest moment I’ve had since we arrived three months ago. I want her to have friends who are French too, and at a French primary school there is no chance that won’t happen. But a couple of allies to chat to at playtime is going to be a massive bonus.

September 4th 2008
Disaster. Having told me that she reckoned her first day at school scored a surprisingly good 8 out of 10, (a bit of teasing because she doesn’t speak French, but she made a few friends and understood more than she thought she would) Issy has done a complete about turn. She had yesterday off (most schools in France now do a four day week) and had time to reflect on just how awful it was.
My mum told me she sent her an email saying ‘The kids are not very nice and the lunch is awful, raw beef and macaroni not cooked.’ Food is a big thing in our house so that could be a problem. At the beach yesterday, she told me she wants to go back to the UK or be home schooled. Not ideal. I explained that neither choice is possible as I can’t home school her and moving back after three months is not an option.
This morning we were halfway there when she stopped on the old bridge in the village and refused to go any further. The tears started and she begged me to let her come home and ring the school with an excuse. It was horrendous, me cajoling her and trying to get her to walk as the dog ran circles around me and her hysterically crying and telling me how much she hated it. I have asked her to make a big effort for the next few weeks and as a reward for her bravery, we will buy her something amazing. As we walked across the playground, she sobbed: ‘What are you going to buy me?’ There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel. Frankly she came name her price if it means going in without a scene and there’s a chance that she will be happy there. At lunchtime I parked opposite the playground and saw her standing alone by the fence watching other children play. I am wishing the next month away.
Livvy starts today at lunchtime and seems quite upbeat, but as Issy pointed out, she is going to an international section of a French school, where most of the kids in her class aren’t French, and only has 70% of her lessons in French, with geography, history and English taught in English.
As if that isn’t enough, we have no hot water upstairs which meant cold showers last night and this morning. Cue yet another call to the plumber Michel, who at this rate will be able to holiday in the Caribbean next year thanks to our long stream of emergencies.

September 12th
I went back to the UK for the first time this week. I wondered whether I might feel any pangs of regret about the move once I was back in London but I have to say, trundling along on the Gatwick Express through Croydon and working my way through the shops in Regent Street, although pleasant, didn’t make me feel I’m missing out on very much.
After a few days of catching up with my mum and surfing with some girlfriends (okay, trying to surf, swallowing half the Atlantic and consoling myself with the odd cream tea) in Newquay, I was quite happy to get on the Easyjet flight home. Landing at Nice airport at 9.30pm on a balmy Sunday night, getting my luggage within ten minutes and being home within an hour of touching down rounded the trip off perfectly. It cost me 120 euros for the return flight, which is less than a return train fare to Manchester if you book last minute. Of course, it won’t always be so pain free but it was a good first experience.

September 20th
My parents in law have arrived for a week long stay, to savour our new life in France, enjoy some much needed sunshine and chill out. Unfortunately we are getting the first torrential rainstorms of early autumn after three months of wall to wall sunshine, and the builders have started taking the walls out downstairs so the whole place is like a war zone and they can’t even escape to the pool with their books. I think they would happily get on the next plane home, especially as Britain is having an Indian summer. The forecast is set to improve the day before they leave, so Iain has been dispatched to show them the local area and take them to the Monday market at Pre du Lac, near Grasse, which is a colourful array of locally grown and reared produce which looks and tastes like it has never seen a pesticide or a plastic bag.
I interviewed Richard Madeley last week about his and Judy’s new chat show and he was saying how much they’d like to be based down here. They have a house about half an hour away from us near St Paul de Vence, and are planning to spend a lot more time there now that their working schedule is more manageable.
The girls are gradually settling into school but it’s been very tough. Issy has spurned the English girls, who ignored her for much of the time, and has made friends with some of the French girls in her class, which is fantastic. One of them came to tea last week and showed an amazing talent for imitating any animal on the planet: chimps, whales, dolphins, frogs, you name it. We were all in stitches.
Livvy is doing better but I have to spend hours every week translating her homework instructions so that she can get her work in on time. Thank God for the babelfish website, which fills in any gaps.
I found Iain perusing an advert on the web about pug puppies for sale. We have been talking about getting another dog for a while, partly as a playmate for Tallulah and also to pep the girls up a bit. It couldn’t be worse timing but is there ever a good time to have a puppy chewing everything and pooing and weeing everywhere? Maybe better to go for it before everything is picture perfect.
We went along to ‘look at’ the puppies in Vence and came away with the chubbiest of the four, a little boy who is cute, very greedy and such fun. He is called Oscar and really is hilarious. He snores so loudly that I have to put ear plugs in (yes he is sleeping in our bedroom) and farts quite a bit too, which causes no end of laughter from the girls. The housetraining requires plenty of patience, I caught him peeing all over the mohair blanket on our new sofa last night but it’s impossible to be angry with him and his cute baggy face full of wrinkles. He is my shadow and follows me everywhere, even to the loo. He sits on my feet whenever he can. It’s quite lovely to be worshipped.