The Honey Badger Blog
We will never surrender
When we bought Fontalbe we were aware that it would take more than a “lick of paint” to bring her back to life. Despite what our ever-optimistic agent alleged. There were no bathrooms, no bedrooms, no plumbing, no electrics and no floors. When we speak of a lick of paint we are talking well over a kilometre squared of the stuff that it has taken to paint walls, shutters and floors so far. That’s a lot of paint. Every time we visited it seemed to grow, it was like she was growing extra square footage just to spite us. To be fair, we hadn’t actually walked on many of the rotten floors before we had bought Fontalbe, merely poked our head through a dusty hatch and thought it looked ok, so we didn’t really know how big it really was. When our designer – a man not known for his show of emotions – first saw it he opened his eyes very wide and gave a little excited squeak.
It was (and still is) frankly terrifying.
After an incredible amount of hard work from our builders, we ostensibly now have a livable house and a very glamorous Gite. Fontalbe, though, is fighting back. She is determined to push us to the limits. Not content with draining our bank accounts and giving us sleepless nights she now, like an irascible toddler or a grumpy old lady, wants to see just how far she can push us. And she is doing a pretty good job.
No job, however seemingly easy or straightforward works goes to plan. Even the smallest job which we think will take ten minutes turns into an epic battle with concrete, mud and machinery and results in swearing, sighing and cut fingers. And wine.
Compare the Meerkat
Putting up loo roll holders? Simples? No. Not simples. Not at Fontalbe. Out of seven holders; five hit concrete, two went straight through plasterboard.
Curtain poles? How hard can that be? Very, very hard in a seventeenth-century mill where EVERY SINGLE window is a different height, where the floor slopes and where you have to drill through ancient stone. It’s almost as if the walls move with the seasons. A particularly special moment came when Greg shot backwards after drilling through cables that were cunningly hidden behind render. The resultant power failure was swiftly followed by a Dordogne-wide power cut that we (genuinely) thought that we were responsible for until we looked out of the window and saw felled trees after a sudden storm.
We had to have two new septic tanks (fosses septiques sounds so much more romantic) installed for the Gite and left our builder with the seemingly easy task of digging holes and dropping the tanks in. You know you have a bit of an issue when the normally unflappable builder tells you that there is “une grande problem”. La grande probleme turned out to be enormous, concrete trout tanks cunningly buried underneath our lawn – of course we have trout tanks, what Mill is complete without them? Looking into the history of Fontalbe it appears that for some years she was home to a trout farm that involved large concrete tanks and tunnels being installed in what is now our garden. These subterranean monstrosities meant that rather than dig two large, neat holes the builder had to dig about forty-five holes, smashing through concrete and generally acting like a very big, petrol powered mole. We are now the proud owners of two new septic tanks, neatly buried and working beautifully. We are also the proud owners of a lawn that resembles the Somme. Thanks, Fontalbe.
As I write this we carry the hard-fought title of “the slowest internet speed that the special internet man has ever seen”. Fontalbe clearly does not wish to be dragged into the 21st Century as our internet is currently slower than dial-up on a bad day. Oh, and you can only get any WIFI at all if you sit on the corner of the sofa pointing your phone at the Livebox. We had a minor celebration when our friend found some 4G on the property. The corner by the lake (empty lake…yes, I know) has now been christened “4G Corner” in its honour and we are going to put a bench there so that people can very, very, very slowly search their Facebook feed. At least they will be able to sit down. And it is a very pretty corner.
We had been assured that the thick walls of Fontalbe would mean that it would be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. This proved to be a lie. Yes, in the summer it is deliciously cool in the house, wonderful to step from stifling 40-degree heat into a fridge. In the winter though it is cold. Very, very cold. I had to watch TV under a blanket wearing thermals, a poncho and a woolly hat. I purchased a deeply unattractive, fluffy dressing gown which has turned out to be one of my best ever buys and has prevented me from catching hypothermia in the dash between shower or loo and the bedroom.
Dreams, dust and dirt
What Fontalbe doesn’t know, but is hopefully beginning to grasp, is that we are determined too. Perhaps she is just testing us to make sure that we are the right people for her? Sometimes it is disheartening and sometimes it is downright depressing but we haven’t lost sight of our dreams in all of the rubble, dust and dirt. We have our first paying guests arriving in August and we can’t wait to share Fontalbe with them. I hope she’s in a good mood.
I am partial to a nice hotel. I like fluffy towels and room service and the little chocolates that are put on my pillow at night and people cleaning my sunglasses around the pool.
Recently, during Fontalbe’s renovations, we have not been staying in nice hotels, not even in not-very-nice hotels. We have been staying in a caravan. I am not partial to caravans. I had managed to get through 41 years of never staying in a caravan, I never had the urge to stay in a caravan.
I will never stay in a caravan again.
We bought the caravan. It is a very big caravan with the apparent luxury of a fixed bed and a toilet (how is this a luxury?). I stopped Greg looking at other posh caravans by informing him that this was a one off – we would not be joining the Caravan Club or embracing this way of holidaying. We had a party with friends in the caravan, toasted its success and kidded ourselves that it would be cosy, romantic, fun. It is none of these things.
The problems started driving down the M25 on the way to Folkestone. Large trucks started beeping us. We ignored this until I noticed a flappy thing from the caravan behind me. Panic ensued and we had to stop on the hard shoulder and re-secure the flappy thing. This was not a very pleasant experience.
We finally arrived at Fontalbe and with the assistance of ten strong Polish builders managed to manoeuvre the thing into position. A couple of bits fell off and we gouged an enormous hole in the grass but it was relatively straight.
Setting up the luxuries of light, heat and water took a significantly long time. And a lot of swearing. I stopped silently weeping when I realised that there was running water and power and tried to be more positive. I packed the cupboards with middle-class accoutrements and felt significantly better after a bottle of wine.
When I woke up, in January, any wine-induced positivity had disappeared. The thing had moved in the night and was now at a precarious angle. It was several degrees below zero. We had to use the loo. This involves moving a little flappy thing, swinging the loo round and then shutting it very, very quickly afterwards. It is deeply unpleasant.
I gave up my feminist principles and decided that there were “girls’ jobs” and “boys’ jobs”. Boys’ jobs included emptying the loo, filling up the water butt and other nasty things. Girls’ jobs were making coffee and translating for the builders.
Having a shower is a whole new experience. To be fair, I can manage quite well at 5 foot. Greg, on the other hand, at 6 foot 4, finds things a little bit more of a squeeze. Matters become considerably more entertaining when the water runs out in the middle of a shower and Greg has to do a soapy, naked dash around to the other side of the house, dodging builders. I was warned never to put the photos on Instagram.
We have now spent quite a while in the caravan. Things don’t seem to be straightforward; we have frequently lost all power, the heating stopped working, the flush stopped working, the hot water tank overfilled. This involved a panicked phone call to our nearest and dearest to Google the intricacies of caravan hot water tanks and systems. On this occasion, I garnered the respect of Greg when I suggested that we just switch everything off then on again. Much to his surprise, this worked. Despite his frequent complaint that the practical world is a mystery to me.
We are going down again in a couple of weeks. It will be 38 degrees in the shade in Southwest France so I fully expect us to both lose about two stone in the sauna-like confines of the caravan.
Nevertheless, it has fulfilled its purpose. We have saved badly needed money by staying in it and we have been close at hand for builders’ questions. These normally involve the builder asking Greg something, Greg looking blank and then getting me out of the shower.
But, the building work is nearly completed and we will soon have a proper loo, shower, bed, fridge, kitchen etc etc. I cannot wait.
If anyone fancies buying a caravan with a couple of bits missing then please do get in touch. It is bijou, romantic and cosy.
I am never staying in a caravan again.
“You must go and visit the Mayor”, they said.
“If you don’t go he will be annoyed with you forever and you will never get anything done”, they said.
In France, every village has a Mairie. It is normally the biggest building in the village, right at the centre proudly flying the Tricolore. Monsieur Le Mayor is a powerful man. He is in charge of everything that happens in the village. You need him to be your friend.
This is particularly true if you are a couple of Brits buying a derelict Mill with big plans and no mains water. That’s right – we bought a house that is not connected to mains water. Not a problem we thought, how hard can it be to get connected to the mains supply? And anyway, we have a spring (yes, we have heard all the Peckham spring jokes). If all else fails we can sort something out, can’t we? How difficult can it be? Answer: very, very bloody difficult (but more of that later).
You also need to speak to Monsieur le Mayor if you are planning a change of use to a building. A derelict Mill into a top-end luxury gite, just for an example.
So, we needed to see the Mayor. According to people, who are apparently very experienced in this sort of thing, we needed to take him a present from our home country. We had clearly come unprepared; we hadn’t bought a miniature red bus or an “I heart London” T-shirt, we had bypassed the British-tat shop in Stansted. So we went to the local Intermarche and bought a bottle of Scotch.
Another slight problem; Monsieur le Mayor does not speak any English. Nothing. Not a word. I did French at A-level, a “few” years ago. I spent some considerable time on Google translate and formulated my speech. It was to involve telling him that we were going to make “une grande gite” – the preferred answer was “oui” and/or “bonne idee”. Then we were in the clear. We also needed to raise the issue of no mains water with him and see what he said. How hard could this be? We were instructed not to ask him any questions.
Off we went to Le Mairie, with the contraband Scotch weighing down my, fortunately, huge handbag.
What ensued is possibly the most toe-curlingly embarrassing ten minutes of my life, only just topped by Lucy Blythe treading on my tail when I was a dormouse in a school production at 8 years old, and falling on my arse.
We walked into Le Mairie and I boldly asked whether it was possible to see le mairie? The girl behind the desk glanced up from watching cat videos on Facebook to look at me in a very confused way. I repeated the question. Again, a befuddled look, accompanied by a slight shrug. I asked again, starting to sweat slightly now. She sniggered slightly and told us that Monsieur le Mayor (emphasis added) would be back at 11 am.
We went for a walk to kill 10 minutes and it occurred to me that I had actually just asked whether I could (a) marry Monsieur le Mayor or (b) marry her or (c) marry my husband. This wasn’t a good start.
At 11 am we went back and Monsieur le Mayor was there. My mind went blank and my carefully prepared speech went out of my head. My husband took a distinctly back seat (out of the door). I managed to mumble that we were going to build une grande gite and I got a nod and the required “bonne idee”. Job done, I thought. Let’s get out of here.
The penny then appeared to drop with Monsieur that we were the nutters who had bought Fontalbe. The massive mill – without water. I was then subjected to a lengthy, technical speech about source water, mains water, who we could speak to, where the pipes would go, where the unicorns nested in our forest (it might as well have been). All in a strong Perigordian accent and all without actually opening his mouth. I had no idea at all about what he was saying. I did not understand a single word. I valiantly nodded and smiled a bit and said oui and ‘d accord a lot. At this point, a queue had built up behind us with proper French people with proper things to do.
It finally ended and I smiled again, backing out of the office. My husband, who had snuck back in to witness my humiliation, nudged me and pointed at the bottle of scotch in my handbag. Oh. God. I pulled it out and presented it to Monsieur, telling him we had a present for him. He looked slightly aghast but took the Scotch. My husband swears that he heard his assistant say that what we had done was totally inappropriate. By this time my humiliation was complete and I ran away.
I needed wine.
We sat, in silence, for about 10 minutes.
Husband: I don’t think that went very well, did it?
Me: No shit.
Husband: I think we need to work on our French?
Me: No shit.
I had more wine.
We haven’t seen Monsieur le Mayor again, not that I would recognise him through my blur of embarrassment. We are going to invite him to our opening party…and give him a glass of scotch mixed with mains water. We are working on our French.
Honey Badger – small animal, not afraid of anything. Will take on a lion and fight to the death. Scoffs in the face of a hungry cheetah.
I am channelling my inner honey badger a lot these days.
What shall we do in twenty years time? Do we still want to be doing our jobs? Living in London? Commuting? We can’t have been the only people to ask ourselves these questions after a couple of bottles.
What do most – normal – people do? They get a hobby, book a cruise, learn to play golf.
What they don’t do is buy an enormous, derelict Mill in the Dordogne. With a lot of forest, two rivers, a lake and a mill pond. And a quarry. And no mains water.
I’m a criminal barrister. My husband works in the City. This is not going to be a smug “look-at-us-look-how-lucky-we-are-despite-all-the-adversity” blog. I’ve never written a blog in my life. I’m more used to writing skeleton arguments in criminal trials.
As of last April we are the owners of Fontalbe. Slight smugness – it is truly beautiful, in an amazing region of France, in an idyllic spot.
We had spent two years looking at houses. Driving hundreds of kilometres, testing the patience of our wonderful agent, Lisa. We first saw Fontalbe on a miserable day and I was less than inspired. I became more inspired (or drunk) after propping up the bar in our hotel and discussing what could be done with it. We both began to get the vision. Vision, after the local Eau du Prune is a dangerous thing.
The next day we saw Fontalbe in the glorious sunshine and the deal was done.
Fast forwarding several months (more of that in future blogs) and we were the owners.
We went to see it and realised the enormity of the project that we had undertaken (no internal walls, no kitchens, no bathrooms, limited plumbing and electricity, roofs a bit dodgy etc etc). Friends came down and saw it and made the obligatory impressed noises. I’m pretty sure behind our backs they were mouthing “WTF?” at each other. But it was ours and we were happy.
The builders have now been in for 2 months. We have an amazing designer/project manager, name-check, Joris Van Grinsven. We have towed a caravan down and even stayed in it with relative success. We are full of plans for the future, and bore friends with photos and progress reports. We have battled French bureaucracy and wept over Brexit.
We are at the beginning of an adventure with Fontalbe.