Home thoughts from abroad
Reflections of a property hunter
In my experience, most people like the idea of living the Good Life, but are not so keen when it comes to actually living it. I should make it clear that by the Good Life, I don’t mean larking around in a fountain in Rome with Anita Ekberg (à la La Dolce Vita). Or swanning around in the azure waters off Nice drinking bubbly on the deck of a luxury yacht which would make Sir Phillip Green’s latest look like a pedalo.
What I am on about is outdoor DIY, or the general delights (or not) of growing your own fruit, vegetables and livestock. I know of what I speak, as I suspect I am the originator of more failed selfsufficiency (or perhaps that should be self-survival) schemes than most. But more of that later.
Of course, the level and scale of activity ranges from keeping a few hens and a modest veg garden to full-blown attempts to live off what you make or grow. I know people in France who do live for almost free, but weaving our own clothes and keeping animals to kill and eat has never been our scene. In all our years in France, we were somewhere around nudging two on a scale of one to 10 as far as living off the land goes. Mind you, it didn’t start out that way.
Our first home in France didn’t even have a garden. Well, it did, but in the way things can be in rural areas, it belonged to the lady next door and, though she never used it and had a few acres elsewhere, she refused to even contemplate selling it.
Frustrated at not having even a corner of a foreign field to call our own, we went from landless to owning 10 acres of fields, orchards and woodlands with a river running through them.
A cunning scheme If you’re going to try your hand at the Good Life, I can think of worst places to try it out than in rural France. Although the great majority live in towns, the French seem to have the countryside and the ways of nature in their blood. They understand how it all works, and we have found they are always
happy to instruct foreigners how to get the most eggs from their hen house (and how to boil them).
Our land came with a ruined farmhouse and mill cottage; plan ‘A’ was to restore both and then think how we could live off our land and wits. Accordingly, we two townies bought all the books and a pair of gumboots each, then moved over the Channel and set to.
My wife took to animal husbandry like a duck to water, of which we had a dozen. We also invested in a host of chickens and geese, and dug and seeded a lake with edible fish and crayfish.
While my wife was digging and preparing a huge veg garden and working on the apple and cherry orchards, I started to put my cunning schemes into action. The first was to bottle, market and flog the water from our river. This was a non-starter due to pollution from the local cattle using it as a convenient convenience.
Next was my scheme for a snail farm, but it faltered because I bought the wrong sort of snails. Then I set up a crayfish breeding project, which failed when the resident giant muskrat ate them all. The same applied to my plans for a fish farm, as the local anglers considered my efforts as part of nature’s bounty.
Finally, inspiration came when a garlic bulb became wedged under the front seat of our Volvo. After a week in the height of summer, the odour conquered all other smells, and I tried to market the idea of the world’s first natural and organic car deodoriser. For some reason, I could not find a backer.
A glut of courgettes To be fair, we had a great time learning from our mistakes if not profiting from them, and I can think of few greater pleasures than opening the door to the henhouse and counting the morning clutch. As well as providing eggs, chickens make great companions. Goats can be messy, but they are affectionate, as are geese. We would not dream of eating members of our extended family, but they more than repaid the effort of keeping them.
Another pleasure and real return on effort was watching a patch of bare earth turn into a verdant jungle of foodstuff. The only drawback is that fruit and many vegetables have the inconvenient habit of maturing at the same time.
That was fine with apples and other fruit as surpluses could be turned into wine and even illicit hooch, but the yearly vegetable glut could cause problems. Trying to force your courgettes and tomato surplus on neighbours who are trying to get rid of theirs can lead to embarrassment and even a falling-out.
I wouldn’t recommend any level of Good Life living to anyone whose home in France is not a permanent one, although it can be done. At one time we had a huge network of expat, local and holiday home owner friends who would tend our gardens and menagerie while we were away. In return, we would bring back jars of prized marmalade and bottles of Scotch for our French caretakers, and frozen Indian meals and hard cheese for our expat friends.
To summate, we are all different. Some look at a patch of land and see a perfect lawn and a few tasteful ornaments dotted around. Others see a convenient place to concrete over for a car park. Some, like us, see rows of sweetcorn and beans and contented chickens clucking around underfoot.
You will know which way your heart turns, and my advice would be to suck it and see. Why not rent a rural dwelling with some land and an amiable owner and try it on for size?
See you next time, when we will be looking at the pros and cons of a home in the Loire Valley.
We would not dream of eating members of our extended family – they more than repay the effort and expense of keeping them
For more information on George’s travels and his books on living the Good Life in France visit george-east.net
Extended family: Goats can be messy but they are affectionate creatures