Slow but sure
While the past year in Béziers has passed quickly for Holly Howard and her husband Alastair, they’re determined to takes things slowly and build a lasting life for themselves in the south of France
Life in Béziers moves at a slower pace and that includes putting down roots
French apartments come in many shapes and sizes! When we viewed a selection in Béziers last year, we saw everything from an unoccupied building with a charred stairwell from a recent gas explosion (but “nothing to worry about”) to one with vast stone rooms connected by a stone bridge that resembled more of a second-floor animal stable than somewhere people could actually live.
My husband Alastair and I bought our apartment knowing that while it would need a lot of work, it at least resembled a ‘home’ and one which, instantly, I could see us making ours. Our pocket of Béziers has two bedrooms, two living spaces, a kitchen, a bathroom and three small balconies, just large enough for some flower pots and boxes. As we both run our businesses from home, the second bedroom was earmarked from the outset to be our office, with a sofa bed for visiting family and friends.
The room was shabby, with no light sockets, dodgy electrical wires hanging everywhere, crumbling walls and beautiful French windows that could barely open for the peeling paint. The ceramic tiles in here are my favourite and, having covered them over as soon as we started the DIY, the room felt like a dismal cave (not to be too dramatic, of course!) for those five summery months we worked on it.
A combination of adopting a Mediterranean pace with renovating – who can resist beach days in your first summer in the south of France? – and both Alastair and I learning ‘on the job’, meant that this fairly small room took us a while. However, just in time for last Christmas, we had uncovered and smartened up the two gorgeous wooden ceiling beams, reconstructed the walls and ceiling, restored the French windows, replaced the skirting board and, of course, painted.
Alastair did the electrics himself and the room looked just dreamy for the festive season; no more accents of earth live and neutral wires poking out of plugs, and our beloved colourful tiles (with the addition of new rugs) underfoot again. We joked, and still do, that our salaries come in each month and go straight back out to Bricoman… the hardship of being a grown-up where building materials trump a lunch out!
We also gave a little pre-christmas love to the kitchen space. In autumn last year, with the evenings drawing in and knowing that we were hosting family and friends for the whole festive period, we finally bought an oven and erected a ‘temporary’ kitchen. I remember in London, when discussing our dream to move to France with Alastair, I would things like “it’s time to really work and suffer for something”. Oh, how those comments flash back in your head at 2am, when you’re up a ladder, trying not to electrocute yourself, hours before relatives arrive with the promise of a homemade meal!
However, the 12 days of Christmas had never felt so good; celebrating from our first proper home with our family and friends, creating memories together and cementing the fact that this was now where we lived.
The Christmas build-up in Béziers felt similar to when we lived in London. Since we’re right in the old town, shoppers were bustling about, Yuletide tunes were piped through the shopping streets and the festive feel was all around. We decided to host the Réveillon as the French do, on Christmas Eve, spanning the stroke of midnight. We prepared a seafood platter to start and a bûche de Noël to finish, and were pleased to see that turkey would still be on the menu.
We ordered it at the covered market, where Alastair tried to explain to the confused butcher that he wanted neither the head nor the innards. We were amused too, when searching for parsnips, that the only place we found them, so close to the time when they needed to be cooking, was on a stand labelled ‘The Ancient Foods of France’, packaged so finely that I think tissue paper was even involved!
Alastair would say without hesitation that one of his daily delights of living in Béziers is the food: the fresh bread every day and the routine of walking across the square to the covered market where a baguette is wrapped in paper waiting for him; the local and seasonal vegetables with ‘pick your own’ fields edging the Canal du Midi, leeks in winter, peaches in summer; and the cafés bustling from 12-2pm as people take a pause in their day to munch down a plat du jour. And the wine… oh, the wine! I really struggle to pay £5 for an unknown glass when I’m back in London now; a demi pichet of Hérault rosé to share any day, s’il vous plaît.
For both of us, the warmth and the welcome from the people around us has been unexpected but has made one of the biggest impressions over the last year. I’m not talking close friendships or big gestures, but the little moments that soon add up to make you feel that this new place in the world could really become home; people chatting to you earnestly in your day-to-day, waving to you through shop windows, calling you over in the street if they haven’t seen you for a while.
Our mantra with the move to Béziers has always been to take things slowly, to not put too much pressure on ourselves and I think, in this, we have succeeded in our first year in the south of France. We’re not simply on an adventure for a year as a sabbatical from ‘real life’; we want it to become our real life. We’re building a quotidien in Béziers. Building a home, a business, a means to a future here. We have to build roots and memories and familiarities. Little things that flowed along in the UK now have to be given a little more thought and time as we tackle it for the first time.
However, as we often now say, c’est la vie. Life is wonderful and exhausting wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. We’ve chosen here, the slightly slower south of France, to tackle ours.
The warmth and the welcome from the people around us has made one of the biggest impressions over the last year - little moments soon add up to make us feel that this new place could really become home
Holly and Alastair are building a life in Béziers at their own pace Holly loves the ceramic tiles in the study The apartment was ready for family coming for Christmas
Taking the renovation works slowly
Uncovering the character beams