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

French Property News - - Contents -

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!

Fes­tive frol­ics

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.

Build­ing roots

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

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