HIGH ON LIFE

Les­lie Rayney and Teo Leyssen en­joy a serene, ru­ral life­style in the Ardèche moun­tains with their goats, bees and newly adopted don­key. Theirs isn’t the ob­vi­ous op­tion for a new life in France, and it hasn’t al­ways been easy, but they wouldn’t have it any

Living France - - CONTENTS - Kate McNally

It hasn’t al­ways been plain sail­ing, but this An­glo-Bel­gian cou­ple have no re­grets about mov­ing to the Ardèche moun­tains

When an English lawyer based in Lon­don and a Bel­gian whale watcher, who has spent the pre­vi­ous seven years on a boat in the He­brides, met on hol­i­day in Mex­ico and fell in love, they had to find a mid­dle ground fairly quickly for their fu­ture life to­gether. For Les­lie Rayney and Teo Leyssen, it turned out to be a tiny ham­let in the ru­ral vil­lage of Al­bon in Ardèche. It could have eas­ily been Som­er­set, al­though the house prices were very ex­pen­sive, or Scot­land where Teo was of­fered a job at the univer­sity. But then they went on hol­i­day to Ardèche where Les­lie had spent two idyl­lic sum­mers as a child, and their thoughts turned to­wards a new life in France.

“I spent two sum­mers with my mother and brother in a vil­lage called Sceautres, just op­po­site Alba-la-Ro­maine,” says Les­lie. “The house we stayed in was com­pletely di­lap­i­dated, next door to the bell tower. It be­longed to a friend of my mother who lived down the road from us in Ox­ford – it had been her grand­fa­ther’s house. We drove down, met them here and spent two months just run­ning around the fields and moun­tains, to­tally free, get­ting the milk from the farm ev­ery morn­ing. I loved it! That’s why I wanted to come back for a hol­i­day.”

Teo ad­mits he didn’t even know Ardèche ex­isted be­fore his first visit, and even though they spent two slightly chilly weeks camp­ing in March, he was equally charmed by the re­gion. So, they

re­turned with a map of Ardèche di­vided up into quar­ters and set about dis­cov­er­ing each area to see where they wanted to live. Soon, they spied a house for sale in a brochure picked up in a bak­ery, ar­ranged a visit and bought it. That was in Novem­ber 2003. They moved to France in May 2004.

It all hap­pened rather fast, and Les­lie and Teo both ad­mit they were lucky that things turned out so well, be­cause the house was in a re­mote lo­ca­tion, at high al­ti­tude, and in a very ru­ral part of Ardèche where jobs are not ten a penny, to say the least.

HIGH TIMES

“It could have gone very badly wrong as I had no idea about al­ti­tude,” says Teo. “I’m from Bel­gium where the high­est moun­tain is about 50m! We ended up here at 800m. We nor­mally get snow ev­ery year and even just the dif­fer­ence be­tween our house and the near­est vil­lage is enor­mous; it’s much colder up here. I wouldn’t want to be much higher, but we didn’t have a clue!” Of course, in the sum­mer months, the cooler tem­per­a­tures are very wel­come.

As for find­ing work, it wasn’t plain sail­ing. After 20 years work­ing as a lawyer, Les­lie was ready for a change. Teo, also, after sev­eral years trav­el­ling and then whale watch­ing, was con­tent to look for a job that might use his skills (as well as his sci­en­tific work on the boat, he is a qual­i­fied en­gi­neer).

The onus was more on Teo to get a job given that he spoke good French. His na­tive lan­guage is a Flem­ish di­alect, but in Bel­gium they were taught French from a young age, and the lessons were in French. He also speaks Ger­man, English and Ital­ian.

“Where I come from, we were obliged to speak other lan­guages be­cause no one speaks ours!” he laughs.

Ini­tially, he had a few odd jobs as an elec­tri­cian, how­ever it was clear it wouldn’t pro­vide a vi­able liv­ing.

After a year, he dis­cov­ered by chance a small com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in in­dus­trial au­to­ma­tion in the next-door vil­lage, in the mid­dle of nowhere, on the road lead­ing to the Ardèche plateau. The com­pany’s owner had set up his busi­ness ini­tially in Mar­seille but re­turned to his home vil­lage after a few years.

“I didn’t know the com­pany ex­isted, oth­er­wise I’d have gone to see them – their work is what I used to do for 10 years as an en­gi­neer. It’s just ridicu­lous that it ex­ists here,” he laughs, recog­nis­ing just how lucky he was. With clients based lo­cally, na­tion­ally and over­seas, Teo tends to spend half his time at home and half on jobs fur­ther afield.

DE­SIRE TO SUC­CEED

For Les­lie, the lan­guage as­pect was harder, hav­ing just school-level French. She knew it would be hard to get a job with min­i­mal lan­guage abil­ity but, de­ter­mined to make a suc­cess of her new life, she took on clean­ing jobs and worked for a while sell­ing cakes on the lo­cal mar­ket.

“I was so ex­cited when a farm­ing neigh­bour said I could sell things on her stall. I mean, the mar­ket – I couldn’t sleep for the ex­cite­ment!” says Les­lie, laugh­ing even now at her en­thu­si­asm.

She con­tin­ued dis­cov­er­ing new ways to earn a liv­ing. The clean­ing led to a cook­ing job (“I used to turn up and the woman would say ‘here’s what I’ve got, what are you go­ing to cook?’ – it was like be­ing on Ready Steady Cook.”), which led to car­ing for an el­derly cou­ple, which led to gar­den­ing. For the past five years, Les­lie has looked after gar­dens for sev­eral lo­cal peo­ple, while also giv­ing yoga classes and train­ing in os­teopa­thy.

Does she miss be­ing a high-fly­ing lawyer? “No, I was so glad to get out of that! I did it for 19 years, start­ing off do­ing crim­i­nal work then per­sonal in­jury. It was very in­ter­est­ing but the level of re­spon­si­bil­ity some­times gave me night­mares.”

ROCKY START

As well as their work, there is the in­come from the gîte, which has had a mixed CV after get­ting off to a fly­ing start. Rentals were good up un­til around 2012 when the eco­nomic cri­sis hit the Nether­lands – most book­ings were from Dutch tourists, as the cou­ple had mar­keted the gîte pri­mar­ily on

“The qual­ity of life here is so good, the food is won­der­ful and I don’t miss the stress of Lon­don and my old job”

Dutch web­sites. Sud­denly, they went from rent­ing for 13-15 weeks of the year to just two or three.

Then last year, they mar­keted the gîte on Airbnb and the pop­u­lar French web­site LeBonCoin.fr, and they now have book­ings for al­most a third of the year. Dec­o­rated in a pretty, sim­ple style, and with no swim­ming pool and few ac­tiv­i­ties close by, the gîte ap­peals to hol­i­day­mak­ers seek­ing to get away from it all in the heart of na­ture.

So, given that Al­bon is very dif­fer­ent from both Lon­don and the He­bridean coast, do they have any re­grets? “I miss my good fe­male friends,” says Les­lie. “They come to see me and that’s lovely, but it’s not quite the same. I have made friends here, but it’s hard find­ing the friends that you re­ally con­nect with. I think if you have chil­dren, that helps a lot.

“But the qual­ity of life here is so good, the food is won­der­ful and I don’t miss the stress of Lon­don and my old job.”

Les­lie also re­cently adopted a ne­glected young don­key called Luno and that def­i­nitely wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble in her for­mer life.

As for Teo, who you’d imag­ine might miss the sea, he is very happy in land­locked Ardèche where the beau­ti­ful land­scape bright­ens his days.

“I could do my job here or in a city, the stress level would be the same,” he says. “But here I drive through the moun­tains and the for­est to get to work, and if I’ve had a dif­fi­cult day, that drive changes ev­ery­thing.

“It’s been hard some­times be­cause we live in the coun­try and it can be cold, but we wouldn’t change any­thing. Some of the lo­cals had a few hes­i­ta­tions about us to be­gin with, but once they knew we were stay­ing to live here all year round, nearly ev­ery­one ac­cepted us and made us in­cred­i­bly wel­come.”

Watch­ing the goats and Luno wan­der con­tent­edly through the gar­den, it would ap­pear they feel the same way. ardeche­liv­ing.com

The nat­u­ral beauty of ru­ral Ardèche was one of the main at­trac­tions for Les­lie and Teo

Teo Leyssen Les­lie Rayney and

The hilly ter­rain is per­fect for keep­ing goats

A sunny spot where flow­ers can thrive

The cou­ple dec­o­rated their home in a sim­ple French coun­try style

One of the two guest rooms in the gîte

Be­low: The cou­ple’s house is at high al­ti­tude in a re­mote part of Ardèche

Above and left: Teo and Les­lie en­joy keep­ing bees

These pho­tos: The gar­den con­sists of four ter­races and is a haven for wildlife in­clud­ing honey bees

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