Emma Lee-Potter is always welcome at Salut!, but the latest instalment in her story of turning a ramshackle French farmhouse into a dream home could not have been better timed, as I attempt to bat myself back into life here (a cricketing analogy familiar to all Frenchmen) ...
The sun is out, the sky is blue – and yippee, my tumbledown farm in the south of France now has a septic tank. It’s best not to dwell on how the previous owners managed without one.
With the credit crunch casting gloom far and wide and the pound sinking like a stone, I’ve mostly succeeded in putting the derelict farmhouse I bought two years ago in the Drôme out of my mind. Its dodgy roof, water-drenched walls and garden littered with old scrap are the stuff of nightmares.
But at Easter we decided to take our two teenage children to Paris. I thought that with GCSEs and A levels coming up, they could practise their French - they had other ideas. Sadly, I could only spare a couple of days off work but my husband Adam and 17-year-old daughter Lottie hit on the idea of extending the trip to whizz down south on the TGV and view our French ruin.
And guess what? Progress is painfully slow and the place isn’t going to be habitable for ages (my friend Mel says she won’t be packing her suitcase quite yet) but the builders are gradually breathing life into the wreck.
Bernd, the architect who is masterminding the restoration in between other jobs, has installed new windows at the front and they look stunning. He got them custom-made in his native Germany (much cheaper) and they’re painted a tasteful shade of pale grey that I chose from an international paint chart. He’s built a gorgeous south-facing terrace outside the front door and work, I hope, is about to start on the dodgy roof.
When Adam and Lottie arrived at the house with no name Bernd took one look at them and said: “You’d better get round to the Mairie double-quick. The mayor wants to meet you and he’s only there on Tuesday afternoons.” This sounded scary. Was the mayor going to put an immediate stop to the building work because we’d failed to get a crucial permis? Or did he simply want to give les nouveaux Anglais the once-over?
Actually, it turned out to be a bit of both. The deputy mayor was in charge that day and much to Adam and Lottie’s surprise, he knew exactly who they were before they uttered a word. He was ultracharming, said that the local commune now numbered precisely 222 (all French, except for us and a Dutch family who bought a small chateau 25 years back), and
invited them to a sheep-roast in June.
Lottie politely expressed regret and said she’d love to, but she’d be in Oxford doing her exams. Then he asked to see the plans for the new roof.
Adam immediately produced a picture of the dodgy roof, along with Lottie’s hastily scrawled drawing of the proposed new one. “If you haven’t heard anything from us in a month’s time, then you can assume there isn’t a problem,” he said. Fingers crossed there isn’t.
Back at the house, Bernd and his three builders, Claude, Didier and Hervé, were busy clearing out the adjoining barn. The roof of the barn isn’t just dodgy – it has collapsed completely, leaving a mass of rubble six-foot high. There’s so much wreckage that Didier said he’d bring his digger over later in the week to clear it. “As long as no one dies in the meantime,” he added mysteriously.
Seeing the consternation on Adam’s face, Bernd quickly explained. “Didier," he said, "is the local gravedigger.”
Later Adam and Lottie sat on the new terrace with Bernd and his team, tucking into baguettes and local red wine and enjoying the sun on their faces for the first time in months. After a couple of glasses, Adam leaned back and beamed at the group. “We’re really looking forward to staying in the house for a couple of weeks this summer,” he said. “I know it won’t be finished, but...”
He stopped in his tracks. The men were all rolling around with laughter. It was clearly the funniest thing they’d heard in a long time.