Tuesday 1 September 2009

1. Moving to the Pays Basque - the countdown

Tuesday, 1st September 2009. I realised this morning that it's two years to the day since Madame and I finally moved to the Basque country. However, before you start scrolling down the page in a frenzy of excitement, I think I should start off by telling you a little about us. We met in the sixties when the French Ministry of Education dispatched Madame to the North of England (to a city not generally associated with a fine English accent) as a French 'assistante' for a year to improve her English as part of her English degree course – thus proving that they do have a surreal sense of humour. Madame's father had his roots in the Pays Basque and it was an area we'd always been keen to visit together. We had our first holiday there shortly after we married and the place fitted us like an old pair of shoes.

We took to the region so much that we started planning our next visit in the car at the very moment we left it to return to England. It sounds hard to believe but it truly is difficult to think of any one thing about the Pays Basque that we dislike. And each year when we would pull into 'our' village for the first time after that long drive from the north, it was like coming home. But don't just take my word for it - here's Orson Welles in a 6 part travelogue he made in 1955:
After taking early retirement from the military in the late 90s, we moved to a village in bosky Herefordshire where Madame and I shared a black and white cottage with two cocker spaniels (or was it the other way around!). For the final sprint to the finish - the last eight years – Madame taught in a local school while I worked as a defence consultant. My work was enlivened by regular trips to Stockholm – cool in summer, dark and arctic in winter - which convinced me more than ever that the Pays Basque was the answer. While we both greatly enjoyed this penultimate chapter very much, the clock was definitely ticking and the time was fast approaching when we could finally retire and live out our dream of living in south west France.

I kept a diary for the first few months after we'd moved here and what follows is a more or less chronological account - interspersed with the occasional rant..!

After leaving our cottage in Herefordshire for the last time in late August 2007, we drove down to Hythe, just outside Folkestone, for an overnight stop in a Bed & Breakfast. This was a fairly depressing experience. A quote from Woody Allen springs to mind - he was winding up an after dinner speech somewhere when he said that he always liked to end on a positive message but in this instance he found it difficult. He asked his audience if they’d accept two negative messages instead? So here goes:

If you’ve ever read (and laughed till you had to look away from the page) Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, then you’ll understand perfectly if I said that our B&B in Hythe appeared to be run by a close relative of his fabled Mrs Smegma, Bill's landlady in Dover. It was a perfect 1950s time warp - and our landlady provided food with a lavishness that suggested that she thought rationing had just been re-imposed.

Looking around, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hythe was 50 miles inland rather than sat squarely on the English Channel coast. There were no seafood restaurants, cafes or terraces overlooking the Channel and most of the town had all the concrete charms of a NCP car park. Or so it seemed. And walking along the sea-front in the evening, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between the bleak English interpretation of sea-side as portrayed in Hythe compared to the exuberance of votre actuel French version that lay just a few miles away across the pewter-grey cold waters of the English Channel...

And with these two cheerful thoughts neatly counter-balancing our excitement at finally being on the move, we called it a night.

We'd rented a gîte on a rolling contract which would serve as a base until we found our home. We left England via the Channel Tunnel in a hired Transit van containing all the things we’d need for a prolonged stay in the gîte – clothes for all seasons, bottles, a computer and a multi-function printer/copier/scanner/fax machine (later to be worth its weight in gold), various food items, a handful of CDs and a tie. Everything else had gone into storage (including, by mistake, the camera). Chibby, our golden cocker, had ceased caring at this point as his tranquillisers took effect. This was to be a long trip for him and he lay on the front seat between us looking as mournful as only a spaniel can.

It felt unreal and strange to be finally on our way after thinking about it for so long. We felt like a couple of gypsies with a van-load of possessions on our back and, the real kicker, without a home in France to call our own or to return to in England in the event that it all turned to worms.

We had no idea how long it would take us to find our house in the Pays Basque - or if we could find one at all. Madame thought that we should prepare ourselves for up to 12 months in the gîte. I wish I’d known then that we were to be very pleasantly surprised.

Remember those WW2 POWs who escaped from Colditz..? Once in England, they would send a postcard back to the castle announcing their ‘Home Run’. Think of this as a very long “Home Run” post card!

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