Families are complicated social creations. And like anything made, they have tensions in the structure; in the interconnections between the individual elements; the bindings. This then, is the story of how we came to be living in a field in France, a field next to the holiday house of my mother in law and the complicated twists that this has created in our wider family circle.
Way back in 1998, my then-un-met husband Jude accompanied his mother on a search to find a house for her to buy in France. Between them, they discussed what they were looking for: a house in need of renovation with an adjoining barn. The plan was for Jude, a builder by heart and by trade, to refurbish the house in return for which unpaid work he would keep the barn to turn into a house for himself at a later date. At that time Chrissie had reasonably well-paid work as sole carer for her friend’s daughter who has Down’s Syndrome and Jude was, well, in need of a focus.
Slowly over the next few years, Jude worked alone on the house that they found here in Normandy. He looks back at that time now with a mixture of mourning at the loss of his life of solitude (his life now, with a family of four girls is quite a contrast to his life then!) and relief that he got through some of the winters he spent snowed in alone in a barely-habitable shell of a building. The house had previously been home to two old men who had been living in very poor conditions and was originally two separate dwellings. Jude opened up rooms and did a lot of restructuring inside, including digging out and laying new floors and turning an internal barn into a new large kitchen.
It was the kitchen he was working on when I first met him in England during a brief trip back home he made in 2007. I was working at a frame-making company and had been invited to a party and there he was. He wasn’t particularly interested in me, but I was smitten and took him home with me, wanting to never let him go. It was a bit of a shock when I found out he was about to return to France, and that he in fact lived there. Within a few weeks I’d followed him back out (a monumental trip in itself, involving my car breaking down followed by a wildly expensive taxi trip to get to the ferry, which I ended up missing anyway to arrive in France a day late with Jude still there, waiting for me patiently after spending the night in his car because he didn’t have enough diesel to get home and back out again, and then him promptly driving into another car at the ferry terminal before we’d even left the carpark) and within a few months we had moved in together and I was already pregnant with Jessie.
While Jess was still a baby, Jude and I talked about the idea of moving to France, but when the idea was put to the rest of the family there was an uproar. It turned out that Chrissie was NOT happy for Jude to “have” the barn after all. Jude’s three siblings, brought into the debate, were equally unhappy with the prospect of Jude building a home for his family on their mother’s land, despite the fact that all three had always been aware of this long-standing agreement between Chrissie and Jude. Eventually, as a compromise, Chrissie offered us a piece of land for us to build our own house but by then we had given up on the whole idea and decided to stay in England and let the family do what they wanted with the land in France. Jude was devastated: he could not believe that this long-held promise between him and his mum, for whom he’d worked so hard all those years had come to such an abrupt nothing, at a time when he finally had a family of his own, in need of a place he could build a future for himself, something she had wanted so much for him, he’d thought. She had her beautiful, if unfinished, house and he had nothing.
Fast forward three more children to a lovely old Georgian house on a cattle farm in Cornwall which we were sub-letting from a farming couple who had lived in the adjoining house to ours for ten years. Just before Christmas 2013, whilst I was heavily pregnant with Elodie, we were both served with eviction notices as the local council who owned the farmland had decided to sell up. After living in such a wonderful big space we couldn’t face the idea of taking the “normal” route for a low-income family, which would have been to find ourselves a little council house to move into (the cheapest option available to us) so we talked to Chrissie again about renting the house in France with a new idea: this time to turn one of the small outbuildings into a gîte which, as well as providing an extra income for her would also mean Jude could finish the last bits of work on the house and also install a new septic tank for her. In return we would be able to manage both properties for her. To us, this seemed a logical and practical plan for both Chrissie and us, even if it involved a wild leap of faith into the unknown for us – a new country! a new language! We genuinely thought that we would be helping her out as well as obviously needing a home for ourselves too.
At first Chrissie seemed happy for us to do this as the house was not being used for much of the year apart from a few holiday lets and it made sense to make use of the smaller barns. She had started to find the journey to France more difficult by then and money was more of an issue as her work situation had changed and she was having to do longer, harder days.
Then this plan also fell through. We moved into the house in 2014, when Elodie was just three months old. Shortly after we arrived, Chrissie decided that she didn’t want us to build a gîte either and instead again offered us a plot of land to build our own house. This time we agreed. To be honest we didn’t have much choice if we wanted to continue to live in the kind of rural space we love so much. She agreed to rent her house to us for one year whilst we got ourselves set up. During that first year we bought and renovated three ancient mobile homes and erected a large marquee on the new plot to keep all our belongings safe from the elements. Last summer Chrissie finally decided to put her house on the market.
We have been living in those trailers for a year and a half now. It is hard work with four small kids. Apart from the family visiting this summer, the house next to us has been left completely empty over the last year. Chrissie recently suggested that we use the house again and during her last trip over a few weeks ago even talked about us formally renting the house from her for a period of years so that she could have a fixed income from the property rather than rely on the few weeks of seasonal lets that she has had over the last few years.
That now seems unlikely to meet with approval from the rest of the family. Already there have been texts sent suggesting that the amount we are offering to pay is insufficient, despite the fact that money hasn’t even been discussed with Chrissie as yet – she has clearly been discussing it with them before talking to us about it and already the Chinese whispers have begun.
And so the unravellings have began yet again, revealing the persistent weak spots in the texture of our lives.
As of 1 August 2016, this is our situation:
The new plot of land has now finally been signed over to Jude so he can start to put money into it: this means we can put in a septic tank for ourselves and get mains water connected.
Up until now, we have been using our well, dug by Jude last year, but the water from this is intermittent and when there is no rain we have no water from the taps. We have been unable to find out how to get the water tested so we drink bottled water and fill bottles from the tap in the village. Ironically, in the last few days there has been some problem with the tank not filling up at all, so despite lots of rain and a high water table, our taps are still dry.
Even when the water does come through the taps, it doesn’t have enough pressure to reach the water heater in our bathroom so we have never had sufficient hot water for bathing or showering. A mini pump that we used for a while has since collapsed.
There is hot water in the kitchen trailer, which is a little more downhill from our water storage tank, so we can wash in the kitchen sink and can also wash dishes etc.
Our fairly new washing machine has been so over-worked because of the low water pressure that it has now stopped functioning altogether.
And a fully furnished empty house sits next door to us with anger amongst the family (half of whom haven’t set foot in France for many years) that we could want to use it.
I feel sad, heartbroken; devastated to be spending another wet and windy winter in these trailers when being back in a house felt so close and makes so much sense: to escape the leaks, the mould and the misery.
I am grateful.
For the view from our crappy trailers all the way to the bluey horizon, over the fields and space around us.
For this land that we have: for the space it provides us all; to play, to think, to breathe and to grow flowers.
For the love of our sweet and kind French neighbour here, who would do all she could to help us if we needed her to.
For our loving, happy family unit.
For the strength and dedication of my wonderful husband and our connection to each other through everything.
For the amazing opportunity we have been given to make a good life for ourselves in our adopted land. For our children to learn a new language and cultural identity – we’re in France, yay! We are so lucky.
For the love of my dearest friends who I can rely on to send me aural and virtual hugs and support me through the darkest lonely times: those indestructible connections we’ve maintained over the years.
For the new friends I have made through my new adventures online, in particular Jeanne Hewell-Chambers and The 70273 Project, which in itself has also given me a focus and a fresh perspective on my little corner of the planet.
For my wonderful girls, who teach me every day about joy and the importance of just getting on with things.
For my own reserves of power, which I need to keep reminding myself do exist. I have the strength to get through this. We have a future to get to, but the important thing is to seek out the joy in NOW, despite everything that seems set against us.
Each single thread holds the potential to be part of something bigger than itself. In isolation it can only close in on itself: it can become a rope, a means of connection or it can become a knotted full stop. To fully reach it’s potential – as a blanket, a carpet, a cape or a sail – it has no choice but to join or be joined to other threads. It is possible to choose other threads in life, friends that return your love without question: it is fundamentally necessary to human existence to do so, to create a cohesive social fabric, a living mesh.
What I am going to work on now is slowly and gently detaching the knots that I have no hope of being able to undo and maybe trimming a few odd strands that look hopelessly out of place whilst concentrating on keeping the main body of work intact. Sometimes it is better to have a clear space rather than a tangled, meaningless mess. In this case, the focus is on the loving space of our little family, the six of us and our strength and happiness together wherever we are, whatever obstructions and minor disasters we may face. The details can be pushed aside until we have the space to focus on them more clearly.
One small knot at a time, one day at a time, slowly the future will arrive.