Carlie: Hey there it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.
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Do you have your eye on a rundown old property in the French countryside? Are you planning to leave your big city life behind for a simpler one? Do you really know what to expect? Best-selling Author and Editor Janine Marsh gave up her city life in London and made the move to a neglected farmhouse in Northern France more than a decade ago. Find out what attracted her and husband Mark to the Seven Valleys, the creature comforts they had to leave behind in the big smoke, what they’ve learnt in their many years of renovating their home and trying to be self-sufficient, and the point at which they truly started feeling like locals.
Janine, I saw you just had a glass of wine in your hand, and I wish I could say I had the same in this mug, but sadly, it’s just water for this really hot day in France.
Janine: It’s really hot in here as well. So I thought I deserved a little glass of cold wine. So, yeah.
Carlie: Absolutely. You’re right, it is aperol time. Thank you so much for joining me on the Expat Focus podcast.
Janine: Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.
Carlie: The way you describe where you are in Northern France on your website and in your latest book is just so whimsical. Can you paint a little audio picture to start for the benefit of our listeners? You know, what is it like where you are in the Seven Valleys?
Janine: It’s not like London, which is where I come from. I first came here on a cold February day when it was sleet and the sky was gray. And I’ve gotta be honest, it wasn’t the most attractive place I’d been to. It was quite isolated. We drove from the main road that runs from Calais to Paris. And then we came off the main road and we went around the back of the streets and into the valleys. And then we came across this tiny little village, went down a hill, came into a lower area of a valley with a church and a tiny town hall and a few houses, and that was it.
And we’d been given some details by an estate agent to look at houses, because we didn’t have anything else to do and we thought it was a good idea, and one of the houses was in this little village and we stopped outside and my dad was like, oh God, what are we doing here? It’s really horrible. It looked like a prison because it had really horrible gray block walls. And just as I was looking at the house, the front door opened and a man came out and I just said to my dad, you know, I better tell him we’re not casing the drive, we’re not burglars. And (inaudible)
Carlie: Who are these people?
Janine: And he was English. He came out, he said, can I help you? And we were so taken aback. So we went in for coffee and then we went for a wander around the village. And to describe the village, I would say around about a hundred houses, there are 150 people. There is a very big church because at one point this was a bigger village, but it’s not now. There is an ex school with a courtyard where people have parties now and a tiny little bowling green and three streets. That is it. That is the village. So, yeah, it’s tiny. And now people say to me, what did you think when you were buying it? And I have to be honest and think, I didn’t really think that part.
It was the best thing I ever did though. Sometimes you just take a bit of a risk. You take a bit of a leap of faith and you just get really lucky. And that’s me. I got really lucky with this place. So, yeah.
Carlie: I mean, in my notes, I’m calling what you purchased a farmhouse, but by your own description, it was an old barn. So what exactly did you buy originally?
Janine: Well, when we came out, we walked into the house and our feet were sticking to the floor because it was so damp in here. The windows didn’t fit properly, the doors were corrugated iron farm doors, and they rattled in the wind. And there was a big hole in the roof. And originally, way back, about 400 years ago, it was a single barn, maybe a Flintstone. And there was two levels, a lower level where the cows could slept and the animals, and the upper level where the humans slept. So the heat rose from the animals in their bit into the humans’ bit. And then over the years whoever lived here just added on rooms and rooms and rooms. And in the end there were 21 rooms.
Carlie: 21 rooms.
Janine: And people say to me , oh it must be a castle, but it’s not because they’re all on different levels. It’s higgledy piggledy. Some rooms are really small, some rooms are really big. And there were ladders leading to rooms, there were rooms with no doors. It was really weird. There were rooms with windows into rooms and my husband was looking at me and, you know, I had that look on my face, like, oh, it’s love. And my husband was (inaudible)
Carlie: Are you crazy?
Janine: Yes, absolutely. He thought I was crazy. But it did have some old beams. It did have the original Flintstone room. And for me it was the garden that did it. I just remember standing, looking out the kitchen window and seeing an acre of land with a sheep in it and a church steeple in the background and all these trees. And, you know, coming from London where my garden was the size of a postage stamp, it was what the French called a coup de foudre, you know, I just instantly fell in love and yeah, went a bit crazy and bought it.
Carlie: And how long after you bought it, did you make the full time move?
Janine: Around about seven years, which was a lot quicker than we thought it would be. Because we were too young to retire. We were too poor to retire. We had to work. But there were a number of things that led up to it for us. My mom died of cancer and I just reassessed my whole life after that. And then Mark’s sister died from cancer as well and then he reassessed his whole life. And we just felt that we wanted to do something different with our lives. And even though we were too young to retire, we thought sod it. We’ll just take the risk and we’ll come back to London and we’ll work as and when. And, you know, I’ll go back and work for a week and then come back to France and you’ll go back to work for a week and come back to France. And we just figured, we’ll make it work somehow.
Carlie: And this was in the time before Brexit too, when going back and forth, working in one country and living in the other was a lot more doable than perhaps it is today when you’re from the UK.
Janine: Much easier. And, you know, we could get a train from Calais Fréthun, which is about an hour from us, and it takes less than one hour to get to the center of London. So…
Carlie: Oh, wow.
Janine: Yeah. And you could just go backwards and forwards, as you said. And we were going backwards and forwards once a week, once a month. But that’s not so easy now, post Brexit, obviously. But luckily I didn’t need to because I started blogging and then it all went a bit crazy and then it became a job. So I was lucky there too.
Carlie: I don’t know if it’s still the case today, but I do know that, you know, one of the allures of these properties in the French countryside are the, the low price tags. Beyond that, what do you think is so appealing for foreigners, for expats in particular, about buying these rundown barns, these random properties with 20 something rooms that need so much work?
Janine: I think there’s a lot to attract. I mean, yes, the houses probably are much cheaper than they are in, say, America or Australia or the UK. I would say the prices are going up now because of the popularity. And also because of COVID, you know, even Parisians moving out of Paris, buying second properties in the country, it’s become very popular now.
But the attractions for me of living in France, generally, and specifically rural, are the people. First and foremost, the people. I mean, people always say, oh, you know, Parisians are so rude and arrogant, but they’re not actually. I never found this. If I’m in Paris and I get lost and I ask someone, no one has ever not helped me. Some people actually lead me to the platform when I get really lost at the station. I have people carrying my suitcase up and down the stairs for me. I find people really lovely in Paris, really friendly. But, in the rural areas, it’s on a whole different level.
I mean, here where I live, there are 150 of us and a thousand cows, that’s what they say of this village, but it’s a community. Everybody helps everyone. Everyone knows everyone. When Madam Bernadette broke her leg, when she fell over in snow, people took turns to go shopping for her. It’s just a completely different way of life. And when you are used to living in a city, as I did, and you don’t look at people because you value your personal space, because there are so many of you, you kind of close in a bit, you can’t do that here. And it makes you a different person. I know I’m not the same person that came here. I’m much more friendly. I say bonjour to everyone. When I go back to London, I do it in London, you know, in the shops, I say hello when I go in the shops and people just look at me as- (inaudible)
Janine: – why is she saying hello to us? But it’s the way of life here. You know, people are friendly. People are open, people are part of the community. And that’s the biggest attraction for me. And then there’s the wine, the cheese, the cake, and all those things as well. So, yeah, there’s a lot to attract here, I think.
Carlie: Janine, I want to dive into some of the realities of life in rural France, because you just said there is a lot to attract people to these small country towns, but there are some downsides as well. Undoubtedly. Can I start with how we define rural France? I just said a country town, you know, clearly it’s a very different experience than, as you were just talking about, Paris. Even where I am, I think we’re the sixth or seventh biggest city of France, which is Strassburg, which is a few hundred thousand people in Strassburg itself. So what are we talking about in terms of rural France? How do we really define that?
Janine: For me, it’s non-urban. Not a big population, not a great deal of facilities. Certainly, that’s my experience here. My department is called Pas-de-Calais, and we have 895 communes here. And there are so many hamlets and villages where you might get a hundred people, 200 people, 500 people. And there are a couple of big cities like Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, but they’re certainly not on the same level as places like Manchester or Melbourne or anywhere like that. They’re quite small cities. In fact, we call them towns in the UK. So for me, rural is countryside and not a lot of people and probably not a lot of facilities. We have no public transport here, for instance.
Carlie: You mentioned a closed school. So there’s no local school either?
Janine: No. The the kids wait outside the town hall and the bus arrives and goes from village to village picking the kids up, takes them to school, comes back at lunchtime for them to have lunch at home, two hour lunch break- sacred, they start them early, and then takes them back to school at two o’clock and then brings them back in the evening. So…
Carlie: On a side note, I do find the school routine in France so different to what I grew up with in Australia. The lunch break, the going home at lunchtime, the three or four course meal. I mean, in your book, you mentioned how children, really young children, have quite a refined palette and are used to eating different types of cheese at lunch. And just the fact that they start school earlier in the morning and they finish kind of at the time when their parents are getting off of work, in some, ways makes so much more sense.
Janine: Yeah. Well, it’s easier for parents. You know, I remember I had a son, Harry, and Mark has four children, and, you know, trying to collect five children from school, trying to sort them all out, finishing different times, doing different things after school, it was an absolute nightmare. Whereas here, there are after school clubs as well. So they all come home at the same time and pretty much at the same time as the parents. So yeah, it is. And the three and four course lunches at the school, oh, it’s just amazing isn’t it?
Carlie: I used to line up by a school canteen, buy a packet of chips and a reheated little lasagna, and sit under a tree in the 35 degree day or whatever it was. Actually, I probably wasn’t eating lasagna on a 35 degree day. But yeah, there was no school, like dining hall, let alone three course meals, let alone the cheese course, you know?
Janine: Yeah, but what a great start in life. You know, understanding the value of food, understanding how it all works. And it’s not just the eating of it. You know, it’s not just about having a bit of Roquefort, or a little bit of Edam or, the Camembert. It’s about understanding what you’re putting into your body quite a lot. So, I find that really, really brilliant, really good lesson for kids.
Carlie: Yeah, definitely. Moving on to creature comforts. Can we talk about some of the things that aren’t guaranteed when you move to a small village in France?
Janine: Well, there are no shops here. So you can’t just pop to boulangerie and buy a croissant like you can in most books. When we came here, there was very little internet service. I think we had like half an hour of internet a day and we used to fight over who was going to go on the internet. We had no mobile phone signal. So if we needed to do banking or something like that, it was a question of, I would have to run up the hill with the mobile phone, wave it about in the air until I got the signal and then try and phone Mark with that signal and tell him what it was so he could key in the code at home.
So that element can be really difficult. And I always say to people, when they say about moving to France, if you need the internet for work, for goodness sake, check you can get it where you live, because it’s not guaranteed still. And it’s not (inaudible) we’ll get a mobile phone signal. So those were the big problems for us when we came here. Yeah.
Carlie: Have your local connections improved in that sense?
Janine: Oh, yes. We had a mayor who was about 90, as a conservative guess, and he couldn’t understand. Why do you need the internet? Why do you need a mobile phone signal? We never used to have it, we don’t really need it. So, he never really pushed for anything. And then he retired and we got a new, young mayor and he’s a real go-getter. He’s a marathon runner and he’s quite political as well, and he’s got big ambitions. And he got us high speed internet.
Janine: (inaudible) the village, and then he got a mobile phone signal, and then he put in some automated bells in the church. So now we get bells ringing from eight o’clock in the morning, till eight o’clock at night, and not, you know, just somebody walking past, having bit of a ring to keep them going. So yeah, he’s completely changed our lives here.
Carlie: There’s something really quaint about things like, you know, you describe in your book, what a big deal it was when the church bells were automated, and so they weren’t training the children anymore on how to ring the bells. I can imagine it’s kind of like losing a little piece of a local towns fabric, or history, or culture, when changes like that happen too though.
Janine: Yeah, I think so. I mean, and in some ways when we got the mobile phone signal it was kind of bittersweet, because it was really helpful to our lives, but in some way we also quite liked being cut off from it all. And with the bells, they have found a way around it, in that Madame Bernadette now gives lessons to children in the village. So if they want to learn how to do the bells and, frankly, they don’t have a choice because their parents make them. So she has a set of bells in the front room, and then sometimes you walk past the front room and you can hear the bells going and it’s really quite terrible.
Carlie: Oh, that’s adorable.
Janine: So, their hand bells.
Carlie: They’re keeping the tradition going.
Janine: Yeah. And I think that’s another French thing, is that they have such a reverence for tradition and patrimony and heritage, that actually, if something does disappear, like automated bell ringing coming in, they will find a way to keep it going. That’s another thing I really love about the French.
Carlie: I’ve only read your most recent book, but it sounds like the bread man is a recurring character. And you mentioned there’s no boulangeries in your village, which for me would be quite inconvenient. But this man drives around in his van and delivers pastries and bread every day.
Janine: Not every day. He comes on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. So we have to make sure we’ve got bags to keep the bread in, to keep it fresh. But he gives us a lesson, you know, you sprinkle it a little with water, put it in the oven for 30 seconds. But he’s just such a lifeline and, for me, he’s a great character as well. But, you know, there are a lot of old people in these villages and they’re not necessarily comfortable driving all the time. Plus, you know, it’s not very ecological to drive 10 miles to go and buy a piece of bread every day.
So, for me, he’s a really valuable person, not just because he brings me cakes, which I admit is an important part of my life, but also because we don’t have to drive to the town and nobody else has to drive to the town here and he keeps an eye on the old people and he’s just such a funny guy. But he does a great service as well. And he’s not the only one. We have a butcher. We have-
Carlie: A mobile butcher?
Janine: Yeah. Mobile butcher.
Carlie: Oh excellent.
Janine: Mobile butcher comes on Tuesday, fishmonger on Wednesday and groceries man comes on Friday, which is dairy and all sorts of stuff. So, technically, you need never leave the village. You could survive just about, I think.
Carlie: And I suppose, on the one hand, I was like, oh, you need to make sure you’re home, but unless you’re going for a really long walk, I guess there aren’t many places you’re really going.
Janine: No you don’t actually, because we all know each other so well. So like if I’m not here, I just hang a bag on the gate.
Carlie: I love it.
Janine: They put the stuff in the gate. And then sometimes I forget and the bread man will put their bread on top of the gate post and then when I get home there’s a bird peck marks in it if he forgot to (inaudible) bag. But no, they’re pretty good. Some people put their bag on the window sill. I put mine on the gate. So they just come in and they just leave it where you want.
Carlie: I wanna talk about DIY. My partner and I bought ourselves a 1970s fixer-upper. My partner and I took ourselves off to the local hardware store for a course on how to paint a wall when we bought our house because we had no idea. I read in your book that you and your husband did something similar all those years ago, when you bought your property, you did some courses, you did a lot of Youtubing to figure out how to DIY.
Janine: We did. I mean, I’m quite lucky because my dad was a builder anyway, so, I knew how to paint.
Carlie: You had some base skills.
Janine: Yeah I (inaudible) skills. And also I quite enjoy it. Mark, he’s one of those people that watches YouTube a video and then he knows how to do something afterwards, which really annoys me.
Carlie: So jealous.
Janine: Yeah. I’m not like that at all. No. But, you know, knowing we had this house, and it is a big house, but it had dirt floors and just about everything needed to be done. It had no plumbing. We have a septic tank. So, if you don’t know what a septic tank is, it means we don’t have main drains, so waste goes out into a big tank in the back.
So we knew we had a really big job on our hands. We couldn’t afford for builders to do it all up. It just wasn’t an option. And so before we came out here, Mark went and did a one-week course to do electrician or a one-week course to do plumbing, a one-week course to do roofing, tiling, anything we needed to do. And then he did the rest on YouTube and then he taught me. So we basically just did everything ourselves.
Carlie: That is so daunting to me. Painting a wall I can handle, don’t enjoy it, but will sand, will paint. Okay, fine. But things like electrics, plumbing, and I understand it’s a very expensive job to hire tradespeople to come and do all that for you, but gosh, talk about taking on a challenge and a half.
Janine: Yeah, I suppose it was really. We didn’t really think about it, we just knew it was a job that had to be done and there was no one else to do it. And if we wanted it done, we just had to get on with it basically.
Carlie: And what did you learn? Like, you know, doing your own plumbing, doing your own electrics, did you figure out that, if we had our time again, maybe we’d hire someone for this bit?
Janine: Sure. Because the lesson I learned is, do not put two wires together when you’re testing the electrics.
Carlie: Don’t cross the streams.
Janine: You know, I’ve learned to do as I’m told and not to muck about with wires. I’ve also learned to wear steel toecap boots when I’m carrying big breeze blocks, because I broke several toes, my (inaudible) told then. I’ve learned to plaster. In all honesty, we’ve got to the stage now where we’ve been doing it for 14 years. We’re still not finished. And then sometimes we go, oh, should we buy another doer upper and do it again? And then we look at each other and go, don’t we stupid.
But no, it’s been fun. It’s been a challenge. I have enjoyed it. We’ve learned a lot about each other, not just about doing up a house. So he now knows that I am really, really geeky and I keep project sheets and I write everything down and I know that he is very spontaneous and doesn’t like to be nagged or managed. So yeah, I would say enjoy it if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to do DIY, or at least try and enjoy it anyway, because you don’t have a choice.
Carlie: I know it was a real source of tension and stress in my relationship with my boyfriend. We had three months from getting the keys to our house, to doing some base stuff like, you know, the walls and stalling a new kitchen, really basic but necessary DIY. And we were so stressed out and we were fighting all the time. I will never hang wallpaper with him again because it’s really just not worth the damage. The emotional stress of it all is just too much.
What sort of advice would you have to people taking on really long DIY projects like yours to keep, I suppose, your relationship healthy through these sorts of things?
Janine: Oh, that’s a tough one. I mean, from my perspective, it really helped me to keep an Excel spreadsheet of everything we needed to do from a practical point of view. So for instance, if we were fitting new windows somewhere, I could then cross reference other things that needed to be done in the room, and so we could make savings or we could save time by doing different things. So for me, that worked really well.
Honestly, I’d say when you get really, really fed up with it, take a break and don’t knock yourself out trying to do something, because life’s too short, and it’s meant to be fun. You didn’t buy a house just so that you could spend all your time doing something that’s not enjoyable. So, when it’s not fun anymore, you just have to stop, take a break and then go back to it and find the fun. That’s a big thing. Yeah. And good luck with yours.
Carlie: Thank you. You saying that you still have things to do after more than a decade, I’m realizing now why my mother had sheets over some of her windows instead of curtains, you know, when I was 15 years old. And it’s because renovating a house, updating a house, it just takes that long. And here I was thinking within a year, everything would be done. It’s just not the way it’s going.
Janine: Yeah, at the end of eight years I was saying, oh, we’d probably be finished next year. And then at the end of 10 years, I was thinking maybe next year. And now it’s been 14 years and I’m thinking, oh, it’s never going to be done. But you know, what does it matter? Who does it hurt? As long as it feels comfortable, and it is really comfortable, and most of it’s done and now I don’t worry so much. You know, I just try and enjoy myself.
Carlie: The other thing that you set out to do when you moved to this property full-time was, be self-sufficient. Grow your own food, raise your own food. I love that idea. I have four tomato plants, quite proud of myself. I’ve tried growing corn. Hasn’t been so successful. I’m really good at growing courgettes, but that’s probably my least favourite vegetable. What are some of the advantages, but also I suppose, the downsides, of embarking on growing your own food and trying to be self-reliant in that way?
Janine: I really enjoy it. I mean, sometimes I go out there with a basket and I pick courgettes, which I’ve gotta tell you, are the easiest plants to grow. Sorry about that.
Carlie: I can’t mess it up really, can I?
Janine: No. And, you know, pick apples and pick nuts and cucumbers and tomatoes and you bring it in and you just say, this is so amazing that I can do this. And I keep chickens and ducks and geese as well, so I have a lot of eggs. And originally we thought we would try and be very self-sufficient, but we ate one, well tried to eat, one of our chickens, he fell out of the chicken coup and broke his legs, and so we had to put him out of his misery and we thought, well, we don’t want to waste this life. And so we turned him into a coq au vin. Never again. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good, it was just that we kept thinking of this eaglet, as we called him, on the plate.
And so we found we couldn’t do it. And we’re a bit hypocritical because we do eat meat, but it did teach us a lesson and we don’t eat anywhere near as much meat as we used to. And in fact, we’re probably what you call flexitarian. So we eat a bit of meat, but mostly we eat vegetables these days because we now realize keeping animals just how precious they are. So, yeah.
Carlie: So the animal side of things was a bit of a fail, but understandably. I don’t think I could really eat the animals that I raised myself. I don’t eat meat anyway, but if I did, I think I’d be way too attached. Even if I didn’t name them, I’d get to know them too much and I’d see their little personalities. And, I don’t know.
Janine: That’s exactly what happened to us. And, you know, we get pigs and we were gonna do all sorts of things, and then we just thought, no. But we eat a lot of eggs because we’ve got a lot of chickens.
Carlie: I can imagine you’d have to be really conscious about keeping up with the egg production.
Janine: I’m really lucky because we have a great little bar about five miles away, which is our go-to bar, and they have a little auberge in the back and they love eggs. They love our fresh free-range eggs. Our chickens are just wild, they’re everywhere, they’re pests really. And so we take all the eggs that are extra down to the restaurant and then they’ll give us a drink once every once in a while.
Carlie: Oh, great.
Janine: So like, at least their eggs are not wasted, someone’s really appreciating them. And it worked. You know, the barter system out here is really healthy. I don’t know about Strasbourg, but in the countryside, this is completely normal. If we’ve got an excess of eggs, we’ll give them to the neighbour, they’ll give us a tray of plums, they’ll make you jam. And everyone just swaps whatever food is left over.
Carlie: That’s a really good idea.
Janine: It’s brilliant. So, although we are not completely self-sufficient, it’s pretty good. And especially with neighbourly help.
Carlie: Do you ever just really wish you had an offie, like around the corner and you could go and buy yourself a Mars Bar and a chocolate milk or something? Cause I think I’d have those cravings.
Janine: I used to, but I think I’ve just got so used to it now, that I can’t do it. And there used to be an Australian lady who lived in the village, Catherine, and she did actually have this great idea. She was going to put a machine in the village and fill it with sweets.
Carlie: Oh, like a vending machine. Oh, that’s a good idea.
Janine: But she never quite got round to it. But in the next village along there is a bread machine.
Carlie: I’ve seen these. I think it is so clever.
Janine: I think it’s a bit crazy, but…Some of the bread has been in there for… I’ve seen pizza machines. A couple of miles away there’s a strawberry machine. So the farmer puts fresh strawberries in every day and you can go and buy strawberries. There are vegetable machines, so you can go and buy fresh vegetables from the farm 24 hours a day. So I think life in rural France is changing, should we say. But those aren’t necessarily bad changes. So, it’s just changing.
Carlie: There is one in the town I used to live in, just outside of Strasbourg, they had a bread machine outside their boulangerie. So the bakery, as it was closing for the day, or, you know, it wasn’t open on Sundays, they would stock the machine. And they had another vending machine right next to it which had eggs and dried pasta. And I thought that is so clever.
Because you know, on a weekend when you’re stuck, and the reality of France, like even here in Strasbourg, it’s hard to find something open on a Sunday, let alone sometimes Saturday afternoon. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that has taken me literally years to adapt to is, you know, coming from Australia where we have 24-hour Kmart and coming from London where you could order something to your office, place the order in the morning and you’d get it in the afternoon before you leave work for the day. Just not having like, you know, on-demand retail was something that took me a long time to kind of chill out about.
Janine: I agree. It does take a bit of getting used to, but you learn a different way of life. So we have a big chest freezer. We stock up on food in advance. We know that everything’s gonna be shut on Sunday. It’s shut at lunch times. It shuts at six o’clock in the evening. So we’ve just got used to being a bit more organized, keeping tins in the cupboard. And you know, the neighbours are pretty good. Our neighbours across the road, they’re always coming, oh, have you got any sugar? Have you got any coffee? Have you got a bottle of wine?
Carlie: Oh, the old borrow a cup of sugar thing alive and well in the country.
Carlie: Of course.
Janine: But we’re actually quite efficient now, considering we’re Londoners and never had to do this, but it’s either that or you starve. So we’ve learned the hard way. Yes.
Carlie: You talk in your book about the news and the local paper being quite mundane, and it can be the case in my local paper too. It’s like, oh, someone, I don’t know, got an award for growing a giant plant or whatever. But actually small towns, or villages, can be like a hotbed of gossip. Without naming names, can you tell me the type of gossip that goes on, and have you and your husband ever been the subject of the gossip and found out about it?
Janine: Yes. And yes. The sort of gossip that goes on here, everyone talks about, you know, Mr. and Mrs. Jupité have had a big row and she has thrown him out into the street, and she is throwing his clothes out of the window. And they’re in their seventies, but they do this regularly.
And oh, there was a man called Paul who was in love with a chicken called Sherry, and he used to drive this (inaudible). This was told to us and we were like, nah, that’s not true, that’s definitely not true. And then we saw Paul in his car with his chicken on his shoulder, like a parrot. And it was true. He actually loved the chicken, not in a bad way or anything like that, but he just loved her and he wanted to have her in the house and spoil her. And then he got a girlfriend called Sylvia, and Sylvia was like-
Carlie: Oh, no, me or chicken?
Janine: (inaudible) came to his senses and the chicken went. But actually, I think we are the biggest source of gossip, really sorry to say. So, yeah. Because we are different, we’re the only Brits in the village. They’ve seen us do this house up and frankly, other people in the village don’t work at the same pace as us. So our neighbour Claudette, she would go by it and we’d be up on the roof, fitting the window, and then she’d come back and the window was in and we’d moved onto the next one. And she’d go and get her son-in-law and say, well, look, they can do it, why can’t you do it?
And the farmer, Pierre, he used to come back, pie in his tractor, and he’d be like, what are you doing? You’re crazy people. You never stop. And we didn’t stop in those days. But the biggest thing was the day we moved here. And we were very green. We, you know, were used to London, pick up the phone, anything goes wrong, someone comes around and fixes it. We moved in, and the day we moved in the septic tank decided to blow up in the garden, which was a very unpleasant sight.
Carlie: Oh, can imagine.
Janine: No idea. We had no telephone. We had no mobile phone signal. We did not know what to do. So we went and saw the farmer, Pierre, up the road and said, what do we do? He said, I will come and fix it for you when I finish work tonight. So he turned up with his tractor and big tank on the back, and his assistant Gita, who is crazy, and they basically sucked it all up out of the garden and out of the tank. It was really, really unpleasant. And Gita got it wrong and he pushed flow instead of suck.
Yeah. I was screaming, you idiot, you idiot. And then people in the village could hear this going on. And people started arriving and then they went and got beer. And we were all sitting out in the garden and watching Gita and Pierre like, just going crazy out there.
Carlie: Oh, that’s hilarious.
Janine: But, yeah. And then afterwards, John Claude said to me, you know, everybody in the village calls you Madame Merde.
Carlie: Oh, that’s unfortunate.
Janine: (inaudible) Is it okay to say the word, what merde is?
Carlie: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Janine: Sh*t, basically. There you go. So that is now my nickname in the village. So yeah, we are-
Carlie: Even all these years later, you haven’t shaken the nickname?
Janine: No. I’m also known as Madame flop chef. Not, top chef. Because when I came-
Janine: Yeah, I know. I couldn’t cook when I came out here. I can now because I’ve been forced to learn to cook because you have to because you’re in France. But then everyone used to say, oh, you are flop chef. Not, top chef.
Carlie: You know, that’s another thing that took me a long time to get used to, is how my French boyfriend gives me compliments about my cooking. Oh, needs a bit of salt, but it’s okay. Oh, you did much better this time than the last time you made this. And I’m just like, can you stop with their backhanded compliments? Like nothing is excellent or tastes good. It’s like, oh, you know, it’s a bit dry, but you know, it’s alright.
Janine: I mean, it’s all my neighbours talk about. If you’re having lunch, they’re talking about what they’re going to cook for dinner. And if they’re having dinner, they’re talking about would they’re going to cook for lunch the next day. And quite frankly, they were horrified. A woman of your age who cannot cook? I was like, I come from London. We have McDonald’s we have Kentucky Fried Chicken and (inaudible)
Carlie: I was gonna say, there’s fried chicken on every corner.
Janine: Yeah. So I just never bothered to learn. But out here where you are miles away from shops and restaurants and where everybody else cooks, you learn pretty damn quickly, otherwise your husband cooks and he can only do beans on toast. And so it has to happen there.
Carlie: How often do you go into like the closest big, well, first of all, how far away is your closest big town and how often do you go and get like a bit of a city hit? You know, I think I need to get out and be amongst people in a bit of a hustle and bustle sometimes.
Janine: Our nearest big town. What do you consider to be a big town? Like more than 10,000 people or something?
Carlie: Yeah, I guess. I mean, Strasbourg has a tram, has chain stores.
Janine: That sort of a big town. It’s probably a 45 minute drive.
Janine: So, yeah. It’s probably not as big as Strasbourg either. It does have supermarkets and restaurants. So yeah, it’s about a 45 minute drive. And I’m okay because I travel a lot for my job. So like, in two weeks’ time, I’m going to Aix-en-Provence, and to Arles, and the Camargue, and I’ve just come back from Burgundy and Bordeaux. So I get my fixes by travelling. Mark, it doesn’t bother him at all anymore. For a townie from London, he’s just completely embraced the country life. And we go to the local restaurant, which is about five miles away, about once a fortnight. And in the 14 years we’ve been going there, they’ve never changed a single item on the menu.
Carlie: Wow. Clearly an expert in every single dish they have.
Janine: But we’ve just kind of become accustomed to that life. And it’s actually really comforting to know that things don’t change very much. Yeah. You know, the bells might be automated and we have a burger van that comes to the village on a Wednesday night now. Woohoo. That’s very exciting.
Carlie: So exciting. If you ever get a coffee van, I’m there.
Janine: Fundamentally things don’t really change. And actually, it’s quite comforting, at my age anyway. If you’re younger, it probably isn’t. But as an older person, I love it. Yeah.
Carlie: Janine, so many people have a dream to live in France and there are people right now, listening to this podcast who are eyeing up a rural property, like the one that you bought. What’s your advice to them about how to know if the little village that they’re looking at is the right one for them and they’re going to be happy there?
Janine: It’s a really hard one. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend you did what I did, which was, you know, right on a complete whim knowing absolutely nothing. I was really lucky. I lucked out. It’s always a risk. You know, you can think you know somewhere, but unless you spent quite a lot of time there, you don’t really. So you never really know. There’s always an element of risk, and that’s the good thing in some ways as well. Make sure you get internet signal if you need it.
Go there on a day when it’s raining and cold, don’t just do it on a sunny day. And, you know, we all fall in love with those TV shows and go to the châteaux and oh, we all want to live in a castle. But then you’ve got to remember the downsides. Heating, you know, maintenance, bills, taxes, that sort of stuff.
Try and do some homework. Try and look at websites. Join Facebook groups. I find that brilliant, you know, there are so many now. Even where I live, in the middle of nowhere, there are about 40 of us who live within a, maybe, 50-mile radius, and so we all talk to each other.
And you can go on there and just ask people, what’s it like? There’s a group in the Chéron area, and they’re really active. I belong to loads of groups because I write so much about France, but I see people going on there all the time saying, I want to live in a little village that’s got a boulangerie, that’s got a doctor’s, that isn’t too far from a hospital. And then people will recommend somewhere and other people will say, well, no, you don’t want to go there because they’ve got a problem with a road coming through in two years. Very rare.
But yeah, go on Facebook groups and ask those questions from people who are actually doing it and who know the reality of life in an area, I would say. And go for it. Life’s too short not to go for it, I think.
Carlie: I just have one more question. What was the turning point, for you, when you realized you weren’t just the subject of the gossip in your village anymore, but you were sharing in it with the locals and you were essentially accepted as part of your community?
Janine: Gosh. It revolves around food. In a village like this, people do come and go, but not greatly. And we had some new people in the village that lived a couple of streets away and everyone was very welcoming to them, as they were to us. We get invited to barbecues and there are events at the town hall and we go to all of them because you can’t be shy when you live in a place like this. And even if you don’t speak great French, which my husband does not, mine is okay, but it’s not brilliant, but you’ve got to make the effort and you can’t be modest about it and you can’t just say, we don’t speak French.
You have to really at least say Bonjour to everyone. And people are welcome. So these new people arrived, and they were French, but they were city slickers from l’ Île. And so they were invited to a barbecue and we were invited to a barbecue. And we were walking down the hill to my neighbour’s house where the barbecue was, and my husband was like, I can smell Basque sausages-
Carlie: That’s very specific.
Janine: Basque sausages, I bet they’re from DeLaine’s, which is like the local butcher, he’s about maybe 10 miles away, but everybody knows he’s the best butcher in the department. And then we got there and the newbies, they were saying, oh, these sausages are great.
Where do they come from? And Mark was like, yeah, they’re from DeLaine’s, they’re the best sausages. And everyone just looked at him and I just looked at him and I just thought, yeah, do you know what? We do belong here. We are local. We know where the sausages come from.
That makes us local. It’s just little tiny things. It isn’t having lots of friends. It isn’t knowing the language necessarily. It’s just knowing the little detail things like that, that everybody else knows, that you don’t read about in a book. For me, that was the turning point where I realized, yeah, you wouldn’t read that in a guidebook, but we know it, and it’s a big part of life here.
Carlie: Well, one book that we do recommend you read is your latest book, which is Toujours la France?
Janine: Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Carlie: And you can also check out Janine’s website, which is The Good Life France. And Janine, thank you so much for joining me for the Expat Focus podcast.
Janine: Thank you very much. Cheers.
Carlie: Got to go find myself some wine now.
Janine: Yes, you do. This is France.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode, Janine’s latest book if you missed it, is called Toujours La France! And be sure to check out her website, thegoodlifefrance.com. We have more France-related interviews for you to enjoy. From buying a property in the country, to language learning, and renovating and running a guest house. Simply scroll back through our episodes on your favourite podcast app to find them, they’re also on our YouTube channel or at expatfocus.com. And I’ll catch you next time!