Leaving Biarritz meant the end of our mini-holiday. From now on, real life awaited.
We picked-up an automatic rental car at the airport and drove to our new home, where we would meet the current (about to become previous) owners and the estate agents, for a visit before signing the papers. Torrential rain started just as we left the airport and it hadn’t eased out at all along the way. But we made it and the property was as great as we remembered it when we saw it in February, even as we caked our shoes with mud walking around it.
Bernadette, the owner, took me on a goat and chickens induction tour. She showed me pallets of straw and hay and bags of corn, and wheel-barrels and water fountains.
‘Looks like you’re gonna have to buy some hay soon, for the goats,’ she said.
‘Ok, where do we buy it from?’ I asked earnestly.
‘I don’t really know. It’s usually someone in the village, but you’ll need a trailer.’
‘A what? We don’t even have a car yet,’ I admitted.
‘Look, we’re around for a few more days, I will send you some more information.’
Less than a week ago, I was working in an advertising agency in London, dealing with tight deadlines, studio resource scheduling, around fifty or so projects and a dozen of clients. Now I was facing bigger problems. Where to buy hay for the goats from, how to bring it home and most importantly, how on Earth to get a car by the time we had to drop-off the rental car?
I had envisaged finding a car within our meagre budget to be a bit of a problem. So I had scoured the internet before settling on leboncoin.fr website, where local occassion (second-hand) cars would be advertised, and kept checking it every day. But there were few and far between cars that matched our criteria being advertised, and nobody seemed to bother replying to my emails either. Not to mention that I had no date for the cat’s transportation, as the original deal with the animal couriers had fallen through. But first things first, we had to secure the house.
We drove to the little village of Navarrenx, voted as one of les plus beaux villages de France, where the meeting with the notaire was the next day. The accommodation in Navarrenx, Le Relais de Jaquet, was a typical pilgrims’ hotel (Navarrenx is a popular stop for those who walk the Chemin de Saint Jacques pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella). The room was huge but bone-chilling cold and, after setting off every single electric heater we could find, we immediately decided to go out for a glass of wine to get warm.
We took a stroll around the village but most places were closed – something I was told to get used to in France. We went past to the sports bar and were happy to see that it was most certainly open. Inside we found a golden retriever, two hounds, a terrier and their owners: the man behind the bar and a middle-aged couple drinking bubbly at the bar. We ordered some red wine and let ourselves acknowledge that we were a little shell-shocked from the visit to the farm that afternoon.
‘I didn’t realise the place was that big,’ said Alistair.
‘It’s huge,’ I said. ‘And I don’t even know where to buy hay for the goats from. Apparently we have to get them registered too. Where? How?’ I cried.
I had forgotten how utterly insurmountable the simplest of tasks seem when you are new in another country. But thankfully, as I was going to find out, the little French I had learnt in school and its similarity to the Romanian language, was my most valuable asset.
I tried to change the subject to something a little more fun, such as where to place the furniture that was due to arrive the next day, when one of the hounds came over to Alistair wanting attention.
‘He’s very friendly,’ said the woman who was sat at the bar. ‘Have you guys just moved here?’
‘Yes,’ said Alistair. ‘We bought a farm near Sauveterre de Bearn.’
‘You picked a great area,’ she said. ‘We’ve lived here for six years now. It’s great.’
‘We wanted to get some dinner. Do you know if any of the restaurants are open?’ I enquired.
‘Oh no,’ said the man. ‘Not this time of the year.’
‘Really?’ said Alistair. ‘Not even the Saint Jacques Tavern?’
‘They only open for lunch,’ said the woman. ‘You best bet is the pizza machine.’
I kind of wanted to avoid the pizza machine, which we indeed saw as we parked our rented Renault Captur opposite to the Maison de la Cigare. What would have been the point to stay the night in a place like Navarrenx, one of les plus beau villages in France, if we couldn’t at least go our for a meal and mull over the day’s events? But, in the absence of choice, the pizza machine was winning.
We asked for a bottle of red wine from the bar and we were asked to wait for the owner. When she arrived, she said it was ok, but I couldn’t quite understand why it was such a big deal. It turned out they were only selling wine on the tap, so they poured some into a non-branded bottle, put a cork on it and gave it to us in exchange for 4 euros. We then waited a few minutes for a cheese and ham pizza at the machine while taking a silly selfie. This would go down like a riot in London, I thought, but of course I was mistaken: nothing closes in London, therefore there would be no need for a food vending machine. We even passed a baguette selling machine a few days later on our way to St. Jean Pied de Pord. Not sure how fresh that would be, but I guessed if you ever found yourself in need of a baguette and no boulangerie open, you wouldn’t mind a machine-delivered baguette after all.
So here we were, in Navarrenx, in a cold room, eating pizza from a vending machine and wine from the tap from the local sports bar. I was a bit underwhelmed to be honest. My dream of the French life was fading away. What was I going to do in a place where even in the most popular villages one couldn’t get a warm dinner?
That night I couldn’t sleep. I was tossing and turning, trying desperately to get warm against my husband’s body (who, unlike me, is blessed with enviable body heat and a Northerner’s disregard for the cold). I woke up with a cough and a twinge in my heart. What if this was the biggest mistake we ever made, I thought as we made our way towards the Taverne de Saint Jacques for lunch with our estate agents. But there was no turning back: we no longer had a home in London to go back to and we had already paid the money for the house in France. Forward was the only direction!