There was no holding us back now!
Once I’d given the nod of approval to Jouques as the ideal place for us to venture to, in order to fulfill our dream of living in Provence, Jean-Louis was raring to go! Understandably so, as the prospect of finally returning to the country of his birth for an extended period of time, had been a deep-seated yearning in him for so long. I have to admit, I was just a little bit apprehensive, but also excited at the ‘grande aventure’ that lay ahead.
By an ‘extended period of time’ I mean more than just a brief holiday. We weren’t sure how long we were going to live in France, but we knew that we had this window of opportunity that allowed us precious time and freedom. We were in the extremely fortunate position of each having both our parents still alive and in good health; plus our daughters, though both happily in long-term relationships, were not planning to give us grandchildren in the next few years. Of course we also felt very lucky to be fit and healthy ourselves, but the cliché ‘you only live once’ was resounding in our heads! So basically we were off the hook from the kind of responsibilities that keep a lot of people close to kith and kin.
As soon as we returned to Perth after our month in Jouques in June 2014, we considered our plan of action: to prepare our present home for sale and, once sold, move our possessions to a smaller property in Perth which we’d yet to find and purchase, then get back to Provence for the following European Summer and find a house to rent for a year. Sounded do-able.
We had a large bespoke and beautiful, family home in a leafy inner-city suburb, which we’d designed and built ourselves and lived in for ten years with our daughters until, only very recently, we’d become empty nesters. Our plan all along was to use the house as an investment to allow us to downsize once the girls had left home; naturally we hoped to have sufficient funds leftover to enable us to live in Provence part-time and potentially purchase a house there.
Alas, our timing was not the best
The very month our home went onto the housing market, house prices started to drop. The reason being was that the commodities boom that had existed in Western Australia for the previous five years or so, had suddenly slumped. One consequence being that property at the higher end of the market was no longer in demand; we would just have to hang-in there with our fingers crossed, and wait and see.
It took almost nine months to sell and settle the sale of our property, a phase in which we felt helplessly in limbo, in fear of something going terribly wrong and the deal falling through; a fear that we were likely to lose a lot of money on our investment and potentially see our dream significantly diminish or vaporise entirely!
I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the sale and behaviour of the buyers, but fair to say they did not comply with the contract and caused us to have to seek legal assistance!
In the meantime we had taken a chance and bought a small house that we thought would be an ideal toehold for us in Perth, then finally, in mid June 2015, the sale of our family home was completed.
With our mortgage paid off, money in the bank and a huge sense of relief, we moved into our comparatively tiny new home in the adjacent suburb. A month later I left my long-time job as a graphic designer and we decided to head to France to catch the end of the summer; somewhat later and feeling significantly more stressed than we’d hoped, but at least we were on our way.
Obviously we’d had to adjust our plan of action since we were behind by at least six months so, instead of moving our lives completely to France at that moment, we decided to go there temporarily to A. have a holiday and de-stress after one of the most anxiety-causing experiences of our lives; B. meet-up with some family and friends who would also be in France in September; and C. get to Jouques and look at properties for sale and rent. So off we went for three months.
Luck was at last on our side
Not long after we’d arrived in Bordeaux and whilst staying with family there, JL heard through the family grapevine that one of his Aunt’s was going to Australia for a month’s holiday – which meant we could stay in her house while she was away, save money on accommodation and see that area of the south-west of France (the regions of Tarn et Garonne and Midi-Pyrenées) really well! It also gave us much needed time to really relax and consider what we wanted going forward – what kind of life we might actually live in France? All a bit late in the peace you might say, but really, when one is caught up in living and working, with it’s stresses and demands, it can be hard to step aside and see clearly what the future may look like.
In Bordeaux Jean-Louis’ Uncle helped up find a second-hand car to purchase, in which we then made our way south to the pretty village of Monestiés to settle into Aunt Claudine’s home there.
A wonderful region to explore
From that comfy spot we made many day-trips to some splendid places: the lovely town of Albi, the red city (due to the red clay bricks that are used predominantly for its buildings) the home of the magnificent Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and the huge Cathedrale de Sainte Cécile with its incredibly beautiful interior; Toulouse, the pink city (because of the pink-hued bricks mostly used for its buildings); Cordes sur Ciel, a quaint and artistic perched village; St Antonin Noble Val, an exceptional medieval village situated on a picturesque bend of the Aveyron river; the perched village of Najac also on the Aveyron; the incredibly elegant Millau Aqueduct, designed by Sir Norman Foster and, at 343 metres, the tallest bridge in the world; as well as many tiny medieval villages and ancient castles to be found via narrow, winding roads, through undulating hills and hidden amongst dense forest.
All along a large part of our plan was to move Jean-Louis’ art practice to Europe, to see if he could make a success of creating, exhibiting and selling his work to a wider audience. For myself, I had a yearning to get back to being personally creative too – the work of a designer is forever constrained by a brief, a budget, the whims and genuine needs of the client, and constantly by deadlines; so I was desperate to reconnect with my ability to create with my hands from my own perspective, in my own time. We needed a house that would afford us space to set up our own studios and have sufficient workspace to not be in one another’s way.
We were also now in a position to know what our financial situation was and so consider a budget for whatever we wanted and needed, in particular if we were to rent or purchase a house and what we required of a house to be comfortable.
We realised that the savings we had may not be adequate in the current economic climate, where investing was tricky and interest rates generally poor; unfortunately we’d had to sell our house for a considerably lesser amount than we’d initially hoped. So we agreed that we might have to consider having some way of supplementing our meagre income for the first few years whilst JL was feeling his way in the art-world of France. JL considered that he could teach art workshops if we had a house with a suitable space. We also thought of hosting guests in our home, travelers who wanted to experience a genuine Provençal village for a few days. All these details we would consider whilst looking at property.
By the time September approached we were well ready to meetup with our daughter Isabelle and her partner Chris, plus his parents, to spend a couple of days together in the Tarn, and then we would eagerly travel on to Jouques.
We could hardly wait!
It felt strange to arrive in Jouques in mid-September with a feeling of distinct familiarity, particularly with family members in tow with whom we so wanted to share what we’d discovered there. As we drove into the village we were overwhelmed by the strong scent of lavender, heavy in the air; we quickly realized that the local distillery was, at that moment, pressing lavender into pungent oil!
We’d previously seen that there were many fields of lavender around the edges of Jouques, but we hadn’t been around at harvest time, nor had we visited the distillery. Crops are usually harvested from mid-July, which may take a month or so, after which the distilling process may also take a few months to complete, depending on the volume of crop harvested. We learned that, as Jouques sits at almost 400m above sea level, it is the hybrid lavandin that is grown in the vicinity, while lavender is normally grown at 600-800m. In any case, the scent that welcomed us that Friday afternoon was not just intoxicating, it was an aroma that announced that we’d well and truly arrived in Provence!
A house to inspect
JL and I exercised extreme restraint during the following few days by not going directly to see the real-estate agent, whom JL had been in occasional contact with during the past year. He’d seen several properties online over that time and one in particular appealed to us immensely, so we were keen to have a look at it as soon as possible. When we eventually did go to see the agent on the Monday he said that, unfortunately, that house was no longer on the market – naturally we felt rather deflated. However, he declared that he had just picked up keys for a property that we might like to view; since it offered the kind of accommodation he thought we were after. Well, why not we thought as he pulled the keys from his pocket and dangled them before us – so off we set.
He led us up into the little lanes of the old village and along the first of several ruelles that run parallel to the main boulevard; we walked to its end then turned up a steep incline onto another smaller street with which we were unfamiliar, and there we soon stopped. Looking around we observed a very short, characterful little street of stone houses, all butted together in the usual style and, at its end an ancient stone arch with a niche, sadly missing it’s statue. The house in front of us had faded green shutters, shut tight, its outside façade rendered in a light ochre cement, and a sundial at the centre of its first storey; it appeared to be three levels and quite tall.
In no time at all the shutters to the entry were unlocked, then the classic but narrow French doors were opened and we were in. We found ourselves standing in what was the most incredibly Provencal looking kitchen I have ever seen! Decorated in bright yellow and green square tiles on the bench-tops and walls, with yellow cupboard doors beautifully hand-painted with sprays of olive leaves and fruit, plus a large chimney canopy, it was a cheery welcome into the house.
From there we stepped up into the salon (living room), the main feature of which was a large fireplace and an impressive vaulted arch at the end of the room made entirely of stone. We walked under the arch and found on our right, a door to a small, windowless room, also with a vaulted ceiling, which was deemed the laundry and storage room. We backed up a little to another door in the centre of the salon which led to a small foyer, which held the stairwell. Here was no ordinary staircase, rather a spiral of the most sensual and perfect proportions it made us gasp at its fluid, organic beauty! Looking up from its base we could see its concentric circularity rising up several levels. JL and I looked at one another with that look of excitement and amazement on our faces!
Up we went
The first floor contained two large bedrooms overlooking the street, each with large windows which the agent opened along with the shutters as we entered; plus a bathroom set to the back of the house, in yet another vaulted-ceiling space. It was then explained to us that the first two levels of the house, this one and the one below, were set directly against the hillside, hence there were no windows in the back rooms, and the vaulted ceilings were designed for maximum strength. We’d never been into a house quite like this before!
Up further we ventured. After only a few steps we encountered a door situated at an awkward angle off the stairs, which the agent announced was a surprise room. On opening the door and turning on a bare-light-bulb hanging on a cord from yet another vaulted-ceiling (the switch for which had been difficult to find in the dark), we could make out what looked to be literally a cave. There was a tree-trunk shaped chopping block and several chunks of wood on the ground which was covered in dark sawdust; against the wall were several mis-matched parts of timber furniture – this space was obviously used for storage as well as to chop wood for the fireplace. It was larger than it had first seemed and very cool inside, as well as pitch black once the light was out.
Up then to the second storey to find a third bedroom, it appeared to be smaller than the two below, largely due to having a much lower ceiling. Around to our left was a low door, which opened to a bare, grey, cement-floored room, mostly empty apart from a few more pieces of old furniture. It had a second door, which, on opening, led us out to a street. What a surprise! We were in fact on the street further up the hillside from the one on which we’d entered the house below. We’d been a little disoriented as we’d ascended the stairs, and we at once realized that this was how many of the village houses worked, though most of them had long-since been divided into two or more smaller houses or apartments.
Back into the house and we continued up the last section of now steeper stairs to a trap door in the ceiling, above which was an attic. We had only a brief glimpse around up there since the light was dim and there was so much dust, plus the ceiling was sloped and mostly too low to enable us to stand upright.
Once back down on the landing outside the third bedroom, the agent unlocked what was to be the final door on our journey of discovery through this house. It opened into a large space the full depth of the house, we estimated it to be some nine meters long, lying above the bathroom and second bedroom below. Half the floor was covered in what we assumed were original old terracotta tiles, while the other half was plain dirt. We figured it had been used as a barn since there was what looked like a hay-loft above, plus a small manger built into the wall and a metal ring secured in the wall near it – obviously a spot to tie-up and feed the donkey or perhaps a goat! The walls were all bare, dull stones and there were two solid shutters that opened out onto the top street. JL and I both noted that it was a really good sized space.
On our descent through the house we naturally revisited each room while the agent busily closed all the shutters and windows behind us. While JL and I waited for him in the kitchen we again took in the detail of the hand-painted cupboards and, just as we expected to depart by the front door, the agent sprung another surprise on us; this time in the form of a trap door in the floor of the kitchen. How had we not noticed that before?
Gosh, how many surprises this house held!
We stepped carefully down the steep, ladder-like steps. We observed a space directly under the salon and half the length, carved directly out of the hill and rocks. The floor and walls were tiled and in reasonable condition, it was cool but not damp or musty. There was a good light-fixture in the room and a little air vent to the street. Overall a very useful space and possibly perfect for use as a wine cellar!
With so much going on in our heads at that moment it was just as well the agent didn’t have anything else to spring on us, as we needed to go away and think.
And think we did, probably for a full fifteen minutes! Haha! Yes, on reflection that seems crazy and ridiculous, but we quickly agreed that the house checked every box we had on our list and then some. The bottom of the house offered rooms that were immediately habitable and entirely functional, while the top level gave us an opportunity to value-add to the amenity of the building and stamp it with our own style. The clincher was definitely the generous-sized barn that we could visualize as a studio-work-space, the fact that it had double doors opening onto the road was a distinct bonus – perhaps (we thought) it could even work as a gallery!
Additionally it was priced to sell; significantly it was about 30% less than the house we’d previously seen online. We could hardly contain our excitement at the serendipitous nature of the course of events that had led us to this day, this village, and this particular house. Had our home in Perth not taken nine months to sell we would not have been in Jouques at this particular time; had we not been in Jouques that very week, we would surely have missed the opportunity to see and purchase this house altogether – as someone else would have snapped it up with as much speed and gusto as we were prepared to do. As luck would have it, we were the first to see it.
We returned the next day with our family in tow, to look the house over and to reaffirm what JL and myself were thinking but not yet disclosing to them. Isabelle and Chris, as well as Chris’ parents were all enthusiastic and, as we made our way through the building, the excitement became palpable – in fact it reached new levels when we disclosed the existence of the cellar – the wine lover in each of us went a bit crazy!
We were then able to see that the little street was at the very western edge of the old village and, in our view, the nicest street in the village. The stone arch carried the date 1676, and all the neighbouring houses looked to be occupied and cared for.
The rest is history
We made an offer the following day, the day after that we received a phone call at 7pm suggesting that an amount slightly more would be more amenable to the seller. Our immediate response to that effect meant the agent’s next sentence was that he had the authority to accept our revised offer and we could consider ourselves the new owners!
Of course that called for a celebration and two of our guests ran out immediately to buy champagne as we had none – talk about not being prepared!
And just like that our dream to one day have a house in Provence became tangible.