A French Tale
I have always liked to start the new year off with a challenge, one that can capture my imagination and inspire me to get out of bed in the morning and work hard for the next 12 hours. Andrew and I had returned from Christmas in Denmark where I caught the flu on the flight out, which ended with me spending Christmas Day in bed with a fever feeling extraordinarily sorry for myself and sorry for Andrew’s family who had so generously invited us over for Christmas. I knew I was burnt out, I had felt more tired and mentally fatigued than ever before leading into the last week of work in 2014. My recruitment business had had a good, though roller coaster year and I was still running my therapy business in the evenings and Saturdays. It was good financially but poor in life quality.
I had never really understood new year resolutions, they seem to get forgotten quickly and so the one challenge a year has been the closest I get to resolutions. In January 2015 I resolved to do something radical and change our life pattern. I decided to buy a property abroad in a warmer climate with a challenge of growing hemp. Yes, hemp. I know, it sounds a bit iffy and certainly smells iffy but I had been converted to the medicinal health benefits of hemp oil by my friend Heli on my writing retreat with her in beautiful Monda in Spain. Heli would take me into her tranquil world for a week a year and quietly work her magic on my tired limbs and mind, thus enabling me to write freely, her retreat is a wondrous place and a small price to pay for a week of restful writing. Heli’s husband, Garry, had had throat cancer the first year I went there and he was introduced to the power of hemp oil by a concerned friend, when it seemed the cancer medicine was failing to help. Miraculously he pulled through and got the all clear and he put this down to hemp oil. I won’t bore you here with the depths of hemps restorative qualities, there is more than enough information on google to do that. But the business of it had tinkered and percolated in my subconscious all of 2014 and, ta da, that would be the challenge.
After extensive research we settled on France, mainly because the French government support the growing of hemp (Chanvre) and you can farm it without red tape, which is a rarity in Western Europe, as long as it is the right hemp, not the pot smoking cannabis strain! And so the story began. January found me scouring the French property websites and to my gobsmacked amazement the properties were all very inexpensive. I think I must have been brain washed by the media to think a place in France was on par with a house in rural England because these houses in France, with land were all around the €50-100,000 range. Big farmhouses with 20,000 sq metres, and more, of luscious produce growing land.
Now just in case you thought this was supposed to be about Italy fear not it is, please stick with it and you won’t be disappointed.
After a few more months we had whittled the areas down to North Burgundy and the Perigord areas. In September 2015 we set off to see these wondrous properties with all the excitement and hope in our dreams being realised. My mother also came out to meet us in Burgundy for the first few days and this is where the dream started to go off course. Mum arrived with a really bad cold. We set off to Champagne to visit our first few properties and dragged poor Mum (though she insisted) through dusty and aged barns of gargantuan sizes, hay lofts heaped with hay and bird poop, creaky dusty, damp rooms and cellars and spider strewn attics. I have always had a bit of a physical aversion to dust and started to get sinus problems, and coughing and spluttering we one by one crossed each farm off the list, mainly due to too many outbuildings, or poorly laid out land. On the last of these days in Burgundy we went for a lunch to cheer ourselves up, and found a little restaurant in the midst of the French countryside, near Champagne, and to top it all off I had the worst dish I have ever had in my whole life, Andouillette. When ordering food in another country I do like to be surprised, I had never heard of this dish before coming to this region and it seemed to appear on all the menus in this area either as ‘special of the day’ or plastered across the butcher windows in Chablis. It must be good, right? Wrong! It looked like a large sausage when it arrived with a French flourish to the table, nothing unusual, just not attractive (see picture above), I cut into it and to my gut turning horror a waft of the vilest stale urine smell wooshed up my notrils and then like an explosion floated around my head and over the table going up my mother’s cold nose, which was supposed to be blocked, instantly this melted any cold blockage there and she looked at me with great disgusted pity. Andrew meanwhile said nothing as he tucked into something only just less unappealing. I carried on bravely and cut a little bit off and tentatively popped it in and started to chew, it was disgusting, I’ve never had anything so horrible ever, it tasted like it smelt, of urine, and it was gristly and wouldn’t break down just letting the urine juice soak its way into every crevice of my mouth. The horror of it, I lifted my napkin and, as gracefully as I could, spat it into the napkin. Andrew was in hysterics at this point and my Mum looked paler than ever. The worst was that there was no service staff around to save us from the pungent smell and we sat there for over 20 mins with that smell circling the table until finally we were rescued by the smiling waitress who asked if we enjoyed our meal. Never again will I eat Andouillette.
There was so much going wrong I started to get a sense of foreboding about the rest of our viewings and as we said goodbye to my Mum, I kid you not a little uncomfortable sensation was felt in my throat and I knew that I had caught the cold. The next day we set off for the day drive from the East of France to the West and I sat in our car in a rigid cocoon of sweat and body aches the whole while over. The only pleasant part of this trip was the empty roads, we barely saw a car, it was really strange, nothing going on at all on these roads from one side of the country to the other. Of course, it was pleasant for Andrew who had a lovely driving experience, which was particularly useful as it rained most of the way, but really it was a sign of what we had been warned of by my good friend Julian, a resident in South of France in Sete, he had warned us we would find the country areas dead, that the French countryside and villages were dying a death of epic proportions, leaving ghost villages everywhere and he sadly was right. Pottering through one village after another in the Perigord we barely saw a living person, barely saw a coffee shop, or bakery, nothing. All there was on the outskirts of these Marie Celeste towns were large industrial supermarkets with a handful of people gloomily pushing their trolleys and buying manufactured baguettes and branded foods of the mass consumer. A society gone wrong. It was like the French people have sold out. We were brought up on the romance of popping down to the French bakery to get fresh warm croissants and crisp vibrant fruit and vegetables from the market stalls, a little aperitif in a local bar, or perk me up coffee and pastry in a tiny coffee shop. Here there was nothing it was dead dead. And yet the odd gleam of hope arose, the land was beautiful, rolling hills and countryside and even a couple of farmhouses with the promised land to grow chanvre on. But each time we got our hopes up and thought ‘we could buy this’ they were dashed by the isolation of the ghost village accompanying them, there was no energy, no vibrancy, or sound, no life. We wouldn’t get a chance to practice our 6 months of French lessons on the fantastic ‘Rocket French’ audio course we had burned into our minds in the aspiration of conversing with the locals. When things couldn’t get worse, they did. We had a fight with a landlady in one B&B who felt her other B&B guests were entitled to party with whiskey at the kitchen table outside our bedroom door at midnight, most bizarre. We went for a second viewing of a property only to find a camp full of young migrant men set up a quarter of a mile away and the locals, not in existence, had left the village to the young and bored men who had nothing to do but sit on walls in the village and glare at people, including us, driving by. Every corner we turned there was an obstacle. We decided a big ‘Non’ to France and headed back to Ireland with relief but dismay that this dream was over.
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