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Twenty-One Years in the Charente

Way back in 2003, in what was either the most inspired or the most foolish thing we have ever done, our family flew to France in the February half-term break and bought a house.  This was not quite the random act it may appear, because we knew when we set off on our journey that a property purchase might be the outcome, but it was not a done deal and we were not in any particular rush. 

The world was a rather different place.  Trouble was brewing in the Middle East as the Americans, supported controversially by Tony Blair and his Labour government, pursued their War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11, but the economy was strong, investment in schools and hospitals was making a difference and, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, in many ways it was all something of a golden era.

We had booked appointments with a couple of estate agents before we travelled, one of whom subsequently had no idea we were coming and failed to offer any sort of service.  The other, after a couple of false starts, provided us with a guide for a day and a half, during which we managed to see several places.  Some of the offerings were complete non-starters and we were beginning to think it was all a waste of time when we came upon a lovely looking house with yellow shutters – at which point cool logic deserted us and we did everything you should not do when buying a house.

Although it was still early February, the sun was shining and it was about fifteen degrees all week, which we obviously took to mean that it was always like that in this part of France at this time of year – as if!  Back then, if you wanted to buy a French house, the only legal obligation in terms of a survey was to check for asbestos and termites.  We were assured that most French people did not bother doing anything more, so there really was no need to worry – again, as if!  We went back for a second viewing, still liked it, made an offer the same day and ended up buying the place.

We have been going to the house, in a village rather unimaginatively called Villeneuve in the Charente region, for the last twenty-one years, but now the time has come to move on and make different plans, so two weeks ago an estate agent came to visit, took some photographs and we put it up for sale.  If it was located in this part of the world, it would be worth a fortune, but no one really wants to buy properties in rural France these days, so it is not worth very much more than we paid for it.  By the time you factor in the thousands of pounds we have spent in doing the place up, it will end up as little short of a financial catastrophe – but we really could not care less!

We have been going there for almost every holiday since 2003 and it has been the focal point of our family life.  We have spent time there with friends and family, wined and dined splendidly and watched some of the finest sunsets you could wish to see over the years.  We have turned the place from what could only be described as eclectic, and actually quite dangerous, into what is now described (albeit by the estate agent) as an exquisite family home.

If we had taken the trouble back in the day to have a proper survey, we would probably have discovered rather sooner that the electric wiring had been installed by a madman, that the log burning stove was so unnecessarily powerful that it is a miracle we did not burn the place down, and that the roofs on the outbuildings had been so badly constructed that they would all fall to pieces before too long.  We might then have walked away, decided that France was a daft idea and bought a house in somewhere like Loughborough, which was the closest town to where we were living at the time.  How dull life would have been if we had followed the path of such common sense!  

Sitting in our French garden during the recent holiday, on the few days when it was not pouring with rain, I was reflecting on how the world of education has changed in the thirty-six years since I walked away from my unfulfilling accountancy job in the City and decided to pursue a profession that has brought me great joy and satisfaction over the years.  One of my main conclusions, which I reached some time ago and about which I have yet to change my mind, is to question why we teach our children the curriculum we do.

Many hours are devoted to English, yet so many people have such poor literacy skills.  Likewise, so much time is spent studying maths, much of which will be of no use to those who are not pursuing scientific or engineering paths through life.  Fascinating though the theory of triangles and differential calculus may have been at the time, I can say without fear of contradiction that I have needed such knowledge not once in my lifetime.

While I fully appreciate that it is important for our wider understanding of how the world works, I cannot think of a single occasion when I have been grateful for any of the biology, chemistry or physics I learned at school, for the two years I spent grappling with the German language or indeed for much of the French I was taught.  It turns out that knowing how to tell someone that I enjoy going to the cinema with my friends is not much use when I need a plumber to come and fix a leaking toilet.

As the saying goes, ‘Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, let me do and I understand.’  From what I can recall, almost all of my school education involved being told things.  Because I was fortunate in my ability to remember information, in all sorts of random guises, I was able to pass exams and move without too much trouble through the various levels of our education system.  This in turn opened doors that have allowed me to pursue the career paths I chose, arguably with a small modicum of success.

But one of the most important lessons I have learned from home ownership, particularly in rural France where it is not always easy to find reliable help quickly, and in the early years when money was less available, is that I wish I had been given the opportunity to hone my practical skills at school more effectively.  It has been a lot of fun over the years – for me, at least, rather than my frequently exasperated family – to try to mend things without really having much idea what I am doing.  But more often than not it would undoubtedly have been quicker, cheaper and rather less dangerous simply to have waited for the right help to arrive.

One of my retirement projects may well involve trying to write a book.  Education would be an obvious topic, but our family’s experiences in the Charente might also make for a readable memoir.  It has been thirty-five years since Peter Mayle wrote ‘A Year in Provence’, which rather cornered the market for such books, but maybe it is time for an updated version and a look at what has changed over the years – to which I am pretty sure the answer, in all sorts of ways, will be ‘not much’.   

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