Between two worlds
When Kiwi couple Jo Crabb and Stephen Allwood fell in love with rural France, they decided to keep their home in Martinborough and live in both places. Here, Crabb recalls finding their dream house in the French village of Montjaux.
If confronted with two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed punters asking "What have you got for around € 100,000?" we all know what New Zealand real estate agents would do. You'd be in their car before you could say "best offer", and they'd be toting you all over town looking at available properties, whether suitable or not.
But in France? Ah, non.
When I asked in my halting French whether they had anything they could show us in the area for around € 100,000, the agents immobiliers we approached nodded.
"Ah, oui. Voyons, on peut vous montrer quelques maisons Mardi si vous voulez." Ah yes. Now, we could show you some houses on Tuesday, if you like.
Stephen and I swapped glances. It was only Thursday! We had a little over a week to find a place and, if possible, seal the deal. We thanked them for nothing and left them performing extravagant Gallic shrugs in our wake.
Reasoning that this was just big-town complacency, we consulted our map and decided to relocate to a little market town nearby called Saint-Affrique, named for the tomb of a 6th century bishop, Saint Africain, which was situated there. It was, predictably, a drop-dead gorgeous little place, nestled on either bank of a languid river and centred on a cathedral with a tall Gothic spire. We pitched our tent in the local campground and wasted no time in seeking out les agents immobiliers de Saint-Affrique.
"Qu'est-ce qu'il y a a vendre pour € 100,000?" I asked.
"Alors," the man said, stifling a yawn. "Voyons." Ah, yes. Let me see . . .
He produced a stack of photo albums and invited us to browse them and make our choice, as though we were willing to buy a house from a catalogue. Stephen and I swapped glances again. It was another of those WTF moments: Welcome To France. And no sooner had we begun a desultory inspection of the books than they announced they were closing for lunch.
You begin to realise why everyone in this country shrugs.
We changed campsite again, this time to a gorgeous, tree-shaded spot on the banks of the Tarn where it flows through Saint-Rome-de-Tarn. By now, of course, it really was the long weekend and everything was closed. We tried to relax by the river. We puddled around the lovely, cobblestoned streets of Saint-Rome and ate lunch a few times, but we'd begun to think that if it was this difficult even to get to look at houses, we were asking the impossible imagining we could buy one. We'd made some appointments to view a few the following week, but we had less than seven days left and we hadn't so much as seen a single house.
On the Saturday, since we were at a loose end, we thought we'd go and have a sneak preview of one of the villages where we had a house to view the following week. We saw a road sign pointing up into the hills reading "Montjaux 7km". That sounded like the right place (although it turned out it wasn't).
It was about a 10-minute drive, over a beautiful stone bridge from Saint-Rome-de-Tarn, and then up a steep narrow road winding up into the oak forest. This area is a regional park, and is green, rugged, and pretty enough to make you think you could be in New Zealand - well, if you took away the stone villages, and the odd older chap in blue workman's trousers and cloth cap doing something useful in the small fields by the side of the road. Each twist in the road offered us a new, breathtaking vista of the Tarn Valley, the bluffs on either side of the river blued with the distance.
So well-endowed is Aveyron with picturesque medieval architecture that, by this time, we were slightly numbed to the spectacle of yet another gorgeous stone village. Even so, Montjaux charmed us. As you approach from this direction, your first impression is formed across a valley and at a range of half a kilometre. You're immediately struck by the Romanesque church and its jumbled churchyard at the bottom of the downhill sprawl of the town. The road climbs through the village, and repeatedly doubles back upon itself, until you reach a small square where there is a petanque court, an old stone cross and a superb view of the Viaduc de Millau in the distance. This is where we parked that Sunday, just a few hundred metres, as it turned out, from destiny.
T HE HOUSE was perfect - too perfect. It would blow our budget. We walked on down the hill until, at the bottom, we reached the church and solved the mystery of the missing townsfolk. Everyone had been packed into Eglise Saint-Quirinus, the beautiful church that dates to the 12th century and has been designated a monument of national historical significance, but is still in everyday use. Mass was just ending as we approached, and people were filing out and shaking the cure's hand. We snuck past and went inside. Light slanted in through the narrow, arched windows, catching the dust motes among the stone columns - nothing does dusty the way a stone building does. It was lovely; quite plain, with wooden chairs for the congregation, but peaceful and friendly.
After admiring the church and feeling relaxed and peaceful, we started back up the hill, fantasising about how cool it would be to live in a village like this and to be able to call something like Saint-Quirinus "our" church. Stephen's claim would arguably be stronger than mine: he's lapsed, but at least he's a Catholic. I was raised a Protestant, a cynical Presbyterian.
When we reached the house with the "a vendre" sign, we stopped and ogled it again.
"We really should phone up and ask how much it is," I said. "What have we got to lose?"
"Why bother?" Stephen said. "It'll be too much. It's just a waste of time."
At that moment, the door of the house opposite opened and out came a little old man with a cloth cap. He glanced at us, took in our foreignness, and saw that the sign had caught our attention.
"C'est a vendre," he said.
"Ah, oui. A vendre," I agreed.
We all stood there for a minute, looking up at the windows.
"Est-ce que c'est joli a l'interieur?" I asked.
He replied obliquely, saying that the house had previously belonged to the Bourderioux family, as though that would tell me all I needed to know about how the interior had been kept. I nodded.
The man's face lit with a sudden realisation.
"Ah, mais vous serez nos futurs voisins!' he said. Hey, you'll be our new neighbours!
The man turned out to be Monsieur Jeanjean, a good friend these days. We tell him often - and he never tires of hearing the story - that it was his enthusiasm that made it seem possible for us to buy the house and live in Montjaux. Soon after we moved in, he admitted that he'd seen us through the window as we dithered by the for sale sign, and had really just come out to be nosy.
Buoyed by M Jeanjean's reaction, I rang the number on the sign. It had to be me, because my French is better than Stephen's.
Stephen continued gazing up at the house, affecting indifference, as I listened to the droning ring tone. Then a woman's voice answered.
"Ah, bonjour," I stammered. "Je m'appelle Jo Crabb. Je suis actuellement a Montjaux et je suis interessee par la maison . . ." I'm Jo Crabb. I'm in Montjaux and I'm interested in the house.
"Ah, oui," she said.
I learned that Mme Courtine wasn't a resident of Montjaux, but by some happy chance, she was visiting family there that day. She would be pleased to meet us that afternoon to show us around.
"Et le prix? La maison, c'est combien?" How much is the house? I asked lightly, before the conversation ended.
"Cent quatorze mille," she said.
" € 114,000," I repeated, my eyes locked with Stephen's. Numbers are the hardest things to be sure of.
‘Oui, c'est ca," she confirmed.
I finished the conversation, and Stephen and I stared at each other. The asking price was € 14,000 over our budget, but nothing seemed impossible right then.
We were feeling good, so of course we went off for lunch. We found a restaurant called Lou Paysan up on the main road and sat down happily. The waiter, evidently the owner, came to take our order. Jean-Luc was wearing an apron but, to show that he wasn't actually working and instead just hanging out and talking to customers, one of the bottom corners was tucked into the waistband. There was no menu, so he was really just telling us what we were going to eat that day. He was very chatty, fascinated that we had come all the way from the far side of the world - in another life, he had worked as an auditor for a hotel chain and had lived for a time in New Caledonia and had even visited New Zealand. He was delighted when Stephen played the little harmonium in a corner of the room. He asked us how we came to stop there. When we told him we were looking to buy a house in the village, he replied enthusiastically: "Mais c'est magnifique!"
We smiled back at him happily. Our good feeling about Montjaux just kept getting better. Perhaps our dream was on the verge of coming true, after all.
An extract from My Two Heavens by Jo Crabb (Random House, $40).
Sunday Star Times