Our big midlife gamble: why we left our perfect London life for a French dream

We phoned the estate agent. We WhatsApped. We emailed. We kicked ourselves up the behind. We went into overdrive to get our house sold. We painted, decluttered and cleaned. Young, glossy couples traipsed up our stairs and through our cupboards. We found and lost one lot of buyers, then quickly found another pair. It felt like it was meant when we realised the young woman had exactly the same unusual name as my husband’s sister. I am a great one for a sign, and this felt like a sign – albeit potentially a sign that this would severely mess up any kind of post forwarding service. When they came over after we’d accepted their offer, they brought champagne. We drank that and then a couple more. I don’t know who was more relieved, or happy.

Packing up the house was horrible. It wasn’t the relentless slog of it; we got our removal company to do most of it. What was almost unbearable to me was the sense of the home we had created being dismantled, dispassionately, wrapped and folded and placed in cardboard boxes, labelled, carried out to a van. I had worked so hard to create a welcoming, beautiful place; our London house felt like an extension of myself. To feel how impermanent it was underlined how impermanent everything is. Nothing lasts. Everything is dismantled in the end.

I bathed in sentimentality, surrendered myself to it. We had many last suppers thrown by us, and for us. I drove my husband mad by ticking off the last walk in Clissold Park, the last trip to Columbia Road Flower Market, the last meal at our favourite restaurant. One day, I was struck by the most awful thought of who even was I if I wasn’t a Londoner? This was the city that formed me over 30 years, the city I still loved. Then I packed another box for the charity shop and reminded myself I wasn’t running away from London, but towards something else.

On our last day, I walked through the house and kissed every door frame and thanked the house for loving us (I told you I was sentimental). My best friend came round to soften the blow, and when we got a parking ticket (au revoir, Hackney), she remonstrated with the traffic warden so I didn’t have to. True love.

My greatest fear was how much I would miss our friends and family, though again the School of Hard Covid – as well as giving me the courage to seize the moment – had shown me how it was possible to keep in touch with people, to nurture intimacy and friendships, without our best beloveds’ physical presence. I didn’t feel any less close to the people I cared about, or any less involved in their lives, because I wasn’t in the same room as them.

So finally, at the end of September, off we went; two dogs, a cat, a roof box, a trailer and us, towards this new adventure we had barely planned and hardly believed would happen until it did. We drove the whole length of France in one gruelling day because, to misquote When Harry Met Sally, when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life in a house, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. We arrived just before midnight. I took the dogs for a walk along the harbour, the full moon reflected, mirror-sharp, in the still water. As I walked back towards the house, the bells of Jean-Baptiste church began to chime. Our first day. Our first day. Our first day.

That night, we slept on an airbed – our furniture wasn’t arriving for a few weeks, to give us a chance to clean away decades of dust and cobwebs and sort out minor issues like hot water and electricity. I’m not an airbed person. I’m a thread-count-and-feather-pillow person. But camping out felt fun, for a couple of days at least, until I realised that it wasn’t so much sleeping on an airbed that was the challenge, but getting my 50-something carcass off an airbed without having to call an emergency chiropractor. So off we went to Montpellier Ikea to shop for a bed. We didn’t even have a row. Was this the promise of our brave new life manifesting itself?

A few weeks ago, our furniture arrived in a massive double wagon, which – as the driver reversed it around the tight corner into our narrow road – seemed almost as big as the village itself. We positioned sofas and tables, made up beds and arranged pans on shelves. We unpacked boxes. We are still unpacking boxes. Our lives feel both faster and slower. Each day there is so much to do, it’s impossible to carry the weight of it. Breathing life into a house that has been more-or-less empty for a decade is a vast job, sprawling, amorphous. Whereas in London it felt difficult to shrug off the oppression of the To Do list, here we play truant often, walking to the bar on the corner for coffee or drinks, or nipping out for lunch at one of the oyster huts on the water’s edge. Hacking down the bamboo or washing the walls can wait. They will still be there tomorrow. Or the next day.

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