An Englishman's Home by David Bottomley
David came to the Who are we now? workshop in London in the winter of 2018. He is a poet, playwright, short story and memoir writer and keen European. His plays have been performed in the UK and US and his stories have been shortlisted for prizes. He is currently writing a full-length memoir
Standing at a bar three deep, queuing up to get served but every time I get near someone else pushes in front and waves their note in the air. When I do finally make it, I can’t get served because the barrel has just run out on my favourite beer. They stopped serving food the minute I walked through the door. The bar staff are all new and, when I look closer, I notice all the regulars are now strangers. It turns out this is the last week the pub is trading before shutting its doors after a hundred and seventy five years. The property has been bought in a secret deal by a silent consortium of offshore property developers. It’s going to be turned into another block of flats.
I must have smelt the rot before it properly took hold. I had started searching online in early 2016 for the perfect house with an inspiring view. Somewhere in the French rural countryside with a view of the hills, a swimming pool and as many bedrooms as I could afford, so guests could come and stay and I could run retreats.
Of course, the French with the rest of civilised Europe, would never allow the indignity of having to fight over trying to get served in a bar. The waiter would come to my table, take my order and bring my drink on a tray with accomplished aplomb. Almost as though the customer were being rewarded for patronising their establishment.
The exchange rate for Euros was very favourable that summer. It was surprising how much one could buy for sterling abroad compared to London and the rest of the best, picturesque UK. Gone were the days where a whole chateau lay waiting to be my foreign castle in the air but there were still substantial homes in beautiful settings in France’s various departments.
By May I was thinking that, instead of all this window-shopping, maybe I should just take the plunge? Sell my flat in London and buy a mini chateau in France? There was one in the north, near Normandy, an eight-bedroom village house with long outbuildings that had been used as an antiques business, each room wonderfully decorated and of great proportions.
There was so much to think about. Where in France is the best place to live? Do you want to drive down from the ferry or fly to the nearest airport and drive? How long a journey can you bear? What type of climate can you endure?
Maybe I could go and view a few promising properties?
That February I had started dating a tall, outdoor loving, freelance chef from Guildford, a good few years younger than me, with a headstrong personality, whose dream was to run her own bed and breakfast. In September we arranged to go on a grand road trip holiday in her new VW Golf, camping through France. We plotted our route on the map, so we stopped at the places we each wanted to visit. It was to be a culinary feast, tasting the produce of regional food markets, cheeses, wines and restaurant cuisine as well as something of a cultural artistic and exploratory pilgrimage.
Then, in June, the unthinkable happened, the result of the referendum came in. We were gobsmacked. Dazed. House prices in London tumbled by a hundred thousand. Sterling plummeted. No one wanted to move until they knew what the hell was happening with the country, including me. Feeling of paralysis. Life on hold. Going backwards, as though the life we’d lived hadn’t somehow happened.
We ploughed on and plotted our road trip in a giant loop from Dieppe down through Monet’s garden at Giverny, to the former home of the composer, Delius at Grez sur Loing, Fountainbleu, Auxerre to Beaune, Limoges, Chablis, to Dordogne, Sarlat, St. Emilion, Bordeaux, Cognac, La Rochelle, Ile de Rey, Saumur, Brittany, Mont St Michel and back to Dieppe.
As we worked our way down to the Dordogne, we fell out spectacularly, then made up equally passionately. It became a pattern as we made our way around France. Daily, we pitted ourselves against each other, declaring war only to have negotiated a peace treaty by the following day. We were having to micro manage each other’s differences: habits, personalities, temperaments, boundaries, behaviours, priorities and ages.
Driving north I noticed a road sign for Thouars near Pressigny, where I had once nearly bought a little two-bedroom house on the river eleven years earlier. But seeing the isolated place again, I could see how run down the town had become. I spoke with a local shopkeeper who said the mid-country towns of France were dying as people moved into the cities. “It’s like all central French towns, the economy is going down and they can’t survive”.
Maybe Brittany might offer me the perfect rural escape? I managed to convince my girlfriend that it would be worth making a diversion in order to see the mythical Eden on the south coast of Brittany, Pont-Aven. Here, the colony of artists including Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard went in search of authenticity, picturesque scenery and traditional Breton lifestyle embodied in their folk costumes. What we found was a picturesque village trading on its past glory – touting postcards, mugs, shortcake, tea towels and with a plethora of little art galleries selling derisible art. The same was true of Mont Saint Michel, where every kind of kitsch memorabilia was for sale in its medieval steep narrow streets.
We had gone in search of the real France- but it turned out to be a romantic myth and, as we neared the end of September, we were feeling decidedly end of season. The campsites and cafes began to close, and it got perceptively colder as we drove north. We were living the last gasp of a late-summer romance, and we started to break apart.
My girlfriend made it clear she didn’t want to live in France. She didn’t want to be so far away from her family. If I wanted to live here then I would be doing so on my own. She might come and visit me. My vision of finding a paradise home in the perfect landscape and running a French retreat together, with me leading workshops and she as chef, evaporated. The drive back was strained. Two people who loved one another and needed one another yet found it impossible to be together, to know where one’s boundary began and the other’s ended. We needed space and time apart.
We resigned ourselves to an inevitable split on our return, without ever really diagnosing why the situation had come about. We were angry at each other because we both wanted to make it work but we were two strong personalities, pulling apart, Of course we should have celebrated our differences instead of picking holes in them, made more allowances for one another and tried to stay together and work through the impasse.
Three years later and the UK’s strained relationship with Europe feels much like an old romance turned sour.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité is all that we could possibly wish to emulate at this grave point in our history. Instead we are led by a bewildered chicken roaming aimlessly around the farmyard, pecking, squawking and clucking like a demented hen in the last stages of delusion. She ruffles her feathers, trying desperately to persuade all the other farm animals to walk in line behind her. She staggers doggedly towards the cliff edge, determined to fling herself off the top, plummeting over the white cliffs of Dover to drown in the waiting English Channel below.
We can but hold our breath and wait.