Our new neighbours, Berthold and Maria-Elena (known as Maël) have just moved in, with their two dogs. Berthold is German, from Frankfurt, and Maël is Columbian. They are in their mid-fifties, I would say, and have opted for early retirement. Bernard and Sandy, the taciturn couple they bought the house from, are English, from Leeds. They have moved into town after ten years to be closer to its cabinet médical and the adjacent pharmacie, complete with its advertisements for breast implants and orthopedic shoes. They never said goodbye.
I speak to Berthold in English, though his French is also good. My wife, Louisa, who studied many years ago in Seville, converses with Maël in Spanish. I think we will be friends.
Just up the back lane from Berthold’s, which rejoices in the name Route de Leign Min Izellan, Mike and Wendy have sold up with a view to moving back to England. Mike is in his eighties and not as spry as he once was. A compulsive builder and fixer-upper, he ended up with far more land than he could ever hope to maintain and barely had time to sit down. The lesson is that living the Breton Dream can be a full-time job, like being Scottish.
Mike’s house could have been lifted from the pages of Hansel and Gretel, complete with six-inch thick front door, wisteria and shutters. This is appropriate since its new owners are also, I am told, German, though they yet to put in an appearance. Behind them, just up the track, lives Joel, who has slimmed down impressively in the year or so since his longtime American partner, Charles, from Chicago, left him for another man. When we met up in the Café de la Place on Wednesday morning, he patted his stomach as if to confirm that both he and his belly have moved on in the face of misfortune.
Maureen, from Edinburgh, and her husband Steve, from, I think, south London, occupy a house on the next bend that very nearly juts out onto the main road, exposing its living room window to oncoming traffic. We dim our headlights as we approach at night so as not to disturb them when they are eating or watching television.
A hundred metres or so further along is the home of Gérard, a divorced Frenchman, who makes his living doing odd jobs. A couple of years ago, he installed what is known as a Chinese hat over our one working chimney pot to keep out the rain. He also closed off the pots on the opposite side of the roof that had attracted a pair of jackdaws whose broods each summer in the disused cavity behind our bedroom wall had become increasingly annoying.
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Up a hidden lane from Chez Gérard is the home of an acrobatic Dutchman in his thirties who works as a tree surgeon. It was he who told us that an oak tree that looked to us to be on its last roots was in fact in need of no more than a light trim. Two years later, it fell over in a storm, missing our parked car by a matter of inches.
All of the above live to our left. To the right is the mustard-covered home of Jean-françois and his wife Claudine. But you know them already. Next door to them in a longère renovated by a British bodger are Cécile and her two young children, who call out to me somewhat plaintively from their bedroom window if I happen to be working in the garden. Cécile, a single mother from the Belgian border region, has been moving out for at least the last 12 months. Sometimes she’s headed to Morocco, other times Brazil, more usually the Midi, where she says she has friends. Her principal legacy when she finally departs will be an ever-thickening wadge of unpaid bills.
And it is these, dear reader, who make up the totality of our voisinage, where as of this winter the most commonly spoken languages will be German and English. All the farmers are French, (though most of their cattle are Friesians), but their homes are over the hills and far away. I get to wave to them if I see them on their tractors when I am out walking. Other than that, they remain strangers.
I should say at once that the locals in our neck of the woods are for the most past friendly and good-natured. If they resent the arrival of so many expats, they never say so – or at least not when I’m around. Last week, we ran into a volubile fellow in his sixties who sells eggs on the honours system from his house next to the mairie. He loves to gossip, talking so fast that his speech is a blur, and says we must drop in next time we are in the vicinity. What did he make of our French? I asked him. “J’apprécie l’effort,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
And then there was the woman from St Brieuc (the big city) who called to me through an open window the other day to ask if I didn’t mind her wandering about our garden. It turned out that her parents had grown up in what is now our home at a time when it didn’t have an upstairs or indoor toilet, and she had spent her summers here as a child, playing with the local children. She remembered our old friend Alexis, who had lived through the Occupation, and was sorry to hear he had died.
But what about the old curmudgeon from the house opposite – Jean-Yves, wasn’t that his name? I told her that he had been taken away a couple of years back by men in white coats. She remembered that he had built his house but never lived in it, preferring the upstairs garret reached by an external staircase. I volunteered my theory, which is that he was jilted at the altar and turned the key in the front door for the last time the same day, which she thought entirely believable.
“Come again,” I said. Next time, I’ll ask her if it’s true her grandfather bred rats in our basement for use in medical experiments.
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