So one thing I forgot to mention so far is my day job. I edit a fashion magazine for young women called Company. Swilling out toilets using a dirty bucket is not my usual day to day (well there was that time that the plumbing went – the Facilities Dept had no idea they had a secret weapon sitting on the second floor in an editor’s office!) My readership are young, fashionable and cool. A second home in rural france is not something they relate to. Other than something their parents might do. Which is probably one of the reasons that from my first visit to Gensac village – I fell in love with it. No pressure to be seen in this season’s clothes (though Serge the neighbour I am sure appreciates my love of a Breton stripe. Plus, I lucked out the first year there that Espadrilles were one of summer’s surprise fashion hits – ‘les chaussures paysannes!’ (peasant shoes) exclaimed Serge in horror when he saw I had dressed the entire family in them. While in France i have no worries about listening to obscure indie bands or electro pop duos – I can, without shame, dance around my kitchen to Olly Murs greatest hits (eldest son close to disowning me though). And I can EAT – carbs, fat, wine – it’s your basic fashionista food nightmare. There is absolutely no chance of bumping into any ‘media types, in our local big village, Maubourguet. But then, a holiday where I find myself in conversation about breakfast prices on the up at the Wolseley just isn’t a holiday if you ask me. In short – imagine Anna Wintour in a slanket and you get an idea of how far apart my two lives are. And that’s how I like it.
So back to visit number one and I think it might be time to introduce you to Serge – our neighbour. The tale of La Maison Blanche and Serge go hand in hand. Like a French version of Corrie’s Norris Cole but with a kind heart, NOTHING escapes Serge. And when you have a vacant property you only visit ten weeks a year, this is a godsend.
His mother worked in the washrooms of our house many years ago and he has grown up watching our Maison de maitre slowly fall down around its inhabitants. He has an immaculate house across the road from ours where he lived at the time we first visited, with his mother. Like a French version of Sorry – with Serge in the Ronnie Corbett role. (Readers under 35 – ask your mum!) so thrilled was he that finally someone had come to rescue the ‘Maison du roi du village’ his words not ours, that he gave us a much harder sales pitch than the estate agent. In fact all the villagers of Gensac have embraced us with les bras ouvert! From invites to the village fetes to providing us with summer fruit and veg from their farms, they are all a little intrigued and excited by Les Anglais. And although we sometimes worry about the noise of our children playing in the garden in the summer, I suspect it makes a nice change from the relative silence of Gensac’s ageing populace.
And so Serge has become a bizarre constant in the lives of both Peter and I, and our children. A funny old Frenchman who speaks not a word of English, and even his French is so locally accented that we struggle to pick up some of his words. But he makes us delicious cakes, leaves fresh flowers from his garden in the house for me before I arriveand makes sure no harm comes to our beloved house while we are away.
It was on this first visit, almost three years ago however, when a strange, Serge related incident occurred. As we had no hot water we had been unable to wash. Which is kind of fine when it’s just the four of you and at first we treated it as if we were at a music festival only without the music, fake tattooes and jugglers. But after four days we began to dream of a shower, some soap and a towel. And Serge, seeing our discomfort – or possibly getting a waft of the smell even 200m away, offered us the use of his shower. Which, it turned out, was in an outbuilding in his garden. In we all trooped like the wolf leading chicken little and his compadres into his hut to avoid the sky that was falling. Serge closed the door from the outside and all four of us showered. And it was blissful. And we were happy. And then we went to open the door and it was locked from the outside. Now, bear in mind this is the shower block of a man we had met only three times at this point. In the middle of nowhere. Pulling at the locked door with relative force, Peter said breezily, “I’m sure it’s fine. Serge must have absent mindedly locked the door.” But the look on his face told me he was thinking the same as me and it involved Kathy Bates and a Sledgehammer! We shouted and screamed to Serge but he was all the way over in his house and couldn’t hear (although at the time we suspected this was part of his dastardly plans!) so in the end, Peter squeezed out of a tiny window and unlocked the door with the key which Serge had left in the door. It turned out that Serge was so flustered to have us there he’d locked it without thinking and was mortified about the whole episode. And we were clean. And then he helped us chop down a tree with a massive chainsaw. I didn’t like to ask if he had a sledgehammer too? Best not to know probably.