We hear architects and garden designers talking a lot about “a sense of arrival”, how to make an entrance feel important or welcoming. A range of different devices are offered from matching topiarised bay trees in square faux lead pots, one either side of a glossily painted front door, to sweeping driveways and avenues at the other extreme. Event organisers and holiday tour companies also talk about a sense of arrival in a slightly different way, how to mark the fact that your event has begun or you’ve reached your destination.
My sense of arrival yesterday was much more prosaic. It simply meant that I had arrived at the end of my journey from one home to the other. I arrived at the French house a few minutes before mid-day local time, having left the Sussex house at 5.30am UK time, less than 6 hours door to door. During the journey I’d read most of today’s paper on my iPad, some of yesterday’s, and enjoyed a pain au chocolat, a cappuccino (at Gatwick) and a full English breakfast on the plane. At this time of year the flights are very cheap indeed so I sometimes treat myself to a seat at the front of the plane.
Much of the rest of the transition follows a pattern. Quickly off the plane and through passport control, straight out through customs to the car hire desk (where I try not to get frustrated at the archaic methods still used by that industry), walk across the road to pick up the car, fiddle around with the mirrors, seat position, and heating/AC controls, remind myself how to drive this particular variety of car, and then gently ease away the short distance onto Bordeaux’s often busy Rocade (a baby M25) and thence turning off to the A62, the motorway which crosses much of southern France from the west to the east, the motorway known to many as the empty motorway. As I drive further and further from Bordeaux, through many of its famous vineyards, past the sign for the turnoff to Sauternes, the traffic becomes more sparse until my own junction is reached and I leave the motorway to travel through La Reole, Monsegur, and then home, the roads getting smaller and then giving way to lanes as I travel onwards past the villages and farms now becoming so familiar, now in their winter sleep.
Sometimes I stop at the small supermarket a few kilometres before the house to get a few items of fresh food. This time I knew there was some cheese and a baguette in the freezer, together with a portion of delicious chicken casserole in the freezer left over from a family visit last October half-term so I decided to leave shopping until another day, anxious to get to the house.
There is always such a sense of anticipation. For much of the two years that we have owned the house we have been having work done so the anticipation is also excitement and/or trepidation to know how the work has progressed since last time I was here. On only one or two occasions in the early days did arrival equal disappointment when it became apparent that progress had been slower than hoped for, or even virtually non-existent.
The anticipation becomes reality as I drive around a slight bend and the five large plane trees at the entrance to the property can be seen before the road then rises up a hill and turns around to the right out of sight towards our village. At this time of year the plane trees are skeletons, so tall, almost certainly dating back to Napoleonic times.
As I drive up and turn left into the first part of the drive, between the road and the gates, by the cavalaire (iron cross on a stone pedestal) I take a quick look to see if the gates are open. If they are open then workmen are on site. If they are closed the property is empty. Today they were closed and my immediate reaction was disappointment as I wanted to know that the current phase of works was powering on. I stopped the car, checked the mailbox (empty), opened the gates, drove through, stopped again to close them, and then proceeded up the drive to the house. Two large earth-moving machines sat silent by the house, an even bigger one in what will be the new parking area, no people around to operate them. I decided not to feel anything other than completely neutral about this, especially as it was lunchtime – a very important time for all French workers – until I knew more.
The next task was to open the house which involves unlocking the shutters across the back door, unlocking the back door, dashing in and switching on various lights, and just pausing for a moment to assess the temperature. Was the house freezing cold, lukewarm, or (dare I think it) toasty? It was actually toasty. Great, the heating (installed at some expense in stages over the last year) was working well. All radiators are switched to the frost setting (7 degrees) when we aren’t here. That keeps everything in good condition but one wouldn’t want to live at that temperature for long. Our lovely “lady who helps us in the house” switches over to the higher setting a few days before we come.
The rhythm of arrival continues as I go around the house opening all the shutters. Every door and window is covered by locked shutters when we aren’t here. Many French people seem to keep their shutters permanently closed in summer (to keep the heat out and the cool in) and winter (vice versa). We like to have the shutters open when we are in residence, although one or two sets are sticking and need some adjustment and those have been left closed for the moment. Opening all the shutters involves opening the windows wide, leaning out at slightly vertiginous angles to secure them open on the upstairs (downstairs can be secured open from outside). I always open the windows rather carefully as various critters can decide to shelter from the cold in the window frames and it is still a slight shock to open a window and see a sleepy lizard looking at you in some bemusement. I keep a stick handy to wave at them to remind them which side of the window frame they live. They are pretty little things, do no harm (and a lotof good) but I don’t want them inside the house.
Having opened the shutters I put the kettle on for coffee, and then lit the two woodburners, both newly installed before Christmas.
By then I was already feeling settled in, at home, and the groundworkers had returned with a large lorry full of stone. So I went outside to get an update from them (the weather has been very wet which has created some delays), take some photos and videos (video of big machinery doing its thing is of great interest to the GrandBoys, especially the smaller ones), and do my usual walk around the boundary. And I also checked the max/min thermometer, a very important arrival task, to see the range of temperatures since I was last here (28th December) and then to reset it again; a high of 23.2 and a low of 0.9.
Walking around the boundary always seems the thing to do shortly after arrival, checking that all is as it should be. The badger-created hole under the fence is back (grrrr – they make such a mess with the holes they dig) and will need to be blocked again, the Christmas tree had blown off the bonfire against the fence, but otherwise all was as it should be. Two buzzards circled lazily over the adjoining field “speaking” to each other with their distinctive cry. All the trees planted over the Christmas break remain upright despite the windy weather of the last couple of weeks.
And then I come back in, enjoy a reminder of how very good a French baguette is (even one that has spent a brief period in a freezer), unpack my computer, and life continues as it always does … albeit that I am going about my daily working life in France.
I have arrived.