Chapter 2: France Itinerary: October 4th – October 18th, 2013

Here we go!  The reservations have been set for October, plane tickets, hotels, car rentals, train passes, and all other necessary reservations are made.  If you are planning an aggressive itinerary in a country you’ve yet to explore, I highly recommend a good travel agent.  We used Hurley in Portland, Maine, but I find asking friends and colleagues who they recommend is a good tool.  When you contact them, be sure to let them know where you are going so you are paired with a person who has familiarity with the region you are visiting – otherwise, you’re better off researching it yourself online.  A good travel agent, though, will be able to guide you on reasonable distances between stops if you are traveling by car or train and will let you know where you might want to linger and where you might just want to spend a night passing through.  Some folks just want to get in the car and drive, stopping where the mood strikes and moving through where they have less interest – but if you have a plan, it is a much more efficient way to get the most out of your time on the ground. And if your travel takes you through rural areas, a plan is good so you aren’t left without a place to rest your road-weary bones.

We arrived in Paris on Saturday the 5th with plans to stay until the ninth.  I had a friend who had a friend with had an apartment she rents in Paris that sounded perfect for our needs.  We looked at pictures online and reviewed maps, so knew it was in a great location.  I found the 7th arrondisment a perfect fit for our first trip due to its central location and the types of shops and galleries I’m interested.  While there, we tried to soak up as much as possible, starting with a dinner cruise on one of the Bateaux Mouches, lunches and dinners at several cafe’s and restaurants, a trip to the Bon Marche, and visits to a couple of museums.  I had also become obsessed with books by John Baxter by this time and tried to locate a place or two he had frequently mentioned such as Le Deux Margots.  Very fun, albeit very touristy!

As a side note: While still in the air traveling to Paris, I had fallen asleep as it was a red-eye flight.  I woke with the song “I’m Coming Home” playing in my head, looked out the window and could see we had just approached landfall in France.  I never lost the feeling I was coming home.

On Wednesday, the ninth, we boarded a train to LeHavre.  One thing I knew from what I had been able to uncover through genealogy research on my husbands grandfather, Albert, was he was from LeHavre.  We figured this may be also be the place to uncover more info in the archives.  We actually managed to find the center for archives and though we did not find the documentation we had hoped to uncover, we did spend a good deal of time with an archivist named Sebastian who gave us plausible reasons for some of the mystery around why we might be having difficulty finding documents on him.   But then, that’s another whole story –

Historic Site, shipping port in France

LeHavre was and is a major shipping port off the west/Atlantic coast of France. This is where we are told my husband’s grandfather was born.

From LeHavre, now in our rental car, we headed to Normandy (once we got the hang of the ’round-a-bout’) where the sister of a good friend lives and operates a bed and breakfast called La Maison du Pain.  There we spent three enchanting days exploring the Normandy region, visiting the place where Camembert is made, drinking Calvados and had we just a bit more time, probably would have visited the equestrian center.  Perhaps another visit?

Normandy, Camembert, Historic Places

This is one of many picturesque landscapes in Normandy, France

Bed & Breakfast in Normandy

Here is the entrance to Maison du Pain in Fay, Normandy – the owners cottage is on the right with one of her many gardens in the foreground.

Fay, France, tiny hamlet, Normandy

This tiny hamlet boasts a population of between 60 and 70 people –

Saturday, the 12th we pointed the car south toward Loudun and checked in at the Hotel Renaudot where we had arranged a meeting with the current director of the Arcadian Museum, Madame Michele Touret.  Although this was considered off-season, she recognized the importance of our visit and not only met with us, but opened the museum for us and then escorted us around Martaize, LaChaussee, and other places near there significant to my ancestry.  While at the museum, she shared with us the most comprehensive and substantiated genealogy of the LeBlanc family known to exist and permitted me to photograph it since there was no photocopier at the museum.  She was also very excited to take us to visit a cemetery where an ancestor was buried, two churches, a chateau – also a horse farm, learned about pigeonarys, which were considered a real perk of the upper class. The last place she shared was the discovery of the original home of the Robichaud family, to which I am also related.

Chateau's, Martaize

Chateau de la Bonnetiere in the home region of my LeBlanc ancestors

It was a beautiful Spiritual journey to visit the places my ancestors had lived, and though I did not find any living relatives, I’m certain I will find a few over the coming years.

Sunday, October 13th we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then pointed the car toward the Dordogne valley where we stayed at the Orangerie du Chateau in Chancelade.  Sadly, we only had one night planned here and would have loved at least two so we could spend time exploring local wineries and points of interest but did enjoy a wonderful meal at their restaurant where I had an interesting conversation with the sommelier – I asked about the wines and how I noticed they were served much cooler than I was accustomed to.  He replied, “Red wine is to be served at 12-18 degrees Celsius – anything above 20 degrees is considered disrespectful to the wine.  White should be served at 6-8 degrees Celsius.”  Ok – now I’ve been schooled! Personally, I now prefer the cooler temp which allows the layers to unfold more cleanly – not masked by too much of the alcohol blurring the palate.

Monday morning, we continued through the Dordogne, passing through Beynac, (which, incidentally is the area where the movie Chocolat was filmed), Domme, Sarlat de Caneda, all along the Dordogne river, exploring the valley, lush with wineries – then stopping in Martel at the Relais Saint-Anne.  This Relais could be a destination all on its own.  It is a little abbey with rooms for rent, a restaurant, patios, nature trails, gardens, and has its own little chapel – absolutely enchanting!  The little village it’s in has a town square with bistros, wine bars, shops, and is truly like stepping back in time.  The delicacies to discover here include liquors and syrups made from the local fruits – not to be missed is the black walnut syrup the locals use to flavor their white wine or champagne as an aperitif.  You’ll also find truffles and the local wine is Bergerac – an earthy, yet light red that perfectly suits the foods of the region.  I really needed to review my itinerary on this one because thought we had 24 hours here, it really felt like three days!

Magical places have the power to do this to you – transport you outside of space and time where the perfect amount of time exists to absorb the experience you’re intended to have.

On Tuesday, the 15th, we drove to Avignon for our longest stay since Paris – four days and three nights at the Hotel de L’Atelier in Villeneuve-les-Avignon.  I am convinced there is a place for pretty much everyone in France given the diversity throughout this country.  Avignon is a place unique to itself with its rustic medieval architecture and completely unfettered simplicity.  In Avignon, there were four experiences that truly stood out to us – 1. The quaintness of the streets and structures, 2. The kindness and generosity of the residents, 3. The farmers markets – which rivaled nothing I’d ever seen.  Here, you could buy foods either cooked or fresh, cheeses, meats, fish, nougats, clothing, mattresses – you name it!  The market was roughly the size of a football field, so not for the faint of heart.  and 4. The proximity to Chateneuf du Pape to the north and to the south – the Mediterranean coastline!

The first night we dined at a restaurant called Les Jardins de la Livree that we loved, in fact, we enjoyed it so much this is where we dined on our last night in Avignon as well.  Day two in Avignon, we drove to Chateneuf du Pape where we literally needed to stop ourselves because the wines were so ‘off the chart’ amazing we were buying wine at every place we stopped – and seriously, you can only bring so much back in your suitcase, so stop we did!

That night, after more wandering around and taking pictures, we ran into another American couple out walking and also taking pictures – legit pictures.  Turns out, they are professional photographers and camera operators for big events and functions in Vegas.  Interestingly enough, we ended up at the same restaurant and though we arrived separately, they seated us beside one another – polite conversation ensued, but by the end of the meal we felt we’d found new friends as well.  To this day, I am still in contact on a regular basis with Joan and one day, I’m sure we’ll meet up again.  The restaurant was incredibly charming, the food so-so, the company outstanding!

We really had toyed with the idea of having a retirement property in France, but it was our last day here that sealed the deal.  We woke, had a light breakfast, went to the farmers market and collected items for a luxurious picnic, packed a bottle from our amazing wine collection and headed to the Mediterranean Sea.  We ended up in the town of Cassis, parked, then walked out to the rocks along the water where we found the perfect spot to have our picnic.  That is the place where time stopped, everything re-organized in our universe, and came back together with us knowing this country would be the perfect place for both of us.  Temperate climate, fabulous architecture, wine, food, simplicity – one of us could enjoy skiing in either the alps or Pyrenees while the other could be on a warm, tropical beach.  We’d be close to the coastline and have easy access to stunning cities like Paris, Bordeaux & Lyon, and all the adjacent countries we also yearned to explore – Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and so on.  We still weren’t sure exactly where, but knew we’d figure that out soon enough. We loved Provence, but were not sure it was entirely ‘it’ for us.  What we would do is explore this vast country region by region – and what fun that would be!

The following day we drove to Lyon to drop off the rental car and board a plane home.

Still drunk from the experience, I immersed myself with online real estate websites, webinars on purchasing property in France, and reading everything I could that might help.  I figured the real estate sites would give us a better understanding of what types of houses would be available in each region so as we developed our ‘wish list’ it would be within reasonable expectations.  I recommend this exercise to anyone with similar aspirations.  One option we were also considering was renting a place to give a town or village time to settle.

It’s important to remain open to the experience because otherwise, I believe you can miss amazing opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t see.

Life goes on they say, or is it more like the John Lennon line that ‘life is what happens when you’re making other plans’?  Because my husband and I own a business and do not have the luxury of taking frequent vacations that would take us both away from work – and at this point are at lease 10-12 years away from retirement age, we loosely planned to visit a different region in France once a year.  That was the plan.  In July of 2014, as I was beginning to plan our next sojourn, I came home to my house flooded from a broken water pipe.  The unraveling of our daily lives commenced and eventually, though on the path to recovery, it seemed clear there would be no possible way for us to gather the resources needed to take our yearly trip.  That did not satiate my need to return to France, so we decided I would go with our daughter for a glorious mother/daughter trip to Paris.  My daughter had been obsessed with everything Paris since she was a very small child, so this would be her ‘end of college but not caught up in the working world yet’ trip.  Though there was no house hunting or new region exploration, just soaking up this amazing place – so in September 2014, the two of us were off, and I had my thirst quenched for a bit longer.

Over the next year, the business began growing by leaps and bounds, making it impossible to get time away.  My husband was not concerned because we really were on a 5-7 year plan, but I figured with 2015 having come and gone, and regretting I had not looked at any definitive plans to travel, I figured it just wasn’t going to happen.  So – I shrugged my shoulders, looked up to the sky and said to my spirit guides, “Look, if I’m supposed to travel to France anytime in the near future, you’ve got to step in and show me how because I have no worldly idea how it’s going to happen.”

Within 48 hours I received a message from my sister-in-law inviting me to join her and a few other women for a women’s trip to the south of France.  ‘Well, I can’t do that right now”, I thought, but decided to sleep on it before replying.  I woke up and looked at my husband and said, “I have to do this. I just know if I don’t I’m going to regret it.”  He looked me square in the eye and responded, “Then you need to do this.”

I thought about it and reasoned if he could join me after my sister-in-law flew home, then we could meet up and travel to Bordeaux, which is the first place we really wanted to explore.  I ended up with ten days with stops in Paris, Nice, & Eze, then back to Paris where I remained for 6 more days until he could join me.  So in April, 2016, we met at Charles de Gaulle airport and traveled to Bordeaux by train to spend a few days, look at a couple properties there, then drove to Saint Emilion for the next 5 days where we would meet with two more real estate agents to show us properties we had pre-selected online.

This is a good point to offer some advice on real estate vendors.  In the United States, we have what is known as a ‘multiple listing’ where any agent in the state or country has access to the database of what’s on the market.  Not so in France.  There are numerous agencies and those properties are only available to agents within that agency.  My advice is to begin with the biggest agency in France – and that is Leggett.  They will have listings and agents representing the greatest number of properties throughout the country, so it will save you an enormous amount of time!  That doesn’t mean you need to buy from them because you may just notice a property in an area with a different agency sign and there’s nothing stopping you from contacting them, but working through Leggett was one of the best decisions we made.   You can go to their website and set up an account where you set your preferences based on what you’re looking for, and depending on your preferences, you can request a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly listing update delivered right to your email box.  Once I week I would open my link and see what was new – I need to also say, the quality of the website and the thoroughness of details and pictures on the properties was also the best I found.

I had arranged to see six different properties which were being shown by four different agents – one of whom, ironically enough, was the same agent I had contacted a year earlier with questions about a property that looked interesting on the website.  We were not ready to buy at that point, but I remember she had been extremely responsive – something that surprised me at the time.  Upon request, the agency also recommended a place to stay that was central to these properties (also the recommendation of this agent).  We stayed at the Chateau de Courtebotte in St. Jean de Blaignac and the amazing host there – Isabelle, also arranged several dinners and wine tastings for us during our stay.

The day we were on our way to the Chateau, I was eagerly accessing the landscape, properties, for sale signs and amenities along the way as my husband drove.  We drove past one property that nearly caused my head to spin off my neck as I proclaimed, “That one’s for sale!!!” – to which my husband responds, “yeah, right – wonder what THAT one costs!”  We were, after all, on a pretty tight budget.

House for sale

This was the picture posted by Leggett

We are falling in love with this area and feel the need to focus our search here – not two hours away.  A meeting is arranged with the agent who ultimately sold us our property to discuss our needs in more detail and when we meet, she tells us she really doesn’t think the house she was scheduled to show us is the right one for us but we want to see it anyway.  She has, instead, another property she feels will be more to our liking.  Undeterred, we visit the property that’s about twenty minutes outside of any village.  The outside is lovely, and its possibilities are enormous – but the inside is somewhat disappointing, because despite the prospect of renovating every surface we conclude this house has all the space we need but in all the wrong places.  Renovating cannot fix that.  If the outside only matched the inside….

Next we visit the house she is insistent to show us in Lavagnac.  To our surprise, it is only five minutes from the Chateau and is the property I saw on the way into town.  Hold that thought for just a minute.  Let’s go back about a year now.  As I am reviewing properties online, I come across house we feel has potential and send an inquiry to the listing agent with a few questions, thinking, I probably won’t hear back for a while, if ever.  The next day I receive a very complete response and am taken aback because we really aren’t quite in a position to be purchasing. I had somewhat forgotten that correspondence when I realize Ironically, or should we say, synchronistically, this was the same agent and now, she is showing us a house – the very one that caught my eye coming into town.  And it is in our price range.

La Maison….

La Roseraie before renovation –

Let me first say – this visit to France was all about finding the location, the greater area of place that would resonate with both of us, feel like it could be a place we’d want to spend more time or live.  It would have the right places and spaces for us, would be near large transportation centers for ease of getting to, close to a large city – but not too close, and amenities, restaurants, shopping, wineries, etc. would be readily available.  This was most definitely not about finding ‘the’ house.  So when we found, ‘the’ house it was jolting, and a bit unsettling.  Were we ready for this?  How could we not be?

We enter the house, it is dark, very old, and though we open several windows and shutters, it is still dark, yet very beautiful.  Like a beautiful woman left unkempt.  No one has lived here for years, it is clear.  There is no active electricity, the water has been turned off, the kitchen has been removed, and there is no furniture.  We go through the house, room by room – ground floor with the grand entry opening on each side with double doors into the salon/living room on the left and dining on the right.  Each with its own fireplace.  There is a powder room off the entry and the kitchen at the rear of the house adjacent to the dining room.  The beautifully carved staircase winds to the first floor where we find another great hall with two bedrooms on one side and a bedroom and large bathroom on the other.  Each bedroom has a fireplace and beautiful mouldings.  Continuing up the staircase we find the second floor…. And there he is – I see the ghost of a man standing at the top with his arms crossed against his chest.  He is not smiling.  We walk past him and begin assessing the three rooms here, discussing the possibility of there being two more bedrooms and another bathroom.  I am also sensing much paranormal activity and excuse myself as quickly as I can.  Back outside, I share my experience and find both my husband and the agent also felt somewhat uneasy.  “No worries, I proclaim – I can take care of this!”  What am I saying?  Why did I say that?  I can ‘take care of’ this?!?  Sheesh!  I’ve got to really think before I speak.  This blurting out of things that are not my own words is becoming a habit and on some level, I’m not sure I even have control over it.

As a side note: I am a Shaman.  As part of this, I am able to journey, outside of time, in order to communicate with spirits.  I will use this gift often throughout the context of this renovation – 

As we drive back toward the Chateau we’re staying we are astounded it is only a few minutes away – just on the other side of the bridge crossing the Dordogne River, and since we drove here from the first property we visited today, we didn’t realize we had looped around and were this close to this area we’ve realized we had fallen in love with.    And now, we cannot stop talking about this house, planning what we would do, marveling at how close it is to everything we need it to be.  Back in our room, we’re sitting on the patio sharing a bottle of rose and dreaming of our life here one day and joking about this feeling like an episode of House Hunters International.  Later that night, as I’m ready to drift off to sleep, listening to the sleeping sounds of my husband, I journey to the house.

I connect with my power animals and teachers, then approach the house and walk immediately to the second floor where I sensed all the activity.  I acknowledge the spirit of the house, of the land and the place, then I immediately open a portal and ask all those who are ready to cross to do so, and to my amazement, there is a mad rush up the tractor beam of light leading to the portal and the place clears out!  Except, for the man.  Feeling the portal has served its purpose for the time being, I carefully make sure it is closed, then focus my attention toward the man.  I first respectfully introduce myself and explain my intentions.  His demeanor immediately softens, but he wants to see plans.  “What do you have planned?  I need to see the plans and I need to approve them.”

What the heck?  Did I just run into the local building inspector in Spirit form?!?  No worries – I lay out our plans, explaining we want to make this house beautiful again.  We have no interest in changing it and only want to bring it back to its original splendor and are thrilled no one has done anything to ruin it.  He will wait for me to bring him the plans and we will discuss them.

I go to sleep that night confident I can meet his requirements.  The next morning, I wake refreshed and share my experience with my husband – who believes me, but is always a bit cautious in his judgement.  The next day, we return to the house, determined to take measurements so we have them should we decide to move forward with this property, and when we do – despite the day being drizzly and overcast, the house is surprisingly brighter inside – and the second floor, much more inviting.  The shift in energy was noticeable to all of us.  I have continued to visit the house, visit with the man I now know as Padre, who I have shared our plans as they unfold.  He not only approved, but has proclaimed he will watch over this work to ensure it is done properly.  When I visit now, it is much more casual, he offers wine, we muse and look at details to be worked out and the last time I visited there were more helping spirits there – the body of maternal ancestors who worked from the other side to bring me here have moved in to help.

Yet the process continues to unfold as we wait to hear from the bank about securing the monies we need to pay cash for the property.  My head causes me to fill with fear because I want this so badly, my heart tries to comfort me because it ‘knows’ it is part of my destiny.  Yes, like waiting for the first heartbeat….

So – this has taken us somewhat by surprise.  We were only here to begin this process.  We have no worldly idea whether we can get a mortgage for what we need beyond what we have available.  This wasn’t supposed to happen yet – or was it?  Yet another synchronistic series of events unfolded to bring us to this place in time.  This place, this house, has everything we wished for – and it’s for sale now.  Not two years from now, not two years ago – now.  We have not pre-qualified for anything – we are simply here on a wing and a prayer, as they say.  We know what we can afford but that’s not always enough.

Get a French mortgage they said.  Rates are low and the process is easy.  Uh huh.  So, we’ve filled out all the preliminary information, made an offer on the house and are feeling somewhat optimistic.  The owners counter our offer so we counter theirs, and our second offer is accepted.  Ok – let’s get excited…. for a little while.  Then comes the news our mortgage will not be simple, or easy.  It seems, these ‘easy to get’ French mortgages are not so easy if you are over 55 – in which case, they will only consider 60% of your income, or if you are self-employed, or American.  Politics, you know.  We submit more information, tax returns both personal and corporate and a nicely bullet pointed list of why we will be a good credit risk.  And we wait. I distract myself with work, with dance, with writing and think this feels like childbirth.  One minute you are euphoric, then queasy, then will likely have some labor pains, but hopefully in the end will have a reward to look forward to.  This feels so incredibly destined; it’s frightening to imagine it will not happen.  Right now, I’m just waiting for the heartbeat assuring me this is viable.  For now, I must sit in limbo with the worrier on my right shoulder and the optimist on my left.

I can be a very calm person and am the one to have beside you in a crisis.  I am clear headed and steady.

I am also impatient.

All  of this waiting, dreading, wishing, dreaming.  So, what does a level headed optimist with a very practical nature do?  She doesn’t leave all her eggs in one basket, that’s what she does!  Time to apply for a mortgage in the good ol’ U S of A!  Having prepared paperwork, tax returns, etc. for the French banks, this process was no longer daunting.  Paperwork in, I decide to contact the French mortgage broker – surely after more than three weeks there’s some word and we now have more updated information.  Then the response basically stating we cannot possibly help you.  Oh, but wait, we CAN help you with a life insurance policy or transferring money.  Seriously?!? Here we sit in the best financial state we’ve ever been and easily able to afford this house, and they can’t possibly help us?  And exactly when was he going to share this news?  Would he have waited even longer if I had not contacted him?  You know what?  Time to put another one in the rear view mirror because we may be down, but we’re not out!  I can’t tell you if it was sheer desperation, our wanting it so badly, or what it was, but we actually felt more optimistic than before.  This was our house and no one was going to change that!  We have traveled by car, bus, plane, train, and covered more miles in this country that is both new and old to me at the same time and through it all every connection, every interaction has led us to this point in our journey – and to this house.

That said, if you are not a resident of the European Union and are over 55, you might want to consider having cash in hand or an American loan set up before making an offer on a property.