We have just returned from a three-day trip to the Frozen North where we have been searching for somewhere nice to start the next exciting stage on our journey through Life. Before descending into my customary ramble through the dusty corridors of the Mansion of Musing, I would like to say a Big Thankyou to my big sister Linda and husband Pete, for so splendidly baby-sitting our animal family while we were away (and without whose help this trip would not have been possible), and to Mike and Sue (Llama-Purveyors Extraordinaire) for providing us with a warm bed, lovely food and listening ears between our mind and body-numbing house-hunting excursions in the misty, snowy wilds of the Allier.
There is no doubt about it, the Allier is not a warm place at this time of year. The fact that we are even contemplating a move from the sunny Aude – the pink and yellow, olive-tree, lizard-land of long blue-sky summers – to somewhere brackeny-brown and greeny-wet, that is even colder than England in the winter, sometimes strikes me as a little odd. And house-hunting in the sleet and rain, when every drive between venues opens up glorious 10ft-visibility views of fog-laden fields, and every wellington-clad exploration of neglected fields and junk-filled barns results in chattering teeth and chilblains, would seem inauspicious to say the least. Could we really be expecting to find the next house-of-our-dreams in this sun-forsaken heartland of farming France?
The process by which people decide on a house to buy is fascinating. We have entertained ourselves with vicarious house-choosing exercises, courtesy of the profusion of property programmes like Relocation, Relocation and A Place in the Sun over many years. Like the TV property agents, we have tried to get inside the confused heads of would-be purchasers, and tried to predict what they would go for, and which of the invariable ‘couple’ would have the Final Say. And yet, despite our frequent success in understanding what other people want, and knowing what other people will choose, we find ourselves befuddled-and-confused, and woefully uncertain about what is The Most Important Thing on our carefully constructed list of dream-home criteria.
Of course, the Trouble with Estate Agents is that they want to sell you something, everything, anything, and they don’t much care what it is, so long as they get their commission. So even though we had painstakingly drawn up a list of essential and desirable requirements (price range, amount of land, situation…) which we sent to them all in advance of our visit, we still found ourselves being taken on a magical mystery tour of very interesting but in-the-end inappropriate possibilities. If we had had more time, this would have been an absorbing way to spend a chunk of our ‘holiday’ time.
There’s a funny thing that happens when I walk into one of these places. For a moment, I can completely forget what we are actually looking for, and slip like a child into the make-believe world of living in a play house. I imagine a whole different life, constructed out of the bricks and mortar of whatever fantasy the property evokes, complete with grand designs that will never happen, and peopled with visitors that don’t exist. I am possibly every estate agent’s worst nightmare. As I wander from cellar to attic, opening cupboard doors and lifting the flaps in my imagination, popping up enthusiastic evocations of convincing future-life scenarios, they must think that I will want to buy every house I see.
But five minutes down the road on the way to the next house, the last one is forgotten. Unless it really has kindled a spark in the hearth of my dreams.
Over two and a half days, over two departments, criss-crossing an area of 4000 square miles, we saw eleven properties. And every one had its story. We saw the house where the estate agent had found a dead man hanging in the wood-shed and was now too frightened to visit with clients. We saw the house with six bedrooms, five fields and three barns, that had been a rest-home where a 100 year old lady had sat all day in one chair in one small room. We saw the hippy artist’s eco-friendly house with a composting toilet, a donkey, two horses, three chickens, two wells and a computer with broad-band internet in the attic. We saw the old yellow house-on-the-hill with three new extensions, a cellar full of old wine, and stunning views of the mist-filled river valley. We saw the enormous uninhabited house with the enormous attic strewn with trainsets, football tables and childhood memories, and 15 acres of fields strewn with the nearby sounds of a gravel quarry. We saw the ancient L-shaped house with geothermic heating and a barn that smelled hushed like a church. We saw houses abandoned through divorces and failed dreams. We saw houses that were stepping stones to new futures.
And we saw three houses that we thought we could happily live in. And one house that made our hearts flutter, just enough, even though it didn’t quite match any of our criteria quite properly.
So we’ve been thinking and not thinking. We’ve been feeling, and ruminating, and talking and being quiet. We’ve been being rational and irrational. We’ve been being realistic and optimistic. We’ve been being practical and playful. We’ve narrowed our choices down to two. And one of these is the sensible house that offers us everything on our list. And one of these is the not-so-sensible house that tugs at our heart-strings.
And one of these two houses is the House of Our Dreams.