No self-respecting French person would have gone near it, but our canny estate agent knew that the English loved to 'do it themselves' and we knew that with just a bit of imagination and a lot of work it would be sensational.
It was just an hour from Paris - half an hour from Charles de Gaulle airport - and with the help of a fax machine we would be able to function as freelancers working from a converted cowshed at the bottom of the garden. We spoke with hubristic over-confidence about how we would be able to enjoy the excitement of the city and the pleasures of the country. We were Europeans with a European flag sticker on the back of our comfortable German car, who could whizz across Europe at a moment's notice.
We lasted two and a half years. My son and I fled gratefully back to London, while my soon-to-be ex-husband left for Hong Kong.
Looking back it was hardly surprising that the villagers would regard us as incomprehensible aliens. There we were in our strange clothes, hacking away at the nettle roots in our 'meadow' by the river, a spot they regarded as the village dump.
Our next-door neighbour, whom we christened The Collaborator after he spat at my husband's West Indian father, would watch us for hours through his hedge, making us feel self-conscious and ill-at-ease in our own garden.
We did make some local friends but we were always kept at arm's length. I spent a lot of time going on long walks with the pushchair and by hanging out at the sparse village playground did manage to find a couple of other young mothers with children of the same age.
We had friends in Paris but I found that French women often looked at me quizzically and would take me aside and give me little 'tips'. 'Can I tell you something, Sophie?' one said. 'I don't think that loose top takes advantage of your breasts.' Another time: 'Philippe says that he saw you eating in the street the other day. You know, we don't think that looks very nice.' At a dinner party in the smart 16th arrondissement of Paris, the hostess came and tucked a napkin under my chin: 'I have noticed that you don't eat in a very grown-up manner.'
When it came to babies and child-rearing, we were worlds apart: my breast-feeding was considered revolting. Why ruin those precious sexy breasts when you can buy self-sterilising, double- handled, ultra-durable teat bottles? My Parisian friends told me it was unhealthy, that the child would be horribly spoilt and attached to his mother. I should at least weigh the baby after each feed to make sure that my son was being properly nourished, which was something they very much doubted.
Perhaps I could have learnt to live with this extraordinary sense of superiority. Perhaps, as I started to get the hang of the language, I would have discovered a French sense of irony.
There were other things, however, that I would always have found terribly hard. The death-driving that took place each day began to make me sick, with cars clinging on to your backside for miles down a winding country lane, while wreaths pinned on the trees reminded you that this was not a game. In Paris, cars would not move out of the way of emergency vehicles because it would be losing face to show compassion to another driver.
French officialdom was characterised by an inpenetrable rigidity that made Britain look like a place of communication, trust and compromise.
At all times the following had to be carried: ID card, driving licence and, in my case, folders of documents showing that I was allowed to live in the country.
If for any reason you went into the red at your bank without arranging an overdraft (almost impossible to arrange unless you had lived in France for years or had an influential guarantor), you would have your cheque book and card taken away from you for 10 years; the only way you could get money was to go to your bank and sign more copious forms. This was wildly irritating when you were trying to go about your everyday life, but when you were trying to run a business it was a disaster.
A week late with your bills? Services could be cut off without warning and installed again at leisure. Buying a fridge? Sorry, you can't take it home until 15 pieces of paper are processed. Want to buy a plane ticket? Sorry, that will not be possible until the woman at the desk has stopped pretending that the only airline she has ever heard of is Air France.
If you can handle this, or perhaps perversely find that you actually enjoy the challenge of wading your way through a labyrinth of petty rules and regulations while trying to charm the inscrutable guardians of the system, then France is the country for you.
If you like things a little more casual and friendly, then perhaps, like me, you should accept that France is best kept as a holiday retreat, a place to dream about in the long winter months as you stock up on brie in Sainsbury's.Reuse content